Is the Arriflex D-20 the Trojan Horse of Digital Acquisiition?

August 21, 2009

Is the Arriflex D-20 the Trojan Horse of Digital Acquisiition?

By now there are very few surprises left in camera advancements for the digital revolution, the revolution now being largely a series of squabbles.  To understand the history of the players provides quick insight to the developments each manufacturer will offer the community, for each will be an extension of their existing product line and philosophy.

For a manufacturer making video cameras, high definition digital acquisition means changing the electronics and using the same shell (form-factor).  For a company that has sold no previous products, it becomes a wide-open design challenge, but for a company that has historically manufactured film cameras, it could mean some significant changes… or maybe not.  Why change what works well?

Arriflex’s D-20 is the prime example of this kind of thinking.  It utilizes the same PL lens mount, the same optical viewfinder, a rotating mirrored shutter and more closely resembles a film camera than a video camera in size, shape, finish and it’s 24lb lens-less weight.  Of course, video assist on this video camera is optional.  The sexy “cool factor” is alive and well in the D-20 and filmmakers everywhere can feel comfortable in their public persona, that their commitment to film and disregard of video will not be blemished by being seen in production stills with an ENG style camera.

The Germans are as well known as the Swiss for their love of fine machining, and design spawned from the principles of indestructible military functionalism, creating that certain manly panache with the lure of conquest, smothered in krinkle-finish paint.  Why, you could fly a D-20 into any episode of Star Wars and it would look right at home, while every kid in the states would be buying the blisterpak version to fondle endlessly.  It’s just that sexy, but also as timeless as say a pair of black patent-leather pumps, a tailored Harris tweed jacket or a beige cashmere sweater. I want one.

But alas, I cannot satiate my lust, for they are not for sale—not even a his and hers version in the Nieman Marcus Christmas catalogue.  Like Panavision, Dalsa and Viper, they’re being marketed to Hollywood as rentals and not for sale to the world at large.

Using a 6 Megapixel Bayer pattern CMOS sensor, and a PL lens mount, the D-20 allows use of the same lenses as 35 mm film cameras, maintaining the creative option for selective or shallow depth of field so necessary for the filmic look.  It also has the ability to capture images at frame-rates from 1 to 60fps (the chip is future-proofed to 150fps) with an electronically variable, silent, mechanical shutter (11.2 degrees to 180 degrees) and can run speed ramps as well.

In Raw Data mode it records in “Kubrick –style” 4×3, but in HD mode it records 16×9 1920×1080 either YUV (4:2:2) OR RGB (4:4:4) at 12 bit with ISO’s of 50 to 320.  As yet, specs for dynamic range have not been given in the Arri literature.

As to resolution, we need to be careful, because the 6 million Bayer pattern Cmos chip does not utilize the full  pixel count for each color channel.  Here is a direct quote from Arriflex:

“In digital photography, there is a tendency to describe resolution in terms of the number of pixels on the chip. Depending on the technology used, however, the actual pixel count of a chip does not directly correspond to the resolution the system is capable of reproducing. The D20, for instance, is designed to accurately reproduce images at HD resolution (1920 horizontal pixels). In order to achieve this goal, a Bayer mask CMOS chip of a higher pixel count is necessary.

On the Bayer mask chip itself the full number of pixels is not available for each color. For a 2880 x 2160 chip, the red channel for instance does not have a resolution corresponding to 2880 x 2160 pixels. One could assume that since every second pixel is red in every second row, we have half the resolution for red (1440 x 1080). But that is not accurate either, since for most natural images the missing color pixel values can be reconstructed very accurately, so the resolution of the red channel is somewhere between 2880 x 2160 and 1440 x 1080.

Our goal with the D20 design is to output a very high quality HD image with a resolution corresponding to 1920 horizontal pixels. In order to achieve such an image output from a Bayer mask chip we need substantially more than 1920 horizontal pixels, which is the reason the chip’s pixel count (2880 x 2160) is much higher than the desired image output resolution. The raw Bayer data at 2880 x 2160 goes through the color reconstruction process to fill in the missing color information and is downscaled to a pixel count that corresponds more closely to its actual resolution. This allows the D20 to create a high definition image that looks as good as if not better than the images produced by current high definition cameras.”

Two years ago ARRI sponsored the New York Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival to showcase the D-20.  The event gave festival attendees the chance to take a closer look and test-drive the camera. Among the many participants were included Cinematographers Mauricio Rubinstein and Director/DP Jon Fauer, ASC. The filmmakers shot in many environments, from indoors to sunny ski slopes to Main Street at dusk.

While digital acquisition allows for longer takes and shooting more footage, it can be even more beneficial for visual effects.  On Afrika, Mon Amour, Cinematographer Frank Küpper was confident it was the right tool for the historic, three-episode, television period-drama shot in Kenya, Germany, Austria and the U.K. With many CGI effects and a tough postproduction schedule, shooting digital was the logical choice. “For a production with so many VFX shots digital shooting has lots of advantages to, let’s say, 16mm. No grain, instant availability of the full resolution images and the 35mm look of the images play a vital role here,” he explains. “It was obvious that shooting HD with a camera that uses a Super 35mm sensor would give the best results and speed up the workflow.”

For camera crews that are experienced in film and perhaps not as familiar with high definition cameras, many have praised the D-20 for its easy-to-use interface Director of Photography Bengt Jan Jönsson shot with the D-20 on several commercials and his crew immediately adapted to it. “Honestly, I don’t think most people know that it’s an HD camera! The D-20 is a film camera with a digital back on it – what cinematographers and crews are used to. It says ARRI on the side and it uses 35mm lenses so they don’t really think it’s a different camera. It has a small profile on the tripod and you don’t have to tweak it too much.  With some other cameras, there is a lot of tweaking.”

Cutting costs is a concern for filmmakers but in television lowering costs is always a priority. For Sam Nicholson, cinematographer and founder of post house Stargate Digital, the Arriflex D-20 is the camera of choice for blue and greenscreen work. Nicholson and Stargate recently garnered three Emmy nominations for their work on Heroes, Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, and Grey’s Anatomy. All of these nominated shows utilized the D-2O. “I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more productions using the D-20 because it makes our lives a lot easier, and ultimately results in a better product. The D-20 is the closest camera yet to a film camera, yet it’s digital. It’s a fascinating technology, and I think it will be fascinating to see where the people at Arri take it.”

Production with the D-20 is continuing in Canada on The Andromeda Strain, directed by Mikael Salomon who last year directed The Company for Scott Free Productions with D-20 cameras. Feature films that have shot with D-20 cameras include, Baker Street (Director Roger Donaldson, DP Mick Coulter BSC), Prisoners of the Sun (Director Roger Christian, DP Ed Wild), and the upcoming crime caper from director Guy Ritchie, Rocknrolla.

The Arriflex D-20 is available for rental at ARRI CSC of New York and Florida, Clairmont Camera in Los Angeles and Canada, Fletcher Chicago, Arri Rental in Germany and ARRI Media in the UK.

Addendum:  Since this article was written several years ago, many technological changes have occurred and the advancements being made in digital acquisition continue to push the envelope in terms of both resolution and dynamic range to where surely the informed will understand that it now surpasses film in too many ways as to be ignored by the few holdouts in the industry that can afford whatever they want.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: