I returned recently from the IBC convention in Amsterdam, and although I’ve reported on some new technology debuting at the show, I also wanted to tell you about some interesting activities I participated in prior to IBC. As long as I was going all the way to Europe, I figured I should make the most of the trip and so I put the word out via the international DCS eNewsletter and got some interesting invitations. These included a chance to visit a gathering of the Irish Society of Cinematographers and tours of factories in the UK and Germany including Vitec, Zeiss, ARRI, and P+S Technik.
My journey started in Ireland where I had the great pleasure to live and work in the Dublin area for about a year during the late 1990’s. Not a lot has changed in the physical appearance of the country, but the filmmaking community has greatly expanded in the last 20 years. A welcoming government, joining the European Union, and of course, healthy production incentives all helped to transform a sleepy niche location into an international hub of production activity. It probably started with Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, which were both greatly assisted in their large battle scenes with disciplined combat ready extras courtesy of the Irish army.
The government saw the value to the community in bringing such large scale productions and the dollars that followed, so they developed incentives to lure even more international production, and funds were also set aside to encourage locally originated projects. Today, such major productions as Game of Thrones, and several of the Star Wars franchise do a considerable amount of their productions on the Island.
The effect has been the development of a robust pool of talent in many areas of production, and in particular, cinematography. Whereas 20 years ago, DPs, such as myself, were imported from the US or the UK, now Irish Cinematographers are much sought after and are shooting major productions all around the world. These include such prominent DPs as Seamus McGarvey, ASC, ISC, BSC, (The Avengers, Atonement, Fifty Shades of Grey), Declan Quinn, ASC/ISC, (Leaving Las Vegas, Admission, Rachel Getting Married,) and P.J. Dillon, ISC, (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful.) I’m proud to say that my Focus Puller when I was working in Ireland is now a prominent DP, Tim Fleming, ISC, (Once, Jimi: All Is by My Side,) and another DP who is also a longtime DCS member with a very similar name to my own, James Mather, ISC. Note there is no “S” on the end of his last name, but that doesn’t stop a lot of confusion, as when I get calls and emails congratulating me for great looking movies I didn’t shoot, like Lock Out, which he also directed, and Frank, staring Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson.
I’ve only named a few here, but there are so many great Irish DPs that they formed their own honorary society. The Irish Society Of Cinematographers (ISC) was founded with the aim of promoting and encouraging the highest standards in the art and craft of Cinematography. I couldn’t resist an invitation from ISC General Secretary, John Leahy, (pictured on the left,) and President Ciarån Tanham, (on the right,) to visit while I was in the Dublin area, so a presentation to the ISC was organized. Although many of their members were off on location, about 20 did attend to find out about DCS and my perspectives about new technology. It was a lot of fun to meet new people and many have since joined the Digital Cinema Society.
Next on my journey was a visit to the headquarters of Vitec, in the quaint British town of Bury St. Edmunds, a couple of hours east of London, not too far from the University of Cambridge. From there, Vitec keeps tabs on their many varied brands including Litepanels, Sachtler, OConnor, Anton/Bauer, Teradek, Wooden Camera, SmallHD, which are all DCS supporters, and many others that are not. Steve Turner, Manager of the camera support brands, gave me a tour of the factory where they are making their new FlowTech quick deployment, light weight sticks, (including the new 100mm model that I’ve eagerly been waiting for.) I got to take a look at the revolutionary carbon fiber wrapping technique they use to create the new tripod. It weighs only ounces, yet is strong enough that you can set it on the ground and jump on it without damaging it in the least. (I shot video of all this which I will include in a future episode of the Digital Cinema Show.)
Then, it was off to Germany for a tour of the Zeiss factory in Oberkochen, about four hours north of Munich, where I found out a lot about the history of the company from a tour of their world class museum. The firm was started by Carl Zeiss in 1846 with the first project being an early version of a microscope.
The company has continued to specialize in Optics, but in a whole range of products for medical, photographic, telescopic, night vision and more. Today they enjoy revenues in excess of Six Billion dollars but the motion picture and stills products most of us know them for are only a very small part of that business. I found it interesting that the Carl Zeiss family set the business up as a foundation in perpetuity, so that it cannot be acquired by a private enterprise. This has allowed them to be forward looking and invest in research instead of having to generate fast income to please investors looking for a quick profit.
My main objective in making the visit, however, was to see how they make their famous Cine lenses, which include Master Primes, Master Anamorphics, the CP.2 and CP.3 lines of primes, and their new high-end Supreme Primes, which are 13 new high-speed lenses, from 15mm to 200mm, most with an aperture of T1.5, and all with full frame coverage. They also feature Zeiss eXtended Lens Metadata technology, which provides frame-by-frame information on lens vignetting and distortion in addition to Cooke’s standard i/technology. This data can be extremely helpful in areas such as visual effects image continuity, where elements of distortion, which give a lens its character, can be removed, manipulated, and selectively replaced overall in the composited shot to better blend foreground and background.
This Zeiss factory has been meticulously producing lenses for decades, but with demand for Cine lenses growing, they needed to step up the pace without sacrificing quality. They have again turned to data science to carefully monitor market conditions and quickly adapt supply. They can now turn around one of these lenses in a matter of a few days instead of several weeks, as was the case with traditional methods. They can also upscale or downscale their manufacturing line for Supreme Primes to meet demand.
Following my visit with Zeiss, I traveled down to Munich to pay a visit to the ARRI headquarters, where among many other activities, they manufacture cameras. I should mention that this was my second opportunity to tour ARRI world headquarters; I previously visited in 2010 as they were assembling some of the very first Alexas. On the surface, not all that much has changed in the physical area of camera manufacturing, the birthplace of all ARRI cameras going back to the film days. Today, they still make 35mm based Alexas, including the popular Mini, as well as the ALEXA 65, Amiras, and they are now busy catching up on the back orders of their latest model, the ALEXA LF.
However, even though the cameras are still essentially hand built, as with Zeiss, ARRI has dramatically improved capacity with more efficient management of their supply chain. It is interesting to note that all the assembly technicians on the floor are capable of doing each other’s jobs, and are easily able to go from working on one type of camera to the next. Although they all seemed to be working on the LF when I was there, due to a backlog for the new cameras, they maintain the agility to quickly switch to any other cameras they are currently manufacturing and the necessary parts are standing by. Although the physical space used to build cameras hasn’t changed too much, the square city block that has served as ARRI headquarters practically since the beginning of the firm is constantly evolving. In fact, it is bursting at the seems, and they are in the process of moving certain divisions to other nearby facilities.
ARRI Lighting moved long ago to the outskirts of Munich, but ARRI Rental, one of the largest rental outlets in the world, which was based alongside camera manufacturing at ARRI HQ, is now also located across town, and one of the largest photochemical film labs in Europe is now completely shuttered; (sadly it did not need to be relocated as demand has waned). The space was quickly taken up by an ARRI Medical unit specializing in digital 3D surgical microscopy.
ARRI Media, a leading provider of post services including DI, Digital Dailies, VFX, Sound Mixing, VR, and Digital Distribution, is still headquartered in Munich, but much of their activity has moved to Bavaria Film, the production studio south of Munich. Construction is also underway for a new 215,000 square foot headquarters building in Munich where a variety of divisions may someday be housed. However, from what I understand, cameras will continue to be assembled as they have been for many decades in the former shoemaker´s workshop in Munich´s Tuerkenstrasse where ARRI was formed in 1917.
As a confessed camera geek, what I found most interesting was the assembly of the cameras, and in particular, the “bonding” process. This is where they take the silicon wafers, slice them to the required size, and connect the roughly 1,000 wires per sensor that channel the data off the sensor to the housing on the way to the camera. This is a highly critical step that demands extreme precision, and mistakes are very, very expensive. As you can imagine this is now left to machines, but rigorously checked at each stage by technicians.
To give an idea of the stakes involved, a single silicon wafer measuring about 9” in diameter coming into the factory costs ARRI well over $10,000, and only eight sensors for an ALEXA 65, (ARRI’s largest,) can be cut from each wafer. However, with the extremely low tolerance for any imperfections, as little as one usable sensor might be all that makes it through the bonding process and into a finished camera. Of course, the yield is significantly higher with the smaller 35mm sensors, since more can be cut from the original silicon disc, but it is obviously a critical process with little or no room for error.
Sensors are tested during the bonding process, again before they are installed in a camera body, and at least one more time after assembly. If at any point it does not measure up, it is set aside. I asked what happens to all those sensors that don’t make the cut and was told they are carefully stored in case future technology may allow them to find a useful purpose.
There is a motto at the factory that roughly translated from German says: “Use Special Care, so the Customer Returns Instead of The Product.” It is reflected at every stage of manufacture, and followed up with a new round-the-clock service phone bank where ARRI factory technicians help resolve any technical issues that may come up with any ARRI camera.
My last stop in Germany was to visit the factory of P+S Technik. It was really fun getting to know the Founder Alfred Piffl and finding out about the rich history of the company. Still young by ARRI standards, (who recently celebrated their 100 year anniversary,) P+S Technik was formed in 1990 after Piffl and another camera engineer left ARRI. Their first product was actually in support of an ARRI camera, a new, quieter shutter movement for ARRI’s first self blimped camera, the 35BL.
Their connections with top camera designers, manufacturing technicians, and cinematographers led to an array of specialized products. These include the T-Rex SuperScope and later SKATER snorkel lens systems. Another popular product was the Mini35, a lens adapter designed to give small sensor digital cameras, like Canon’s XLH1, a more filmic look by allowing them to use larger format lenses and control excess depth of field. Using the Mini35 and then the Pro35 was all the rage with early adopters of digital cinema who were forced to use cameras with a 1/3” sensor.
Along the way, they busied themselves with rehousing still camera lenses for cinema They have also developed several cinema lens rehousing products including vintage Cooke Panchros, Super Baltars, Kinoptiks, and Schneider Cine-Xenon lenses, as well as Full Format lenses such as Canon K35. In 2005 they built a full digital cinema camera in cooperation with Director/DP Stefan Weiss. It was called the WEISSCAM, and featured a Super35 sensor capable of very high frame rates for slow-motion.
In 2007 they were involved in the manufacture of the Silicon Imaging SI-2K which went on to be used on Slumdog Millionaire and received 8 Oscars including one for DP Anthony Dodd Mantle, ASC for Best Cinematography.
Their 1.5x squeeze offers a great anamorphic solution for 16:9 sensor cameras, like my VariCams, and can also take advantage of most of the real estate for all of the new Full Format (24×36) sensors. They now offer two 1.5x zooms, and a full range of anamorphic primes under the Technovision moniker, as well as the Evolution 2X anamorphic lenses.
P+S Technik is relatively small for an international camera and lens manufacturer, but they have used their size to stay nimble and take on specialty projects the bigger companies would have a difficult time approaching. As the company reaches the end of its third decade, Alfred has turned over the day-to-day operations of the firm to his daughter, Anna Piffl with the title of Managing Director. The elder Piffl still plays a hands-on roll in development, but after so many years at ARRI, then running his own successful company, he has definitely earned the right to take things a little easier.
On to IBC
I don’t manage to make it to Amsterdam for IBC every year; with NAB just up the road in Las Vegas, it makes keeping up a little easier, and the majority of major releases in our sector of the industry are usually done there. However, IBC does afford me a broader international perspective and there are usually several things to take note of, so it was a valuable trip. There were reportedly over 1,700 exhibitors and more than 57,000 attendees hosted from 170 countries.
Of note was the announcement of Blackmagic RAW, (previously covered in this eNewsletter,) as well as several new features added to Adobe Creative Cloud for Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition, and Character Animator, including among others, advancements in color grading, motion graphics templates, and end-to-end VR 180 support. Most of these advancements are a result of Sensei integration, Adobe’s AI platform which is helping to speed workflows and manage repetitive tasks so the filmmakers can spend more time on the creative process.
One interesting item that I previously didn’t report on was a technology demo at Fujinon’s booth. They were showing an extremely low cost way to make anamorphic lensing available on their already economical, (sub $4,000,) MK series of zoom lenses. A front anamorphic adapter from SLR Magic can be screwed onto the lens. The adapter converts the image by a factor of 1.33x – which, when coupled with a 16:9 sensor, equates to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The adapter needs its own focus ring which requires constant adjustment like a normal lens. What’s tricky is that the anamorphic adapter and the receiving lens need to be adjusted in tandem. They’ve cleverly overcome this challenge with a calibrated ring and follow focus that works in coordination with the taking lens. A pretty neat trick considering the different diameters of the lens barrels and other considerations that make it more than a simple one to one scale adjustment.
I wrapped up my little European adventure with a small celebration for DCS members held across the street from the RAI auditorium in the very classy bar that is part of the Motel-One complex. Refreshments were courtesy of Fujifilm/Fujinon, Cinnafilm and DOP Choice, and a very good time was had by all.
Many thanks to these sponsors, the International Society of Cinematographers, and the companies who graciously opened their factory doors to me so we can see the care and innovation that goes into creating the tools we use.