Lytro's light field cameras haven't proven themselves to be huge sellers in the consumer market, but the technology might be set to revolutionize professional cinematography. Lytro's new Cinema camera captures every frame as a set of light field data; each pixel contains not only luminance and color information, but details on speed, location and direction. Editors can thus set focus, aperture and shutter speed any way they want afterwards during post production. They can also map the scene instantly in 3D for effects compositing, cut out certain depth layers as if everything else is a virtual green screen, and even move the camera a little if the shot's not quite right.
The Lytro Cinema system looks like an absolute beast. Every frame can capture up to 755 RAW megapixels of data, for starters – get your head around that for a second. Then consider that it can shoot up to 300 frames per second for slow motion, and that every frame offers a staggering 16 stops of dynamic range. For reference, that's about the same amount the RED Epic cinema camera gives you, with about three stops more information in the shadows and highlights than a Canon 5D MkIII still camera.
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So it's got the basic chops to be a genuinely kickass camera. But remember, it captures light fields, not just images. That means every pixel contains information about luminance and colour, like a regular camera, but also depth, direction and speed.
Lytro's still images are unique and fascinating in that you can select your focus and aperture after shooting, and even virtually move the camera around to get a sense of depth in the image. It's neat, but not neat enough to make them a hot ticket for consumers or professionals in the photography world. But when this technology is applied to the cinematic image, it's a seriously big deal.
With the ability to focus and choose aperture after filming, there's no need for a focus puller on set, and directors are free to let their actors improvise more with space rather than hitting the same spot every time. There will be no such thing as needing to re-shoot for focus. Aperture is irrelevant on set as you can pick any depth of field you like later.
To bend the mind even further, because the Lytro captures the location, speed and direction of every pixel, you can also choose your shutter speed in post production, picking out the perfect amount of motion blur for any given sequence or frame. This alone opens up the potential for some very spooky effects.
But perhaps most importantly, the nature of the Lytro system effectively maps out every object in each frame in 3D space. Given that so many of today's films use a mixture of live action and CGI, this kind of information makes it easier than ever before to integrate 3D effects in with live action footage.
It also allows you to mask frames and sequences based on distance. For example, you can grab everything between 5 and 7 feet from the camera and cut out the rest, as if that part alone was shot in isolation on a green screen. This eliminates the need to rotoscope footage (rotoscoping is the tedious process of tracing around an object in each frame to cut it out and use it in a composite image). With the Lytro Cinema camera, it's as if you've got an individual green screen for every object in the frame. Replacing a background, removing an object – all these things will be quicker and easier than ever before.
Of course, you can move the camera a little in any direction in post production if the shot itself didn't feel right. And the master footage can easily be rendered into all sorts of formats, including IMAX and stereoscopic formats for 3D viewing.
This technology has truly disruptive potential in the movie making business. But it's also easy to foresee its drawbacks.
For starters, the data demands of a system like this are extraordinary. Lytro plans to sell it with a system to manage data, either onsite or in the cloud. A camera with such a serious storage system coupled with the highest resolution video sensor ever designed is also probably going to be pretty huge in and of itself, which may limit the scenarios it's useful in. With today's cinema cameras trending towards becoming smaller and more portable, this is a step in the opposite direction.
And then there's the artistic side of things. With such extraordinary abilities in post, directors and editors will have post production options they've simply never had before. And while in one sense this unshackles them to produce the image they want, in another sense it opens up part of the creative process to the possibility of "design by committee" in the editing room – taking away a lot of the role of the cinematographer in getting this stuff right in camera.
Still, it's an exciting tool, and we're looking forward to seeing what Hollywood is able to do with it! Check out the full promo video below!
Product page: Lytro Cinema