RED With Envy

A former professor sent me an email recently about a movie shoot, and mentioned that they would be using a “Red Camera.” What is this new camera, and what are your thoughts on it? Is it a good product, is it expensive, and/or worth the cost?

RED. The short answer is that it’s a brand name for a completely modular digital camera system that combines still-camera resolution with the fast frame rates of film. You buy a “brain” plus any other components you want, all of which are compatible: power, storage, monitoring, I/O jacks, lenses, etc. No tapes; it records on your choice of a RAID, flash drive, or CF cards. The idea is that when your needs change, you only have to buy a new brain. These rely on a line of sensors they call Mysterium. This determines what size image it can resolve, which starts at 3K (3000 pixels wide), and the largest sensor available next year will do 28K.

For some perspective, a 2K image is around HD quality, and is what most 35mm feature films are scanned at for color correction (a “digital intermediate” or “DI” you may hear it called) and/or home video. Effects shots are often scanned at 4K to preserve fine details. IMAX is around 9K. Doing the math, you’ll see that a 28K image is over 100 times the size of a frame of HD. Today’s high-end SLR still cameras max out around 20 megapixels. RED offers the equivalent of 261 megapixels. In other words, pants-shittingly ginormous.

At the moment, few media outlets can benefit from these sizes, but consider the sharpness you achieve when scaling such images down. Last year I received a ton of RED footage from an agency to edit into one of my projects, and was initially only mildly impressed, until I understood that the 720×405 clips had been scaled to around 1/30 the size of their originals! The image was noiseless and very transparent.

Speed is also important, and the larger the frame, the fewer of them per second it can resolve. The 28K model will be capable of just 30 fps, but many of the smaller resolutions can do up to 250 fps, for very sharp slo-mo. Or just 1 fps if you want to undercrank. Another major selling point is that most of them are directly compatible with cine lenses or 35mm still lenses, for that sexy shallow depth-of-field you can’t get on video without a clumsy adapter system (like I use).

The biggest advantage to using something like RED is it eliminates several steps in a typical workflow. There’s no scanning, no digitizing or capture; it’s immediately available. The same footage shot on set can be used for the poster in the lobby. Stills or motion with one-stop shopping. Plus, the cameras are small. Whether it’s RED or a competitor, such technology is certainly the future of both cinema and commercial imaging. When you consider what they do, the brains are a great value, but the components and accesories are ungodly expensive. Still, for pro filmmakers, an easy call.

Jim Jannard, RED’s founder, sold Oakley (his sunglasses company) to pursue this, and he often posts on the DVX User forums personally. Though their RED One camera has been available for some time, they’re a startup, and their reputation has at times been one of potential vaporware since they haven’t released any of their big guns yet, and many of the product shots are renderings at this point.

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About Gordon

Gordon Highland is the author of the novels Flashover and Major Inversions, with short stories in such publications as Word Riot, Black Heart, Noir at the Bar Vol. 2, and Warmed and Bound, among others. He lives in the Kansas City area, where he makes videos by day and music by night.
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