Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Digital Disruption in the Film Industry – Gains and Losses – Part 1: The Camera

Posted on | October 9, 2013 | No Comments

Hats off to Keanu Reeves for doing a thoughtful and timely documentary on the move from photochemical to digital film. In Side by Side (2012) he interviews some of the best directors and directors of photography (DPs) about the transformation of the film making process from celluloid to silicon. The transition, which has taken decades, is worth examining through the lens Clay Christensen provides through his theory of innovative disruption where a technology starts out “under the radar” with an inferior and cheaper technology that is continuously improved until it comes to disrupt a major industry.

The documentary looks at the development of digital cameras, editing and special effects processes, as well as distribution and projection systems. For each category it examines the differences between film and digital video. In interviews with prominent actors, directors and editors, the pros and cons of each are discussed along with the obvious arc of the movement towards the increased use of digital processes. In this post I introduce some of the issues in the move to digital cameras, within the context of disruptive innovation theory.

Film coalesced into a working technology during the 1880s and 1890s with significant improvements in cameras and projection technologies primarily made by Thomas Edison and the French Lumiere brothers. Innovations occurred over the next 100 years but the invention of the digital charge-coupled device (CCD) in 1969 at Bell Labs marked the beginning of a disruptive trend in cameras that would slowly continue to improve until they became a major competitor to film cameras.

The CCD was originally developed for spy satellites during the Cold War but was later integrated into consumer and commercial video products. It was used by Steven Sasson, at Kodak to invent the first digital camera in 1974. The technology was very crude however and Kodak did not see it as a worthy replacement for its film-based cameras. Neither did the film industry.

It was Sony who developed the Camcorder in the 1980s based on digital CCD technology and continued development into the recent generation of 4K cameras with a resolution of 4096×2160 pixels with its Sony CineAlta series. Similar resolution was achieved by the Red One Camera that rocked the film industry in 2007. The same company recently announced their Red Dragon 6K Sensor at NAB 2013)

“Digital cinematography” emerged by 2002 with George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode II, the Attack of the Clones, which was shot entirely in a digital format. Although the lack of digital projections systems meant that the footage was transferred to film to play in the theaters; the film still caused major controversy as the industry debated digital’s pros and cons. While initially these cameras were clearly inferior to their film counterparts, Sony and other companies stayed on the digital trail of eventually and unmistakably improving them to the point where some of the early adopters like Lucas took a chance.

By committing first to consumer markets, digital cameras found the resources to continually improve. Later they showed additional characteristics that film couldn’t match, such as the ability to store huge amounts of film data in very small devices. This meant no more transporting cans of film – a major consideration when shooting in remote and hazardous locations. Increased storage capability also meant the ability to shoot for longer periods of time – often to the actor’s chagrin. Another benefit was being able to watch what was being shot instantaneously on a monitor and being able to review the shots while still on the set. This move was very popular with directors but shifted power away from the directors of photography.

The last ten years have been witness to the disruption of the entire global complex known as “Hollywood”. New cameras such as the Red Dragon as well as other digital technologies for editing, special effects, and distribution are playing havoc with the entire chain of creative processes that have been established in the film world and its circuits of production and distribution. Digital convergence has also broken down the barriers between film and television and expanded cinematic presentations to wide variety of screens from mobile phones to stadium jumbotrons. A central question arises; will 2007 mark a critical threshold for the use of digital technologies or are we still in the infancy of an entire new array of televisual experiences emanating from the computer revolution?


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. He wrote this during a brief stay at the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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