The d16 Digital Bolex. Image courtesy of Digital Bolex.
I want one
When I first heard about the Digital Bolex camera last year, and its capability to shoot raw video (using Adobe’s open source CinemaDNG format), on a blog post by Philip Bloom, I went to Kickstarter to back the $2500 camera, but they were sold out. I waited until the last day of the campaign, hoping someone would back out at the last minute. They did. I was all in.
And as I started to do more research, I decided to pitch a proposal to Focal Press for a new book. They had published the first and second editions of my DSLR Cinema book, and this new one would cover the latest in video cameras that shoot cinema raw, tentatively titled, Cinematic Storytelling with 16mm Raw: Shooting with the Ikonoskop, Digital Bolex, and the Blackmagic Cinema Cameras. It should be out late fall or early winter. This blog is a work-in-progress excerpt.
I flew to Toronto last week to see what Joe Rubinstein, Elle Schneider, and the Ienso team were up to with the Digital Bolex. They’re nearing completion. The suspense of waiting nearing its end. And to go behind the scenes and watch the team work on sensor boards and menu designs was a thrill. I shot interviews and some b-roll for this behind the scenes look at one of the most innovative cameras to come out in the past decade.
A short documentary on the Digital Bolex at Ienso in Toronto (Feb. 26-27, 2013) by Kurt Lancaster:
A cinema camera for posers or the real deal?
But some people may have had the same initial reaction that Neil mentions in a user comment on the digital bolex site: “When I first saw this camera on Kickstarter I must be honest, I didn’t see any true use out of it except as a niche camera that hipsters would use just to look cool.”
Joe Rubinstein, founder and visionary, of the Digital Bolex. (Kurt Lancaster)
But there was something different about how Joe Rubinstein — founder and visionary for the Digital Bolex — interfaced with his potential customers, offering not only a peak behind the curtain, but allowing customers to provide feedback before the camera was built. In some ways, they helped design the camera. Because of this many began to realize that this was not going to be just a slapped-together or copycat camera with a cool name, but the real deal. Neil’s sentiments as he continues his above-mentioned post best describes how Rubinstein’s open approach pays off. Shifting from thinking that at first it’s a camera for posers, Neil changes his mind:
However, I’ve been following the project for some time and I’m amazed at how much thought, time and energy is being put into the camera to not only make the camera useful, but exceedingly useful.
You could have just jammed a sensor into a Bolex-shaped box and I think most people that invested would have been satisfied as long as it worked. But you have gone above and beyond to an entirely higher level of goodness with the camera and have become the perfect model of a kickstarter generated product.
The d16 Digital Bolex is not just a video camera or a wannabe cinema camera. Rubinstein dislikes video so much he stopped making films during the HD video revolution of the 2000s. The Canon 5D Mark II with its full frame sensor and interchangeable lenses may have blown the doors off other prosumer digital video cameras, but Rubinstein was never convinced by the limitations of an 8-bit compression scheme.
From film stock to 16mm digital negative
The differences may be subtle—and even undetectable by many non-cinematographers—but you must remember Rubinstein isn’t trying to create a digital camera by comparing it to other HD video cameras. His baseline is 16mm film. “The ethos behind the d16 Bolex is to look at what made 16mm film format in the 60s appealing,” he says. Then, he explains, you could buy 16mm film,
the same film stock as the professionals. It’s just a smaller format than 35mm film. But you’re shooting the same thing. And the camera is just the carrier for the film stock. It doesn’t really affect the image quality. Maybe you could argue the angle of the shutter or something like that.
It’s really about creating an image that a professional film camera could create. Amateur filmmakers, students, and independent filmmakers all had access to the same film stocks as professional filmmakers. Rubinstein wants to create the same thing for the digital cinema world. For example, “if you’re making a drama,” Rubinstein argues, “there’s no reason why you can’t make a film that looks just as good as a feature you’d see in the theater on the same camera that you’re shooting your family vacation on.” But video cameras changed all that. He tells me that there was a
split between amateur or home recording mediums and professional mediums. It became this video ghetto, where unless you can afford a professional quality camera, your film is never going to get shown anywhere. You can’t get it into a festival, and it’s not going to be taken seriously.
So he was driven to make a digital cinema camera that’s not only relatively affordable ($3300 for the d16 is about the same price as a Canon 5D Mark III), but he wants the final digital project to look like 16mm film.
“I started researching what it would take to make it,” Rubinstein explains,
and I realized, if I make this thing, I’m not going to be the only person that wants one. There are going to be other people that are interested in it. So I started researching what it would take to make a retail version. And when I was explaining to people what I wanted to do, I was always calling it a digital Bolex. I kept saying, ‘It’s just like the idea of a Bolex, but digital.’
At his point, he spent nine months putting together a market research paper and a business plan before approaching Bolex. And this was before Kickstarter.
Finding a camera manufacturer
But he couldn’t go it alone—not even with creative partner Elle Schneider. They can come up with concepts and schematics, but the actual manufacturing obviously had to be farmed out. They still needed to build a camera. It requires molding, circuit board design, getting the right sensor—all of the elements to get the camera made and working.
Elle Schneider, creative director at Digital Bolex. (Kurt Lancaster) Responsible for envisioning the user interface and how the camera operates.
Even at this level he didn’t approach the work conventionally. Rubinstein researched electronic companies and ended up talking to representatives from a “lot of different electronic design firms and companies that work with sensors,” he explains. And many of their responses went something like this, Rubinstein says: “‘When you’re ready to make a million units, call us back.’ That’s kind of the attitude I got from easily half of them. And I said, ‘Okay, but I don’t want to make a million units.’”
Others suggested that he contact venture capitalists to fund the manufacturing of the camera. “‘You need x number of dollars to get off the ground,’” they told him, and “‘when you have that amount of money come talk to us and we’ll help you make a camera.’” But this went against Rubinstein’s previous business venture experiences and philosophy. “That is not the way that I do things or want to do things.” He’d been burned in the past by venture capitalists not understanding his product, and they ended up “making really bad decisions because of it,” he says. He only wanted to make a few hundred cameras at first.
Rubinstein came across a small electronics company, Ienso, a contract design service firm outside of Toronto, Canada and shared his vision with the owners of the company.
Mike Liwak, VP of product development at Ienso. (Kurt Lancaster) Leads the team that executes Joe's and Elle's vision for the Digital Bolex.
Mike Liwak, a partner at Ienso and VP of product development talks about how when Rubinstein first approached him, it was to create the camera for his Polite in Public photobooth:
he had an idea for a particular camera that fit the application he was working with and so I started off conversations back and forth which started to evolve. And in parallel with that he was looking for other solutions, or to see what other technologies are out there and he started to gradually realize that there was a lot of potential for the Digital Bolex camera. At that time of course we didn’t have the Bolex name trademark. We were looking to have a raw cinema-type camera that was shooting raw. But not super expensive, not super high-end, but still good quality and robust, and so forth.
But Rubinstein didn’t want to give them money to build the camera. He wanted a partnership. Both sides would kick in money to make it happen.
Worth the risk
Joe Bornbaum, the VP of finance at Ienso was open to the idea. He knows their company can build and design cameras, “But we’re not the guys who are in touch with the market. And here came Joe with his vision. And as I probed him and as I pushed him, he had the answers. There was a logic to it. And I thought, you know what, we are going to take a gamble here and bet on this.”
Joe Bornbaum, VP of Fianance at Ienso. (Kurt Lancaster) Willing to take the risk to design and build the Digital Bolex at Ienso.
Liwak tells me that they get requests to partner with other companies a lot:
we’ve had offers for partnership before with other companies or technologies and after running our own business and doing some things on our own we have a bit of a feel of what makes sense and what doesn’t, and what’s viable and what’s not viable. So what Joe described to us as the potential market and how we could fit in — and combined with the technology which we thought we could develop — all of the pieces of the puzzle went together. So we thought it was worth the risk.
This meant investing money, manpower, and technology to make it happen. As Bornbaum says, Rubinstein’s offer was an opportunity. “I use this analogy,” he adds:
You’re running towards a cliff and you hope that you can build a bridge by the time you get there. And that’s literally what we’ve committed to doing here. We’re betting the company on making this work. Just as Joe has bet everything he has on this.
The d16 Digital Bolex is just the beginning. Rubinstein and Schneider, as well as their partners at Ienso are not only planning accessories, they’re looking down the road at more Bolex cameras. Perhaps a 4K Bolex is on the horizon?
Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of DSLR Cinema (Focal Press, 2013) and Video Journalism for the Web (Routledge, 2013). He teaches digital filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University.