Blackmagic Design's Film Scanner and the 4K Future
COW Library : Blackmagic Design : Kylee Peña : Blackmagic Design's Film Scanner and the 4K Future
"It's an odd thing to think about a film scanner coming out in 2014." I heard that from more than a few people at NAB 2014, including Blackmagic Design President Dan May -- right after the company had just unveiled their new Cintel Film Scanner in all its wall-mounted glory. It scans to UltraHD in real-time over ThunderBolt 2, it's about the weight of a flat-screen television, and it's a fraction of the price of the last Cintel film scanning product.
Why film? Who is shooting film anymore? Why are you releasing digital cinema cameras alongside a film scanner? Are you crazy? As it turns out, not so much. In fact, Blackmagic is thinking ahead about sourcing the future of media with the past.
The Cintel Film Scanner
"We have a lot of products designed to create new Ultra HD (UHD) content (3840x2160), between the cameras, the switchers, the recorders, and of course Resolve on the other end to color grade it all. Where the scanner fits in is to create even more UHD content by using existing assets. As crazy as it looks for the digital cinema camera company to come up with a film scanner, it's just another vehicle to be used to make more UHD content for the home viewer," explained Bob Caniglia, Senior Regional Manager for Blackmagic Design. Those existing assets? Television and movies shot on 35mm film over the last thirty years.
But when Blackmagic Design purchased Cintel about two years ago, the scanner wasn't the main goal. Cintel, a British company founded in 1927, has had a long history in the cinema and television world: providing cathode ray tubes in World War II, the first 35mm continuous motion flying spot telecine in 1946, and innovations in telecine and scanning in SD then HD image capturing through 2005. And Blackmagic CEO Grant Petty, once a telecine engineer, was familiar with the vast depth of Cintel's cinematic intellectual property, so acquiring Cintel was a logical decision in crafting new film tools, and the scanner was one intriguing piece of the company.
Blackmagic Design's Singapore post-production facility even had one of Cintel's first DiTTo film scanning machines, a multi-million dollar investment at the time. Caniglia elaborated: "Grant's idea, especially in light of the development of UHD for TVs, was since there's a lot of 35mm film out there that's been shot, whether it's old television shows or movies, if we could build a real-time scanner that could just take the film, scan it and make UHD content from it, then that would be a great way to source the new TV channels as they need content." Much cheaper than those million dollar film scanning machines, or the thousand dollars plus per hour post houses charged to use them.
In fact, UHD televisions are on the rise in the wild. While the online debate seems to continue about whether the consumer needs 4K in the home or not, a number of researchers are predicting the faster-than-anticipated adoption of UHD in the home anyway, with UK-based consultancy Futuresource forecasting that 42% of flat panel sales will be 4K sets by 2018. "Faster-than-anticipated" seems to be the trend for 4K, with Japan-based broadcasters expecting to launch 4K and 8K playout much sooner than even they originally expected and Netflix recently announcing they've already begun streaming limited 4K content.
The Blackmagic Design Booth at NAB 2014, courtesy Robb Cohen / NAB.
Which makes a product like the Cintel Film Scanner even more well-timed, and therefore more awesome: rather than having these sets upscaling HD for us (which is kinda cool), we'll have actual UHD content to see (which is really cool). Right now it's House of Cards and some nature documentaries. A year after the Cintel Film Scanner ships, maybe it'll be seasons one through nine of Seinfeld.
Wait, why Seinfeld? Well, it was a pretty big deal when the show was originally rescanned for high-definition broadcast, and that didn't happen all that long ago. In 2009 -- yeah, five years ago -- channels started broadcasting all reruns of the show in HD, rather than upscaling and stretching old 4:3 episodes. Now when you watch a rerun of a 90s sitcom in syndication -- Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers -- they're all in pristine 16:9 high-definition, even though they were shot in 1994.
That's because many of these shows (and even older shows and movies) were shot on super 35mm film and cropped to 4:3 in post-production for standard-definition broadcast. Shooting on film was often the go-to since video wasn't as robust (and really looked like video), so there's quite a lot of film and television sitting around on 16mm or 35mm film.
And a lot of it is STILL just sitting around, because the process of scanning to HD has been slow and expensive for a long time, with a 22 episode season of a television show costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to scan and finish. Right now, you can probably think of a Blu-ray you wish existed, but STILL doesn't in 2014 (The Abyss is seriously not on Blu-ray yet? Star Trek The Motion Picture only came out last year? Where is the nerd rage?).
Because it's still been too expensive for studios to justify spending the time and money to dig out film to scan. Caniglia added, "They probably cherry picked most of the stuff of what they wanted to show you, but maybe we can go back to some of the older stuff. That would be even cooler to see some of the older shows. I think the other thing is that when you have companies like Netflix and some of the other online providers, their desire to have a huge library on-demand type viewing would increase the need to do more and more of this type of scanning."
The device outputs a RAW log file via Thunderbolt 2, which you can make RGB or YUV, ProRes 4K being YUV for UHD content. Currently, it will come with a software application similar to ImageMill in Cintel's products, which includes grain-reduction and image-stablilization (previously an add-on box worth over $150,000). There are plans to integrate it more with DaVinci Resolve over time, but right now, it can even capture up to 30 fps to a laptop.
The only other thing to do on the device is threading the film itself, which is a lot different than the film scanners of the dark ages of post production which basically shipped with an engineer who needed to unpack, set up and test the machine, then teach everyone to use it properly. Described by many as "big" "clunky" and "loud", these scanners were an example of everything not to do for Blackmagic's new take on the product.
This scanner does have room presence for sure. For something that was originally intended as a technology demo, it's a visual show-stealer. I watched more people taking selfies with the scanner than I did any other product on the NAB show floor, which is endearingly adorable. And that's great, because part of Blackmagic's mission was to create something that looked good. Another goal: a film scanner that would fit through a doorway. Although the diTTO film scanner was marketed as a "tabletop scanner", as Caniglia said, "it'd have to be a pretty big table top."
I watched more people taking selfies with the scanner than I did any other product on the NAB show floor!
These machines, which needed to be disassembled to move in between rooms, were often a million dollars or more, not including that engineer that needed to monitor it. And when someone was operating it, the room would shake. Caniglia said, "the first time I saw [the Cintel Film Scanner] and it had film in it, the first thing I did was put my hand on the back to feel the vibration, or lack thereof. And that was the part that I was like 'wow, how did you guys do this.' And I realized it's because a lot of the guys that designed scanners over time were film guys, and not really industrial design guys."
In addition to previous Cintel employees, many of the people working on Blackmagic Design's products focus on industrial design and come from all industries. Rather than paying attention specifically to the functions of what the film needs inside the scanner, they work on the idea of creating a product that meets certain parameters and uses new kinds of mechanics to meet those goals, in a broader sense. The blend of function and aesthetic has become more of a focus, including the idea of building a scanner that is light enough to mount on a wall.
"That's funny because it really was one of Grant's goals. He was like 'wouldn't it just be cool to hang one of these in a color grading room'.... [H]e said he wanted it flatter, but the film has to rest so it has to be on an angle," said Caniglia. He also added: " I don't know that anyone would put it on an articulating arm, but that would be kinda cool too."
Blackmagic says that the scanner was not designed with very old or low quality film in mind, but considering it was a tech demo, there are more tests to be done and feedback to receive on the product before it ships. Even so, given the drive and resourcefulness of Blackmagic's customers, it's difficult to imagine the impact of the product on the film industry.
May added, "We realize that not everybody is going to buy it, but it is a really important part of a workflow that fills out and will continue to fill out our overall 'what is Blackmagic?' We want to have all these pieces that say we're creating content. We're doing live content, we're taking old content, we're able to kind of enable everybody to have something to be able to do content generation, and it looks great."
(It DOES look great, and so will my Friends reruns in UHD!)