Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why are HDSLR cameras so disruptive?

I'm going to make a bold statement: HDSLR cameras are going to quickly and decisively reshape the entertainment industry, and when the dust settles, artists are going to be at the helm.

And now I'm going to back that bold statement up, so read on...

The Red One was hailed for bringing cinema quality video down to 1/10th the price it was previously.  And the Canon 5D Mark II is 1/10th the price of the Red One.  But the Red One wasn't an evolutionary step on the way to the 5D Mark II.  They were essentially developed simultaneously, and darn near released simultaneously. So really, in a single product generation the 5D Mark II brought cinema quality video down to 1/100th the the price.

Think about that a bit.  One day you need a quarter million dollar camera to shoot a movie.  Then you wake up the next day and can shoot the same movie with a $2500 camera, and your audience wont be able to tell the difference.  I personally can't think of another technological change that in a single generation has even come close to a disruptive price drop like this (if you can think of something, please let me know in the comments).

So how did this happen?  Are Canon's engineers just that much smarter, developing technology just that much faster?  Nope.  Funny thing is, Canon wasn't even trying to develop a video camera.  They were just working on the next iteration of their entry-level full-frame DSLR, certainly a big improvement over the original 5D, but nothing unexpected.  And then video capability was tacked on at the last minute without much fanfare.  It was such a tiny change to add video that Canon probably accomplished it with nothing more than a firmware update.  But this tiny change had a giant impact because it connected video with the economies of scale that had long existed in DSLR photography (and in film SLR photography before that).

A tiny technological change, but a giant change in economies of scale.  That's the kicker.  And for the entertainment industry, HDSLR cameras are even more disruptive than this hundredfold cost reduction would lead you to believe: on day one there was already a huge existing user-base intimately familiar with these video cameras of the future.  There are hundreds of thousands of DSLR photographers (whether professional or amateur) who are truly masters of photography, who have long used these cameras and lenses, and it's a small step for them to bring their skills to video.  In other words, there's already a highly skilled workforce, ready to go.  And that means things are going to happen really, really fast.

So DSLR photographers, meet your new side job (or career): making TV and movies.  Of course there is some work to do.  TV and movie making involves so many different skills that we need to bring together... writers, directors, actors, photographers, audio engineers, not to mention friendly free-software nerds like yours truly.

And as long as we're at it, we might as well borrow some great ideas from the open-source world: distributed teams and the tools needed to make them productive.  This is the future, isn't it?  It's the future that our Novacut distributed video editor will make possible.


  1. > And as long as we're at it, we might as
    > well borrow some great ideas from the
    > open-source world: distributed teams and
    > the tools needed to make them productive.

    Great idea, but why not work with VLC or KDEnlive or other FLOSS video editor that already exists?

  2. Good question. Although there are many existing free video editors, none are designed for a distributed workflow. Nor are any proprietary editors designed for a distributed workflow.

    This is new territory and a hard problem. To execute this feature well, we need to simplify. We need a simple architecture designed from the ground up for these distributed features. We need a user interface that is simple and makes the distributed features intuitive and productive. We want to get the distributed part right before moving onto more features.

    Editors like Kdenlive are very nice and are well focused on the problems their authors are concerned with. But we're focusing on different problems and a different use case. We're not trying to make everyone happy, make an editor for all use cases.

    Is that a reasonable answer? Thank you so much for your interest in the project, for taking the time to comment!

  3. "Think about that a bit. One day you need a quarter million dollar camera to shoot a movie. Then you wake up the next day and can shoot the same movie with a $2500 camera, and your audience wont be able >to tell the difference."

    Unfortunately, you're incorrect on that point. The technical quality of files generated by the 5D Mk II is nowhere near as high as the Red One, nor the quality of 35mm film. If you try to use 5D Mk II shot footage in either 4k or 2k, it's no going to have an acceptable picture quality.

    An H.264 file @ 50Mbps from the 5D Mk II is maybe fine for distribution, but it's nowhere near the quality needed for high-end editing. In comparison, "old tech" HDCamSR tapes have an equivalent bitrate of 440Mbps. Every file transcode or conversion then loses further quality as more and more compression is applied (unless using lossless codecs, which H.264 is not).

    The 5D Mk II is great in news gathering, documentaries (although maybe not natural history), low-end TV dramas and online only productions. However, it's place is not for full cinematic productions or high-end TV drama.

  4. I have no understanding of camera technologies, but after reading the previous post, I doubt the doubter! I am more than willing to admit that he is 100% correct on his data. Also, he has in no way allowed any of his thought move 2 steps ahead for the next iteration of this type of camera. Stick your head back in the sand, if this one isn't exactly the best for pro movie making, at least when the next iteration comes that does meet your criteria, the distributed possibilities will be functional, and probably also upgraded.Nay say at your own peril, personally I do not enjoy theater moviegoing, as it is uncomfortable, expensive, no pause button, list goes on! I daresay the camera technology that this group is currently working on is in fact perfectly adequate on the small screens that I enjoy. You can have your over air-conditioned theater all to yourself :)

  5. PhillC,

    You're certainly correct that the H.264 codec is the major weak point for current HDSLR cameras. However, your comment about the 5D Mark II only being usable for "low-end TV dramas" is refuted by a lot of evidence. I don't think many would consider "House" a low-end TV drama, yet the season 6 finale "Help Me" was shot entirely with 5D Mark II cameras. And I think people would universally agree that the episode "Help Me" looks just breathtaking, looks considerably better than previous episodes of "House". Are HDSLR cameras perfect? No. But one can work around their weak points.

    Sure, the Red One has some advantages (RAW codec, higher FPS, higher resolution), but they have weak points to (more expensive, bigger, not as good is low light).


    My thoughts exactly. To me the amazing thing about current Canon HDSLR cameras is that they're already this good even though no specific engineering effort was put into the video features (other than firmware changes).

    But come the next major generation, one specifically engineer with video in mind, these cameras are going to totally dominate. HDSLR economies of scale just can't be beat.

  6. I purchased a Canon EOS 550D T2i, with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II and Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 and 16GB class 10 SD media card partly due to this post. I can not wait to use it. I've heard and read many rave reviews about the Canon EOS 550D, 7D and 5D Mk II and have no reason to doubt that these cameras will be used for years to come, in higher and higher capacities. People from Vincent Laforet to my friend who is an up-and-coming film editor swear by the Canon EOS line.

  7. Brett, that's awesome! I think you made some really smart lens choices. If you're new to photography, I really recommend "Understanding Exposure" by Brian Peterson. When you have some videos online, drop us a link!

    The T2i is a really amazing camera. You should checkout it this Worldcup short shot on a T2i with the kit lens: