Friday, December 18, 2009

Dress for Success with RED

"When in doubt, wear RED." - Bill Blass


While statistically unproven, not having to wear a suit and tie is possibly one of the top 3 reasons people go in to production.

Fashion designer Bill Blass once said, "When in doubt, wear RED." So while he may not appreciate my daily attire over the past 20 years but, he hopefully would appreciate my taste in cameras. In this case the RED ONE digital cinema camera.

As a boutique facility in a small market, Florida Production Group, Inc. has a fortunate history of adopting new and affordable technology to help give us a competitive and creative edge.

For many of us in these smaller markets one creative edge we've been chasing for years, that holy grail, has been the "film look". Specifically 35mm film. The same size film used on most feature length movies, episodic television series and high-end national commercials. HD cameras are of course now being used in these areas as well but, at the highest quality level many still consider film the king. Until now. The emperor is wearing new clothes and they are RED.

RED ONE Camera

Oh how we want that depth of field, selective focus, beautiful uncompressed image, multiple levels of shadow detail and stops of latitude, and temporal motion only shooting film can deliver. Over the years we've rented 35 mm film cameras and at one point owned a nice Arri 16 mm film camera yet the cost associated with film production (rental fees, insurance, shipping, film processing, film-to-tape transfer, etc.) eclipsed the budgets of many of our customers.

RED camera tests. Click thumbnails for 2K images (compressed a bit)

RED camera test with cars

Cars 3

Cars 2

We also had some success with film look software and 24p video cameras but those never really were as good as something that was truly captured on film. The culprits with current affordable video technology being data compression, small CCD imagers, and the lenses that typically come with nearly all mainstream SD and HD video cameras.

When the RED ONE was first announced it seemed too good to be true. Some thought it was a hoax, vaporware they claimed. An affordable camera that shoots and records both 2K and 4K data with all of the characteristics of film at a attractive price-point. With a resolution of 4096x1260, that's about 4x the pixels of 1920x1080 HD - roughly 8.8 million pixels for 4K vs. 2 million for 1080.

4K is the same digital intermediate size that recent high-end movies like the Spiderman series use for scanning the film for special effects work. The HD cameras used to shoot the new Star Wars episodes are 1080 HD, slightly less than 2K.

As a small facility owner I am thinking hey, if it's good enough for Peter Parker and better than Darth Vader, count me in because there's a new force swinging through the industry called RED.

Yeah I know, that was corny.

Preparing the clients
We were one of the early customers (#271 out of nearly 3000) to plop down a deposit many months ago. As the deposit was completely refundable it seemed like a safe bet, so I started prepping my clients.

One of the first questions they have for me is why do you need a 4K camera when all our spots end up on a small 4x3 SD dub for local broadcast?

I explain that it's much like shooting film for a national spot, or even a high-end local spot. The higher quality you start out with, the better it looks as it progresses through the production pipe line. With a 4K image we have tons more pixels to work with, tons more resolution and tons more color information.

I continue: if I can provide that initial huge boost in image acquisition quality I can provide you a noticeably better looking commercial, all without the high cost or concerns of shooting and processing film. Plus production ready, 4 megapixel stills can be pulled from the footage. So if you need one frame or more for a print piece, no problem.

The numbers
Besides the super-duper high resolution what other features make this camera so great my clients asked. Well how about a CMOS sensor bigger than super 35 mm. Our current HDV camera that makes nice images uses tiny 1/3" chips, our old SD camera used 2/3" chips, still small in comparison.

RED camera with viewfinder

Best of all the big sensor or imager allows the direct use of PL mount 35mm cine prime and zoom lenses without any cumbersome adaptor. High end lenses from Zeiss and Cooke designed and built for real film cameras mount right up and RED has some great lenses of their own at breakthrough prices. The sensor size and film lenses contribute heavily to that dreamy, film style depth of field and selective focus capability we all desire.

RAW workflow
Also on the notable list is RAW data capture, just like high-end Canon and Nikon SLR still cameras. This enables a remarkable level of color fidelity and post manipulation. The RED viewfinder or LCD provides an adjustable creative look for preview on location but behind the scenes the camera is recording a RAW, unaltered image direct from the sensor.

RED viewfinder close-up

Through RED software called RED ALERT and REDCINE running on a Mac or PC you can color grade the image until you are blue in the face, without affecting the original image.

Want a different white balance, click, done. Different exposure, click, done. Warmer, cooler, more contrast, darker, brighter, click, done.

Want it to look like Miami CSI, sure.

How about a Saving Private Ryan look, no problem.

All without degrading the image through processing. Once color graded, export it as your favorite flavor codec, HD or SD size, import in to your NLE and edit away. That's very simplified but it's the basic workflow.

Just like film, the camera shoots at 24 frames per second (it also does good old 29.97 fps too). And It can also run over cranked or under cranked allowing slow and fast motion recording, as well as time lapse.

RED camera back

Camera back, close-up

RED ONE uses no tape. No moving parts means less wear and tear, no chance of tape drop-outs, etc. At the time we got ours the only media available was 8 gb compact flash cards at about $200 a pop. They hold approximately 5 minutes of 4K data and 20 minutes of 2K.

Close-up of RED's Compact Flash card

Like most things silicon, prices are expected to go down as sizes go up. In January 2008 the RED DRIVE started shipping. This is a 320 gb hard drive that slides in to a receiver on the battery cradle that attaches to the back of the camera on rails. Do the math to get storage times.

Bearing RED, not wearing it
Wow! This thing sounds great my customers exclaim. They are pumped, my small staff is pumped. This RED thing is going to be amazing but when will it be here?

Just a few days after Christmas 2007 our bet walked through the doors in the arms of our friendly FedEx man, strangely, not wearing Bill Blass.

Three good sized boxes containing our RED camera body, 18-50mm zoom lens, LCD, CF cards, batteries and charger and miscellaneous connectors, handles, and hardware. Our first tests in our studio were simple but the immediate observation was, look at that depth of field and color! We set up some car models and ironically a yellow Kodak film box for color as seen in the enclosed pics.

Click image for captured test image at 2K

RED 2K test

It's worth noting that like many things with RED things are always changing and evolving, this includes the manual. While somewhat detailed and informative the manual is a .pdf work in progress as camera firmware and user software is tweaked, modified and updated.

The camera menu instructions in the version at the time we got the camera failed to mention early on that the menu joystick can be rotated to select options. It took a bit of re-reading and head scratching to figure it out. Once we did it became very clear how the menu structure is laid out. It's no more difficult than the menus on many current professional HD and HDV cameras.

RED at work

This is not a garden variety camera you pull out of a bag, turn on, white balance and quickly shoot with. It is very much a film style operation. For instance there are no built in neutral density filters like the filter wheel on a ENG/EFP camera; you need a matte box and a assortment of filters. You better know more about exposure than just hitting the auto button because this one doesn't have auto anything. It's all manual. In fact a good old light meter will come in very handy.

Because it's so high resolution, focus is extremely critical. Most EFP and ENG shooters have always focused their own cameras. The film method is to have the director of photography (DP) compose shots and run the camera while a assistant stands by actually focusing the lens based on focus marks on the lens barrel and estimating distance of subject matter and talent.

This certainly is not to say a focus puller is mandatory -- many of our jobs will be one and two man crews. The key is practice, practice, practice. The camera does have a handy 2X zoom for checking focus and it works very well. However, if you've got a big job with a lot on the line, hiring a camera assistant will be good insurance.

Our first paying job was a :30 spot for a local hospital. Kind of a slice of life.

(The images below are thumbnails. Click to enlarge.)

hospital office

Now this was on a cold, very overcast day for the exteriors. Two person run-and-gun crew. Me shooting and pulling focus and my wonderful assistant Tabitha gripping. The 2X zoom in feature for checking focus worked great.

Overcast baby

We decided to shoot 2K because being our first job we wanted to ensure we had enough media to last. Turns out we only used one 8 gb card out of five we have. It was on and off shooting from 8 am to about 1:30 pm and one battery was all we used.

The only noticeable change on location was the weight of the RED. Once loaded up with a battery, lcd, support rails, etc. it's a pretty hefty piece of equipment. I will say it appears to be built like a tank.

The wonderful thing about shooting RAW is the true power you have in post. The overcast conditions helped diffuse shadows but did nothing for color. Using RED ALERT I pulled the clips in to my MacBook Pro. Wow, how cool it was to add some color and life to a otherwise overcast day. Shots at a local park and beautiful Pensacola Beach just popped after some tweaking. All without degrading the image.

Couple walks along beach

Since this was my first post session I experimented with work-flow. I found it easiest to export 2K tiffs or dpx files out of RED ALERT.

Brought those in to Adobe After Effects. Interpreted the clips as 23.976. Popped them in to a D1 720x486 23.976 comp. Scaled the clip to 38% to give me a nice letter box effect. Added 3:2 pulldown on the render out.

Imported in to a 720x486 8-bit SD Final Cut Pro timeline with our Kona card and edited away.

Close-up of veteran

Yes, a few extra steps but nothing out of the ordinary. And the resulting images, even at SD really impressed the agency producer and the client.

True costs
From a cost stand point this set up is a bit more than the advertised price of $17,500 for the camera body. Once you factor in a RED lens or two, power, viewfinder, storage, etc. the cost quickly goes to around $30k or more. Now this is about the same amount we paid for a high-end SD camera a few years ago for far less technology and a fraction of the resolution.

There are some financial short cuts you can take. For example RED and 3rd parties have adaptors to use 35 mm still lenses you may already have. Or perhaps you have a set of film lenses available. Regardless this will be a bit more costly than the current crop of small HDV camcorders but, it will pay off big in far superior quality and marketability.

In regards to anything else at the higher end of the camera spectrum it's a no-brainer. Newer high-end HD camcorders from name manufacturers once fully loaded can cost well over $100k. And for that you get far less resolution than RED.

Interestingly when we opened in the mid 1980's we used to finance cameras and depreciate them on a 3-5 year schedule. As the desktop revolution and inexpensive HDV cameras came along we were buying a new camera to keep up with technology almost every 18 months. The less expensive cameras helped to mitigate the return on investment.

The future
RED being more costly at first seems daunting financially. However, this camera has some anti-obsolescence features built in. One is the resolution. It will be a while before we will need to regularly hand out HD dubs for our broadcast work in our area. It will be a very long time if ever before we hand over 2k or 4k files for a broadcast spot. So this super resolution ability future proofs premature camera replacement, enabling us to plan a longer life for it based on current technology.

RED has promised that as technology evolves it will be possible to send in your camera body to have the sensor or imager swapped out for the latest whiz-bang ultra sensor. It reminds me of older film cameras that were built like tanks and lasted 30 years. Every so often you would send them in for service, get them back and keep working with them.

Our work is mostly local and regional spots and a fair amount of corporate and business-to-business production. The office and edit suites are often hectic but there is always more and new exciting work over the horizon. The RED ONE camera gives us an edge to bring in more high-end business while providing our current customer base with quality we only dreamed of a few years ago.

For us RED has become not only a fashionable choice, but a necessary one enabling professional and creative growth

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