Friday, December 18, 2009

Shooting with RED: Testing, testing...

As a RED forum leader here on the Cow, I bit my tongue and waited until I had actually had real hands on playtime with this, one of the most revolutionary tools that a modern filmmaker has at their disposal, before I added my commentary to the mix.

First let me say that this is not just a camera. It is more like an advanced imaging system and a prerequisite high-end workflow that is not for everyone. It is not an HVX200 killer by any stretch of the imagination and woe be to anyone still thinking that at this stage of the camera’s development. This is truly a professional production tool, designed to take digital moviemaking out of the stone age to the next level (or two) of digital production.

For a test like this, done during the first couple of weeks of the new year, I had access to about 50 or so #5mm caliber lenses, all with the ability to cover the 4520 pixel wide imager found on the RED camera, plus an additional 100 or so that could cover the image area defined for 2K (2048 pixels wide) with the RED branded PL to B4 lens mount adapter. (PL stands for "positive lock" - more about that in just a bit.)

Talk about a kid in a candy store! Choosing between the best of the best when it comes to 35mm PL mount glass, whether it be Arri Master Primes, Zeiss Digi-Primes and a full set of Cooke S4/i's or one of the 8 or 9 Optimo zooms that were available, was somewhat akin to deciding the best between your mistress or your girlfriend. I know a good many of the people at Cooke- including current president Les Vallen, so I decided to take their newest glass out for a test drive, and with every lens in the product line available to me, a simple choice was still difficult, since there is nothing like having over a million dollars of lenses to pick and choose from.


QuickTime Proxy – an alias or symbolic link to the original file (and file format)

(QuickTime) Wrapper- a shell or wrapping around a incompatible file type to make it look and act like another video file type. (MXF and QuickTime Reference movies are the best example people know)

Debayer – the process of converting the CMOS image data from the RAW data state to something that can be read and handled as imagery

CF cards- Compact Flash media – most common for DSLRs, Red has adapted this format for their default internal acquisition medium.

DPX- digital picture exchange – still file format developed to handle film resolution files and the associated metadata (ie: TC, frames, reels etc). Tiff and Targa are other formats used to handle frame based file workflows.

2K – originally considered 2048 x 1566 pixels (anamorphic) or 2048x1152 as spherically corrected (normal to the eye) - RED uses the 2048 x1152 frame size for their 2K format. A 2K DPX conversion is approximately 11MB per frame

3K – a uniquely RED format it is 3072 pixels wide and is used to allow for higher frame rates with lesser loss of quality than working in RED 2K does.

4K – while there are a number of frame sizes I will stick to the RED 4520 x 2540 for the frame size. The 4K DPX file is approximately 36MB per frame

4:4:4 – an RGB file format for working with the highest quality files, the highest quality is delivered when using the RGB Log format.

Dual Link HDSDI- 2 bonded channels of HDSDI that are needed to deliver the high bandwidth of a 4:4:4 or RGB based workflow. By its nature the DL workflow is currently limited to mostly VFX and film production as it is too expensive for monitoring and requires too much storage for most common types of productions.

Getting set up

One thing to start, I have to admit it is incredibly well machined and put together. Assembly of the parts and the simplicity of its design make the camera feel like this is finely crafted tool that one should expect. While a tad heavier than I might expect, it is lighter than an F23, D20 or similar cameras. Basic setup and assembly are simple for someone familiar with this type of pro gear to do without reading the instructions.

Red's interface and controls are as straightforward as the camera itself is. I would recommend reading the manual for first time users so that you understand the basics of this camera’ operations and functions.

Being as much computer as camera, certain rules apply- first of which is understanding that the recording media (compact flash - called a CF card) needs to be ejected prior to removal, not unlike Panasonic's P2 and Sony’s SxS recording media. Second would also be that so far every upgrade to the camera has added or changed some of the functionality or working parameters.


The camera's rear mounted internal display offers a simple way to navigate through the camera menus; in all honesty it is the only thing about the camera that does not scream elegance, in spite of the simplicity and usability -- it still needs an on off switch for the display's backlight.

The RED external viewfinder had not been delivered at the time I am writing this (March 2008). However, the external RED LCD was a suitable substitute for the time being. That screen gives the user a vast amount of information for menus, frame rate, frame size, battery usage, storage available and even a histogram is viewable if needed.

On location with Dan Gutt and RED

One odd note about the display output here in camera firmware build 13 - since the LCD and EVF both have different aspect ratios than the current HD preview output, it not currently possible to see the aforementioned navigation controls situated at the bottom of the screens when viewing via the HDSDI preview.

It was also not possible to have both the LCD and the HDSDI preview on at the same time. Annoying, but it is all but certain to be fixed within the next couple of builds of the camera software. That being said, everything about this camera is breaking the mold of what people can and should expect from the next generation of digital acquisition tools.


One of the most interesting things about the camera is the use of Mini BNC and Mini XLRs for the onboard connections. Originally designed for use internally on decks, telecine, scanners and other high-end devices, the mini connectors are not nearly as fragile as some people assume. Their use on the camera has allowed RED to keep the form factor and weight to a bare minimum and the included adapters for the mini connectors allow you to work with all existing BNC and XLR devices, such as monitors, scopes, LCDs etc. that are on the market.

RED camera connections

RED users with no film camera experience are in for a surprise, as the default configuration of the camera currently allows for lenses to be mounted with the industry standard PL mount, same mount that is found on the vast majority of 16mm and 35mm film cameras. (PL refers to the “Positive Lock” mounting system standard Arri introduced, and now found on virtually all-modern film cameras, except those owned by Panavision).

While conventional SD, b-4 mount HD and still camera lenses can traditionally only be mounted one specific way, the PL mount allows the user to mount the lens at 90* increments, so that the lens and markings can be viewed at usable viewing angles by the assistant cameraman or focus puller normally used in productions using such top of the line camera gear.


The other thing that may surprise many users is the sheer weight, with the body only at somewhere about 15lb (6Kg). By the time you add mounting plates, rails, matte box, LCD and mounting arm, S35 lens, battery with bracket, and cabling to the external display, you are quickly well over 40 lbs. That requires a considerably heavier tripod/ fluid head combo or stronger back than many people are used to working with, but certainly close to normal for this class of camera. Funny how the people that think that this a such a “great buy” at $17.5 forget that a fully equipped camera will easily need support that costs in excess of the camera’s purchase price.

Shooting with RED

I did not have a RED drive for my initial testing, so I used the standard RED branded 8GB CF (compact flash) cards that allowed for approximately 4.5 minutes of recording time per card. New cards or those with the contents removed for archiving take about 15 secs to format in camera, and the camera automatically offers to format new media when it is inserted into the card slot.

In my initial testing only a couple of cards were used, and only once did that cause issues. Reformatting the cards in-camera did slow me down on one shot and that alone is enough of a reason to have more than a minimum number of cards on a shoot at any one time. I would base that number on 3 more than the number of cards you think you need for a days worth of shooting on your project.

Estimated Data Rates for the most commonly used Uncompressed HD formats

720p24 HD needs about 65 Megabytes per second
1080 24psf HD needs about 150 megabytes per second
1080i 29.97 HD needs about 175 megabytes per second
1080 4:4:4 @ 24fps needs about 220 Megabytes per second
2K (DPX @ 24fps) needs about 275 Megabytes per second
4K (DPX @ 24fps) needs about 1250 Megabytes per second

Production at this level can be very costly and any downtime waiting for transfers or formatting of a card needs to be done during breaks or set changes, not when you start to shoot. I would not go out and shoot with less than 10- 8 gig cards or a RED Drive.

This is one of the areas that the camera needs something now being found on many newer sets – a digital support person -- so I would recommend a data wrangler or DAS (data acquisition specialist) a new title suggested by the ASC.

While 4 minutes per card is rather short for many video shooters, film guys are accustomed to this length of “load,", ie: a100ft film magazine of 35mm film only lasts about that long. People whining about needing to record hours and hours at a time really need to understand that, with this camera, that kind of philosophy could create dangerous, suicidal problems when you get to post. Something that all of the “keep shooting, it’s only tape” people should take to heart.

At 4K resolution you can shoot at 23.98, 24 and 25 fps. The 2K format offers a little more flexibility, allowing you to shoot all of those frame rates from 1 to 76 fps for over and under cranking as well, thus allowing the user to alter the timebase of images being captured to speed up or slow down the intended motion – just as with a film camera. The aspect ratio settings on the camera itself leave little to argue about, you can shoot in 4K, 4K @2:1, 2K, and 2K at 2:1 aspect ratio.

Focus was the most critical thing I ran into working with RED #211. Even with experience with high-end cameras, my working knowledge of limitations using true S35 frame size became quickly apparent. Working at f4 with a150mm S4/i Cooke prime my depth of field was measured in scant millimeters, not inches, even when the subject was more than 12 feet away.

My second test shoot using a 50mm prime at f5.6 did finally give me something close to a 1” DoF when the subject was a scant meter from the front of the lens. The combo of my bifocals glasses and trying to focus on the LCD has created issues for many people, myself included; so video only shooters that are used to working on a flip out LCD beware. Lenses on cameras at this level have incredibly fine focus adjustment controls due to that limited DoF. Maintaining focus requires your continuous diligence, just as it would be in 35mm. This tool really wants and needs a real film-style crew to support a shoot.

Think full time focus puller whenever possible.

Techno sidebar: Cooke lenses

RED and Cooke teamed together on some ground breaking technology that is quietly taking hold in the VFX community as part of the tapeless / filmless revolution.

We are used to seeing image data with the current tapeless capture, but what is captured is limited. The Cooke S4/i lenses I chose for this test allow for the transfer of a mind-numbing amount of data to be recorded to your media: the RED - S4/i combo can add to the mix aperture, lens settings, serial number for tracking, DoF info, multiple programmed focus points, camera settings, gamma or output settings and any other number of other settings.

Having all of this data when the files are passed to the effects house can greatly ease the workload when compositing, since all of the necessary data has already been recorded on set. Cooke S4/i lenses can already do this with certain film cameras, recording this info every time the camera is triggered to capture.

Image processing

The preview images are stunning in spite of (or because of) their size. Images from the camera have a characteristic look, almost as if they came from a high-end digital still camera, but can be easily modified to take on any look you prefer. Use either the RED Alert software shot by shot on your Mac; the much more versatile and cross platform RED Cine software allows a greater range of tools, include bulk transcoding the native R3D camera files to NLE formats, more easily than anything but Assimilate’s (PC-only) Scratch.

Exposure with RED is actually straightforward when you take a couple of basic ideas into account. The REDCODE format is not accessible by the user, and anything you do in the camera when shooting is stored as data, and that is modifiable when you are heading to post. With ASA/ ISO settings from 50 – 2000 and a recommended setting of 320, the camera is prepared for a lot.

My experience was that I liked my exposures a little darker than others I was working with. Being the film shooter I started in this business as, I wanted to expose for the highlights and process for the shadows. It made a lot of sense to me once I got a good look at the REDCODE RAW files in their native state. Note too that you really do not gain from variations in the ISO rating of RED as you do with other cameras, as there is no appreciable decrease in overall noise when lowering that rating below 320.

As a filmmaking tool, the RED camera is worthy of the hype; it is without a doubt one of the most revolutionary tools that has beset digital filmmaking. While it is not the Swiss army knife of cameras that everyone assumed at its introduction, It is without a doubt one of the finest crated digital film replacement systems available.

With a little more effort in the development of the “beta” post production workflow I believe that RED will create a market that few of the “old line” camera companies could have ever imagined, especially since the big 3 camera companies were focusing on smaller and smaller imagers in conjunction with higher and higher levels of compression.

Red Digital Cinema should be thanked by every person in the HD and Digital market that strives for the highest quality in his or her production, since without them many, if not most filmmakers would never understand the true meaning of true quality in the image, or the nature of what tapeless acquisition is really all about.

Red Post Production (or, How do I get myself out of this 4K mess?)

While Red is a incredibly innovative product, the fact of the matter is that in 2007 less than a dozen films had any part of its post production workflow finished in 4K, While that number will easily quadruple in 2008, the post production workflow is the only part of the process that RED cannot control.

The movies we talk about at 4K had specific reasons. Spiderman 3 used 4K for effects shots. Black Dahlia used 4K for color correction and final image quality. While called “4K “, it is often joking referred to as “$K” , as much for the increased costs for working in something so specialized that even its use in Hollywood to this point in time is pretty rare.

I will continue the options for the RED Post workflow and discussion of the current camera and updates in the second half of this article, coming soon.

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