Work In Progress: The Digital Bolex Camera Is A Crowdfunded Filmmaking Revolution

<p>Filmmakers Joe Rubinstein and Elle Schneider explain the process behind remixing a classic camera that captures high-quality image for an affordable price.</p>

Most filmmakers and film students know the Bolex name. The Swiss company’s classic 16mm film cameras have been used by artists and tinkerers for over eight decades to capture everything from narrative films to news footage to experimental animation. Bolex has become synonymous with film—the physical stuff you buy on 100 foot rolls. The relentless march of progress hasn’t been kind to such companies. I, like the rest of the community, presumed that Bolex had either fizzled into obscurity or would be gone soon enough.

I would have been right, too, if not for the efforts of Joe Rubinstein and Elle Schneider, two filmmakers out of Los Angeles who had the wild idea to build a digital camera that is portable, shoots high quality raw footage and sports a ton of character to boot. With the blessing of the company that has been giving filmmakers a voice for generations, the duo launched a Kickstarter campaign at SXSW this year to get the word out about their passion project: The Digital Bolex.

Within 24 hours they raised the $100,000 they were asking for. After three days, they surpassed the $250,000 needed to build a post-production software solution. The Digital Bolex is now on schedule to ship in August.

I got in touch with Joe and Elle to see how the project is coming along and discuss their process going into making this unique camera. The team has had some ups and downs as they’ve been working on it, but one thing is for sure: they’ve gotten the attention of filmmakers and cameramakers alike. That, in and of itself, is something that should benefit us all.

How long had the Digital Bolex been in the works leading up to SXSW?
Joe: I’d been working hard on it for about nine months, but I probably had the idea for it and was working on it up to two years before that. I used to have a photo booth company called Polite in Public and we created these free-standing photo kiosks that have a professional DSLR in them, professional balanced strobe lights and a Mac Mini with a touch-screen computer. Basically, somebody who knows nothing about photography can set one up and take pictures at an event.

I wanted to create a video booth. My process dealt heavily with raw, so I wanted to find a camera that was under $10,000 that would allow me to shoot 24 raw frames a second. I realized it just didn’t exist, so I started researching companies because we’d made a lot of our own technology before. As I started doing that research I realized that, if I can pull this off, a lot of other people will be interested in this also. So I just started networking with other people, other companies and ended up at SXSW with Bolex, an electronics company called Ienso and a whole bunch of other people attached to the project that could make it happen in a really good way.

Elle: I started working on the project last August. Joe and I met just after Comic-Con last year, which seems kind of crazy because of how much we’ve been working on this project in the past year and how far it’s gotten.

Do you both identify as filmmakers?
Elle: Both of us went to film school and have a deep interest in film. We shot the first film on the new camera together, and we’re going to be doing another film in the fall. We’re interested in producing or helping other filmmakers use our camera to create films as well.

Joe: I was a Director of Photography for about seven years after college. I think I identify more as a producer, so if you consider producers filmmakers, then I identify as a producer-filmmaker.

What was your plan with Kickstarter? Was it your whole business plan?
Elle: Unlike a lot of the other projects that are up there, it was really sort of towards the end of our developments. We had to have all of our ducks in a row to get to the Kickstarter campaign. In a lot of ways, it was a way to prove to the people we’re working with that there is a market for this camera. I work on a lot of lower budget films and music videos. It’s always an issue with these current cameras that they never seem to really upgrade them in a way that filmmakers want. They sort of raise the bottom line and that’s it. So Kickstarter, especially with how fast the camera sold out, really enabled us to show everyone that this is a market that’s being sorely overlooked.

Joe: In order to make this camera as efficiently as I could and at the quality level that I wanted, I decided that I was going to partner with the electronics company that I had chosen to do the research and development work on it. I felt like if they were a part of the company, they would be more interested in making a better product in a more timely fashion. The business plan included me raising money on Kickstarter and proving the market, showing them that this is something that people really want.

I guess that worked.
Joe: It worked and they were very happy with the results. They said, ‘Well, you know, for you to make a camera in this price range for consumers, you really need it to have some H.264 in there, maybe some MPEG,' some of these compression schemes that make it easy to put stuff on the Internet. I said, ’No. This is not what this camera should be. This camera should be this other thing, this digital film camera.’ The deal was if I raised $200,000 on Kickstarter, then I get to make the camera my way. And if I didn’t, then we would make the camera however they want to make it.

Elle: A lot of the reaction we got was this incredulity. People in the camera community kind of just get stuck in this mindset that the only cameras you can get are the ones that the big companies are giving you and you have to amend your shooting style and the features you want to whatever companies like Canon happen to give you. I think that everyone was very, at first, shocked that we were attempting to do this, and then of course pleasantly surprised.

Like Stu Maschwitz at Prolost?
Elle: According to our Kickstarter statistics, I’m pretty sure we sold more cameras on Kickstarter because of Stu's blog than because of Philip Bloom’s. We’ve always been very open with anyone who has asked us questions since the very beginning. I think Stu really appreciated that. The fact that we had that discourse with him and he was able to vet us really helped. I don’t think I called him a ‘hater’ [Ed. Note: she did] but I had this Twitter back and forth with him for a little bit before he posted that blog. I think people appreciate our being able to take the questions and respond to them and make ourselves clear as to who we are and what we are doing.
Joe: We’re both big fans of Stu’s. I think that between him and Philip Bloom we owe a large debt of gratitude for sure.
Elle: Yeah. Stu has been very influential on this particular price level of filmmaker for a very long time. I read his DV Rebel’s Guide back in college. For a long time pre-DSLR, that was kind of the bible for low-budget action filmmaking. Even though he was a little skeptical at first, I was geeking out over the fact that he posted about us in the first place.

Is it the DSLR crowd that the Digital Bolex is trying to fill a void for?
Elle: As someone who ran out and bought a 7D as soon as they were available, when Canon decided to add that HD video capability, it really changed the low-budget landscape. It allowed people to use actual Canon lenses instead of having to go and get these very expensive 35mm adapters to get that filmic look or even having to make your own or buy DIY 35mm adapters like I did. It suddenly allowed all this freedom. But in return, it took a while for the magic to wear off and people to realize, hey, it’s now three years later and there hasn’t been significant improvement on the image quality of these things.

One thing that I talk to people about a lot is that everyone thinks it’s so great when this camera or that camera comes out that has an EF [Canon lens] mount. The thing is that people don’t use DSLRs from Canon because they’re in love with Canon. They use them because of the price point, and if they’re going to use those cameras, they have to use the Canon lenses. And then they’ve invested so much into that package that it becomes hard for them to even branch out into other cameras.

The Digital Bolex will ship with a C Mount, correct?
Elle: It ships with a C mount but the entire front plate of the camera comes off and is interchangeable. We’re working on at least five different mounts. We said on our Kickstarter that if we raise over $250,000, then everybody who buys a camera will also get an additional mount, which will be at first EF or PL [Arri]. We’re also working on M [Leica], Micro Four Thirds [Panasonic and Olympus], and B4. We want to do a turret, like the old Bolexes have so you can have three lenses on at the same time. We’ll do Nikon if we’re able to. We want to make this camera as versatile as possible so that everyone can use newer and older equipment on it.

And it definitely has a pistol grip?
Elle: Oh yeah.
Joe: The pistol grip, of course, comes off if you want to mount the camera on a tripod.
Elle: If you want to blame someone for retro-fying the camera a bit, a lot of that blame falls on me. I originally got the idea for fancifying our pistol grip from seeing this Bolex called the Macrozoom that everybody loathes. And the crank idea was also stolen from that Bolex.

I’m glad the Digital Bolex doesn’t look like an H16.
Elle: We wanted this to be as ergonomic as possible. A lot of the cameras out there today using CMOS sensors, you really have to put a lot of focus on keeping the image stable so that you don’t get any rolling shutter. We just want it to be a fun thing you can actually take with you and run around with.

How many Digital Bolexes are in use right now?
Joe: There are a couple of different prototypes that we have. They all do different things, but there isn’t a single prototype that does all of what the camera will do. Hopefully very soon there will be.

Is the Digital Bolex just for filmmakers?
Elle: One of the reasons video cameras had compression in the first place is because it was not feasible to record in raw. But now the disk space is catching up and I think people prefer shooting without compression. Joe likes to mention that ten years ago you didn’t really have any raw shooting cameras. Now, even the dinkiest little point and shoot has a raw photo setting on it. The reason is because we now have the disk space. There’s no reason why someone who’s interested in having the highest quality capture for whatever they’re doing shouldn’t be able to do that here.

Joe: We’re both big fans of the Arri Alexa. My intention was to create what I think Bolex was in the 1960s, kind of like an Arri lite. Most film students don’t get access to an Alexa. They get these DSLRs or lesser cameras and film schools say, ‘This has nothing to do with the Arri Alexa, which is actually what you’re going to use, but learn on this in the meantime.’ The workflow is completely different, the look is completely different, the ergonomics are completely different. What I wanted to do was create something that you could learn on that had a similar workflow that had a similar feel to the footage. The color profiles between our camera and the Arri Alexa will match, so if you build a color profile on our camera you can use it on the Arri Alexa and vice versa.

Elle: You hear the cliché'ed story from filmmakers that they had their dad’s film camera that they used in the backyard to make their first film with their friends. That’s something they were able to do on a Bolex or on a film camera fifty years ago because the quality that you could actually get out of that 16mm or 8mm film camera was pretty damn good. A point and shoot or a camcorder, you can’t really make a theatrical film on a camera like that. There’s a psychology to it that you don’t feel like what you’re making is real or that it doesn’t have the capacity to reach a wide audience because of the format it’s on. I think that it’s really important for young people that want to become filmmakers to have access to something that they can feel confident when creating with it.

I’ve met a lot of students who seem quite confident that their H.264 films are the best films ever made.
Elle: (laughs)

Joe: To me it’s a completely scary prospect, to try to go from DSLR filmmaking to ‘the real world.’ It’s scary.