What Exactly Is A Digital Bolex? Fusing Past and Present, D16 Records 2K for Under $3K

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I got my start behind the camera at 7 years old after discovering my mother’s Kodak Brownie 8mm camera tucked away in her desk cubby holes. For several years I ran around the backyard and neighborhood with friends, shooting movies. It was my initiation into working with film—exposing, composing and starting to learn storytelling through moving images.

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Joe Rubinstein and Elle Schneider

I grew up in a time of transition between home movies on motion picture film and home videos on videotape. In junior high school, my sister gave me a Betamax camera, and I worked with videotape until after high school, when I began shooting film again, first some 16mm and then 35mm for many years.

In all that time I had only one occasion to work with the Bolex H16 camera: when shooting second unit very early on in my cinematographer career on a short film called “A La Cart” for director Jamie Neese. There’s no doubt, however, that the little spring-driven consumer-grade camera-that-could enabled hundreds of amateur filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg and Darren Aronofsky at one time.

The Bolex H16 helped to democratize amateur and low-budget filmmaking much in the same way that HDSLRs have opened the doors today—by providing a high-quality but inexpensive tool that puts the creation of moving pictures within reach of those who don’t have access to larger, more costly tools.

Joe Rubinstein, a Los Angeles-based cinematographer, saw a gap in the market of inexpensive tools for filmmakers and started to dream up a new tool that would accomplish the same democratization as the original Bolex and bring digital cinema to the amateur marketplace.

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Bolex D16 prototype at the SXSW Film Festival

Rubinstein was working with Polite in Public, a company that provides high-end custom photo booths for corporate and branded events. Their booths go way beyond the traditional remote camera setup, incorporating high-end lighting, custom props, graphics and even in-camera graphical overlays to create a very memorable marketing take-away. He dreamed up a video photo booth that would accomplish the same thing but allow event attendees to walk away with a movie instead of just printed pictures. He wasn’t satisfied with existing camera hardware, so he began sketching out his own design. Polite in Public decided the project wasn’t quite in the scope of their business model, so Rubinstein set out on his own and embarked on creating the Digital Bolex D16.

Rubinstein crossed paths with director and sometime-writer Elle Schneider, whose grungy, quirky visual style seemed to gel perfectly with his Digital Bolex mission. He hired Schneider to direct the commercials promoting the camera technology and the two hit it off.

Although Rubinstein was a cinematographer with five feature films under his belt, he had stepped away from shooting long enough to miss the start of the digital filmmaking revolution. Schneider brought a different aesthetic to the table. Not only was she well versed in digital technology, she had acted as her own DP on documentary projects and had worked a lot with the Canon EOS 7D DSLR. She began to challenge Rubinstein about his Digital Bolex D16 design and features—and soon the two were partners.

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From the Bolex D16 brand film “Storybook”

They created a prototype camera, shot some sample footage, and realized that they needed a lot more money to move forward with the project—$100,000 at least, and $200,000 would be better. Utilizing the crowd-funding social site Kickstarter.com, Rubinstein and Schneider launched a well constructed and even groovy campaign to raise $100K.

The first day of the campaign was slow. Rubinstein’s mother-in-law invested in the project, and they pre-sold one camera (a $2,500 investment). Schneider, who had been active in camera communities online, wrote an e-mail to digital video guru Philip Bloom to let him know about the project. Bloom nearly immediately invested in the campaign, pre-ordering his own camera, and then blogged about it that night.

Schneider and Rubinstein went to bed feeling very successful—by the end of day one they had already raised $5,000 toward their $100,000 goal and had pre-sold two of their allotted 100 cameras.

The next morning, the entrepreneurial duo woke up to find their sales had gone from two cameras to sold out and their funds had gone from just over $5,000 to more than $250,000. With the help of Philip Bloom’s blog, they went from an obscure Kickstarter campaign to legitimate camera manufacturers quite literally overnight.

The camera in question, the Digital Bolex D16 (named with the permission and cooperation of Bolex International), is a 2K (2048 x 1152) digital cinema camera capable of 12-bit 4:4:4 (with Bayer color array on a Kodak CCD) in Adobe Cinema DNG, TIFF or JPEG image sequences. With a 12.85mm x 9.64mm 1” CCD, the image area is actually larger than a Super 16mm aperture size of 12.52mm x 7.41mm.

The camera records to dual CF cards, with an internal solid-state drive used as an image buffer. The D16 can shoot up to 32 fps at 2048 x 1152, 60 fps at 720p and 90 fps at 480p. It has dual balanced 48 kHz XLR inputs for audio.

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3/4 view of the camera from the most recent 3D modeling of the camera body
Image courtesy Ienso

The viewfinder is, disappointingly, a 320 x 240 2.4” LCD. Even more disappointing, the video output is 640 x 480 black and white, but an additional HD-SDI output box is planned. Standard lens format will be C-mount, with option for PL, EF or B4 mounts. The highest ISO is only 400.

Rubinstein has spent about two years developing the camera and has partnered with Canadian-based Ienso, a company that specializes in custom camera manufacturing. They completed their prototype within the last year and showcased it at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.

I spoke with Elle Schneider to get a better take on the project and their plans. I asked, “Why Bolex? It would seem to me that most of the users who are nostalgic for the original Bolex are older, like myself, and probably not in your main demographic.”

“To me, the history of the Bolex is less about nostalgia and more about, 'Hey, remember when products didn’t become obsolete in five years?'” says Schneider. “Those Bolex cameras that were made in the 1950s are still in operation today. It’s really about giving everyone a high-quality product. A lot of people are accusing us of just being hipsters—probably because of the relaxed, retro feel of our web site and camera design—but I want to create a product that, like the original Bolex, is easy and inviting. I’ve had so many friends growing up who might have been interested in the filmmaking process but were intimidated by the cameras that were available to us. I want this to look fun and comfortable—I want to make it so a 12-year-old could pick it up and go make something. I want it to be like your dad handed you the Bolex at the beach on a family vacation and you ran off and made a short movie—that’s the spirit we’re going for. There’s no reason filmmaking can’t be fun on an amateur level.”

The first 100 Digital Bolex D16 models should be ready to ship to Kickstarter investors in August, with the next run coming in around October. The camera is slated for a $3,300 price tag, which would seem near impossible for a 2K raw camera.

“One thing that helps us a lot with the price is the fact that we’re not trying to create new technology on our own,” explains Schneider. “We’re not trying to R&D everything from scratch; rather, we’re working with assembling the right existing technology. That will keep our cost way down. Joe is very passionate, as am I, about bringing good image quality to the masses. This kind of tool doesn’t really exist right now—and it should exist. Far too many people are shooting with the technology that they’re stuck with currently instead of pushing manufacturers to create better products at a more affordable price point. We’ve gotten so used to cameras only being provided by a few companies, and there’s a game we play with them that we take whatever they give us. Instead of dreaming up what we could have, we just get boxed into whatever they give us to use. I think some people have looked at us as a bit radical for trying to break out of that mold and offer a truly affordable digital cinema camera for the masses.”

It’s difficult not to compare the Digital Bolex path with RED’s ill-fated initial release, where significant promises were made without the ability to make good on them in the real world. Jim Jannard and RED took a near unprecedented step by beta testing publicly with the RED ONE, and they stumbled quite a bit in the beginning. Many camera enthusiasts online are speculating that Digital Bolex may be headed into the same territory, but without the generous financial backing that Jannard had to survive the speed bumps.

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Technical illustration of the final camera body, including crank

“The first 100 production cameras will go out to the Kickstarter donors, and, really, they will be our true beta testers,” Schneider attests. “Yes, it will be out in public—but I think that helps to build confidence in a new company. As opposed to us spending years in a vacuum creating what we think people want, we’re going to give people the chance to push the camera in ways we never dreamed of and tell us what they want and how we can improve the camera. We want to see the issues and fix the issues, not hide in secret and throw out a ‘final’ product and say, 'There you go.'”

One of the unique features of the Digital Bolex D16 is its hand crank. The original Bolex H16 was spring-driven, like a clock, and you had to wind a crank on the side of the camera to put tension on the spring before shooting. The D16 incorporates the crank as a means to control camera functions (exposure, focus, frame rates, etc.), but the camera will potentially offer the ability to hand-crank the video recording itself. Since the camera records in discrete, unique frames (DNG, TIFF or JPEG), it’s conceivable that the camera could be configured to record individual frames at whatever speed the operator is cranking away. This ability could create some really distinctive effects that harken back to the days of silent hand-cranked cameras at the dawn of cinema. It’s unclear if this feature will be integrated into the D16, but it’s on the wish list for sure.

The D16 will ship with a software suite to process the raw image sequence files. That software is currently in development.

I am looking forward to getting one of these new toys in my hands. When I do, I’ll just have to get my friends from the neighborhood together and “make a movie,” like the old days. That, undoubtedly, will be a lot of fun.



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