Introducing the Digital Bolex

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Joe Rubinstein says he’s making the camera everyone else could have, but wouldn’t.

A 2K camera that shoots 24p, costs around $3,000, and comes in a retro package that stands out visibly in a world of black boxes? Easy. It’s called the Digital Bolex. That camera has gone from the design phase to a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that has raised $286,662 as of this writing, and will fund the first run of cameras that should be out by October. Rubinstein recently had a prototype as SXSW that got a lot of attention.

“Other companies could have made this camera already, but they don’t want to — it would cut into the market for the high-priced cameras they sell,” says Rubinstein, who came into the project as an offshoot of his photo-booth business, Polite in Public.

“That business involved using software that worked with the RAW photo format,” he said. “I was doing technical development working with software people on these video booths, and I was seeing that there was a need for a camera that could shoot 24 frames per second in RAW format. The Arri Alexa was just out, but that’s a $75,000 camera, and I began to research companies who might be able to make something like this for a lower cost.”

He began calling this idea the “Digital Bolex,” after the line of Swiss-made 16mm cameras that a generation of pre-digital filmmakers had grown up with. What also makes the camera striking is its retro design. It looks like an old spring-wound Bolex, right down to a crank handle that will serve as a selection device.

A protoype of the Digital Bolex

“My take on it is that a Bolex was the camera that really represented a sense of discovery and fun for so many filmmakers, as much as it was also a tool for professionals. I remember getting a Bolex, shooting with it, then processing the film myself on a reel-to-reel processor, and projecting it on a screen that night. I thought that what’s missing from digital cameras out there now is that sense of fun.”

The project didn’t have any association with Bolex at that time, although Bolex has since lent its name to it as a partner overseeing quality control. But initially, Rubinstein worked with a company called Ienso to develop the technology.

He downplays the notion that a $3,000, 2K camera was ever that hard to make, despite the well-documented odyssey of the RED Scarlet, which promised similar great things and emerged much different and more expensive.

“Our camera is much simpler than a RED Scarlet,” he says. “All the pieces that go into the Digital Bolex have been around already.”

That includes a Super-16-sized sensor. But what it doesn’t include is the typical compression technology that squeezes footage down to codecs such as H.264. RAW at 24p and in 2K will require 4 gigabytes of storage per minute (as a comparison, my Sony’s XDCAM format can put 57 minutes of HD footage on a 16 gigabyte SxS card).

“RAW isn’t for everybody,” he says, “but it does allow for lots of room for color grading.” RAW can be converted with programs such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, ARRIRAW Converter and others, he says.

The Digital Bolex will have a removable front that allows both for sensor cleaning and different lens mounts. Initially, M and PL mounts will likely be available.

The Kickstarter campaign worked on the basis of taking $2,500 pre-orders for the camera, and the interest has been such that the camera will be otherwise hard to get.

If it is as successful as he hopes, can Sony and Canon be far behind with their own versions? That goes back to why this camera is coming out from a small startup like Rubinstein’s. If any one of them had wanted to make this camera, they could have for years,” he says.

“We’re in a post-PC era with devices like the iPad. Like in the 1980s when PCs were all beige boxes and the only thing that mattered were the specs, and bigger numbers. iPads are not as powerful, but more fun. The camera market has been in that kind of race for a long time.”

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Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.
  • Anonymous

    To be honest, I really sorta question an entity so prominently influential as PBS referring people to this venture, which with all due respect could turn into a train wreck.  The RED Scarlet-X you mentioned is already causing a lot of grief (it’s as notoriously unreliable as RED’s other gear), and at that, the Digital Bolex is a miniature venture in comparison to RED’s stature as a self-proclaimed maverick small business.  There are economies of scale in Sony, Panasonic, Canon et al. that we love to hate but still reap the benefit from.

    Notably, footage already is available from the prototype and it basically aims for a vintage look.  Bottom line, this will become the filmmaker’s equivalent of those hipster cameras sold at Urban Outfitters.  That’s fun, if it costs the same as a pair of shoes, but the Digital Bolex costs a bit more than Converse.

    • Eric Vonn

       http://sphotos.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-…55554040_n.jpg

      So to paraphrase.

      “We liked the image the GX2300 delivered so much we decided to stick it
      inside this heinous black box and tell you it’s our Digital Bolex
      prototype.

      Buy only I, Joe, and scammy Elle my main squeeze have the actual key to that box.

      So nobody will be the wiser until we rape romantics of over a quarter of a million dollars.”

      And Bolex signed up for this willingly???

      I own a Bolex. A real one. A H16 Rex 4.

      Oh how times have changed.

      A fallen film god scammed by snake oil salesman to make a buck.

      Sad, sad times indeed.

      Cammy

  • Documentarytech

    Paul,

    I hear ya. With Bolex overseeing quality control and lending their brand name, I am optimistic, If it fails, so be it, but to me, three cheers for some innovation and fun. In the end,

    Ted

  • SWP

    Cool article. Isn’t there a woman co-creator though?

  • Transent

    “Bolex has since lent its name to it as a partner overseeing quality control.”

    Well, the Swiss BOLEX 16mm and 8mm cameras were pretty rotten even when new, actually. I shot once or twice with a Bolex 16mm and it turned out like crap. The 8mm variant was no better. These were basically WWII era designs. But the mid-1960s, the German, French, and Japanese camera makers were already relegating these little and pricey European camera workshops into the dustbin of history.  I had no clue that Bolex was still around — what are they making now, I wonder?

  • Documentarytech

    First – SWP, yes, Elle Schneider entered the project with Joe and deserves a nod – sorry she wasn’t mentioned in the piece. Transent – everything you say about the Bolex is basically the case – it was a cheap camera that got people into the game. Spring-run, cranked, finicky, etc. A lot of filmmakers remember that tool fondly, as much for its demands as for its product. Rotten? That might be a stretch, but it does to the expectations we have now, that the technology be flawless. Times have changed! Less than a decade ago we were dropping $6k (happily) for the  Canon X1 because it got us anywhere near the game; now the 5D Mk2 makes it easy. The post is not an endorsement of a product so much as a take on some people trying to make something happen. We’ll see!

  • Svein Thorbjørnsen

    Wow thats cool, this i shud have

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  • Alan_b Stard M P

    will you make it a ” world ” camera…no global regional differences?