apertus°: An Open, Free Film Camera

An Award of Distinction from the 2012 Prix Ars Electronica was a stepping stone for the further development of the apertus° open-source film camera. Sebastian Pichelhofer relates how the project has progressed since then.

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Many of us are already familiar with the concept of open source, especially in connection with software. Not only does it entail freely accessible, user-readable source code that can be modified and shared at will; it also calls upon the community of users to get involved in developing and improving the program. This also works very well in conjunction with hardware. A 15-person core crew and several hundred members of an online forum moderated by Sebastian Pichelhofer (AT) have pooled their efforts to develop a free, open, modular camera system designed, above all, with professional filmmakers in mind. The “Apertus Open Source Cinema” project was already singled out for recognition in 2012 with an Award of Distinction in the Prix Ars Electronica’s Digital Communities category. In this interview, we find out what’s been happening in the meantime and what the project’s up to now.

Were you able to take advantage of the Award of Distinction bestowed on you by the Prix Ars Electronica?

Sebastian Pichelhofer: The prize money we received from the Prix made a major contribution to the fulfillment of our dream of a free, open-source film production camera. We put the money into the development of our AXIOM Alpha prototype camera, which we used to shoot videos that we, in turn, screened in conjunction with our very successful “AXIOM Beta: The first open digital cinema camera” crowdfunding campaign. This approach generated a real groundswell of support for the project, including a large number of early adopters and even a few Hollywood big-shots. During this campaign, we pre-sold about 500 cameras! Our projection was to sell only 250, and we weren’t at all certain that this figure wasn’t way too high.

What sorts of hurdles did you have to surmount over the past two years?

Sebastian Pichelhofer: The biggest problem throughout was a lack of funds. We’ve been financing the project with contributions, sponsoring, prize money and subsidies, but, in the last two years, that hasn’t amounted to even nearly enough to buy even the hardware we’ve needed for the production of our prototypes. Thus, several crew members have invested their personal savings in the project. But, in the meantime, the successful crowdfunding effort and an EU subsidy have given us a little breathing room in this respect.

A camera for cinematic film formats is a pretty ambitious project …

Sebastian Pichelhofer: We realized right from the start that our project had the potential to absolutely revolutionize the whole creative industry and the way films are produced. In preparing our crowdfunding effort, our main cause for concern and source of uncertainty was the question of whether people are really, truly prepared to put up the money to take back their creative freedom or if they would simply rather remain imprisoned in the gilded cage other camera manufacturers have made for them. And in our crowdfunding campaign, we explicitly offered a developer kit, an unfinished camera that amounted to an invitation to supporters to collaborate on the rest of the development process. But this definitely turned off a lot of people who were strictly interested in being users.

By the way, the results of our AXIOM Beta crowdfunding effort were record-setting: the most successful Austrian indiegogo campaign to date, far surpassing the previous record. And this not only solved our money worries; it also got us hooked up to a community of interested people who are able to help with feedback, ideas and stories about everyday life in film production, who are interested in defining the direction of long-term development, and are prepared to actively participate in it.

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Why did you decide seven years ago to get into this field of professional film production?

Sebastian Pichelhofer: The founding fathers of this project were all involved in film production. We were all extremely dissatisfied with the equipment we were forced to use back then, and the camera manufacturers seemed to have no interest at all in satisfying any of the points on our wish list. So, the only logical conclusion we could draw was that we had to build our own tools. We took the first step seven years ago: modifying existing hardware to make it suitable for filmmaking. In other words, we started out on the periphery, and the focus was on hardware. In 2011, the limitations had to do with the hardware that was available to us, and these couldn’t be surmounted with workarounds. And this was the point of departure of the next phase: building our own camera hardware. In 2012 at the Libre Software Meeting in Geneva, this open hardware project, which we named AXIOM, made its public debut.

Tell us a little about your online community of supporters. Where do they come from? And, in retrospect, has this been a transient gathering, or are there still people who’ve been involved ever since Day 1?

Sebastian Pichelhofer: Both. There are long-term participants as well as those who resurface after a long pause and get actively involved again. And, of course, there are a lot of people who, for a variety of reasons, can contribute only briefly to the project. Generally speaking, the community has grown slowly and steadily. The biggest problem is the threshold barrier of actually working with the camera hardware. At the moment, we have only a single fully functional AXIOM Alpha prototype. And this model has already earned a lot of frequent-flyer miles traveling around the world to various presentations and workshops. This growth process will make a quantum leap as soon as we begin delivering the AXIOM Beta hardware to the crowdfunding supporters. Then, there’ll be about 500 people worldwide who’ll be able to get started experimenting with their camera prototype.

So where exactly does the project stand right now? Can consumers already purchase an AXIOM Beta camera, and what are your plans for a follow-up gamma version?

Sebastian Pichelhofer: The AXIOM Beta will first be delivered exclusively to the approximately 500 crowdfunding supporters. Those who got on board last will be receiving their cameras in August 2015. Then we’ll be accepting consumers’ orders for the AXIOM Beta. The development of the AXIOM Gamma will proceed parallel beginning in Spring 2015 and run until about the middle of 2016.

Sebastian Pichelhofer, age 29, lives in Vienna, Austria and has spent the last six years working on apertus°. For his essential involvement, the team has elected him to apertus° association chairman in addition to his role as project leader. He studied electronic engineering and software development but actually worked in the post-production department of a documentary film production before he got his current job in the multimedia department of a university.

Please note: The submission phase of Prix Ars Electronica 2015 will start soon. More information on www.aec.at/prix/en/.

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