Nobutatsu (Nobu) Takahashi, above, is General Manager of Professional Imaging Technology Business Unit, Sony Corporation (Sony Cinema Line).
Jon: Nobu-san, congratulations on the new BURANO camera. How did it come about?
Nobu: Thank you very much. The idea began about five years ago. When we developed the strategy for the Cinema Line, we predicted that many OTT streamers would be creating new feature films and episodic dramas at around 2023. To address that market, we thought that we should have a highly mobile camera with a prestigious cinematic look. So that was the idea that sparked the idea for BURANO.
Rhetorically asking: couldn’t they just use a regular VENICE?
Yes, that’s one option they have at the moment. For very high budget filming, they use VENICE and other high-end cinema cameras, but at the same time they also need high mobility cameras for those productions. Not only for feature films and episodic dramas, but also for non-scripted content like documentaries or wildlife shows. Those genres are increasing rapidly in the OTT streaming area. Scripted and also non-scripted content is increasing a lot. That is why we think there is a demand for this high mobility camera. That was one of the main reasons we had to start this project.
Did you get these ideas from market research—talking to DPs, rental houses, camera assistants, crews, directors, producers?
We are always listening to filmmakers all the time. My overall intention is to go into the market, not alone, but to also bring the engineers and product planners so that we understand what our customers need as a tool. At Sony, we have engineers and lots of development is going on already. These are the seeds of our technology development. We know that side of things, but we may not know the artistic and creative side. That art belongs to the filmmakers, cinematographers and directors. We have technology. And so, with art and technology, by multiplying those two together, we always should think about how our technology can contribute to the creativity of the filmmakers and to the industry of the cinema. And then we came up with the idea of BURANO, a very unique concept.
Lighter, smaller, more hand-holdable…
Shoulder-resting profile, with a compact body, and lightweight. Actually, BURANO is 33% lighter than VENICE. It’s very good for high mobility shooting, with a lots of core technology development inside.
Such as continuously variable ND and image stabilization?
I was a mechanical engineer for more than 10 years when I started my career at Sony. There is a very specific engineering department that is in charge of core technology development. They are not necessarily working on an individual project but rather, they are looking at long-term technology development. They always like challenges. They want something different and to be first.
They had already been developing in-camera variable ND and in-body image stabilization. So, the challenge was to implement those concepts into a new camera. That was the technology part of the project.
There was also a research part of the project. We engaged an in- depth study of the cinema market when we started this project. It was important to understanding the market five years ago and then plan ahead so that research and the core technologies could come together in this new camera.
What kind of the research did you conduct?
Understanding the market is the most important part for me. But, when we started this project, most of the time was during the COVID pandemic. We had to quarantine for more than three years. That was challenging, but it allowed us to have online meetings for research. We reached out to colleagues in New York and Hollywood and around the world. Our discussions were not limited to filmmakers and cinematographers, but also producers, DITs, colorists, camera crews and rental houses. We wanted to learn what kind of challenges they had and what kind of jobs they were doing.
We found out that many of them were working on OTT feature films and episodic dramas. They said that those streaming feature films had rather high budgets. But at the same time, there was an increasing number of unscripted dramas, documentaries, wildlife shows, music videos, and commercials on the web is increasing. For the big budget streaming feature films and series, they usually rented VENICE or highly acclaimed cameras of other brands.
But at the same time, many of the people we met via online meetings mentioned that they owned their own cameras, maybe not the ones just mentioned, but they owned lighter, smaller, more hand-holdable cameras of all brands, including Sony’s FX series. The reason was timing. They get a phone call. The producer wants to shoot next week or even tomorrow. If they own their cameras and lenses, then they are ready to go out and shoot right away. They are owner-operators and they are crewing the increasing number of these non-scripted show. And that is when I thought that we should have this new camera called BURANO. The solo owner-operator or filmmaker with a small crew would love this camera. So that was one finding that came out of our research.
After the research and technology discussions, what came next?
Product planners, with Toshi Kanayama in charge, took their understanding of the market to develop a strategy. The concept of the camera came next. That’s very important. Understand the filmmakers first. Listen to the cinematographers. Then create the camera. The result was BURANO, a camera with a cinematic look and high mobility.
Who might use the camera the most after it is released? Will it be owner operators that you just mentioned—or rental houses and production companies?
We have to wait and see after the launch. It’s interesting: our thoughts and the acceptance of the users can sometimes tend to be different. I think it’s the filmmaker’s choice. When we established the concept, we thought that lot about the solo operator or small crew who would love a camera with which they can film right away. I think it will be very good for those users.
I also think BURANO will also be very attractive to high-end DPs and camera crews to bring along on their feature film as a complement to a VENICE, as their second, third, and fourth camera.
I totally agree with that. To be different from the existing tools like VENICE is very important because we do have a very high-end VENICE camera as an option at this moment, but up until now, we did not have a lighter, more compact camera with image stabilization so the user can go handheld, perhaps at waist level, to move around and get closer to the actor. To be different from the others is very important and I call it unique. I always tell the engineers that we have to be unique. I have to be unique as a person. So does the engineer. But at the same time, the camera has to be unique as well. It has to have its own character.
We often obsess about lenses having character. And now you have created a camera that has character as well. I can picture it. The sun has set. It’s magic hour. There’s very little light left and the director wants a long dolly shot, but there’s no time to lay track and no, they did not rent a remote head with gyro stabilization. The DP calls for BURANO. It goes on the dolly, and it’s bouncing around on the bare, un-tracked ground. The internal image stabilizer steadies the image. The Director is happy because they can do a few more takes. The DP is happy because the internal variable ND lets them adjust exposure in fine increments as the sky gets darker. And the producer is happy because they got the shot.
Yes. If the camera is unique, filmmakers will find out new ways to use new tools. That’s why we cannot foresee who will actually use this camera. That’s always surprising. Another recent surprise is that real filmmakers are using the Sony FX3 camera so often. We had hoped those top-end cinematographers would use the FX3 when we first established the concept, and recently a lot of DPs are showing up in our DMPC (Digital Motion Picture Center) facility and they take out their FX3 from a backpack. They love it. That’s amazing.
Up until this point, I think manufacturers would either do a very high-end camera or an entry-level camera. There was very little in the middle. Why was the middle market avoided up to now?
That’s true. There are not many other cameras in this range. When I started to think about the concept of this camera, I heard lots of feedback from the market that there is and there will be an increasing market for the mid-range. As I mentioned, not just the OTT drama, episodic dramas or feature films, but also non-scripted content will be rising because customers want content. And then we have another option for the viewer—streaming and on-demand streaming. In that sense, I think the mid-range cam- era, as you call it, is defined as mid-range only by its price. But aside from price, it is a very different concept of a camera that was never done before. What BURANO can do has been done before with lots of peripherals added to previous cameras, but it was not easy for the freelance camera operator or an independent filmmaker to have all those peripherals.
How did you come up with the name? I thought maybe you were going to name it after a surfing spot like Malibu or Mavericks.
Kanayama-san led discussions not only with our Japanese colleagues, but at the same time we talked with the local sales companies around the world. We wanted the name to be unique and very easy to pronounce. Even the name of our company, Sony, is short and easy to pronounce. So I followed that idea and BURANO became the name of this camera, after a small island in the Venetian lagoon.
I like the name.
I like it and I’m glad that you do too. Then it is up to us and the filmmakers to enjoy BURANO in use on their productions. After its release (in the first quarter of 2024), we would like to get feedback from users so our software developers can plan future version updates and make this camera even better. These days, it’s not just about releasing the product. It is also listening to the customers in order to polish the tools so that they will be able to do more artistic filmmaking. So that’s our intent. We are eager to listen to the customers’ voices.
So, if a DP or an assistant has an idea, whom should they contact at Sony?
They should contact their local Sony representative who will pass it on to us. We have a very good team worldwide. We all met in Tokyo at the end of June. All the representatives of the sales companies worldwide gathered in Yokohama. We have very tight connections with all our colleagues so that we can collect feedback from our worldwide customers.
That’s good to hear. We members of the camera crew love to complain…er…give suggestions about the equipment and hope that someone listens.
I think that’s very important. And not just collecting the feedback from the sales representatives, but at the same time, it’s very important for someone in top management within Sony, or an engineer, to go to the market to understand and listen to the customers. That’s a very important concept for me. That’s why I often go to Los Angeles and I always show up at events and trade shows. I always try to bring an engineer along with me. Not just a product planner. But our engineers have to be on site to understand and feel what the customer or user feels.
Listening to the DPs and what they’re doing is not just for the short term. It is for the long term. Understanding the needs of the DP very early in the timing of the development is very impor- tant. That’s why we have the DMPC facility in Glendale. Sony’s top management visited the DMPC around the time of Cine Gear and met with ten DPs at a round-table discussion about the future of filmmaking. Even Maki-san, the President and CEO of Sony Corporation, is listening to the DPs. That is very helpful in our planning and development for the cinema industries. I’m very lucky that our very good top managers, colleagues and my engineers all love filmmaking.
But if you meet 20 DPs, don’t you get 20 different opinions?
We do. And we understand that. We think every comment is true because that’s why they’re very unique. They are artists. So the comments should be different. We try to find a common thread— what is the essential message from them so that we can translate the artistic requests to into engineering development
What areas do these engineers work in?
I try to arrange one person from each area of development. I try to bring one electrical engineer, ideally one mechanical engineer, and one software engineer. Sometimes I bring the industrial designer. I think I brought three creative designers to NAB. They’re very important. They know how the products should be designed ergonomically. In that sense, they have to watch how filmmakers are using the camera. Everyone on the development team should understand who’s using it and how they’re using the camera.
Is the sensor in BURANO the same as VENICE?
No. In the specifications, they share some common numbers but the sensor itself is different.
And yet, the two cameras match beautifully.
Oh, yes. The color filter array is the same. It was our intent to match the BURANO and the VENICE cameras. And not just VENICE, but at the same time we try to match all the Cinema Line cameras. That’s one of the main concepts of the cinema line look and availability.
The user interface on BURANO is logical and intuitive. It reminded me of FX3 and some Alpha cameras.
The details are not exactly the same as VENICE, but for the major functions, we made it easier for the customer to use the menus.
BURANO has the same clever E-mount and PL-mount front end.
We want to give customers the option to use any lens they want. In that sense, the PL mount is a must. But at the same time, our research showed that for web commercials, music videos and non-scripted content, users all appreciated autofocus very much. That’s why we thought that E-mount might benefit those users and customers. We were very lucky to find out that they are very interested in Sony’s autofocus on E-mount lenses.
We have very good glass in Sony G Master lenses these days, with autofocus, auto iris and very high technology.
It is always good that when you have new options added to your filmmaking. You can do your filming with PL lenses that have their unique look to do the storytelling, but at the same time, having options with autofocus technology may help you create some- thing new. You’ll decide how to use it, but we are giving you the option by understanding your needs.
We see a lot of multiple cameras lately. Is this the future?
Yes. BURANO has a short profile and in-body image stabilization. It’s different from VENICE. Being unique, it can work in combination with existing cameras like VENICE. I think that’ll give lots of options to the filmmakers. At the same time, new ways of filming are increasing. There might be other options for the customer. I have seen not only huge stages for the feature films, but at the same time there are many mid-sized and small-sized studios for virtual production and XR wok. I visited a lot of them. I feel that younger filmmakers tend to try something new—new styles, new ways of shooting.
In the Cinema Line department, we have three terms: imagine, create, inspire. Not only do the DPs use their imagination for storytelling and creating a film that inspires the audience, but at the same time we, the engineers and myself, everybody in Sony, also in the sales companies, need to have imagination for the future of filmmaking. Then we create the camera and its system. And finally, we inspire DPs and the audience and they inspire us. I think those are very good words to represent the activities that we are doing together with the creators and filmmakers.