For over a century the world of film was dominated by analogue cameras, film negative and flickering cinema projections, but around the year 2000 things started to change with the adoption of digital projection in cinemas. Post-production was already handled digitally to a good extend for quite some time so the natural next step then was for film-makers to also shoot films digitally. The turning point for digital projection was in the years 2009-2013 when theatres quickly transitioned from 35mm to Digital Cinema Packages (DCP) as screening medium because of the hype to offer films in 3D, with Avatar (James Cameron) pioneering this "new" format which was technically not possible on analogue film. The reduction in cost and improved workflows associated with digital image capturing and processing have revolutionised how we create and consume visual content.
The demand for digital cinema cameras ripped through the marketplace and camera manufacturers, with the intention of securing market positions for themselves they started reducing accessibility and compatibility of their products - essentially turning cameras into black boxes that are only compatible with their own accessories (vendor-lock-in) and offered no way to repair, study or understand their inner life. Prices dropped and performance increased and manufactures started adopting the questionable strategy of regularly releasing new product versions with minor improvements and stopping to maintain old generations to increase sales - this is not sustainable.
Film-making has long been considered an expensive discipline accessible only to the select few. This all changed with the adoption of movie recording capabilities in digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. For multinational corporations like Canon or Nikon this “new” feature was a relatively straightforward addition to existing models when you consider that most compact digital cameras at the time could already record video clips. But when this was done it was the first time that a large diameter image sensor, the vital component for creating the typical shallow depth of field that we consider cinematic, appeared in consumer video cameras. In recent times, and because existing manufacturers have proved reluctant to open their protocols up to the wider world, user groups have accepted responsibility and contributed to the DSLR revolution first-hand, e.g. the Magic Lantern community.
In 2006 Oscar Spierenburg, a Dutch film director, noticed a discussion taking place on DVInfo.net entitled "3 channel 36 bit 1280 X 720 low $ camera”, inside which Elphel cameras, which are typically used in scientific applications, had been mentioned. In the same year a discussion thread entitled "High Definition with Elphel model 333 camera" was posted on the DVInfo.net forum, whereupon we discussed how best to adapt Elphel open hardware camera devices for use in film production. Sebastian Pichelhofer discovered this thread in 2008 and assisted with the project by developing an Elphel camera internal hard-disk recorder user interface.
By early 2009, and because over the course of three years upwards of 1000 posts had been submitted to this thread, we realised that it was going to be difficult to maintain a full overview of the project in this way, and consequently a dedicated website: (apertus.org) was established. All of the decision making and naming/logo design was decided upon by the community.
The core team started working on a new camera concept in Summer 2011. In a vote Nathan Clark's idea to call the project "AXIOM" won by far.
After having done some contracting work with Elphel during 2011, Sebastian began to focus on the AXIOM project and in July 2012 the plan to create an AXIOM camera hardware prototype from scratch, and thereby overcome some of the limitations that were found to be inherent with Elphel hardware at the time, was announced at the Libre Software Meeting in Geneva. This prototype later became known as AXIOM Alpha.
The AXIOM Alpha was an FPGA and CPU combination based on the Zedboard. By using off the shelf components we interfaced a Super35 4K image sensor with an HDMI linked external recorder. The AXIOM Alpha featured a Nikon F-Mount and was encapsulated in a transparent, laser-cut enclosure to offer its internal components some protection. It was mainly intended to prove that, in the simplest way possible, everything could be made to work, but the system worked so well that it's still used by the community for workshops and for the shooting of small projects today.
One such workshop took place at the 37th Clermont Ferrand Short Film Festival where students and film-makers got to explore and utilize the camera first hand. Other projects have involved attaching the AXIOM Alpha to a cable camera at Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna or shooting Macro Shots of Insects. Essentially though, the AXIOM Alpha was used to gather feedback in typical shooting scenarios so that ideas could be incorporated into a future, more modular, kit version aimed at developers and early adopters – AXIOM Beta Developer Kit, but this prototype was the culmination of years of cooperation dating back to 2006.
For many years the groundwork for building an open source digital cinema camera had been a community-only driven project. People contributed because of personal interest and the project evolved slowly over time, but in the end it was anarchy to some degree and nobody had any responsibilities. While we had goals, we had no way to help guarantee that we'd ultimately achieve them and parts of the project stagnated because we couldn't find the right people with the required skills.
Shortly after development on the AXIOM Alpha began, and to combat this, a non-profit organisation was established to provide legal shelter for the community and an apertus° company was registered in order to facilitate responsibilities that had previously been neglected, e.g. signing contracts with electronic part/service providers, paying for prototype manufacturing etc. Because of their drive and enthusiasm for the project Sebastian was elected apertus° Association chairman, Oscar became vice-chairman.
After reading a local hackerspace forum post in May 2013 Herbert Pötzl became aware of the community’s efforts and met with Sebastian shortly thereafter. Herbert already had an extensive background in electronics engineering and software development and was appointed AXIOM Technical Lead. After Herbert developed critical aspects of hardware and software the AXIOM Alpha prototype was showcased at the Vienna Hackerlab in March 2014 whilst rough planning for a more modular, powerful camera was well underway.
The decision was taken to find out whether there was enough demand to successfully crowdfund the research and development for a successor to the AXIOM Alpha and, after surpassing the budget goal through an Indiegogo campaign in 2014, work began on creating AXIOM Beta - a five printed circuit board stack, FOSS and open-source hardware, digital cinema camera incorporating the ams Sensors Belgium CMV12000 CMOS image sensor. During the AXIOM Beta crowd-funding campaign, as a perk, and to show our gratitude to those who contributed towards the project's research and development, we elected to give backers the opportunity to purchase either an AXIOM Beta Developer Kit or a more mature, end-use version AXIOM Beta Compact at cost.
Magic Lantern is a free and open source software add-on that runs from a camera’s SD/CF card. It added a host of new features to Canon’s DSLRs that weren't included from the factory by Canon. Because the AXIOM project and the software they originally pioneered are underpinned by the same ethos, Magic Lantern partnered with apertus° in September 2014 to collaborate on color science and raw processing inside the AXIOM.
In January 2015 first project update videos to keep the community informed regarding development were released and many followed: See all AXIOM Team Talk episodes.