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Cine Gear Expo 2019: A Snapshot Of A Blurred Camera Market And Profession

Do you ever evaluate your position within the production business? As I was walking the exhibits at Cine Gear Expo 2019 last week, I noticed how many different positions, or levels, there are in the “professional” production business. You’ll see a production assistant in their early 20s, who may or may not be in school, working when he or she can. Or there’s the union steadicam op, who has 30 years of features and television production under his or her belt and wants to semi-retire because their back is shot, but still does commercial production on the side. There are production-company or post-house owners who made their way up through the ranks and now spend most of their time being managers of people, more than shooting or editing hands-on work themselves. There are so many different levels you can engage with in our industry and still be considered a pro. 

Well, in the past, you could look at all the gear on display at Cine Gear in a similar way. In other words, you could look at the different levels of gear—considering both features and price—and what might be the right solution for your workflow. However, that’s becoming difficult these days.

High-end camera manufacturers, like ARRI, still had one of the most traffic of any exhibit at Cine Gear Expo 2019, despite the price of entry to their camera products being quite high.

Lines Blur between Product Lines

The biggest news of the show was a camera that (once again) blurred the lines between consumer/prosumer and professional users: The full-frame Panasonic S1H mirrorless camera, which is a product from Panasonic’s consumer Lumix division. But so are the GH5 and GH5S, which are both used in quite a few “real” productions for broadcast and in feature films as POV, crash cams, etc. by professional users as well as by high-end hobbyists, wedding videographers, stock-footage shooters and a lot of others. Yet, at this same show, the hottest booth I saw was the ARRI booth, where there were three different Alexa Mini LF cameras set up, shooting two live models on a set to illustrate the very compelling images and skin tones ARRI is known for. Now, these cameras cost about $70,000 for a shootable package.

The question is, at a show like Cine Gear, which camera is more exciting, or is right for your workflow—6K $4,000 mirrorless camera or a state-of-the-art $70,000 brand new large-format high-end digital cinema camera? Or can they both be equally exciting?

High-end lighting manufacturers, like Cream Source, have begun to introduce product lines that are more accessible to more filmmakers, while still retaining their top-of-the-line reputation.

The lines are blurring in other areas as well: 2019 is an era where A-list directors like Steven Soderbergh are shooting feature films with multi-million dollar budgets for Netflix using an iPhone, while you’ll also find popular vloggers shooting YouTube content with $100,000 RED packages. So, what’s happening here? Part of what’s taking place is a result of the digital video revolution has been fulfilled.

Rewind to 1999: How the Digital Video Revolution Began Blurring Lines

If you’re not familiar with the promise of the Digital Video Revolution that came into being in the late 1990s, it was something along the lines of “Moore’s Law,” which stated that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years. But instead of applying only to computers, the promise with digital video was the idea that technical capability would exponentially increase as the cost, size and weight of the digital-video products would shrink.

In 1998, most video pros used either Betacam SP or Digital Betacam camcorders that were relatively large, heavy and very expensive. In this era, there was still a strong delineation between “video/television” equipment and “film equipment”. Then came the first crop of digital video (MiniDV) prosumer camcorders. I knew the first time I used a Sony VX1000 that my $100,000 Betacam days were numbered. Sure, the VX1000 didn’t produce images that looked as good the images my Betacam could produce. But they looked good enough for a huge cross section of users. That, in my mind, was the beginning of the Digital Video Revolution. 

Who typically rents a high-end robotic-arm camera-support system?

Blurred Roles: Inexpensive Cameras Cloud The Lines Between Pro And Hobbyist

Fast-forward to 2019: We have a real mix of people using a wide array of different types of equipment to produce a massive amount of content. Plus, we’ve reached a point where almost any camera on the market—from prosumer mirrorless cameras to even some mobile phones—has good enough specifications image-wise to produce amazingly high-quality images.

But while this is good for the so-called democratization of video production gear, it’s not as good for working professionals, since the sources for hiring professionals have become “clouded” by the amount of hobbyists, film students and part timers who have gear that is capable of producing good results if the operator knows what he or she is doing.

A Sony demonstrator shows the detachable camera head from Sony’s VENICE Digital Cinema System mounted on an Easy Rig and a heavier, bulkier camera body mounted on the backpack.

What level do you consider yourself? Do you work as a professional, meaning that producing content is your primary source of income?

The good news is the cost of entry, as a professional, has never been lower and the quality of work you can produce with low-cost gear has never been higher. Taking that a level higher, with on-line rental sources like www.lensrentals.com and equipment-sharing resources, like Sharegrid and KitSplit available, your access to top-of-the-line digital cinema gear has never been easier or more accessible.

I’m consistently amazed at how many low-budget music videos, indie films and micro-budgeted content I see being shot with Sony F55, RED and ARRI cameras that just a few years ago would have been out of reach for these users. Thanks to a glut of buyers who have bought expensive gear and don’t have enough work to make their lease payments, sharing services have resulted in rental rates going through the floor. The product-segment lines in the equipment that we use will continue to blur. I have no doubt that an amazing A-List Hollywood feature could be shot with the upcoming Panasonic S1H and its 6K FF imager will undoubtedly produce very high quality results in the right hands.

During the past two years, we also seen the number of available cinema lenses multiply as well, with new players, like Tokina, joining the market with their Vista series, which were on display at Cine Gear Expo 2019.

But not all gear is right for every project. For example, as someone who has worked on some A-List Hollywood features and television shows, I know a mirrorless camera would be a hindrance for a professional camera crew. Having two ACs, full FIZ controls, matte box and lots of prime-lens changes with a mirrorless camera can be done, but it’s not really the right tool for that type of production. The best tool for this type of filmmaking has been, and for the foreseeable future, will continue to be cameras made by RED, ARRI, Sony and Panavision. 

Interestingly, it’s more the physical layout of the camera—where the physical controls are located and how they function for the camera crew—that matter more for most feature shoots with larger crews. Hardly anyone in the camera departments lament that the camera they’re using is only 4K, and not 6K or 8K resolution. They care more about if the camera lets them easily and smoothly do their job.

Of course, as we visit future IBC, InterBee, NAB and Cine Gear shows, we’re certain that we’ll continue to see new products that redefine the rules of function, effectiveness, cost, size and weight. And, we’ll be sure to let you know how well they work.

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