The Rise and Fall of the Digital Bolex, As Told by Its Founder

January 29, 2017
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Joe Rubinstein is a purist. As a cinematographer, he has a specific criteria for what constitutes a pleasing image. As a businessman, he has a knack for building bridges between two worlds and capitalizing on them. Success is merely a byproduct, even though he’s had plenty of it. Joe is the creator of the Digital Bolex D16, a camera designed to bridge the divide between film philosophy and digital breakthroughs. A little over a year ago, Joe stepped down as the CEO of the company, which went out of business not long after. The Digital Bolex is as divisive and elusive as cameras come, but to Joe, it’s merely misunderstood. A lot about Joe’s time at the company is misunderstood, and he has plenty to say about it. This is an inside story of the rise and fall (and possible rise again) of the Digital Bolex.

Part 1: It Begins and Ends at Film School

Little known fact; the Digital Bolex was designed to be marketed primarily to film schools. It didn’t end up that way, but we’ll get to that later. Right now, what’s important is that Joe Rubinstein began dreaming in analog in the mid-90’s as a film student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). He notes:

“That’s when I fell in love with film and 16mm and Bolex. We think of it now, ‘Oh you have to use a light meter. It’s so much harder and you don’t know what you’re getting, and then there’s all of this post cost.’ To me in the beginning it was the smaller, easier, prettier format. It was better in every way possible.”

Joe filming trains on 16mm.

Joe stuck to film for the rest of his time at SCAD, which wasn’t always easy. When he had an editing assignment due before he could get his film processed (which meant sending it to LA and getting it back), Joe would fill special tanks with photo lab chemicals and hand crank hundred-foot spools of black and white film from one side of the tank to the other for two and a half hours. This ritual would get the film scratched and dirty with bubbles. Joe didn’t care, he loved the images he got, but he still had to dry the film.

SCAD has an atrium in the middle of the school, a converted bank. It’s five or six stories high. Joe would hang each roll of film down from the top of the atrium so it could dry evenly. Once it did, he would take a 16mm projector from the equipment checkout, project his footage onto a screen, and shoot the screen with an XL1 placed right next to the projector. Then he could begin editing his project. For Joe, it was totally worth it.

“If everything’s easy… If you’re not giving yourself substantial challenges… These were the substantial challenges that spoke to me. I’m sure that there are directors who care about the acting and the writing… And I get that but for me, giving myself a serious challenge was, ‘How do I make images that I love and that I think are special and that I think are unique?’”

Joe shot on 16mm so often that he became friends with the Kodak reps for his school. When Kodak was wrapping up Kodachrome, the reps gave Joe 40 leftover rolls for free. He just had to pay the processing fees up front. So he shot an 80 minute film for his student feature entirely on Kodachrome. It pays to be consistent. Joe Rubinstein is very consistent.

Part 2: Digital Video Failure

Coming out of film school as a DP, Joe owned five film cameras and he mostly shot on 16mm. The career was going great until 2006, when he was forced to shoot a feature, “Pants on Fire,” on the new Panasonic HDX 2000.

He hated it.

“My experience of shooting completely changed. When I was shooting film, if something was too bright, if something blew out, awesome. If a window blew out or we had a fixture in the shot, it was gonna be the prettiest part of the shot! I never worried about colors, stripes on shirts, brick patterns, lens fatigue, nothing. I spent 90 percent of my time when I was shooting film trying to make it more beautiful. It was already going to be beautiful… When it became digital, then my job became not, ‘How do I make it more beautiful?’ It became, ‘How do I make it acceptable?’”

Digital cameras created problems that Joe found no joy in solving. In addition to hating the image, Joe describes the HDX 2000’s early digital file system as somewhat of a trainwreck, forcing him to spend two to three hours just relabelling the shots from each day. Shortly after wrapping “Pants on Fire,” Joe took up still photography full-time. Joe found that digital photography offered a real upside to analog that digital video hadn’t accomplished yet. The images were really sharp and the pictures could be viewed in real time. He and a partner started Polite in Public, a company that updated the photo booth experience with digital technology. The company eventually became worth $2.5 million and it’s still around today. It even has a branch in Australia.

Polite in Public offered a different kind of photobooth experience, which is what kept Joe engaged. Digital made the process easier, but not easy enough. Using Photoshop and an on-board computer, Joe figured that you could hook up a DSLR to a Mac Mini housing Photoshop, which would be programmed to instantly grade the image and add touches specific to each event. After working with the only person in the country they could find who was a professor of both Photography and Computer Language, they were able to script Photoshop in such a way that the photobooth operator wouldn’t even know they were using Photoshop. Eventually, the system included a user-friendly touchscreen and a ringlight flash all in a compact box.

“You could have a non-photographer, with our camera system, create an amazingly good-looking photo shoot with zero knowledge of photography.”

Polite in Public never lacked high-profile subjects.

This thing was hit at parties, and it was getting them gigs with major companies like Coca Cola, Warner Bros., and Disney. Polite in Public was even the official photo booth for Obama’s inauguration party in 2008. Joe and his partner were a good team. Joe was ambitious with the technology and his partner was consistent about keeping costs down. When the still camera had gotten as good as it was going to get, Joe needed a new project. He turned to video.

Polite in Public was, in Joe’s opinion, successful because it didn’t sacrifice image quality in the name of convenience. He wanted to do the same for an event video box, but he needed a sensor that would give him enough latitude to do the instant edits he was already accomplishing with photos. At the time, there wasn’t anything like that available on the market, but Joe was encouraged by the RAW (uncompressed) footage coming from ARRI and RED. RAW files could probably handle Joe’s workload, and he eventually found a sensor being tested that fit his criteria. It also happened to be 16mm. He had a thought.

“Why isn’t there a 16mm version of the Alexa that people can use?”

Blackmagic hadn’t released its cameras yet. The prosumer market was primarily DSLR’s. Joe didn't like the video on DSLR’s.

Early design concept.

Joe passed his idea to cinematography friends. He originally wanted to create a box that would record 16mm-esque digital RAW files for a few seconds and nothing else. This was for parties, after all. With the help of electronic design firms, he estimated that it would cost $10,000 per unit. Doing market research, he found that the best way to explain his idea was to say, “Imagine a Bolex H16, but digital.” His cinematographer friends loved the concept as long as the camera could record for an extended period of time, so Joe proceeded. This would be the next great thing from Polite In Public, or so he thought.

A prototype for Joe’s idea would cost $10,000, but Joe’s partner wasn’t into it. He wanted to keep costs low, after all. Joe had spent nine months on full-time research for this camera. It was his baby. After many lengthy, heated, arguments regarding the future of Polite in Public, Joe’s partner bought him out. Joe would continue development on the Digital Bolex independently.

Part 3: Enter the Digital Bolex D16

While Joe was working on the Digital Bolex, Ikonoskop released the A-Cam dII, which has a lot in common with the D16, like 16mm-esque RAW images, interesting form factors, and CCD sensors. Joe loved their image and used it to help sell people on the idea of the Digital Bolex to investors. The Ikonoskop, though, had no easy audio or storage solution and cost around $15,000 for a full package. It was great, but it was too expensive for people with prosumer budgets.

“They were making $15,000 cameras for a $3,000 market.”

Instead of marketing widely to camera consumers, Joe wanted to focus on film schools where Bolex was a name people knew. “A place where film aesthetics, traditional filmmaking tools, and things like that would mean something to people.” He soon found an interested investor who came with one stipulation, he wanted to see proof that the Digital Bolex could work.

“So I said, ‘Okay, what if I shoot a film on the scientific camera that uses this sensor as a demonstration, show it, and try to raise some money on Kickstarter. Will you then come in and back me the rest of the way?’ He said, ‘If you sell 100 cameras on Kickstarter, I will give you the rest of the money you need to do this.”

Part 4: The First Kickstarter Camera that Almost Wasn’t

Editor's Note: The team behind the Digital Bolex was bigger than just Joe Rubinstein. Some members of the team have contacted ShareGrid disputing Joe's version of the story. The following is strictly the story as Joe tells it, not a definitive history of the company.

Joe shot a film using the scientific camera  and put it up on Kickstarter. At the time, Kickstarter hadn’t hosted any big technology projects and the campaign’s main reward was $2,500, which nobody had ever done before. The folks at Kickstarter weren’t sure that it was going to work. Even if it did, it could be bad for Kickstarter. What if the camera didn’t deliver? It could hurt the website’s reputation.

Kickstarter declined. To this point, Joe had spent nine months finding an investor and writing the research paper and six months trying to convince Bolex International to come on board and lend their name to the camera. They didn’t sign the paperwork with Bolex until a week or two before the campaign was launched. Had they declined, the whole project would have gone down until it got rebranded.

Convincing Kickstarter to launch the campaign took another month.

By midnight of their launch day from South by Southwest, Digital Bolex had only sold one camera. Joe began to have his doubts. Maybe this wouldn’t work. Then, around midnight, he got a call from popular film blogger Philip Bloom. At the time, Bloom was at the height of his blogger powers and a major influencer in the camera and gear market.  

Joe with Philip Bloom.

“We talked to him for an hour, something like that. He said, ‘Do you mind if I record this conversation? I don’t want to take notes while we’re talking.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Then, something like 20 or 30 minutes later, he just published the entire recorded conversation, which I didn’t know he was going to do, but that’s fine… When I woke up the next day, we had already cleared our goal and we had sold, like, 65 cameras.”

By 4:00 the next day they had sold out of cameras. Production on the Digital Bolex was a go.

Funny Story: Philip Bloom wasn’t the only film blogger talking about the D16. Stu Maschwitz was also a heavy camera influencer but, even though he was pretty skeptical of the Digital Bolex and its ability to deliver on its Kickstarter promises, his attention ended up bringing in new customers. Sometimes bad press is good press.

Part 5: Changes During Production

Joe’s continued tinkering with the Bolex’s design extended the production timeline and the cameras ended up costing the investor twice as much money as the electronics firm estimated. Big changes were made, though. The digital to analog converters were doubled, two high-quality preamp, mic-level, XLR inputs were added, an OLPF was added, the sensor block became water sealed, and they reprogrammed each SSD drive to balance its camera.

“We did all of this work to make the camera better and better, and none of that was in the original spec when we went into it, which is why the camera took a lot longer to come out and cost the investor a lot more money. But what we got from it was an image that, if you’re a film person, you sort of immediately get sucked into… I had gone to the camera shows and seen footage up close and, other than the ALEXA, I really hadn’t had my personal way I feel about images satisfied until we started really getting into the color work with the Digital Bolex.”

Listening to Joe talk, it’s clear that the sensor on the Digital Bolex is his pride and joy. Before getting into the technical details of the sensor, it’s important to clarify Joe’s priorities for the camera. The two most important things to know about Joe are:

1. Most cameras don’t output pure sensor data.

2. Joe only wants pure sensor data.

“We could have put QuickTime into the Digital Bolex. It was brought up many times. It would have made everybody’s life easier, but it wouldn’t have made the images better. It wouldn’t have pushed people to confront the realities of what digital cameras do every day to your image without you having a choice about it. Even the cameras that shoot RAW these days, I recently purchased an Alexa which I love and I’ve always loved the Alexa image, it’s freakin’ beautiful, but even the Alexa doesn’t really give you RAW sensor data… The Bolex is the only camera that I know of, that I’ve used, that doesn’t compress the image or give you a log version… There’s always some kinds of alteration they’re doing to the image… If you are like, ‘I’m a purist and I only want sensor data,’ the Bolex is one of the only cameras out there that gives you that."

Solid aluminum body. It'll take a beating.

So what’s wrong with log?

“Log is a curve. You’re taking more information and squeezing it into a space of less information… I’m not saying the Bolex is more beautiful than the Alexa because it’s not… But the Bolex has a purity to it. It doesn’t mess with your image. If you shoot it straight without the log, you’re getting basically sensor data with just a few color modifications added which you’re allowed to strip away… Other than that, we don’t mess with it. If you know how to strip it away, it’s easy to strip it away, and you’re left with just sensor data.”

Don’t mess with Joe’s image. Back to the production.

The Digital Bolex uses a CCD and not the typical CMOS sensor found in most cameras today. The difference is complicated and it just sounds better when you let Joe describe it.

“CMOS has essentially tiny little A to D converters built into the sensor itself. All the way down the sensor.... A CCD sensor just spits out an analog signal and then you need to capture that with an A to D converter and do the conversion yourself. It’s significantly harder for the programmers but it gives you this opportunity to craft how the analog converts into digital. When you use a CMOS sensor, and almost everybody does these days, you don’t have a choice about how the conversion happens… With the CCD sensor, it’s essentially a record player as far as electronics are concerned. There’s not a digital thing in the sensor.”

It doesn’t mess with the image.

Experimenting with the sensor yielded some interesting results. The Digital Bolex team was able to get 12 stops of dynamic range when the sensor maker insisted that they would only be able to get 10. They were also able to get an evenly-distributed 16mm-esque noise pattern when they ran the sensor hotter than the manufacturer thought was possible. There are still people fine-tuning the camera’s image today.

“You know, Eddie’s [Barton, a Digital Bolex employee] still working on the image. So it’s a long, fine-tuning, process. One-year after the Kickstarter, we went to NAB and we had an image. We didn’t want to show it to anybody because it wasn’t right. It wasn’t what we wanted. So, a year after the Kickstarter, we were still battling with the fundamentals of the image to make it as close to what I felt like 16mm film would look like.”

Joe exhaustively tested vintage c-mount lenses.

Part 6: The Vitriolic Internet

Not everyone was on board with the Digital Bolex and, unlike Stu Maschwitz, some critics weren’t helpful.

“I didn’t realize how aggressive the camera market was going to be… I don’t know what it is about the camera market, but the same thing happens on pinball forums, which I’ve noticed because I’m a pinball fanatic. But yeah, the pinball forums are full of vitriol and hostility towards pinball makers. It amazes me that any customer thinks that’s the right way to get what they want.”

Joe describes an early moment in the Bolex’s sales lifespan. He was on the Digital Bolex forums every single day and would keep the community up to date with what they were doing. While the forums kept people in a direct conversation with the Digital Bolex’s creator, they also kept Joe in direct contact with the Bolex’s most vitriolic opposition.

“It’s surprising to me when someone gets so upset about something like a camera or a pinball game or something like that, that leads them to be so angry. A lot of the people who were angry at us for making the camera, were never going to be customers. It wasn’t like a customer who really cared… In one case I know the guy who created the hack for the GH2 or the GH3 [Vitaly Kiselev], he really hated us. He called us criminals and said that somebody should call the cops on us. I was like, ‘Where does this intense emotion and feeling come from when we’re just out there talking about sensors? I realized that making a camera is a statement about what we believe film and images and storytelling should be. Even if we’re not saying that DSLR’s are bad or whatever, there’s a statement in there.”

Despite Joe’s confusion over anger sparked over the Digital Bolex, he attributes it to the company’s priority-shifting message.

“When we say that we’re making a camera with a truly RAW image, it defines itself against anything that isn’t a truly RAW image. That simple thing restructures how people have to think about how they make images, and they don’t want to. People are against change. If you’re just getting a Mark 3 of something, it has the same features, maybe it has higher frame rates, it’s safe it’s comfortable, you’re not redefining what it means to make a cinematic image. And we were out there and pretty much at almost every level were saying that we were redefining what a cinematic image should be. That requirement of change of thought about what a cinematic image is was so fundamental for some people that they responded in these super emotional ways.”

Part 7: The Price of Success

Once the cameras were ready, the Digital Bolex continued to sell well for a while. Early success, though, brought in comparisons to other cameras that, to Joe, completely missed the mark.

“Arguably some people say that Blackmagic has followed what we were doing in a lot of ways, and it sort of makes sense, obviously for much much lower price ranges. But they weren’t, in my opinion, crafting the image in the same way. As an example, the Digital Bolex has six boards in it, six electronic boards. One for the sound, one for the power, one for the sensor, so on and so forth. Compared to the first Blackmagic camera or the Pocket, they all have one board… Granted there are six boards, twelve layers thick or whatever, but when your power board is in the same board as your sound board and in the same board as your video board, there’s all of this crosstalk and noise, so they have to do noise reduction multiple times for their image. So you have an image that’s been cleaned like fifteen times. So even if they save the same RAW files that we save, Cinema DNG files, it doesn’t mean it’s still RAW. It doesn’t mean it didn’t go through layers and layers of noise reduction and all sorts of other stuff to get there. Whereas we do no noise reduction at all.”

These specific technical aspects are crucial to Joe because, at the end of the day, “Schools, professors, and other people who value the look of film” were, in that order, the Bolex’s target audience. That’s where the Bolex shines against its competition. Joe teaches filmmaking with the Digital Bolex the way a barista teaches coffee with a pour-over. It's laborious, time consuming, and science-y as hell, but it's pure. Most importantly, if you're faced with imperfections, you know how to fix them.

“If you’re learning about lighting and you’re putting a hot light over somebody’s face and suddenly their forehead is shiny. Is that because of the light you put there, the reflection off of their skin? Or is it because your sensor doesn’t deal with highlights the right way, or the DSP in the camera is doing fifteen layers of noise reduction and is cleaning it up in a weird way, or because you have JPEG compression that’s making it more crunchy? I’ve done plenty of tests where we set up the Digital Bolex next to a Canon DSLR, and on the DSLR the model looks shiny, and weird, and kind of orange, whereas on the Bolex she looks totally normal. “

 

Thanks to early success, Digital Bolex built a several hundred-thousand dollar surplus, which Joe assumed would be used to invest in the education market. His investor had other ideas.

Before we get to that, you should hear this story about Joe selling the Digital Bolex at an Austin camera shop. Having arrived unannounced, Joe was introduced to the person in charge of video buying. The person he spoke to only knew the Digital Bolex as a gimmicky camera that shot Instagram-style video. Joe took it upon himself to set the record straight.

“I was like, ‘Normally I have a fifteen minute pitch, but I’m going to skip it because clearly you’re very cynical…’ I said, ‘Pick your favorite camera, your favorite lens, and we’ll go out back and have a shootout.’ And he said, ‘Well, my camera shoots 4k so you don’t stand a chance.’ And I was like, ‘Let’s see.’”

This story ends in expected fashion. Joe and the camera store guy shot a poorly lit subject against a bright yellow background. As Joe tells it, the camera store guy brought out a $3,000 cinema lens mounted on a GH4 and Joe pulled out an old Russian C-Mount lens he bought for a couple hundred bucks. When both monitors were turned on, the camera store guy immediately conceded the GH4’s “weird, paper thin” image to the Bolex’s rich texture and color.

That’s Joe’s theory for the Bolex’s sales requirements in a nutshell.

“I can explain to you fifteen reasons why it [4k] is not better, but it takes some explanation. I need to explain to you how sensors work. I need to explain to you how light is filtered and captured. It takes a human being to show up at your door, explain to you why it’s better, show you demo footage, and then you’ll get it.”

It’s not about the specs, it’s about the results. That was Joe’s idea, but it wasn’t shared by his investor.

“He [the investor] thought that the way to get the most out of the camera and the company was to go to big box retailers like B&H and Samy’s Camera and a bunch of things like that and he chose to do that instead. I said, ‘Listen, at this point I’ve spent years of my life on this. It’s been great. I’m really happy with the product that we made and I’m happy to support, but this isn’t the vision that I have for this company and I really think that it’s not gonna work.’”

You can see the opposing visions in the video marketing content for the camera. A Vimeo deep dive of Digital Bolex content, from the company and its customers, almost shows two different cameras. On one side, there’s the serious, texture and skin tone-obsessed, work that looks like the content Joe produced. It’s beautiful but not very fun and seems aimed at a very specific kind of indie filmmaker. When established directors and DP’s, like Spike Lee and Matthew Libatique, have gotten their hands on the camera, this is generally the look they’ve gone for. You can see it in Joe’s final video for the company.

 

On the other side, there’s the bright, whimsical, flat, Wes Anderson-style that represents more of the company’s marketing output since the Kickstarter campaign. This makes the camera look fun, different, and accessible. It’s a bold approach that instantly sets the camera apart, but doesn’t convincingly convey a 16mm look or the magic behind the camera’s technology. More people probably know about the Digital Bolex because of this approach, but more people have likely written it off as a gimmick for that reason as well. Here’s one of the last videos the company put out, at a much higher price than Joe’s dancer video.

 

To Joe, the marketing behind the camera was always going to be an experiment. After all, so much about this product had never been attempted before. However, Joe was the only company employee who had ever shot on 16mm film, and he became increasingly frustrated with the broad, expensive, marketing approaches that were undermining his more specifically-targeted and nuanced ideas.

“Any marketing for even big companies, but especially startup small companies, marketing is experimental. It’s, ‘Let’s try this and see how people react.’ And the dancer video at the end was sort of first time where I said, ‘I want to show what this camera can do in a way that I would do it.’ I was already having arguments with my investor about the direction of the company, and I already knew in my head that I was either leaving the company or he was gonna really change his tune as to what we were going to do.”

The investor never did change his tune. Joe doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s hard not to see the investor as someone who believed what a lot of the media believed, that the Digital Bolex, if given the opportunity, could evenly compete with the likes of Blackmagic and Panasonic. It’s a romantic idea, but it was in stark philosophical and pragmatic opposition to Joe’s vision. Joe finally resigned as CEO of the company in early 2015. Big-box retailers list specs to sell cameras and, in Joe’s opinion, that wouldn’t be enough. He agreed to stay on for six more months to fix some firmware issues and finish the lenses before fully resigning. Since then, Joe has remained a part of the Digital Bolex community, but not as a salaried employee.

From the Digital Bolex Website.

Part 8: The Fall of the Digital Bolex

Big box retailers bought a lot of Digital Bolexes up front, initially reaffirming the investor’s decision. However, those sales weren’t necessarily concrete.

“That’s how these big companies work. They make you sign a contract that says, ‘We can return this at any time we want up to, like two years later, damaged or undamaged, for a full refund.”

Some of the retailers returned cameras. B&H didn’t send any back, but they stopped reordering at a regular pace. Sales shrank as the company’s overhead grew. Digital Bolex had a presence at Slamdance and NAB, which was very expensive, as well as partnerships with Seed & Spark and others.

“When I was there we never did Slamdance, we never did NAB, we never did anything that was going to cost more than a few thousand bucks. Like the South by Southwest tech show, I think the table there is like $2,500. It’s nothing. You sell one camera and it’s paid for.”

The investor started to have doubts. At this point, Joe had been away from the company for four months, but he decided to come back in somewhat of a consulting role to try something out. He was going to fly to four film schools and deliver the sales pitch he wanted to give all along, and he did just that.

“Because film schools take a little while with their buying practices… It took a couple of months before the sales came in, but all four film schools bought cameras. The rate of sale was one hundred percent.”

But Joe had been gone for too long and the company had already invested too much in the big market. Joe needed to find a solution that would allow the company to keep growing, and he only provided good reasons for it to shrink. Oddly enough, when the investor decided to stop production on the Digital Bolex and the company made its announcement, the remaining 50 to 60 cameras sold out in just two days.

To Joe, that last surge was a sign. If the company was restructured with commission-based sales agents instead of expensive media sponsorships, they could easily stay in business. Joe tried to convince the investor to take the money from those final sales to fund the shift. The investor wouldn’t have to pay for it himself. Instead, the investor pocketed the leftover profits and the D16 has remained out of production ever since.

Part 9: Another Try?

To my surprise, Joe doesn’t sound angry as he discusses the company’s last days. As far as he’s concerned, there’s still a place in the world for the Digital Bolex D16, all he needs is a new investor. Joe and the original investor are the only two people in the world allowed to produce these cameras, so someone new can simply walk into a few million dollars’ worth of set up R&D. The hardest part for Joe will be convincing someone to invest in a smaller product.

“The company is not going to be an Uber or a Twitter or something and most investors these days want a company that’s going to blow up to be billions of dollars and this is just not that. Maybe it will be a ten million dollar company one day, if everything is done correctly, and that’s not sexy to investors.”

What might sound good to investors is the fact that Joe now knows exactly what the Digital Bolex is. It’s not a black box for fun events, a bare-bones camera for hardcore film nuts, a whimsical hipster toy, or a force of camera ingenuity that will bring Blackmagic to its knees. The Digital Bolex D16 is an educational tool that, true to its analog roots, holds mysteries and secrets that certain filmmakers will absolutely fall in love with. It’s easier, though, if you let Joe explain it first.

 

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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