Meet Apertus, The Open Source HD Cinema Camera

A while back I listed 10 of the most promising real world Open Source projects on this blog, and today I want to add one more contender to that list: Apertus, an Open Source cinema camera project.

Led by Oscar Spierenburg and a team of international developers, the project aims to produce “an affordable community driven free software and open hardware cinematic HD camera for a professional production environment”. Let’s take a quick tour of the hardware and software components that constitute Apertus, before moving on to address some concerns about the overall viability of the project.

The Camera

Apertus uses the Elphel free software and open hardware HD camera as its core component. Built by the Utah based Newonics Inc. electronics manufacturers, Elphel have been producing high performance cameras since 2001 releasing software and hardware design code under a GPL license. Community-led modifications and contributions to the development of Elphel camera equipment is rooted at the heart of production.

Apertus uses the Elphel 353, which consists of an Aptina CMOS bayer-pattern sensor with an optical format of 1/2.5″ (5.70mm x 4.28mm) and a native resolution of 2592×1944 (5 Megapixels). The camera is equipped with a standard C-mount lens fitting but ships with an adapter ring that can accommodate CS-lenses as well. The camera supports a range of resolutions and recording modes, including a RAW mode for an optimum quality/FPS ratio.

One of the most interesting features is the camera’s connectivity, with the ability to connect to any external SATA device that is supported under a Linux operating system (external harddrives, raids, etc.); an Ethernet 100MBit Network; USB 1.1 using 5V power supply; IDE to connect to an internal hard drive; and RS232 for access to a console and debug output. The Elphel can record onto 2 internal CF Card Slots, an optional internal IDE 1.8″ HDD or via its SATA connector to any SATA device.

Aside from the base camera unit, the Apertus requires several other pieces of hardware to function. These include:

- The “Dictator”: a small LCD screen (used for status parameters and navigating through menus of the camera,) that connects to the camera or viewfinder-computer via USB.

- Rod support: this is a community designed frame architecture to tie all the components together into an ergonomic, portable system. Images of design prototypes can be found here.

- Battery Pack: options for a viable battery solution are still being tested, but tests with a 2000mAh LiPo battery pack have been promising. The Elphel 353 power consumption is around 5W.

- Viewfinder: this is a computer or embedded device connected to the camera via an Ethernet cable for the purpose of real time video transmission between the camera and viewfinder. Devices that can be used include laptops, netbooks, PDAs, MIDs and Smartphones.

The Software

Apertus uses a software application called Elphel Vision. The Apertus team is working on a “touch screen based camera control interface with all basic camera controls, live preview and probably an integrated file browser to view the recorded files on the HDD.” The intention is to link this interface to either the “Dictator” project and/or a touchscreen tablet PC.

The software is released under a GPL V.3 license and its key features include the following:

- Developed as cross platform Java Application using libvlc(jvlc) to display live video stream with very low latency
- Live histograms
- Freely configurable markers/guides
- Audio monitoring & recording
- Recording of videos or stills
- Full manual control of all camera parameters

In terms of video codecs the camera supports .mov, JP4 RAW (requires post production conversion), .ogm, and JPEG sequence plus optional tags like geo information/GPS coordinates.

Project Viability

Unsurprisingly the Apertus FAQ page is revealing of the major end-user concerns as to the overall viability of using this set-up in the field. I should stress the fact that the project as a whole is a work and progress and no end date for completion is indicated on the website. But once finished, it’s clear that the end-user will be buying into a range of hardware solutions rather than an all-in-one, out of the box package.

This comes with a number of pros and cons. On the one hand it means the Apertus system has the potential to offer a greater degree of flexibility and expansion than commercial competitors. Community users will continue to contribute ideas to the project and use the infrastructure as a test bed for practical experiments. This is part of the Open Source “contract”, a model of construction and distribution that enables the end user to play a fairly central role in shaping the unit’s evolution over the months/years ahead.

On the other hand, this imposition dramatically reduces the project’s audience to a select group of end users with a keen interest in both the construction and mechanical aspects of camera hard/software as well as the complex matter of shooting film. The sense you get from perusing Apertus’ well laid out website is that the onus, at the moment, is more on the mechanics than the end goal of making films.

Perhaps the most telling point of all is raised in question 3: What will Apertus cost when it is available?

Answer: The final price tag is very difficult to predict but here is an educated guess:

Camera - 2.000 $ (more advanced sensor frontends could drastically increase this price)
Lens - not included
Rods Support - 200 $
Viewfinder - 500 $
Dictator - 250 $
Audio Hardware - not included
Microphone - not included
Battery Pack - 100 $
Software - 0 $ (yes, that was obvious wasn’t it :P)
Total = 3.050 $

The cost of a prosumer video camera outfit has dramatically decreased over the past year with the proliferation of SLR HD Video cameras such as the ever popular Canon 5D and high grade independent audio components like the Samson Zoom H4n that produce a viable get up and go option at for around $200 more.

All in all, until a number of relatively successful films have been shot with the Apertus set-up and the cost and ease of use has been reduced to the point of offering an interesting alternative to mainstream prosumer packages, will the Apertus be able to move beyond its status of experimental prototype.


As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, so to round off this brief introduction to Apertus, I leave you with a selection of videos shot with the Elphel 353 by project leader Oscar Spierenburg. For more information about the project be sure to visit the Apertus website. Thanks for reading and all comments and suggestions are welcome below.

1. Romain Sur Meuse

Romain sur Meuse (Elphel 333) from Oscar on Vimeo.

2. Failed Cocoon Time Lapse HD

Pi├Ęces de David Roux-Fouillet - Usf Prod - Failed Cocoon Time Lapse HD from usfprod on Vimeo.

3. Elphel Raw Test Footage

Elphel Raw Test Footage from OneArtPlease on Vimeo.

4. Juggling 100fps

Juggling 100fps from Adrien Mondot on Vimeo.

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Comments 7 comments | Leave a comment »

veterinary technician
Aug 30th, 2010, 10:58 am | #

Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

Anonymous Coward
Aug 30th, 2010, 12:21 pm | #


Aug 30th, 2010, 4:53 pm | #

Hate to be a Donny Doubter here… but who exactly is this camera for? As a filmmaker, I don’t care about what plugs into USB or how open the design is… all I care about is does it take good pictures and can the footage be dumped into FCP or Avid without drama. Perhaps the latter may be true… but the examples posted don’t impress me. The first video has really bad spherical aberration and the others look really flat.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great idea, but what I see before me right now is less a tool for art and more an engineer’s wet dream. Would rather pay a little more and get an EX1 or an actual 16mm film camera.

Aug 30th, 2010, 11:47 pm | #

“In terms of video codecs the camera supports .mov, JP4 RAW (requires post production conversion), .ogm, and JPEG sequence”

.mov and .ogm are not codecs, they are containers. And if JP4 RAW requires post production conversion, how is that part of the camera, or even worth mentioning? After production, you can convert video to any format you want.

Nick Timmons
Aug 31st, 2010, 10:26 am | #

@Bob I’m assuming that the JP4 RAW capability is similar to the wavelet-compressed RAW formats used in RED, ARRI, and several other 12 or 14-bit RAW cinema cameras. I find these formats to be tremendously useful for color correction and other post duties.

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