Red Camera Gets (More) Real
To my eye, the footage looked good but not as dramatically high-res and colorful as “Mystic India,” which was shot in 65mm, transferred to 4K and projected with the Sony 4K projector. Cinematographer James Mathers, founder of the Digital Cinema Society, agreed. “The footage was not as sharp as one would expect from 4K origination,” he said. “Although Red footage looked terrific, it did not have the apparent resolution I would expect. In my opinion, the footage looked more like a 2K DI from a 35mm rather than what I would expect from a 4K digital imager.”
“In any case,” he added, “it looked damn good.”
Mathers took an informal survey after the screening, including a couple of “very prominent ASC members,” all of whom, he said, concurred with his positive view.” I also spoke to a couple of audience members, one of whom liked the look but said he found it indistinguishable from the output of the Dalsa Origin. Mathers disagreed with that assessment, opining that it looked better, “at least compared to the last footage I saw from Dalsa, which was shot about a year ago.”
In fact, from Mathers’ point of view, the Red camera’s strength is just how cinematic the images look. “When I’m looking at 4K res, I would expect to see something that is extremely sharp and has a little bit more contrast,” he said. “And this had a softness-not a focus softness-but a softness that is aesthetically pleasing and looks more like film.”
Not everyone thinks that’s a bad thing. Mathers noted that any electronic image sharpening by way of edge-enhancement can be added in post-production.
He further explained that, whenever he uses a digital camera to shoot for theatrical release, he keeps the detail level very low. “You don’t want to add detail-correction to the digital if it’s going out to film,” added Mathers, who said that that is exactly what he did to shoot The U.S. Vs. John Lennon. (Mathers also noted that “if they want to make it look like film, the best way is still to shoot it on film,” in no small part because the film workflow is a tried-and-true process.)
“It’s a wise choice [not to add image sharpening] because they have a very filmic look, and that’s what most digital cameras still aspire to,” he concluded. “Digital could look different, but now everyone seems to want to make it look like film-and Red has been successful.”
Red has built buzz in part by limiting the flow of information. Nobody has seen an actual camera, and no new info was forthcoming at the Red demo in Los Angeles.
“I’ve been helping them analyze the footage,” Stump said. “But I am not in their employ and have no financial interest in this at all. I haven’t reserved a camera, because I felt that that would put an unnecessary bias into the testing.”
Stump said he first shot a series of wedge tests, taking Red’s word for what they thought the ASA of the sensor was, shooting at every f-stop in the lens, and dragging single frames into Adobe Photoshop. “I did some quick pixel-analysis of the values I was getting from the sensors,” he said, “and I roughly determined that the sensor was more sensitive than they thought it was. They thought it was 160. I guessed, conservatively, 200, and now I think it may be higher.”
Stump said he supervised the color-correction for the outdoor scenes that Los Angeles audiences saw. The footage had been shot natively at 4K and downloaded onto DDRs. Some of it was color-corrected at Hollywood DI on an Assimilate Scratch system and other portions were color-corrected in a native 4K room with a 4K projector at a major Hollywood studio. Stump said he is not at liberty to reveal which Hollywood studio.
“I think the results are quite pretty,” said Stump. “I think we need to do more work on the output matrix of the camera. Highlight values need to be mapped downward, as do black values. More importantly, they need to have some S-curves applied to them, so they’ll roll more gently into black and white.”
The Red crew has revealed that they intend to have the sensors in a camera box before Christmas, but Stump isn’t certain when his next appointment to test the camera will be, mainly due to issues of scheduling. The Red demo also showed some rudimentary results of their Redcode compression scheme (variable-bit-rate, wavelet-based 10:1); Mathers noted that, “from where I sat (too far really, at about five screen heights back from an approximately 35-foot screen), it looked indistinguishable.” Stump noted that “almost everyone is recording with some compression scheme anyway.”
“Red hasn’t specifically said what’s included for $17,500,” noted Mathers. “It could be a box with a sensor. Accessories they didn’t show definitely aren’t included, and you will need to buy a data management system and lenses. To get a working camera will be a lot more than $17,500. It’s just a wild guess, but I expect my investment will ultimately be $70,000.”
Whatever the exact price for a functional Red system, it’s a thought-provoking product launch. In a digital camera arena glutted with competitors, how many digital cameras will ultimately survive? How many motion-picture cameras are there in total operating in the world? How big is the market that competitors are vying to fill?
Whatever you think of Red’s unusual marketing plan, the company has already captured 1,000 slots-the number of the cameras reserved thus far-of this market. “Jim Jannard didn’t get rich by being a fool,” said Mathers.