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New Cameras, Great and Small

By Gregory Solman

A Camera Arri 535 on a white background.

The theory of documentary trickle-down holds that high technology may eventually dribble into the awaiting mouths of the hungry, but don't hold your breath. That's why the announcement of Arriflex's 535 Camera System, however innovative, exciting and incorporable, should be received as only possibly affecting dominant production methods in the future. There was, for instance, a two-decade gap between Arri's invention of the spinning mirror (1932), which first made possible through-the-lens reflex viewing of motion pictures, and the porting of that technology to the pin-registered 16St (1952). (To be fair, a rather large war in the interim had something to do with this particular delay.)

But the distance from the production prototype to the local equipment rental counter shouldn't dampen one's curiosity about a system's implications, since technology is a two-way street. The "swing-over" viewfinder, for example, actually migrated upward from the 16mm format to 35mm. In 1975, Arri introduced this viewfinder to the 16BR, which engendered a common-sense assumption that not everyone cared to compose with the right eye and in a fixed position. Since then, the "swing-over" viewfinder has risen to an unprecedented stature—from the heated eyecup, which keeps the body temperature from fogging up the lens within the eyepiece, to com­ pletely parallel rotation, so that one can image from below or even positioned in front, facing the camera back. The viewfinder also moves 270 degrees to the left or the right. The Arriglow simultaneously displays three of nine possible aspect ratios, including anamorphic (2.35) and three versions of Super 35mm. More important for those who would likely hand­ hold a camera, a light-weight version of the integrated eyepiece and de­ anamorphosis can be easily interchanged.

Most apparent in Arri's reconceptualization of the camera system is the movement toward incorporating the best features of video cameras and systems with the tried-and-true concepts of film exposure. The 535 designers evidently feel that monitor­ ing composition with those hand-held liquid crystal display units is half­ hearted and insufficient. Consequently, Arri has upped the video­ assist ante with a plug-in module that provides a BNC connector for a full scale monitor, a flange for mini­ monitors, and a much clearer, highly resolved imaging system—a 2/ 3-inch format CCD camera capable of delivering 750 pixels of horizontal resolution and reducing flicker. In addition, CCDs are not burned out by imaging strong lights such as the sun or the flames of a burning building. Returning to the viewfinder, one can twist a button to split the eyepiece/video beam into three relative ratios: 80:20, 50:50, or 0:100. And, with the advent of electronic film editing systems, and in advance of other automators such as Keycode (see ID, Winter/1990), the camera system internally generates SMPTE timecode, placing the 80 bits of information per frame between the perforations and the picture frame.

Operators will also have access to the user bits of the SMPTE standard, meaning they can customize the time­ code generated to include daily information.

"I think Arri is in a strong technical position because it addresses more than just cinematography today," remarks Grant Loucks, president of Alan Gordon Enterprises, a production equipment sales and rental corporation in Hollywood, which handles Arriflex cameras among others. "One of these features is a quality video system that allows the post production of the film in video, then a return to the negative for cutting and distribution in the traditional film manner. This is something that no other manufacturer has addressed in the changing world of motion pictures and video. With high definition corning along, we're going to see a technological survival of the fittest. I believe Arri has covered this base and will be the producer's choice."

Documentary shooters, how­ ever, may be less impressed with the 535's production oriented features—such as an incredible electronically controlled variable shutter for pre­ programming or changing shutter angle and frame rate on the fly—than with its weight, significantly higher than Aaton's new 35mm camera. The Arri 535 has an efficient on-board battery unit making it quite reasonable for hand-held work, but at 38.6 pounds (without film lens, and coupled with the smaller 400-foot magazine) it's not light. As a comparison, Aaton's new 35mm camera weighs as little as most 16mm cameras, only 15.4 pounds in the same configuration.

"I wish the Aaton 35 could take a 1,000 foot film load, as the Arri does, but other than that feature, I think the Aaton is remarkable," says Gerald Williams, a San Diego-based cinematographer who is currently working on a documentary project on Arches National Park. "The Aaton 35mm uses many of the nice features of the 16mm cameras—it's flexible, well balanced, hand-holdable. It doesn't have an adjustable shutter but does have an optional three-perf claw. And there's a significant price difference—the Aaton is about the same size, weight and price of some of my Arri 16s." A prototype Aaton 35 has already imaged a feature film, Robert Young's Triumph of the Spirit, where it served cramped quarters admirably. Meanwhile, Arri is making package /performance leaps as well, particularly with its new 65mm camera, which is about the size of most 35mm cameras. It is being used first for special venue work and Wim Wender's long awaited feature, Til the End of the World.

Moving to new technology which anyone can afford, a company called Animation Systems of America, (Woodland Hills, California), has been busily building a better intervalometer, believe it or not. These devices are essential to doing any kind of time lapse work. ASA's fully automatic and programmable time-lapse control can work under an event timer which can power up and power down the entire camera system 84 times a week, in durations of a tenth of a second to a full year. In addition, there are extremely precise dual-crystal timers which allow dual exposure shooting, meaning one can program the system to image a subject at alternating F-stops automatically. The motor system crystal-locks to any speed from a tenth of a second to 60 ipm, which makes it nicely compatible with new cameras that allow continu­ ously variable frame rates.

This 8810V3 system will also benefit EOF (every other frame) film recording, which will be terrific for animation camera control in a studio, front light/back light work and rotoscoping without taxing a motion control device. The unit triggers a host of other devices, including a power strip controller capable of turning on an entire studio full of electrical devices. More important for field use is the possibility of setting up camera and lights; attaching the unit-controlled infrared detector to the camera (a sonar detector is upcoming) as a trip and lighting a path where, for instance, wild animals cross infre­ quently; getting shots as they cross; allowing the capping shutter driver to save your solenoid; getting the paging device option to notify you of the camera status from afar; then having the system power down entirely as the subjects leave the frame. With devices like this, who needs bug spray and long, tedious novels?

Gregory Solman is a freelance film critic and the West Coast Editor of Millimeter magazine.