Friday, 19 June 2009

We [heart] Red

Film has some great qualities such as wonderful organic grain and amazing exposure latitude, but it's also expensive to shoot and process. Digital, on the other hand, is still playing catch-up in the latitude department, but the main advantage is that it can be much, much cheaper than film.

As each year passes more and more major Hollywood movies are shot digitally. George Lucas got the ball rolling by shooting Star Wars Episode II on the Sony HDW-F900, but other directors, such as Robert Rodriguez and Steven Soderberg have seen the way the wind is blowing and shot digitally too. Panavision's Genesis is often the camera of choice for DOPs thanks to its Super 35mm recording area, making it focally compatible with regular Cine Primo lenses and giving a true 35 mm depth of field.

While Panavision is an established name in the movie business, there's a new kid on the block: The Red Digital Cinema Camera Company, created by Jim Jannard, the founder of the eyewear and apparel company Oakley, Inc. A keen photographer with an interest in cinematography, he felt it was possible to create a brand new pro digital movie camera for an affordable price.

The Red One camera was announced in 2006 and released in 2007, and is a 4K camera which means that it has just over 4,000 pixels of horizontal resolution. Its low cost, high quality performance and advanced imaging techniques such as the wavelet technology in its Redcode Raw format have created unparalleled enthusiasm for a digital movie camera. Cynics have accused enthusiasts of being fanboys and of ignoring shortcomings in the Red's output, such as the rolling shutter effect caused by the CMOS sensor and the clipping of highlights. Later builds of the camera's firmware have tackled the latter issue, but some VFX professionals still prefer the Genesis camera's CCD sensor, which doesn't have rolling shutter problems.

To be fair, most rolling shutter artefacts are difficult, if not impossible, to detect on the Red One's output, unlike the current crop of digital SLRs capable of shooting HD footage, such as the Canon 5D Mark II. Many have hailed these new SLRs as a boon for indie filmmakers, but current incarnations of the cameras have some serious limitations. In the case of the popular Canon 5D Mark II, its framerate is fixed at an NTSC-friendly 30fps, which is largely unsuitable for PAL regions which shoot at 25fps or footage destined for the big screen which is shot at 24fps.

Red have announced the Scarlet, a "DSMC" (Digital Still & Motion Camera) which looks likely to compete with the Canon 5D Mk II in the low-budget, indie filmmaking market. Although the first Scarlet cameras will not be released for several months yet, the footage we have seen so far looks tantalisingly good, but there really hasn't been enough of it out in the wild to formulate a true opinion of the camera's capabilities. It's quite likely, however, that in situations where we may have been tempted to use a Canon 5D Mk II, we'll probably end up using the Scarlet, due to its more professional controls. The digital SLRs seem to be great stills cameras that also happen to capture moving images, whereas the Scarlet is hopefully a video capture device first and foremost, that also happens to take decent photos.

At Wyld Stallyons we love the Red camera because it fits into our way of working. Rather than edit R3D files natively in Final Cut, we often have an After Effects workflow. We use Red Alert or RedCine to output selected clips as ProRes 422 (HQ) Quicktime files and import these into After Effects. We can then use them, just as we would any other footage.

While we may not be taking advantage of all of the R3D features, it suits our purposes very well. And by inputting 10-bit images and using a 16-bit or 32-bit float workflow, we're maintaining the quality all the way down the pipeline until final delivery.

Other professional formats have given us headaches of one sort or another, but using the Red One camera and the Redcode Raw file format has been nothing but a pleasure.

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