Thursday, 9 April 2015

Kodak DCS 760: Young Nation of Hurricanes

"Plums are healthy, plums are good / they are a nutritious food / listen up, dog, and let me teach ya / about the words of Friedrich Nietzsche" the Kodak DCS 760 was launched in March 2001, which was late in the game for Kodak; the DCS 760 competed head-to-head with the Nikon D1x and generally lost, although it doesn't seem to have been an outright flop. I'm going to spice up this article with quotes from the work of Nietzsche, otherwise it would be monotonous, and at the end I'm going to throw in some film theory, and I will invent a new word that you will all be using in a few months.

With a launch price of $8,000 the DCS 760 was the cheapest six megapixel Kodak to date, ten thousand dollars cheaper than the previous year's DCS 660, but it was still a very expensive camera, and the competition was gathering steam. The worthy Italian thought his diet was the cause of his long life, whereas the precondition for a long life - the extraordinary slowness of his metabolism - was the cause of his slender diet.

Judging by the serial numbers, Kodak shifted around 5,000 DCS 760s, versus roughly 50,000 D1xes. In its favour the DCS 760 had a larger sensor and a slight edge in resolution over the D1x, and Kodak's bundle included DCS PhotoDesk, which could do tethered shooting, batch RAW conversion and IPTC tagging. PhotoDesk would have been very impressive in 2001, and was about a version ahead of Nikon Capture, which Nikon owners had to buy separately.

NASA picked the DCS 760 as one of the International Space Station's house cameras, although over subsequent years the agency gradually transitioned to Nikon's own-brand SLRs. Nonetheless the NASA DCS 760s persisted into the mid-2000s, presumably because eBay shipping costs from the ISS would have been very steep. Whoever knows what goes on in kennels doubts that dogs are "improved" there. They are weakened, they are made less harmful, and through the depressive effect of fear, through pain, through wounds, and through hunger, they become sickly beasts.

The DCS 760 has a removable anti-aliasing / infrared filter. With the filter taken out the image is very sharp:

But suffers from moire patterns, visible here in the top-left:

The DCS cameras had pretty good dynamic range - much better than the D1 / D1x, which tended to blow highlights - and for most of the images in this post I've used Photoshop CS4's ND filter to bring back detail in the overcast sky.

From 2001 onwards the digital SLR market boomed, exploded, crashed down in price; the next digital SLR with an $8,000 price tag was the Nikon D3x, which was launched eight years later, in 2009. The D3x seemed extravagantly overpriced at the time, but it was a very capable piece of equipment and a convincing argument in favour of dedicated digital cameras, at a time when smartphones were starting to displace them.

Eight years of technological progress separate the DCS 760 and the D3X. The DCS 760 had a six megapixel, APS-H sensor with an ISO range from a smooth 80 to a very rough 400; the D3X had a full-frame, twenty-four megapixel sensor that could be pushed to a grainy but usable ISO 6400. Its files were twice as wide and twice as tall as those of the DCS 760, but much less noisy even on a pixel level. Although the D3X wasn't aimed at the sports market it could nonetheless shoot at five frames a second for thirty-six frames, versus the DCS 760's twenty-shot, 1.6fps burst mode. On a physical level the D3X was lighter and much shorter than the DCS 760, and the batteries were smaller and lasted longer.

The DCS 760's Kodak-made KAF-63 sensor traces its lineage back to the DCS 460 of 1994. The DCS series was sufficiently Gen One that the box needs to point out the "removable battery system"

Here the DCS 760 sits next to its archnemesis. The DCS 760 is seven and a half inches tall, which is ridiculous. The Nikon F5 film SLR had a built-in portrait grip, which Kodak had to extend in order to fit the battery and memory cards.
Engineering-wise the DCS 760 *is* a Nikon F5 with added bits, the D1x is an original design that owes a lot to the Nikon F100. Overall they both feel very tough, but the D1x is officially water-sealed whereas the DCS 760 isn't.
This article was made possible by the four horsemen of depreciation, obsolescence, persistence, and obsession.

On a physical level the DCS 760 is essentially a Nikon F5 with a permanently-attached, Kodak-built digital module. It has a simple 5-point autofocus array, the points arranged in a cross, with a high-precision sensor in the middle. The Nikon F5 was Nikon's top film camera of the 1990s. It has aged gracefully. Its 1/8000 top shutter speed and 1/250th flash sync are about as good as mechanical shutters got and the button-to-shutter delay is minuscule. The 2" LCD is grainy and dark, but Kodak tried hard to make the interface useful by adding a digital spotmeter and a 1:1 zoom. The firmware has a few clever features that are still unusual today, including (fiddly) GPS support via a serial link, a timelapse intervalometer, RAW development, and a shot counter. The twin card slots have FAT32 support and are hot-swappable. The F5 meters with manual focus Nikon lenses and has a screw-drive motor. I'm not a Nikon man, but as far as I can tell it works with Nikon's modern G-type and VR image stabilised lenses.

What's it like to use a DCS 760 nowadays? It's heavy and hard to put in a bag. The sticky rubber snags on things, although it's less prone to peeling off than the rubber grips Nikon used in the D1 and D1x. Shot-to-shot it's actually pretty quick. Internally the DCS 760 has a 75mhz PowerPC with a supporting DSP, and although Kodak never managed to give the camera instant JPEG compression they did make the interface fast. As with the DCS 520 that I wrote about a couple of years ago, the DCS 760 is surprisingly normal once you get used to its size and flaky batteries. The most ghastly thing of all is the deterioration of the nerves. Let any one wander through a large city at night, in all directions he will hear people doing violence to instruments with solemn rage and fury. A wild uproar breaks out at intervals. What is happening? It is the disciples of Wagner in the act of worshipping him.

The DCS 760's ISO 400 was an improvement on its predecessors. The DCS 760 also introduced dark frame subtraction, which solved the problem of stuck pixels. In good light ISO 400 is surprisingly usable, although grainy:

I really must dust my robot. But Kodak never solved the problem of excessive noise in the blue channel, which becomes splotchy, although again it's a small step up from before:

Under fluorescent light or in adverse lighting conditions the 760's image becomes a grainy splotchy yellow-streaked mess. At the time, Canon's new CMOS sensors were establishing a new benchmark in high-ISO, long-duration digital imaging, and Kodak presumably couldn't compete.

On a historical level the DCS 760, the D1x, and the compact Nikon D100 were launched just in time for 9/11. It seems that the photographic community took 9/11 as its cue to abandon film cameras and the older Kodaks en masse, with Nikon the chief beneficiary. The D1x went on to be standard issue for the US armed forces, and several photojournalists took them to Iraq, although Tyler Hicks used a D100 to capture this award-winning sequence of a wounded man being put down, because the D100 was smaller and easier to carry. Kodak heavily discounted the DCS 760 throughout its life, and I surmise that one or two are still firing away in healthcare or defence organisations today, tethered to an old G3 Macintosh in the personnel office, shooting identity badge photos; or systematically documenting Beanie Babies for eBay listings. The F5's shutter was rated for something in the region of 150,000 clicks. The DCS cameras show the shutter count in the menus - mine has taken 49,041 shots. The date battery no longer holds a charge. The last date it can reach is 31 December 2020, which isn't that far away.

The DCS 760 missed 9/11 in another way. Amongst the very few spot news images taken by ISS astronauts are ISS003-E-5387 and 5388, a pair of shots of smoke rising from the Twin Towers. Judging by the file sizes they were taken by the ISS' older DCS 460s, because the DCS 760s didn't arrive at the ISS until December 2001. They were too late.

The DCS 760 was Kodak's last press camera. It was launched in parallel with the two megapixel, high-ISO 720x, which sold very poorly. It seems that photographers wanted more megapixels. Perhaps because of this, Kodak then targeted the high resolution professional studio and wedding market, with the medium format DCS Pro Back and the full-frame DCS 14n, but although they were valiant efforts they were gone within a couple of years. The DCS 760 has a certain curiosity value nowadays as a toy. The six megapixel files are sharp and clear, but 4K monitors and the 5K iMac now mean that 3032x2008 images are actually smaller than your screen, probably. Its gaiety is African; fate hangs over it, its happiness is short, sudden, without reprieve. We no longer admire dentists who "pluck out" teeth so that they will not hurt any more.

Kodak is nowadays derided as the company that invented the games of football and cricket, and then stood back and watched as the West Indies, Brazil, India, West Germany, and Argentina beat it again and again and again in so many ways until it was just a shadow of its former self. But that's too simple; the DCS cameras dominated the digital SLR market for a few years and Kodak's Cineon system introduced 4K digital movie scanning as far back as 1992 (it was famously used to remaster Disney's Snow White in 1993, although sadly the 4K files were thrown away to make room for downsized archive copies, because nobody imagined a use for 4K back then). Kodak's compacts sold well throughout the 2000s, albeit that they were the kind of cameras your parents bought because they recognised the Kodak name. It seems that Kodak died not because of some special idiocy, but simply because the company was subject to the same economic processes that killed off the rest of the United States' consumer electronics industry; it's a wonder that a giant chemicals firm managed to develop digital imaging solutions as long as it did.

And You Will Know us by the Trail of Dead
Let's take a moment to appreciate the performances of Kevin Spacey in Seven (1995) and William H Macy in Fargo (1996). The performances and the characters they play. They both play murderers, although the two characters have very little in common. Spacey's John Doe is an analytical, moralistic killer who toys with his victims as part of a grand game; Macy's Jerry Lundegaard is a beta male loser who, strictly speaking, doesn't kill anyone himself, but through incompetence and greed ends up responsible for the deaths of seven people, including his wife. He didn't even want those people to die; he just wanted some hired thugs to kidnap his wife for the ransom, but alas he chose the wrong thugs.

The two films were released within a year of each other and, as with their lead characters, they are very different on the surface. Seven and by God I'm not writing Se7en is a dark, stylish thriller with the style of Ridley Scott, but with characterisation and dialogue as well, whereas Fargo is a deceptively normal, low-key drama that stays with you. But they share an atypical anti-glamour that separates them from murder films of a different era - from Silence of the Lambs (1991) or the later instalments of the Saw (2004) franchise. Hannibal Lector was neither the star nor even the villain of Silence, but he became the film's most enduring legacy, a kind of murderous James Bond who jetted across the world killing boring people; the Saw franchise was essentially a throwback to the post-modern 1990s, a level up from the likes of Scream, but nonetheless the whole thing was presented as an aside to a complicit audience.

People love murderers, because murder is the ultimate transgression of society's rules; one of the ultimate expressions of a power we cannot have. Killing is shocking and dangerous and erotic. The classic early Hollywood film The Great Train Robbery (1903) was about a gang of killers who killed and were then killed in turn. The film ended with one of the villains firing his pistol at the audience, and audiences loved it.

One thing linking James Bond and Hannibal Lector - beyond their knowledge of fine wines and their jet-setting lifestyle - is that they are cold-blooded murderers. We enjoy watching them kill. The Bond films assuage whatever guilt we might feel by making Bond an agent of the common good, and in this respect Bond, although seemingly hedonistic and amoral, is actually a very conservative character. Bond only kills transgressors with the permission of his government, whereas Hannibal Lector is a Nietzschean overman unbound by conventional moralty. He kills when it pleases him; at first Lector was the transgressor, but over the course of Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal he became our alter-ego, a man unafraid to cut the throats of irritating people such as other people on the aeroplane or those people in front of you at the post office who have a bag with lots of padded envelopes that they insist on posting one after the other after the other after the other as part of their eBay business selling pathetic trinkets how loathsome they are. Lector would have followed them as they went back to their car, and on the way he would have lured them into a dark alley and gutted them, but instead I stood there with impotent fuming rage because I am not the master of my own fate or that of others.

I mean, the Post Office should give eBay sellers a special lane of their own, paid for by a surcharge of some kind. Still, it feels strange to say that Seven possesses an "atypical anti-glamour". The thing people remember most about that film - apart from the ending - is the style. The visual style of the credits sequence, the dark bleach bypass colour scheme that made even bright daylight look sick and wrong, a style that was borrowed from MTV and that went on to be a cliché of the last half of the 1990s. That and the ending.

But Seven is an unusual murder film, in that the murderer himself is largely overshadowed by his actions. By the time John Doe gives himself up to the cops we're expecting him to be the living incarnation of Satan, but in reality he's a weedy, pathetic man who becomes less menacing the more we know him, more a kind of sickness than society's nemesis. He is reminiscent of Max Schreck's Count Orlok, from F W Murnau's classic Nosferatu. So the story goes, Murnau wanted to make a film of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but Stoker refused to sell him the rights, so he took the basic plot of Stoker's novel and simply changed the names, keeping everything else more or less the same. But he radically changed the central character, turning the elderly, pale, well-dressed, well-mannered Dracula into a rat-like plague fiend.

Dracula and his vampire brethren are usually portrayed in the media as rational, ruthless murderers. They are sexy and powerful, driven by a raging bloodlust that they can nonetheless control, and if they want to keep Madeline Smith and/or Ingrid Pitt - preferably and - chained up in the basement wearing see-through negligées so that they can be ravished at will, what's so wrong with that? Wouldn't we all like to do the same? Wouldn't it be fun to be a vampire? In Hammer's Dracula films the forces of so-called goodness always came across as stodgy and boring, sexless and dull, something that Hammer's scriptwriters occasionally played with. The later Hammer films asked Christopher Lee to play Dracula as a blaxploitation-style pimp and whoremonger. In fact they were almost DRAXploitation films.

That's the end of the post. I was building up to that pun. Draxploitation. That was the whole point of the post, good night.

No, no. Dracula suave etc but in Nosferatu Count Orlok looks like a human rat, with little pokey rat teeth and creepy fingers. No-one in their right mind wants to be Count Orlok, and the same is true of John Doe and Jerry Lundegaard. They aren't glamorous people, they're creeps. Now, Murnau was an expressionist, given to flights of visual fancy, and I'm not sure whether Orlok is supposed to look like a rat within the reality of Nosferatu. In an early scene he disguises his appearance by wearing a tea towel over his head, and the Jonathan Harker character is unnerved by his presence, but on the other hand Orlock clearly isn't human, and yet the rest of the film appears to take place in our world, e.g. a world where magic isn't supposed to exist. But then again movies take place in movieland, and it seems to me that Orlok's grotesque appearance is a mixture of genuine grotesqueness and a kind of exaggerated visual metaphor of an inner sickness. Orlok is presented as a plague, and it's easy to read Nosferatu as anti-semitic, although on the other hand the character of Knock actually is Jewish, and he doesn't have fangs.

There's a certain kind of middle-class couple that take their children to the Tate Modern and let them run around, presumably hoping that the combination of modern art and zero parental guidance will make the children super-geniuses. Kids aren't stupid, they know when they're being asked to perform. And thirty years from now whatever is in the Tate Modern in 2015 will seem like a load of outdated tosh; the kids won't remember it.

Orlok is nonetheless not in control of his lusts, and this separates him from Dracula. At the sight of blood he instinctively lurches forwards to suck it, and rather than slowly bide his time he immediately assaults the Harker character - he essentially date-rapes him - and later in the film he has his way with a ship of sailors in a manner that leaves him extremely vulnerable, although in practice no-one takes the trouble to investigate the ghost ship on which he arrives before Orlok recovers. He is essentially a rapist who doesn't bother to run away before falling asleep.

Seven takes place in a world closer to our own, and John Doe is much more careful to cover his tracks. He is possessed of inhuman self-control, although on a physical level he is an anonymous man who resembles Kevin Spacey. John Doe not only kills people, he forces them to torture themselves, and he does so with impunity. The police never catch him, and in the end he gives himself up. He is always ahead of the game, whereas Jerry Lundegaard is never in control. But despite his obvious nous Doe still manages to be a pathetic, petty man. His vision of a sick society is banal and feels ripped from the pages of the Daily Mail rather than the wailing soul of humanity - it's debatable whether this was intentional, or whether the writers of the film either didn't want or were unable to give him a thesis that would resonate with the audience - and his grand plan is obviously doomed to failure. His scheme will make the headlines for a day, assuming it doesn't coincide with some hot celebrity news, and then he'll be forgotten or ghettoised away in the pages of true crime books. In the end he kills several people and ruins the lives of several more, and it was all for nothing. He didn't live to see his dream die, and I suspect deep down he didn't want to face the possibility of failure, he didn't want to live in a world where he was wrong. I have often asked myself whether I am not much more deeply indebted to the hardest years of my life than to any others.

Ultimately John Doe comes across as the kind of self-righteous twerp who refuses to admit being wrong or being capable of error, the kind of person for whom, in real life, the cover-up causes more problems than the crime, although Doe manages to keep his ball rolling with a skill that would make Richard Nixon envious. In contrast Jerry Lundegaard is John Doe for the real world. His schemes immediately fall apart. I have always assumed that successful real-life serial killers are essentially opportunists, who invent whatever grand plan they pretend to have after the killings, fitting it around reality rather than using the plan to guide their actions. The likes of Ted Bundy and Dennis Nilsen didn't even seem particularly smart, they simply preyed on people who would not be missed or they relied on natural charm to get by. The mysterious, never-caught Zodiac killer left behind a trail of unconnected victims obviously picked at random, and I'm not convinced that the murders and the letters were the work of the same man, or that there ever was a Zodiac killer; the Manson killings were carried out according to a plan, but it was a woolly plan that made no sense. The only murderers who systematically target the same group successfully over time are terrorists such as the IRA or the Mafia, or government organisations, and they are not individuals, they are organisations.

In Fargo no-one respects Jerry, and with good reason. He is superficially presentable and at least competent enough to run a car dealership, albeit not very well. He can drive a car. That takes a certain amount of skill, right? But he is a small man. There's a difference between sympathising with a character and feeling sorry for them; it's hard not to feel sorry for Jerry, and perhaps if he wasn't surrounded with ruthless sharks he wouldn't have turned out so bad, but his attempt to become a low-rent Walter White is doomed to failure, in fact by the time the film begins he is already reduced to buying time, hoping that perhaps a meteorite will strike the Earth and put him out of his misery.

HP5, which has nothing to do with the article but I take lots of photographs.

Lundegaard and Doe share something else. They don't directly kill their victims. Well, Doe presumably murders the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow and her unborn child, but until that point he forces his victims to kill themselves and/or other victims. Lundegaard, as mentioned before, doesn't even intend for anybody to die, but by the end of the film he is nonetheless responsible for several deaths, on top of which he ruins the life of his son, who will presumably have to be taken into care now that his mother is dead and his dad is in prison. "And for what?", says Officer Marge Gunderson in one of the most celebrated film monologues of the 1990s. "For a little bit of money."

"There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here you are, and it's a beautiful day." Gunderson doesn't actually direct her words at Jerry - he is, from her point of view, arrested off-screen - but she might as well have done. The scene in which Jerry is arrested (in his underwear, trying to climb out of a window) is a superb piece of acting from William H Macy. To the end he is a snivelling weakling, a banal non-entity who was way out of his depth, superficially the polar opposite of John Doe although in practice they are both doomed men, symptoms of sickness who nonetheless chose their path.

Kodak TMAX, which outlasted Kodak's digital cameras.

I'm not convinced that there's anything more to life than money. Beyond childhood, human society revolves around it, and children themselves are sheltered by a wall of money they do not see. Rich men can afford to protect their children; poor men cannot, and thus the poor are condemned to breed weaklings who spend their lives at the mercy of external forces. Officer Gunderson is a married woman living in a house presumably paid for by her husband. In a woman's world money is a never-ending river that flows from outer space; one of the key shocks of Seven comes from the realisation that the secure bubble in which Officer Mills' wife exists has been punctured by the killer. In fact, more or less the same thing happens in Fargo. Both films reach a peak of horror with the death of the main male character's wife.

I'm tempted to say the protagonist's wife, but whereas Jerry is the catalyst of Fargo's drama, Officer Mills is really a supporting role. Seven is particularly unusual in that the main character - the only one left standing at the end, who delivers the moral - is an elderly, black man. In a lesser film Morgan Freeman's Officer Somerset would have sacrificed his life so that white Brad Pitt's white Officer Mills could live happily and white-ly ever after with white Gwyneth Paltrow, who is not just genetically white but almost spiritually white, in the sense that if Hollywood was dominated by black people, they would hire Gwyneth Paltrow as the stereotypical white housewife, just as white-dominated Hollywood hires Morgan Freeman as the stereotypical wise old black man.

Jerry Lundegaard's hired thugs are motivated solely by money, but Jerry himself seems to crave something else. Perhaps for him the money is just a means to an end. The villain in his film is a multi-millionaire who has been rich for so long that he no longer gives a shit about a million dollars. Jerry seems to crave the sort of respect that comes from utter unshitgivingness; the authority that comes from knowing that your words are being taken seriously, and will be actioned. The feeling when serious men nod and approve of your words.

There are many routes to respect; terrorists and organised criminals win it with guts and brawn and ruthlessness, but as the Kray Twins and Al Qaeda have demonstrated, when the organisation becomes weak and old and flabby the respect melts away. Eventually the Krays became cartoon villains and Al Qaeda was upstaged by even more brutal terrors. The problem with guts and brawn is that they don't last without constant exercise - the Taliban and various offshoots of the IRA conducted several actions simply to show their audience that they could still get it up - but money remains. Its value erodes over time, but not as fast or as thoroughly as human bodies. Money is the passive stick, the foundation on which comfort is built, a parent who is always there, an old family house with thick walls. Seven and Fargo are American films, the products of a nation where the oldest houses are still young; a young nation of hurricanes that craves solid walls, in which security comes only from money. There is nothing else. The men of hip-hop realise this; money is power is freedom. None of those things are given freely, comma Kodak DCS something-or-other the end.

"Unshitgivingness", no Google returns; "draxploitation" has a few, including one that suggests Roger Ebert beat me, but damn you Roger you're dead, this is my world now, my internet. You people, reading this right now, you get to see the origin of your future happening right here, right now, on this blog, tonight.