Lytro Camera Introduction Draws a Crowd at NAB Show — and Promises a Revolution

Lytro's light-field cinema camera prototype is like science fiction come to life

Lytro's Cinema Camera Draws a Crowd
Courtesy of Lytro

When the booths are struck, the drones are packed away and the broadcast trucks drive away, the 2016 NAB Show is likely to be remembered for just a handful of things: the first working demo of next-generation television in the U.S.; Ang Lee’s showing of footage from “Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk”; and the first public introduction of the Lytro Cinema Camera.

Of the three, the Lytro system is the most obscure, but in the long run, possibly the most disruptive.

“It’s going to revolutionize not only the way we make films but the way we define photography,” said director Robert Stromberg, who put the camera through its paces as director of a short film shot entirely with the prototype. “It’s an amazing technology.”

A standing-room-only crowd packed into the largest meeting room at the Las Vegas Convention Center to watch the introduction — a far bigger crowd than even Ang Lee’s panels on Saturday. They saw something truly new, if not easy to understand. It ushers in an era of “computational cinematography” where the camera captures information, not pictures.

In fact, the Lytro isn’t a camera at all in the way most people understand the word. It’s a light field device, which means doesn’t capture images per se; instead, it captures a holographic digital model of the scene, captured 300 times per second. Then, in post, the director and DP can decide a slew of settings to “film” the scene with, such as frame rate, aperture, and lens. Because the “lens” is virtual, it can have properties of lenses that would be impossible to manufacture in real life. 3D shooting can get left and right eye views from the same data.

This gives the director or DP some powerful new tools, including some previously reserved for computer animation. The position of the camera can be changed, as can focus and depth of field. Because the data includes the depth of everything in the scene, creatives can choose to simply ignore everything past a certain distance from the camera — in effect, doing greenscreen without greenscreens.

Moreover, since the digital model it creates is akin to the three-dimensional digital data created by visual effects and animation studios, it’s actually easier to combine effects and photography.

All those capabilities were tested by Stromberg (“Maleficient”) and DP David Stump in the short film “Life,” which was shown at the NAB Show event. They deliberately let stagehands walk around the background, but were able to eliminate from the shot without the laborious rotoscoping used for greenscreen.

The prototype Lytro Cinema camera used for the short and shown at the introduction is about as long as a full-size SUV fully extended (its barrel telescopes) and weighs several hundred points. Its sensor is the size of a typical computer monitor. There probably hasn’t been anything as bulky on a Hollywood shoot since the massive three-strip Technicolor cameras of the 1930s and 40s. “It’s a Frankenstein. It’s a prototype,” said Stump. However, he added, he was able to get the shots he wanted, and the footage cut together well with footage from an Arri Alexa.

The Lytro is generally expected to shrink, as electronics generally do, and the company’s goal is to get small enough to be hand-held.

“Creatively, we actually put it on a Chapman crane and physically move it around,” Stromberg told Variety. “But for me, the goal wasn’t to make the best film that I could ever make, the goal was to push the camera to its limits and give it a good road test. I deliberately put grips in the shot, and lights and camera equipment and crew members in the shot. I wanted to test the ability of the camera.”

“Once it gets down to the size of a production camera,” it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

Stump, who is chairman of the Camera Committee for the American Society of Cinematographers, said “I have long thought that being able to derive depth from a camera at the same time you’re acquiring images will be the next revolution in imaging. I honestly believe that once people start to see the value of this it’s going to catch on like wildfire.”

Stump said the flexibility in post isn’t about fixing mistakes, but instead a new creative tool. “This is something we can disassemble and reassemble with control,” he said.

“Life” is a somewhat surreal short of the life of a couple and family. It combines digital effects, virtual sets, and live-action photography. Neither Stump or Stromberg was paid for their work on “Life” and both said they are not paid by Lytro. Jeff Barnes, formerly of CafeFX and Digital Domain, produced the film.

The live demo showed how footage could be adjusted in post, even remotely via the cloud. The product introduction included a full ecosystem, including server technology.

Lytro expects to demonstrate the camera and system in Los Angeles in the next few months.

(Pictured: The Lytro Cinema light field camera at use on the short “Life.”)