Still in Beta, But Already a Dynamic Technology

This is an unconventional review of a very unconventional camera. First, full disclosure: Although I was hired by RED to do some testing in the early development of this camera, I am now also an owner of the first iteration of the RED ONE. This review is my own independent evaluation of the camera, beta software and camera components I purchased.
It is very exciting to be part, in some small way, of the development of the paradigm-shifting RED technology. Under the terms of a strict NDA, I was barred from previously discussing the camera, but I can now relate how I first became involved. To aid in the search for the "MYSTERIUM," the heart of the camera, I was hired in January 2005 to shoot some tests of the various sensor choices. It amazes me to think that only a few years ago, RED looked like nothing more than a circuit board with a C-mount lens precariously attached. The team at RED wanted to see how the sensors handled such challenges as camera movement, so I mounted this ridiculous looking "camera" on a jib arm, along with the necessary armada of computer towers on the dolly’s base. All these drives could only record just moments of 4K material at a time (data that now fits onto one of RED’s CF cards, which are smaller than matchbooks).
This prior knowledge of the project, and a strong confidence inspired by the tireless team assembled to pull it off, led me to put down a deposit and place one of the very first orders for the camera. Out of the more than 3,000 cameras now on order, I was lucky to be number 30. I received my first RED in early September, and am now well into my testing and evaluation of the camera, having shot in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Jackson Hole, WY. The footage has been finished in everything from DV for streaming to HD, 2K, 4K and even output to film. Although the camera is not yet fully featured and there are necessary work-arounds due to the beta status of the first units, the camera is here and making stunning images. It has a silky subtlety that is far beyond any HD camera and is quite filmic. It does not yet match the quality and dynamic range of 35mm film, but it’s the closest, by a long shot, that I’ve seen any electronic image yet come.
Seeing Is Believing
Conventional wisdom said it couldn’t be done, starting from scratch to build an affordable motion picture camera with a true 4K Super 35 image sensor, and a new compression scheme to somehow make all that data manageable. It would never have been possible without the tremendous passion, determination and enthusiasm of a man named Jim Jannard.
Jannard, a billionaire as a result of his success with designer sunglass and sports apparel company Oakley, definitely has the chops as a businessman. However, it’s probably his hobbies, more than his business acumen, that inspired the RED Digital Cinema project. He’s long been an avid photographer, and also has a keen interest in cinematography. He’s said to have amassed a working collection of top gear in just about every professional film and digital format, both motion picture and still. Yet, it seems, he never found the one camera that could serve all his needs, and this yearning was the genesis (no Panavision pun intended) for the RED camera.
While some asked "Why," Jannard asked, "Why not?" Why not come up with a digital cinema camera that shoots in the kind of resolution and functionality he likes to work in for stills? Movies, after all, are just a collection of still images strung together, so why not figure out how to tap the RAW output for motion photography, just as digital still photographers had been doing for many years? The benefits of working in RAW are many, and I believe a familiarity with these techniques is key to understanding how to get the most out of RED.
This may require a certain amount of "re-education" for some cinematographers, especially those who might have gotten comfortable shooting HD and believing that what you see on the monitor is what you get. I think cinematographers with film backgrounds might be more comfortable in thinking of their RED camera displays as being analogous with the video taps they’re used to. Like a tap on a film camera, it’s useful for framing reference, but the image available on the negative is not done justice. It provides some good information, but you wouldn’t make lighting or exposure choices solely based on viewing the tap. There is so much more flexibility and overall dynamic range after processing the RAW image file. In fact, RED ONE has ASA and white balance settings on the camera body that really control nothing more than the display output and are totally nondestructive to the RAW image.
Basically, the iris and shutter speed, or any filters you shoot through, are the only things impacting how the image is exposed, and you will not truly see what you’ve got, and what information is available to you, until you download the material from the camera and run it through the RED Alert software on your Mac (Note: REDCINE will be available for both the Mac and PC). I might suggest that cinematographers wanting to get a head start on working with RED while they’re still in short supply get a hold of a digital still camera capable of acquiring RAW images, as many are now able, then take images into a program such as Adobe Photoshop and get familiar with these kinds of tools. As the worlds of production and post continue to meld, cinematographers will need to understand how the material they shoot is processed in order to maintain creative control and authorship of the image.
The Software
The RED software facilitates this with a process that’s really quick and easy to use. A full 8 GB/four-minute Compact Flash card (the only recording option now available) downloads in less than three minutes. With the aid of a required Mac with Intel processors, it’s then opened up in RED Alert, a condensed version of the full REDCINE software, which lets you view and do a rough grade on the image with controls similar to Photoshop, including contrast, brightness, saturation and hue; you can change gamma curve. You can then almost instantly create various sized QuickTime viewing copies, ranging from low-res DV and HD to 2K (although full 2K files will have trouble playing back at their full frame rate on your laptop). You might be looking at only 10 to 12 fps, but it’s still a great way to quickly see what your image is capable of. I should note here that these QuickTimes are really only look-up files that need to reference the RAW data, and will require a more time-consuming render in order to create files for export to your NLE for editing. However, they’re a terrific way for a cinematographer to establish his look and virtually time his own "dailies."
The beauty is that when it comes time to conform, the 4K images have never been altered and retain the complete dynamic range and creative options of the camera original, or "negative." So, yes, I’m a big fan of the images produced and the available workflow options, but I wouldn’t be a beta tester if I didn’t find a few annoying things to report.
A Work in Progress
I was fairly warned by Jannard when I picked up my camera: "It’s not done, and may never be done." I was actually prepared for far worse and really have no big complaints. I was even given a $2,500 credit for any inconvenience. The truth is, it often feels like I’m a beta tester when buying any new gear, but it’s refreshing that RED acknowledges this and is willing to compensate us for our trouble. The problems have been minor, and the fixes have been coming quickly via firmware updates sent over the Internet. We simply copy the files onto the same Compact Flash cards we use for recording, then select upgrade. Having already performed several of these upgrades, I can tell you that it’s really very easy and seamless.
At this time, however, the camera still lacks any audio recording capability, and only one viewing output can be enabled at a time (in other words, if the camera operator is using a viewfinder, there’s no monitor output available for the director or DP. There’s also no playback, but I have to believe it is coming, since there are VTR-like controls built into the camera body.
With a background in film, the learning curve has been pretty short for me. It’s nice to be able to use the same lenses and depth of field I’m used to using when shooting 35mm. However, my guess is that the many filmmakers intending to move up from DV may have a little more challenging period of adjustment. With its shallow depth of field, and no auto focus or exposure mode, it may not be appropriate for the "run-and-gun" approach they might be used to.
Although relatively inexpensive, the RED is a professional tool requiring a competent crew (i.e., a good focus puller) and quality support gear for best results. Jim Jannard has put the means to create very high-quality motion picture images within the grasp of almost any filmmaker, but this tool will need to be properly used to realize its full potential.