Camera firm takes off
If you saw the movie “Pearl Harbor” (many people didn’t), you probably were impressed with the view from the cockpits of the Japanese planes as they swept in on the American fleet.
And if you saw February’s Super Bowl (many people did), you probably noticed the shots from the overhead camera moving along a sideline cable.
In both cases, the clear, steady pictures were made possible by a stabilized camera system invented and manufactured by Cineflex LLC of Grass Valley.
Now the company’s technology is being embraced by television news operations, which are using Cineflex gear to mount cameras under their helicopters to obtain better pictures for traffic and breaking news reports.
John Coyle, founder and president of Cineflex, believes he can have his equipment installed on at least 30 TV copters in the next year while the company pushes its products into other markets.
“The interest is there,” Coyle said last week. “Our system is done, is proven, and does work.”
Cineflex makes stabilized camera systems that house video and movie cameras. Using microprocessors and sophisticated software, the hardware stabilizes the camera against wind, motion, vibration and other impediments to get a sharp, clear picture when the camera isn’t on firm ground.
The ability to get a sharp picture with no detectable vibrations will become more important as television stations and other users migrate to high-definition cameras, which have three times the picture definition of conventional video cameras.
Camera stabilization technology has been around for more than a decade, but the military and government intelligence agencies were the primary customers for the expensive and often bulky gear.
That changed in the mid-1990s, when Coyle was asked to design a stabilizing system for a company that provided television coverage of golf tournaments from blimps and wanted to use smaller ones that didn’t carry the name of a tire company.
The lightweight system he developed spawned Cineflex, which moved from Santa Rosa to Grass Valley in 1998 and merged last year with Helinet Aviation Services of Van Nuys, a supplier of helicopters, cameras and crews for movie productions and television stations.
Four television stations – including one in Sacramento that won’t talk about it yet – have purchased Cineflex stabilizers, which can run as high as $400,000 if you include a high-definition broadcast camera.
KGO-TV in San Francisco put its system to work last week, and Michel Camus, news technical operations manager at the ABC Network station, expects significant improvement in the station’s airborne pictures.
“We used to use a camera with a stabilizer lens on it, with the cameraman hanging out the door of the copter,” he said last week. “It has always been a sore point with me that the public had to put up with the helicopter noise.”
KGO has used the Cineflex stabilizer to mount a camera under the copter’s nose. A control panel inside the copter repositions the camera as needed.
“Using this system, you can be a couple of miles away and get great pictures,” he said. “I was delighted (Coyle) started the business … I’ve had a good relationship with him and his product.”
Coyle said developments in camera technology that made it possible to split the unit into two pieces add to the appeal of Cineflex technology. “Small and light is very important for aircraft installation,” he said. “The equipment is so light (117 pounds), copters can have a full load of fuel and carry more people.”
Cineflex is currently focusing on systems for aircraft, cables in stadiums and other venues, and boats and ships, but Coyle envisions other applications for the company’s products.
The film industry could become a major customer as the industry migrates from film to high definition video cameras (Panavision, the major supplier of film cameras, recently showed its first hi def system), along with unmanned spy aircraft.
Rob Hulse, senior electronic engineer, noted the company is now attracting interest from overseas, particularly Japan, and other opportunities for government business could open up with infrared camera systems Cineflex is developing.
That means the nine-employee firm, currently housed in a 5,000-square-foot facility near Nevada County Airport, is ready to expand. Coyle is considering building a facility on Crown Point Circle and wants to hire “talented” electrical and mechanical engineers at the rate of one a month.
“With luck, we could be a 30- to 40-employee company here in a couple of years,” Coyle said.
Larger companies could enter the business, but Coyle believes Cineflex’s technology lead and responsiveness give it the armor plating it needs to succeed in the business.
“We are small enough to be personable, more responsive than the big guys, and our customers realize this,” he said.
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