Elle Schneider is part of the team behind the Digital Bolex D16, a video camera project that has stirred up excitement in the DIY filmmaker community and a quarter of a million dollars on Kickstarter. She is not what you might expect from a start-up trying to push the digital filmmaking revolution into its next phase: a small young woman with blond bangs who you might find at a casting call for “bookish barista girl”. Combating that sort of shorthand thinking is one of Schneider’s motivations for working on the D16.
“When I started freelancing,” said the USC film school trained Schneider, “which was tail end of 2010, really beginning of 2011 and all of 2011 I found a huge problem in getting work because I was a girl. There’s an assumption that because you’re female you don’t know how to do anything technical, and it just sort of is assumed incompetence…other than a couple of documentary gigs here and there I just wasn’t getting much work.”
The big barrier, Schneider told me, is that as a beginning cinematographer you’re trapped in a catch-22. Productions want to hire directors of photography, or DPs, who have their own equipment, but without paying work, that equipment is impossible to acquire.
“I had many jobs where it was: ‘Your reel is fantastic but you don’t have the jib arm, and I want the DP that comes with the jib arm.’ That’s what it comes down to,” said Schneider. Before Schneider joined cinematographer Joe Rubinstein’s quest to bring a relatively inexpensive professional caliber digital camera to market, she saw how that conundrum worked from the producer’s side as well.
“I was on pre-production for an action short and I was looking for DPs. I put an ad on Craigslist and I got 300 responses and it was not surprising to me that some of the people who had the best gear also had the worst reels, because its just people who have the money that can go out and buy the stuff.” Deep pockets standing in for talent, an affliction that can be seen at nearly every level of the film industry.
Lowering equipment costs levels the playing field for young filmmakers, and that has a positive effect for those who have traditionally been at the margins of the industry.
“Having a female filmmaker who has access to these tools in an affordable way,” said Schneider that would allow for many many more DPs and directors to make projects which they currently can’t make.”
MUCH MORE THAN SHINY
Schneider hopes that the D16 can help level the playing field for filmmakers who want their work to stand up to scrutiny in a market that has become more and more competitive on the level of image quality. The D16 will shoot images at a resolution beyond that of the DSLR cameras that have become the entry level cameras for DIY filmmakers.
The camera shoots in what’s known as RAW format. The simple version: it’s the unprocessed information right off the camera’s sensor, as opposed to more compact formats like jpegs. While this yields a higher quality of image to work with, it also means a much bigger file and calls for a round of digital processing before editing software can work on the footage.
To that end, the Digital Bolex team is working with software engineers to create a transcoding work flow (a way to get the images into editors like Final Cut) that won’t intimidate first timers. Schneider also revealed that Rubinstein has an ambitious vision of what the software side could be: an emulation of actual 16mm film development, but acknowledges that the vision might be out of reach at present.
That notion speaks to another aspect of the D16′s appeal. The camera isn’t just named after the legendary 16mm film camera manufacturer Bolex, but bears that company’s blessing. The camera body emulates the style of the classic cameras, right down to the hand crank. Nor is the crank just for show: in the D16 it becomes a programmable interface which can adjust audio volume, focus and other features.
“We’ve gotten a lot of comments on the body: ‘I don’t know how much of a work horse this will be. I don’t know how professional it is if it’s shiny.’ Well that’s the reason that its shiny: because we want anyone to pick it up and not feel intimidated by it,” said Schneider. “We’ve been accused of pandering to hipsters because it has a retro look to it but it’s also: when was the last time you guys got a well designed ergonomic camera?…we paid a lot of attention to the design and how to hold it and stabilize it.”
Between the classic styling and the hunger in the DIY community for cameras that can output high quality images at a fraction of the cost of cameras studios use, it’s not that surprising the D16 project met its funding goals. What does surprise is the speed with which it happened. The project blew past its funding goal in just 48 hours, and the 100 cameras that were available for pre-order all but sold out in that same time.
Schneider points to an early endorsement by DIY film guru Philip Bloom as being instrumental to the explosive success of the project. It also doesn’t hurt that both she and Rubinstein put together a smart marketing assault in the form of a debut at SXSW, a well built website, and an approach to the pitch that puts storytelling over tech talk. After all, with a group of people as passionate as the camera community they’re bound to pick apart the technical details on their own. Rounds and rounds of blog and forum posts have proven this to be true, some of them crossing the lines into angry personal attacks.
Schneider said they were ready to defend their tech specs online, but admits she was caught off guard by some of the anger displayed by a few critics.
Aside from filmmakers, there’s another community angle to the tale. That of Kickstarter itself. There’s a dawning awareness amongst creators on the site that wildly successful projects have the opportunity to plow some of their success back into the wider ecosystem. As more projects are successful, the reputation of the site, and thus the whole community, rises as well. Game developer Brian Fargo has put together a movement in the gaming community on Kickstarter dubbed “Kicking It Forward”, in which devs are pledging five percent back to other projects in the community.
Rubinstein has already been an active member of the Kickstarter community, having backed 51 projects already. “Everything from the TikTok to a giant adult sized big wheel,” said Schnieder, “which is yet to show up at his doorstep, but I’m curious to see it when it arrives.” She called her business partner “a Kickstarter fiend; he’s donated thousands of dollars to Kickstarter campaigns.”
Yet the majority of the projects he’s back haven’t been at quite the same scale, unit price wise, as the D16. Schnieder believes that the D16 has the highest average donation of any Kickstarter project. [A request to verify this was not returned by Kickstarter at press time.] The raw average balances out at $625 per backer, which doesn’t tell the real story.
While over 300 of the projects 412 backers (at press time) have come in with pledges under $100, the real money has been made on the pre-orders. 80 of them at $2500 and 13 at $3500. Rubinstein and Schnieder used the limited reward number option to control what they’d have to produce on the initial run. They also set the project goal at less than half the maximum possible pre-order amount ($100K vs. $270K). It is a strategy that has paid off.
REVOLUTIONS ARE 360 DEGREES
The D16 will do more than offer filmmakers a chance to shoot at 2K for just over $3000 when it hits the market; it will also give them a set of limitations to work against. The large file format of RAW means that the D16 will eat memory cards like they were Pop Rocks. While this seems to fly in the face of everything digital stands for, Schnieder sees creative and financial advantages.
“I only was able to shoot video at film school and that sucked. You see people do take after take after take. People who don’t understand how to direct actors, so you have to keep going, because they don’t know how to change it up. I think teaching schedules and shooting smaller amounts of footage is a really good thing, something that people could get back to. It’s great to have the safety of digital that you can just keep shooting, but the thing is once you get to the point where you have to preserve all this digital footage it becomes rather expensive and difficult to store. In some ways those costs can be similar to the cost of shooting film. A lot of people don’t take that into account.”
The promise of the D16 is that of a romantic revolution. A return to some of the ways of the past– the Bolex body, smaller “film loads” that lead to greater discipline– alongside with a broadening of access to high end equipment. The response Rubinstein and Schneider have elicited from the DIY film community shows that the dream of a broadly based digital cinema is very much alive, and restlessly looking for a way to come true.