What makes a camera a cinema camera? Some of today's biggest names in cinematography share their thoughts. Join the discussion.
No Film School recently wrote about a camera and one of our readers commented the following: "If it was called a video camera, I'd understand why it shoots UHD only. But since it's called a Cinema Camera, it should shoot in DCI 4K. It doesn't, oh well!..."
Reading comments, the good, the bad, all of it, is not only a way for us to learn what you are interested in reading but it also informs us about topics to consider exploring further.
This particular No Film School reader inadvertently brought up an important topic worth discussing. What makes a camera a cinema camera? The comment is interesting for a variety of reasons, the main reason being that a "cinema camera" needs to shoot 4K DCI in order for it to be called a "cinema camera." It made me wonder how many people similarly think this way—that resolution defines a camera—that a single spec can determine what cinematic is.
The History of 4K
In March 2002, the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) was created. It's a joint venture between the major motion picture studios to create uniformity under the 4K format on both a technical and quality control level. While there are variations in resolution, the group behind DCI notes that standard 4K formats are 4K DCI 4096 x 2160 and 4K UHD 3840 x 2160. The 4K format saw its first public appearance in 2003 by Teledyne Dalsa, who created the Dalsa Origin. It was the first-ever 4K digital camera with a sensor resolution of 4096 x 2048.
The reason why we bring the history of 4K up is because the format is not very old. The history of film dates back to the 1800s. The Golden Age of Hollywood began around 1913. Films like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, every Alfred Hitchcock film, every Stanley Kubrick film, The Godfather, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope... all were photographed with cameras that could not record 4K DCI natively.
Does that mean the cameras those directors and cinematographers used are not cinema cameras? Are analog film cameras no longer considered cinema cameras? Has the digital age brought on new ways to categorize cameras? (e.g. Analog film, Digital 35mm, Digital Full-Frame?)
The "Cinematic Look"
There are features, qualities, and specs that separate one camera from another, but any image capture device can be used to tell a visual story. What some storytellers try to achieve is a "cinematic look" that we as moviegoers have been conditioned over the years to understand is the "look". There are a number of different visual elements in a given production that help inform what a cinematic look is, including production design, lighting, location, shot selection, scope, scale, and more.
On the camera side, there are technical attributes that contribute as well. Some include sensor size, color, and depth of field. If you adhere to the Steve Yedlin school of cinematography, cameras are looked at as data collection devices and what you do in the post-processing pipeline defines the look more than the camera itself.
So, What Makes a Camera a Cinema Camera?
Manufacturers play a role in this just as much as filmmakers do since they create products and market them to influence our perception. When 4K reached the market, it created a resolution race we still talk about today with 8K and beyond. So, we reached out to a dozen cinematographers and all the major camera companies to ask them what makes a camera a cinema camera. Below are the responses we received.
- Robert Arnold
- Chris Chomyn, ASC
- Kees van Oostrum, ASC (Current ASC President)
- Jaron Presant, ASC
- Blackmagic Design
Robert E. Arnold
Work: Furious 7, La La Land, Terminator Salvation
“I think digital cinema cameras have similar characteristics as when the industry used to shoot on Kodak and Fuji film. The ARRI Alexa sensor has a Kodak film stock look whereas the RED looks more like Fuji film stocks and the Sony VENICE is a unicorn hybrid. However, that's my opinion toward these cameras before you apply a LUT; I think once a LUT is applied all bets are off. A cinema camera's advantage over a prosumer camera is its latitude. Having 14-16 stops of latitude is a game-changer compared to a non-cinema camera."
Chris Chomyn, ASC
Work: Lockdown, Como Caído Del Cielo, Count Me the Stars
"To me, something that is cinematic is something that tells a story, conveys a mood or relates subtext through the nuanced use of visual and aural elements. What that is exactly, depends on what the filmmaker is trying to communicate at any given moment. With this in mind, any camera that succeeds in this pursuit is a cinema camera.
I think there are common assumptions about what makes a camera a cinema camera. For some, a cinema camera must have a minimum resolution and minimum data rate. Some expect a certain color gamut. Some consider a cinema camera to have a specific form or shape. Some require specific functionality. Some require manual controls. But cameras are tools, and not every tool is a screwdriver or a hammer. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention and tools are designed to serve a purpose for which pre-existing options were inadequate.
Every iteration of a camera exists because someone thought they needed a better tool. So while an ARRI or a Panavision or a Sony camera may be preferred, sometimes one reaches for the Panasonic, the Canon, the Fuji, the Blackmagic, the GoPro, or your phone or even the backup camera on your car. And when the existing cameras don't work, new cameras are created to solve the problem at hand. And at that moment, a new tool is born and that is also a cinema camera."
Kees Van Oostrum, ASC - Current ASC President
Work: Miss Rose White, Gettysburg, Spartacus,
"Resolution has nothing to do with cinema and setting a standard for cinema through pixels is putting the horse behind the cart. Cinema in its purest sense validates an emotional and storytelling expression. The image in cinema evokes creativity and whether you record that on a single pixel or a multitude of pixels is in the end totally immaterial if the pixel number you choose conveys the intent.
There have, for example, been various great projects that shot on an iPhone, and in my professional opinion, from a technical point of view, some in the audience might be aware of a difference in quality between standard definition and 1080 high definition. Beyond that, the 2K to 6K approach comes down to splitting hairs and certainly does in no way diminish a dramatic experience. Let’s concentrate on the art of cinema and give technology a respectful second place."
Jaron Presant, ASC
Work: Brick, Self/less, Rampage
"When we are talking about cameras and camera choices, the single most important factor is sensor response. When we talk about digital cinema cameras, to me there is an understanding that the sensor has to yield a large dynamic range (also referred to as latitude), something in the range of 13 or more stops. This is sometimes fudged by manufacturers because the bottom end of sensor response is a difficult thing to judge as the response nears the noise floor. So, when I say 13+ stops I mean that the sensor set to an ISO setting producing an acceptable amount of noise in the image will have 13 or more stops of response from black to white.
In addition to this, we need to know that the camera isn’t going to compress the image to the point of impacting our ability to access real information about the sampled values. So, it needs to have enough bit depth (generally at least 10 bit) to yield accurate rendition of colors and tones, and low enough compression to not smear values together thus losing necessary information. If the above elements are covered then we can take the resulting code values and push them wherever we’d like. From that point, the question of camera selection becomes one of functionality."
Marc Shipman-Mueller, Product Manager for ARRI Camera Systems
"The idea that one image quality parameter is the all-deciding criteria is simplistic and born from marketing—not from what is really needed on a set. The most important ingredient in making a good movie is and has always been [telling] a good story...and that CAN be done with a small budget and an iPhone. But if we are planning on producing multiple projects professionally, we need tools that are more appropriate to the task in order to produce these projects in as efficient a manner as possible with the highest quality results.
Here is my personal list of what kind of tool is needed to achieve this:
- A cine camera must capture the highest possible overall image quality. Image quality is composed of many parameters, some more important than others. Arguably, the most important parameter is dynamic range. A wide dynamic range not only allows the cinematographer great freedom in post-production but also makes the images usable for modern High Dynamic Range (HDR) displays. The next important parameter would be good color science (including a wide color gamut), which affects the representation of colors and specifically skin tones. Then come sufficient sensitivity (EI), sufficient resolution, bit depth, and others.
- A high-end recording file type, high-end media, download-stations, and an efficient near-set workflow. The recording file type should be either uncompressed raw data and/or a high-end compressed full-color codec. The media should be robust and reliable, with a high data rate. Download stations should be fast, and the near-set workflow should be simple and easy to understand.
- Robust and reliable usage in all environmental conditions. A wide operating temperature range. A dust and splash-water proof housing. Shock resistance. A camera you can use in the Arctic as well as in the Amazon without any problems.
- Simple, easy operation. Professional film crews work long hours, sometimes under very adverse conditions, so their tools must be simple and easy to operate.
- Professional interfaces. A camera is one part of an existing infrastructure on a set. The camera must interface with professional batteries, monitors, video transmitters, remote controls, tripod heads, cranes, Steadicams, etc. This means power inputs that take a wide range of voltages and that use connectors that do not come out on their own, SDI monitor outputs, and lots of 3/8" -18 screw holes (ideally with dual location pins to avoid rotation).
- Accessories. A cinema camera is never just a naked camera on a set. Many items are attached to and communicate with the camera, and those items should fit mechanically, power-wise, and data-wise as best as possible to the camera. We are talking about lenses, base plates, handles, matte boxes, monitors, wireless remote controls, wireless video transmitters, and camera support.
- Support. A camera is a complex piece of gear, and if something goes wrong, you want to be able to contact a knowledgeable service technician who understands the movie business and can react quickly."
Grant Petty, CEO
“It's not about resolution. It's about producing pictures that can be color graded to get a film look. It’s about producing pictures that are not all clipped like from a consumer camera, so you cannot do anything with the pictures later. It's also about professional cine features such as 3D LUTs built-in, formats such as Blackmagic RAW, metadata and other monitoring features such as focus peaking, false color, zebra and frame guides.
It's about being able to adjust camera features manually, such as audio input levels so the AGC does not wreck your audio recordings. Or being able to set focus, iris, and zoom manually, setting shutter angle and ISO manually, etc. Even professional audio inputs, better microphones, bigger screens for monitoring, external monitoring outputs with overlays for crew viewing when used on set.
Giving filmmakers control over the camera so they can set up shots to be captured well and graded later is why we got into cameras. Before, people were trying to grade from video cameras and all the images were clipped and the results were not good. We tried making color correction more affordable and even by making it free, it was hard to get more color correction used in people's work. So, we had to build cameras designed for color correction.
That’s what digital film is. It's not resolution at all. An HD camera is digital film if it does all these things well.”
Alex Sax, Specialist, Marketing
"Technically speaking any camera that shoots in HD or higher and is engineered for motion, I would consider a cinema camera. Definitely every camera in the Canon cinema line. However, you can achieve a cinematic look from almost any camera. I have seen beautiful footage from a Rebel or 90D as well as 5D, EOS R, and 1D series cameras. It is hard to consider these cinema cameras, but they produce beautiful cinema-quality images."
Mitch Gross, Cinema Product Manager, Panasonic System Solutions Company
"It’s a loaded question, because really you COULD shoot with anything, get a picture and call that a cinema camera if you’re willing to use it. Movies have been famously released to the cinema that were shot on cell phones, shot on standard-definition camcorders, shot in interlace at broadcast video frame rates, etc. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
What really makes a cinema camera is control. Control of color, exposure, focus, depth, contrast, aperture, recording, etc. People can say, “you can shoot a movie on an iPhone,” and while that’s technically true, you lose all sorts of control of the image. And with control comes art and craft. Panasonic’s GH5 and S1H cameras answer the question of control just as the EVA1 and VariCams do. They do so to different degrees based on the tool that is appropriate for the task, but that’s why we offer different models. A VariCam Pure Uncompressed RAW camera offers incredible control, but it might not be appropriate to squeeze in a small space like one of our other models.
Control means that you can shape and manipulate the image the way you wish. Otherwise, you are simply documenting or recording events, not interpreting them in an artistic fashion. Cinema is about telling a story, even in nonfiction. There is a point of view and you want all of your tools to work with you to help form and deliver this message. Having control means that you get to express your art through craft. That is what makes a cinema camera."
Jack Howard, Marketing Department
"At its essence, cinematography is ruled by functionalism, and the best creative tools should reflect an elegance in design that effortlessly enables the creator’s vision. The Sigma fp embodies this elegant functionalism in its feature set, Cine and Still menu structures, and the overall extensibility of the system. The clean, crisp interface, the director’s viewfinder, the supported filetypes, including 4K 12-Bit CinemaDNG, and the ability to rig and mount the camera in a multitude of configurations all help light the creative spark. Additionally, the release of the 3D schematics for the camera and its original accessories helps jump-start the ecosystem and allows for incredible customizations, from underwater housings, remote cages, and virtually limitless configurations."
The responses highlight that not one thing makes a camera a cinema camera. Cinema itself is not one thing. It's whatever the filmmaker needs to present in order to connect and affect the audience. Cameras are tools designed to focus on the story and subtext. Any camera that services that can be a cinema camera.
Maybe its time to consider thinking about cameras in a different way—not whether or not one camera is better than the other but whether or not it can serve the purpose of your story.
But we want to know what you think. What makes a camera a cinema camera to you? Let us know in the comments below.