NAB: New Lytro Light-Field Camera That Could Bring Big Changes to Visual Effects Work Is Unveiled

"This tells me that potentially the way we make films is going to change," said 'Maleficent' director Robert Stromberg.
The Lytro Cinema system was unveiled Tuesday at the NAB Show.

A standing-room-only crowd at the NAB Show in Las Vegas applauded enthusiastically as Silicon Valley-based Lytro revealed its new Lytro Cinema light-field camera system on Tuesday. The unveiling was followed by a seven-minute short film, Life, the first film made with the new system, that was directed by two-time Oscar-winning production designer (Avatar) and Maleficent helmer Robert Stromberg.

"This tells me that potentially the way we make films is going to change," Stromberg told The Hollywood Reporter, following the screening of his WWII-set drama that follows a man’s life as he finds love and then goes to war.

This technology is different from a conventional camera in that it's built to effectively capture the color, direction and placement of every ray of light, with which filmmakers can create a 3D model of what the camera is seeing. So where a convention camera captures color information, the new system additionally captures depth information, which can be applied to a variety of uses including creating 3D or visual effects.

This first version of the camera is roughly seven feet in length and weighs several hundred pounds; Lytro execs acknowledged a top priority is to reduce the size. "As soon as I can put that camera on a Technocrane or on a standard dolly, then I would feel comfortable using it on a serious Hollywood film," said Stromberg.

The Lytro Cinema system is now available on a subscription basis, with packages starting at roughly $125,000, which would provide enough processing and storage for roughly 100 shots, according to CEO Jason Rosenthal.

"It's going to be a very attractive new technology for not only the studios but creative people in general," Stromberg predicted. "For filmmaking, [you can do new] depth of field tricks, shutter and motion-blur tricks. I can see someone creating a brand-new style. I had hundreds of options to manipulate the imagery."

He continued: "Having come from the visual effects side of the business, I've done hundreds of films with blue-screen and green-screen, and what that means in postproduction is that the amount of time, money and effort that goes into making these composites work is unbelievable. We're now getting to that point where technology will not get in the way of film production; it will be so much easier to do compositing and postproduction. Green- and blue-screen is going to go away."

Added David Stump, Life's director of photography: "I think this is going to be a very big thing in the integration of visual effects and cinematography. I can't predict what creatives are going to do with this technology going forward."

During the presentation, Lytro walked NAB delegates through the workflow, including post and VFX, as well as how it aims to address the challenging data processing and storage requirements with cloud computing.

Following the session, some guests called the new camera system "fantastic," saying that it marked a notable step toward a change in filmmaking. Others were more cautious, saying that they see the potential, but adding that the camera didn't seem ready for primetime in this still-early form.

The science of light field actually dates back to 1846, but in recent years, related imaging technology has steadily advanced and its potential has emerged as a big topic this week at NAB.

Life was produced by VFX veteran Jeff Barnes, executive director of studio production at Lytro, through Stromberg’s The Virtual Reality Company and Lytro. The Third Floor offered previz services. Google provided cloud storage and processing. Arri donated an Arri Alexa, as the short was shot half with the Alexa and half with the Lytro camera.

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