Cinematographer Pawel Achtel ACS designs and builds from scratch a 65-million megapixel cinema camera – by Pawel Achtel ACS
Whilst we have experienced a fast pace of technological improvement in the quality for mainstream cinema, we have not seen the same rate of technological advancement in Giant Screen and IMAX cinemas. In fact, we have seen some IMAX screens reduced in size and many recent films have lower resolution and are not as sharp, leaving some of the audiences wanting more. With these changes have we lost the grandeur and high ground that those cinemas once stood for?
Giant Screen and IMAX Cinema has been my focus for the past twenty years. This medium is different from traditional cinema and television in many ways. One difference is the aspect ratio, 4:3, meaning most digital footage needs to be either cropped or vertically extended in post-production. Another is the resolution, where 8K is an absolute minimum and even then it is not enough for some of the largest screens. Those two requirements make all currently available digital cinema cameras poorly fit for purpose. The only solution was to create and build a camera specifically designed for the Giant Screen filmmakers. A camera that would give the cinematographers the confidence that each and every frame conveys powerful emotions, perfect skin tones, crisp detail and the legendary sweeping grandeur of large format cinematography. A modern replacement for 15-perf 70mm IMAX film.
Building a camera is an expensive process. Many years of working closely with other cinematographers in the industry enabled me to understand and create a tool that would satisfy the functionality and demands they required. Achieving a camera that has significantly higher definition than other cameras can deliver is no easy task. I quickly realised that I needed to solve a range of problems, some of which closely approached the limits of current technology and physics.
Not only did hundreds of problems need to be solved, I also needed to find the right ‘bits and pieces’. After an extensive search for parts, I came across an 8K, 4:3 large-format sensor, which had some of the characteristics I was looking for.
Very soon I figured out that, at those resolutions and desired frame rates of at least 60 frames-per-second, it was not possible to compress or otherwise process the amount of data coming from the sensor board and be able to save it to traditional non-volatile memory with the quality that I wanted. The processing power required was simply too large and would require a fridge-sized supercomputer and even then, it would be too slow.
I took a different approach. Rather than processing or compressing the data in the camera, why not to just write it to the disk as uncompressed RAW and worry about processing later? This approach enabled not just the critical image quality benefits I was after, but also flexibility in the workflow processing. This is when the blue-print for 9×7 camera was created.
Fast forward to 2020, a newer, more advanced, cleaner, faster and higher resolution sensor became available. It had 65-megapixel resolution, low noise, high dynamic range, superb colour reproduction and was capable of capturing at more than 60 frames-per-second with true global shutter. While the sensor was a ‘dream come true’, the higher speed and resolution also blew my blueprint for fast storage out of the water. How do I store 10GB/s reliably to disk? That’s about thirty times the recording bandwidth of RED Monstro. Knowing how much RED talked about the challenges associated with writing about 300 MB/s to REDMAGs reliably, I knew this would be no easy hurdle. There is currently no media that can sustain such data rate, not even close.
Interest among cinematographers was growing and pressure mounting to develop and deliver the 9×7 with its major enhancements for giant screen. It was nicknamed 9×7, due to its native resolution being just over 9K wide and 7K tall and boasting twice the pixel count of the highest commercially available large format digital cinema cameras.
My leisure activity and time to ponder was over. The 9×7 was catapulted to the top of my priority list with all the unsolved maths, physics, electronics, optics, engineering, colour science and software programming puzzles yet to be realised. I was feeling confident as I had about ninety-five percent of the answers, at least in theory, but the remaining five percent was a significant risk. Listening to experienced cinematographers, the 9×7 had to deliver tangible results such as dynamic range, colour science, compatibility and workflow, the 9×7 needed to have all key features including RAW histogram, focusing aids, analytics, instrumentation, diagnostics, processing software and in a small form factor allowing 3D configurations and integration with MOCO control signals and hardware.
Let us take a moment to look at what you get with the 9×7. You get perfect colour accuracy, wide colour-gamut, high dynamic range, low-light sensitivity, low noise, high frame rates, accurate skin-tones and rich hues and gradations, but most notably, extremely sharp images much the same as the human eye sees that strikingly exceed the industry’s gold standard 15-perf 70mm IMAX film
Sharpness and detail reproduction is another area where numbers just don’t tell the full story. Whilst technically this is a 65 Megapixel camera, from pixel design right to the uncompressed RAW format, there are many innovative improvements along the line which deliver incredible sharpness and micro-contrast. By ‘incredible’, I mean there are only a handful of lenses out there that can actually match this sharpness, and a 9×7 camera is already diffraction limited at f/4.0. To put it in perspective, when setting up a medium shot of a person I can clearly see a different focus mark on the base of the eyelash and on the tip of the eyelash. Any advice from fellow cinematographers what I should lock my focus to, and how? The camera is so sharp that the limitation are only in available optics, focusing skills and laws of physics.
How is it to film with 9×7? For me, it is tantalising. Having a camera that has all of the features and image quality I dreamt about is, literally, a dream come true. I can customise it any way I like without proprietary restrictions, formats, connectivity or limitations. Thanks to our friends at ARRI Australia, I was able to test the camera with Signature Prime lenses. I was nicely surprised how beautifully those lenses rendered on 9×7 and, to my delight, they actually do deliver the sharpness matching that of the 9×7 to the pixel. The images were natural-looking with incredible sharpness, rich colour and detail, but also smooth, subtle with pleasing highlight roll-off and clean deep shadows detail. The camera delivers great low-light capabilities, with just a candlelight or moonlight enough to produce clean, vibrant and captivating images.
The 9×7 was inspired by new technology, serendipity and generous support from fellow cinematographers. It has all the features Giant Screen filmmakers were looking for and, in many ways, it exceeds those expectations beyond the ordinary. The 9×7 is the key for Giant Screen and IMAX Cinema to once again regain the high ground and deliver the breathtaking cinema experience that it once enjoyed.
Pawel Achtel ACS is a cinematographer and inventor specialising in 8K and 3D technologies. He was awarded an ACS Gold Tripod in 2016 for his film ‘Sea of Love’.