Jean-Pierre Beauvialla is a bit of a hero of mine.
I was first introduced to him by my mentor John Bowring ACS. Around the late 90’s I was lucky enough to shoot a lot of the initial test footage with a then prototype super 16 camera Aaton were working on.
The A-Minima was a truly innovative camera, the first to have a counter rotating shutter for the viewfinder so the film wasn’t fogged when you took your eye away from it. It was also one of the steadiest cameras I ever tested. Even now it’s still getting use on films like Moonrise Kingdom and The Hurt Locker.
I was lucky enough to get to attend IBC 2012 in Amsterdam with Blackmagic Design and I was also lucky enough to spend some time with Jean-Pierre Beauviala who was there with a new Aaton camera.
Aaton have a fervent and devoted following amongst operators and DOP’s, and with good reason. Aaton design and build cameras with the operator’s experience first and foremost as the design raison d’etre. From ergonomics to function, privileging simplicity, elegance and reductionist design means the camera is more contained, integrated and a sheer joy to operate.
I say this from personal experience. Theres nothing like having a camera where logic and form take precedence.
JPB is a genuine innovator, an original thinker and in my books he is filmmaking royalty. His many innovations include crystal sync sound recording, timecode on film, magnetic drives on magazines (instead of gears), electrostatic viewfinders that don’t fog up, without resorting to battery draining heaters. The list goes on.
Aaton are also largely responsible for the re-introduction of Super 16 in the 1970’s, leading to it becoming a viable acquisition format, by introducing one of the first Super 16 / Standard 16 switchable cameras, the LTR.
Let’s just say that Aaton’s have film-making machines have a lot of pedigree.
JP generously spent some time taking me though the new Aaton Delta Penelope at IBC. Some of you may remember Aaton introduced the original Aaton Penelope only a few years ago as a field switchable 2 perf / 3 perf 35mm camera. Originally the idea was to make a 35mm motion picture film camera that would have a digital magazine that could convert the camera into a digital cinema camera by simply switching the film magazine for a digital one.
While Aaton shipped nearly one hundred of the FILM variants of Penelope, they decided to change direction and instead of making the digital magazine, build a fully digital camera from the ground up
And so now we have the Delta Penelope.
This decision means the Aaton Penelope is probably the last model of 35mm motion picture camera to be made as we move into the sunset of film acquisition.
Aaton Delta Penelope is a 3.5k/7k digital cinema camera, featuring built-in 16 bit linear DNG recording direct to on-board and inexpensive SSD RAID interchangeable DeltaPack magazines.
Delta also features a mechanical shutter with an optical viewfinder. There are some other unique Aaton innovations that I’ll get to, but lets step back and take these specs in.
Penelope is the only optical viewfinder digital cinema camera that has a built in RAW recorder at such high resolution.
I’ve been getting to know RAW workflows recently with my participation in the development of the Blackmagic cinema camera. The BMCC also records 2.5k RAW cinema DNG files and follows a very similar post workflow. To read more about the awesome advantage of shooting RAW, have a read of my previous posting on the advantages of shooting RAW.
Other cameras like the Arri Alexa Studio also offer RAW and an optical viewfinder, but it’s at a lessor resolution and the RAW recording is done externally, requiring a relatively expensive additional external recorder, which also of course has to be powered and cabled.
Delta Penelope records to non-propriatry DNG files using non-propriatory SSD hard drives that are relatively low cost.
The soul of any camera is it’s sensor. And Aaton have chosen to pair with one of the most well known sensor makers around, Dalsa.
Dalsa sensors are found in many high end imaging applications including NASA’s current mars mission, Curiosity.
Aaton have also chosen to use a CCD sensor instead of CMOS. Whilst the mass consumer imaging world has largely abandoned CCD type sensors in favour of the CMOS mainly for cost, the CCD still offers several advantages over CMOS.
One of the most significant advantages is fill factor. Something that as a cinematographer, I’ve heard mentioned but never really understood till JPB explained it to me by scribbling down a drawing for me over lunch.
In an array of pixels in a sensor, a CCD sensor means each individual pixel or photosite goes right up to the edge of the next co-located photosite. In a CMOS sensor, there is extra circuitry that occupies some of the surface area that would be devoted to gathering light on a CCD sensor.
So the fill factor actually refers to how much of the surface area is devoted to gathering light and how much is required as processing circuitry for the sensor itself.
CCD sensors have virtually 100% fill factor and as such all the surface area that’s exposed to light is potentially captured in the rendering of an image. CMOS sensors that have a lower fill factor (typically 75%) tend to have imaging faults that I’ve come to know well. Anyone whos’ dealt with fixed pattern noise, or vertical stripes in the dark ares of an image know exactly what a sensor with a lower fill factor can mean.
As JPB explained to me, there’s more “gaps” in the image. High fill factor eliminates the “blind spots” for each pixel and “created high crispness images” and it also greatly reduces the digital imaging signature we all dread, aliasing. The noise in the blacks is also more uniform and as mentioned, there’s none of the fixed pattern noise you can sometimes get with CMOS imaging.
The sensor also offers a very high dynamic range. Aaton claim 14 stops.
Delta also has a mechanical shutter. Just like a film based motion picture camera this spinning shutter allows an optical viewfinder, but it also means no rolling shutter or skew on the images. Sony decided to make a mechanical shutter standard after initially having it as an upgrade option on the F65.
As simple as the shutter is, Aaton have somehow managed to re-invent and improve it.
Harking back to my days as a focus puller when I changed the shutter angle on super 16 Aaton XTR PRODS, there is a shutter adjustment tool in exactly the same place in the handle.
But it doesn’t only change shutter angle…though that is also possible….
The patented multi-finger Aaton shutter can be adjusted to allow an IN-CAMERA way to reduce the sensitivity of the sensor from it’s base of ISO 640/800 down to ISO 80/100. That means the need for ND filters is virtually eliminated.
With today’s high sensitivity cameras, ND filters have become the bane of any digital cinematographer. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to think of ND1.5’s as normal.
We’ve also uncovered another Achilles heel of the digital camera through ND filters. IR pollution. High ND filter factors create unwanted IR pollution, leading to magenta / red in the blacks. Some IR ND filters seem to create as many problems as they solve.
With a way of reducing the requirement for ND filters, that also leaves more light available to the brilliant optical viewfinder.
I’ve seen some sample images from Penelople Delta, and it’s very very promising. Aaton have always been innovators when it comes to making cameras and I”m really looking forward to the first five beta cameras being delivered in December. The targeted price is around 90 000 Euros.
By the way, the camera on the shoulder is a joy to behold. And there’s something very reassuring about looking through an optical viewfinder to see a flicker moving shutter.
I’m hoping that Lemac, Aaton’s long time partner and agent in Australia will be on the list to receive one of the early cameras. The Aaton / Lemac relationship, fostered so lovingly by John Bowring and Jean Pierre Beauvialla’s friendship is kind of personified in this camera.
NOTE, anyone keen to have a closer look at Aaton Delta Penelope should make their way to CINEC in a couple of weeks.