When I wrote about the Light L16 camera, we had some fun thinking about a world where one small camera could become just about any camera you could imagine, from a large-sensor DSLR with a fast 50 to a razor-sharp telephoto beast. Where make-or-break factors such as critical focus could be adjusted in post, and where creative decisions like depth of focus could be tweaked in post.
Of course, I mentioned Lytro then. Pioneers in light-field imaging with two curious but ultimately unpopular consumer offerings, Lytro has now “gone pro,” first with a promised VR capture device, and now with Lytro Cinema.
Lytro Cinema is a high-end light-field camera for capturing moving images. It’s (apparently) a massive 6-foot-long behemoth with an imaging plane half a meter wide. It is said to capture 755 raw megapixels (for 4K output) at up to 300 fps, and promises 16 stops of dynamic range.
Lytro is good at getting lots of breathless press coverage of their impressive announcements, but the only real coverage I‘ve seen so far is from fxguide. John Montgomery interviews Lytro’s Jon Karafin on the fxpodcast, and you really should give it an attentive listen.
With the L16, I allowed myself to get excited about what a compact light-field camera could mean for stills. For some reason, I’m more reserved in my reaction to Lytro Cinema. Maybe it’s partially in response to Lytro’s announcement of the Immerge VR capture device, where they presented renderings of a camera but no photos, and faked demonstrations without any disclaimers. I publicly grumbled at the press’s willingness to go along with Lytro’s claims of being “first” at something they had not yet actually shown themselves doing.
But even if we take Lytro at their word that the Lytro Cinema actually exists — and I think we can, as they’ll be showing a film shot with it next week at NAB — I still see reasons to pause for some thoughts about the filmmaking process.
Lytro Cinema promises that most of the decisions that are made at the time of capture, from f-stop and depth of field to shutter angle and frame rate to even the actual position of the camera, would become matters of post-production flexibility. The potentially problematic implications range from obvious to terrifying. A studio could decide well into post that a film should be released in 48 fps 3D, when the filmmakers thought they were making a 24 fps 2D film. The editor could not only zoom and reframe a shot, but even choose to dolly a bit left or right, and add in a rack-focus from one actor to another.
To their credit, Lytro is aware of this possible minefield, and addresses these issues in their interview with fxguide.
Lytro Cinema is not just about postponing or refining creative decisions. Any director would love to save a great take lost due to blown focus, but the post-production superpowers only begin there. As with the L16, scenes shot with the Lytro Cinema camera could have post production flexibility we currently only dream of, from relighting, to object replacement, to perfect mattes without greenscreens, to blending of multiple takes in 3D space. It makes live action filmmaking nearly as fluid and re-editable as a Pixar animation.
As Lytro’s Jon Karafin says in the fxguide interview, “With great power...”
I can’t help but think about the filmmaking process, and what it means to me. My old colleague Alex Lindsay put it very well in a tweet: