The development of digital motion picture cameras has presented the industry with its largest and most rapid change. For over a century the technology and equipment used has changed very little - and the changes seen have been gradual. In less that 8 years the entire production process and post-production process has been altered dramatically due to the invention of a viable film camera alternative. With these changes has come a rapid evolution of rig design and support equipment development. The photo above represents the past 30 years of predictable rig design and setup. A large bodied blimped 35mm camera on a large heavy-duty geared or fluid head - a heavy duty 19mm base-plate and rods, follow-focus, matte box and that's pretty much it. The photo below is one of nearly 100 different HD DV rig setups you can opt for. This rig is specifically designed for the Sony F35 HD Motion Picture Camera System and consists of a base-plate and 19mm rails system, studio follow-focus (studio follow focus systems have knobs on both sides of the lens), a robust custom-fitted support frame which doubles as a "CHEESE PLATE" (a cheese plate is covered with various female threaded ports for the easy attachment of additional gear), an external monitor, heavy duty top handle (makes moving the camera much easier), and a matte box with french flags and eyebrow. What is even more notable is that the ARRI system above cost nearly double what the F-35 system below cost. There is so much more functionality with the new CAD designed system below and the quality of the materials is the same. Something else to be aware of - the new system below uses the ARRI Dovetail standard and the ARRI 19mm Rod standard.
THE THIRD WAVE - ALWAYS WATCH FOR THAT THIRD WAVE... I have categorized the development of camera rigs and accessories into three (3) waves or eras. THE FIRST WAVE - From the 1950's until 2000 - the main camera manufacturers such as ARRI, Panavision, Aaton, Bolex, and MovieCAM were the main developers of accessories and tools for their cameras. Hollywood based camera rental and repair houses such as Alan Gordon Enterprises and Otto Nemenz also started developing specialized accessories for the camera systems they rented and sold. ARRI establishes the ARRI Dovetail/quick release base-plate system utilizing 19mm and 15mm rods. The ARRI Matte Box becomes the gold standard for professional cinema matte boxes, the ARRI Studio Follow Focus becomes the most widely used system. NEXT - CAD/CAM DESIGN IN GERMANY & NORTH AMERICA LEAD TO THE SECOND WAVE -
THE SECOND WAVE - (2000 - 2009) - In Germany and in North America (the USA and Canada) - several upstart manufacturing companies are started by former motion picture professionals - all feel that ARRI's domination of the marketplace for the better part of 40 years has left a void in innovation. In Germany, CHROSZIEL, GmbH started the development of light-weight ergonomic matte boxes. ARRI matte boxes had grown heavier and larger through the years. Chrosziel's matte boxes were durable and made of new space-age plastics and aircraft quality aluminum. They also featured a unique "Swing-Away" design that allowed the camera crew access to the change lenses without the requirement of removing the matte box first. In Ontario Canada - Cinevate, Inc. - started developing base-plates, follow-focus units and matte boxes, all made from lighter-weight materials and designed for broadcast TV crews and the film-maker on location. RedRock Micro (Dallas, TX) and Zacuto (Chicago, IL) started developing new rig components that allowed a film maker to "mix and match" parts and build their own customized rig. These companies used (and still use today) CAD (Computer Aided Design) and CNC (Computer Numeric Control) milling & machining to produce top-quality materials which are both durable and lightweight. During the Second Wave the cost of professional motion picture camera accessories did not really change. ARRI, who had a basic monopoly on both the design and retail of specialized camera accessories had always charged a premium for their products. During the second wave ARRI remained (and still remains to this day) the gold standard for quality and design. The newcomers, instead of challenging ARRI's market position by offering their products at a greatly reduced cost, adopted ARRI's pricing strategy, often only attempting to undercut ARRI's prices by only a few percent. There is a valid argument for why they chose to do this - the T3 and T6 aircraft aluminum, steel, and carbon composite materials each company was using were for all extents and purposes the same. Quality differences between them was negligible or non-existent. And the cost of owning and running a commercial/industrial CNC machine was extremely expensive - these were the early days of modern milling and machining... a 4-5 axis CNC machine was new technology and in itself cost a small fortune. Start up costs for these companies was incredibly high. It made sense to insert themselves into the existing marketplace variables instead of attempting to undercut their competition. NEXT - THE CHANGES IN THE CAMERA MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY THAT BROUGHT ABOUT THE THIRD WAVE IN ACCESSORY DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT -
In August of 2007 the first RED ONE camera system was delivered. Over 1000 professional directors of photography, studios, and camera rental houses had put deposits on the RED ONE in 2005 when it was announced. The RED ONE was the FIRST motion picture HD video camera with a full super-35mm sensor to capture video in 4K (4900 (h) x 2580 (v)) - roughly four (4) times the resolution of 1080HD video. What made the RED ONE even more astounding was its cost. The RED ONE body sold for $17,500. That's about $100,000 less than ARRI's flagship 35mm camera - the 535B ** The camera in the very first photo attached to this card. Add that the RED Camera Company offered a modular cheese-plate rail and base-plate system - for all extents and purposes - the first camera RIG system - as an accessory - the RED Camera Company declared war on ARRI & Panavision (the two reigning camera/lens makers in Hollywood) and ARRI specifically for its domination of the accessories market. ABOVE - As a Director of Photography I was invited to attend a 2-day RED ONE camera certification course in late 2009 and I jumped at it. The camera we used for the course was a version 2.0 RED ONE - with a new sensor (Mysterium) and an early version of a RED Camera Company lens - they were now offering lenses specifically designed to work with their cameras - utilizing the PL lens mount - which makes their lenses nearly universal in the motion picture camera arena. The PL - Positive Lock - lens mount system is the INDUSTRY STANDARD lens mount for motion picture and many TV broadcast cameras. The PL mount was developed by... wait for it... ARRI. Suddenly there was a rush online for used PL mount lenses and over night the cost of PL mount lenses doubled due to supply and demand - the RED ONE was a game-changer for Hollywood.
The camera that really changed everything and brought about the Third Wave in accessory design was the Canon 5D Mark II - This small-body Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera was able to shoot full super 35mm frame 1080p HD video, capture stereo sound, provide external HD viewing of the footage as it is being shot (video tap) and it accepted all of Canon's EOS professional lenses - at a street price of around $2,500. $15,000 less than the RED ONE. There were issues with the 5D that made shooting with it tricky - mainly a occurrence known as "rolling shutter". Having a single sensor with a relatively slow refresh rate - if anything you are filming moves quickly in the frame the image will distort because the speed at which the sensor captures the image is slower than the subject in the image is moving. This is a problem with single sensor cameras - most professional video systems have 3 phased sensors that capture data together to eliminate the distortion. This was about the only drawback and soon there were software fixes for rolling shutter that could be applied to footage in editing. A full camera rig outfitted with a Canon 5D Mark II - a professional lens, follow-focus, rods, base-plate, matte box, microphone and external monitor could be had for between $5,000 to $10,000 - depending on which matte box, follow-focus, and monitor you purchased. With the invention of affordable professional quality video cameras able to shoot viable cinematic footage (DOF & resolution - latitude or dynamic range in digital motion picture cameras still lags behind 35mm motion picture film but will soon catch up) the market demand for affordable camera accessories took off and before long the THIRD WAVE would begin with manufacturers from China and India flooding the market with a dizzying assortment of options. NEXT - THE THIRD WAVE - THE TRUTH ABOUT CHEAP CAMERA ACCESSORIES -
There is a big difference between "CHEAP" and "AFFORDABLE" - something every would-be amateur and professional videographer/cinematographer should understand. ABOVE - A high-quality - superbly finished Canon 5D cheese-plate cage and 15mm rod rig with lens support, dovetail base-plate and cheese-plate top-handle - The brand is SMALLRIG and the company is COOLLCD - located in Shenzhen, China. CAD designed, CNC milled using anodized aircraft T6 aluminum - there is ZERO quality difference between this rig (Cost as shown minus camera but including the lens support, base-plate, handle and rods - around $500) and a nearly identical design by USA company Zacuto (at over $2,000). Shenzhen is located on the coast of China just north of Hong Kong as is known as China's "Silicon Valley" for its modernized technology and manufacturing industry. COOLLCD utilizes the same CAD/CAM and CNC technologies that any of the established German and North American companies use. In the THIRD WAVE of motion picture camera accessory design and development (2010 - present) numerous companies have established entry positions in the marketplace. A notable entry into the North American marketplace is Wooden Camera - a Dallas, TX based manufacturer who has aggressively pursued new designs which are customized to specific camera models as they are launched. They are quick to design and develop high-quality - highly functional accessories and get them into the marketplace ahead of their competition. They are on the high-end of price, more on par with Zacuto and Chrosziel. There are several companies producing "entry-level" accessories that offer quality and functionality for a fraction of the cost of products from the SECOND WAVE manufacturers. In China there is Nicna Digital Image International Holding Company of Hong Kong - whose Fotga line of matte boxes, follow-focuses, base-plates and rods are highly affordable and considering their entry level price are extremely well made. I have tested a $250 Fotga DP3000 Follow-Focus model against a $1200 Zacuto follow-focus and sincerely, they are identical in quality and function - they differ in design - but that is not a factor. I mentioned COOLLCD above - their base-plates, rods, rail-blocks, and cheese plates are in my opinion finished better than any of the RedRock Micro parts I've used and they are 1/3 the price. By opening yourself up to buying directly from a foreign manufacturer you can save an enormous amount of cost that is added by retailers and middle-men (distributors). YOU DO NEED TO PAY ATTENTION to the import tax laws of your country - in the USA anything from China UNDER $250 in value isn't taxed. Do a search online and see if you can find official information for import taxes to be sure. This is also not to say that there are not companies from China or even the USA or Germany that will not take your money and never send you anything. Fraud is a very common occurrence online. I can say that I've dealt directly with COOLLCD and they have been some of the most courteous and professional people I've ever dealt with and their products are brilliant. NEXT - SOMETIMES YOU PAY FOR WHAT YOU GET -
I think that honesty is the best policy. I have no horses in the making of camera accessories race - so the only reason I will say that one product is great quality and another product is horrible quality is because I have owned them and had first-hand experience with them. That being said, do not EVER waste your time or money purchasing any sort of "professional" camera accessories or cinematography equipment from the following companies - ironically all of which seem to be owned by the same individual or group - located in Punjab, India = CineCity Manufacturing - also sold as Pro-Aim, FilmCity, and CineCity. If you search Ebay for camera or film equipment, especially DSLR Rigs or Cinema Rigs - you will be assaulted by dozens upon dozens of listings by the companies mentioned above. Curious as to how these companies could offer what appeared to be decent - nice - gear for such incredibly low prices - I decided to buy a rod quick-release base-plate from them to see if their products were in fact a deal that was too good to be true. I realized I may be throwing $50 out the window, but I figured why not? The item took over a month to arrive from India. And I have to tell you... it was the most pathetic thing I've ever seen. Die cast out of what I have to assume is the cheapest form of aluminum alloy made by man and cast in such horrible, inconsistent, ill-fitting molds. The images above tell the story. I might as well have burnt the $50 in my fireplace. The finish quality was worn when I got it. The bolts stripped out in the threads and the threads in the sad cheese plate stripped as well. Garbage. It wasn't anything like the photo. Their attempt at customer service was - "you got what you ordered now go away." A couple of months later a friend of mine, another DP, just gave me a matte box made by Pro-Aim. It was plastic and cheap... I mean dollar-store stuff is made better. The filter trays were plastic, even the screws that held the whole thing together were plastic. It was as if they purchased a real Cinevate (their matte boxes oddly look identical to Cinevate's matte boxes) and then took it apart - making molds of every piece - then casting the entire thing in plastic from recycled garbage bags or something. BOTTOM LINE - CINECITY / PRO-AIM / FILMCITY products should be avoided at all costs. They are NOT worth the money. BELOW - CHINESE MANUFACTURING HAS CAUGHT UP WITH THE US AND GERMANY IN REGARDS TO CAD/CAM/CNC CAMERA ACCESSORIES -
There are many places you can purchase cinema rig accessories in the USA - and many of the manufacturers make outstanding gear - but once I held a $200 RedRock Micro rail block next to a $50 COOLLCD rail block (in the image above) and found the COOLLCD model to be nicer - I was sold. CHINA IS ASCENDING - because Chinese manufacturers like COOLLCD are taking the time to build their business right. They are focused on customer service (I got my order from them in 4 days) - they were courteous and professional - offering me the tracking information the day they shipped my items - less than 24 hours after I ordered them (they are 15 hours ahead of my time zone), and they sent me products that after my experience with Pro-Aim (India) I was sincerely thrilled with the quality, design, finish, etc... They are focused on quality products - from design to materials used to finish and fit - I've only had outstanding experiences with Chinese-made products in the creation of my ultimate rigs. I have purchased Chinese-Made Cinema/Photography equipment by three separate Chinese companies - the ONLY one I've purchased directly from is COOLLCD. And I will order from them again - I wouldn't hesitate to. They make great products. I have purchased a dozen different products by Shenzhen manufacturer SUNWAYFOTO - from their US distributor in Oregon. I've not dealt with SUNWAYFOTO directly, but I will tell you that for high-end still photography equipment using the ARCA-SWISS standard for heads, plates, dovetails, rails, gimbal, and panorama heads - SUNWAYFOTO makes products that are on par with the best USA manufacturers - such as REALLY RIGHT STUFF - 150 miles north of me in San Luis Obispo, CA at half the price. The last is FOTGA - I purchased second-hand here in the US from a co-worker in the film industry. I purchased a rod/base-plate/dovetail/lens support/follow-focus system made by FOTGA - and I have to tell you it is again on par quality wise with RedRock Micro. FOTGA is one of the ONLY cinema accessory manufacturers to create a 15mm rod system that interfaces with the still photography ARCA-SWISS dovetail standard. A VERY forward-thinking move in my opinion. If FOTGA is the cheaper - more affordable product coming out of China - and SUNWAYFOTO and COOLLCD represent the high-end product coming out of China - the makers of these items here in the USA are in serious trouble. These three Chinese manufacturers have totally sold me on the quality and functionality of their products. What's even more exciting (I mean beyond the high quality and reasonable pricing) is that these companies - COOLLCD in particular - are OPEN TO LISTENING TO YOUR NEEDS and they are willing to customize, alter their product designs to build better, more utilitarian products. Using products from THESE THREE COMPANIES - I have constructed a custom DSLR RIG that works for both still photography and cinematography without the need for me to waste time tearing down and building a new rig configuration... but I'll get to that in PART III - Here is a peek at what I've built using SmallRig/CoolLCD, Sunwayfoto, and Fotga parts.
Photography & Cinematography 101 - © Jon Patrick Hyde 2015