Overcoming Glitches, Devising Workarounds and Using P2 Recorders On Set
“It was a gutsy decision,” says director Scott McCullough, a longtime commercial director making his feature directorial debut. There were several road bumps along the way, from the camera inexplicably shutting down on set to the r3dcode codec crashing their Final Cut system. Read how McColough, cinematographer Grischa Al-Asadi and editor Adam Parr dealt with all these issues and, despite them all, have become big fans of Red and even the Red workflow. (Parr and Al-Asadi are currently on their second Red feature with the indie film Heist.) 3 Days Gone is nearing picture lock and is currently looking to partner with a post house.
I wanted to shoot with the Red Camera. I am a commercial director shooting film for years. I’ve been hesitant on going to HD because there were still a couple of holes [in the workflow] and I just didn’t like the look. When you do commercials you really have to have reliability. I do mostly car commercials and put the cameras to the test and I really can’t have a breakdown or be tethered by wires. With a film camera it is more organic and there’s more versatility with exposure and true slow motion and flash frames, things you can do organically in a film camera.
Obviously we didn’t have a big budget for this film and I wanted to work my way into the digital realm. I thought the Red camera would be applicable, not only for features but possible commercial shoots where I can use my 35mm lenses and have the 4K quality if I need it. It gets closer to 35mm film similar all these other big cameras like the Viper and the D-20, but all those cameras that you need a bigger support staff.
You mention the reliability of film cameras but the Red camera was really in beta at the time and there were still technical issues.
It was a gutsy decision. I didn’t want to do simple 1080 HD. If we are going to do this let’s originate in 4K. It’s just a matter of how often you switch out the cards and that doesn’t cost anything so we might as well see what it can do. But it was still in beta and we did have some glitches, but apparently there are fixes now to those glitches. The viewfinder was not ready so we have to work with an off camera monitor. I’m an active shooter and if you don’t have good screen and you have backlight on the screen you had to be careful. You may not see a boom shadow in an HD on-board monitor when you are running around handheld, so that was a problem we had to be aware of.
What were you recording to?
The Red cards and then we downloaded the cards to an external drive. The bigger drives from Red were not available at the time. The cards only took four minutes of material, so it’s like a 400-foot mag. We even called them mags on set and really it was a lot like shooting film with replacing the cards. You don’t save a lot of time in between reloads compared to film. But that is good in filmmaking. The actors need those breaks and you need to think about what you are shooting, you can’t just keep rolling like you can with certain cameras that can hold 100 minutes. I like shooting that way.
The early Red cameras could not record sound. How was sound handled? And how did you playback on set?
We recorded sound on a separate system (DAT). The Red camera at the time didn’t have the capability to record sound. Now with the second generation Red camera you can record audio onto those cards. So we brought on a P2 deck and did our video assist that way so I could review dailies and even start cutting a little before the editors were brought on.
We took the feed out from the camera to the portable P2 [Mobile] deck and then we also had our sound guy send the output from his system to the P2 deck as well. Since the Red camera didn’t record sound we had to figure out a way for me to review takes on set. So that’s the quick solution we came up with. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the P2 deck served as a backup for our sound, which became important because we had a couple of takes where there were problems in the original we recorded to DAT, which I recommend not doing. It was a financing thing that we recorded to DAT. So we had some bad takes where the DAT wasn’t up to speed or there was some strange noise. So we were able to go to the P2 deck and take the sound from that and it saved us.
And the feed from the Red camera to the P2 Mobile recorded timecode?
Yes, we had a burn of the timecode and the card number so I was able to look at the dailies and look at the timecode and send notes to my editor about best takes.
Was there a delay in dumping the footage from the cards to the external hard drive on set?
For me as a director it was pretty seamless with just a laptop and an external drive. We had a person dedicated just to do that and that is crucial. Obviously as a film guy I was nervous about erasing the cards and just depending on ones and zeros.
How many cards did you have on set?
I’m not sure but if you have four cards you should be good.
What glitches did you have with the RED camera?
I think it has been fixed but there was a problem with the battery shutting down the camera, just before the take of course. The viewing system was another. But outside of that it was fine and pretty similar to shooting film except you are not dealing with a lab. It’s a different process of thinking.
Aesthetically how did the camera perform?
The director of photography Grischa Al-Asadi and I talked. I like rich colors and backlight. I didn’t want to be constrained. We lit just like we would for film. I didn’t find any sort of hindrance, except if I was going to do slow motion or with grain. We kept it at 320 ASA. We didn’t really test the slow motion. We just shot the story.
Why 320 ASA?
I think it gives it a little more of a film look. It’s not so crisp and electronic.
What was the experience in editing?
The Red camera gives you the 4K files, 2K files and proxies of what we shot. We had such a tight schedule and we’d gotten he codec from Red days after it was released. We tried to make that work but we had a new Mac system with the new codec was crashing it. In order for us to make our schedule, we when right to the proxy files and converted them with ProRes. We didn’t start cutting during the show. We started after we wrapped. For me I don’t need a rough cut to high quality pictures, I’m used to a low res Avid output. We wanted to see what the story was and didn’t want to wait to get the Red codec to work. Apple helped us work through some issues and Red was very helpful with the process. Anytime we had a problem they were fast in responding.
What is the current status of the film?
The picture is not locked. Out of the editorial a new ending came up so we are going to have some pickup days to have a better ending and we are still shuffling some scenes.
I’d like to see it finished in 4K and we are talking to several companies. It’s a workflow that a lot of post houses want to get their hands on and figure it out so that they will know how to deal with it as more projects get shot with Red. So it’s a good selling point to partner with post houses.
The camera, which has changed quite a bit since the first day of shooting back in November, logistically was an AC’s nightmare. In the beginning it was shutting down for no reason, which has changed and now it is much smoother. But on 3 Days Gone there were quite a few problems but even with that when you see the 4K images all those obstacles seem minor because the footage looks so amazing. So I really fell in love with the camera as time went on and especially when we had to do night shoots and the latitude of the camera is amazing. I come from shooting mostly film and I’ve shot digital cameras and I think this is the revolutionary camera.
Did you have to approach shooting with the Red camera differently than shooting with film, other digital and HD cameras?
I started with 35mm and 16mm and I’ve shot with most cameras out on the market. Every time I am hired as a cinematographer I approach it as I would if I were shooting film. Physically it is just the medium you using and really it always comes down to lightning. So for me there is no physical difference between any cameras because it comes down to lighting.
However, with the Red camera the latitude it offers with 4K gives you a certain amount of freedom. So it comes down to what type of movie you are shooting. Is it a low budget or big budget? That determines what you can do shooting and in post, just like in film. But the quality of the image is something I was excited about especially under low light conditions at night, what the camera was able to do was amazing. I probably would have had problems with a lot of other cameras in those conditions.
I think once all the different modules of the Red camera are good to go and the glitches have been worked out it is really going to be one of the best cameras out there, and that’s not even factoring in the price. If I can’t shoot film I’d probably take the Red camera over any other camera at this point.
We had some problems with it on 3 Days Gone but now on Heist it is so much more reliable. We haven’t had one technical problem with the camera on this shoot.
How did the latitude compare with film?
The Red camera shoots on average around a T-10 or T-11. I think the only other digital camera that can compete with that is the D-20 from ARRI, but that is a complete different price structure. The flow of the Red camera using the simple P2 concept is amazing. It makes handling on set and post production easier.
If I don’t tell a fellow DP that I shot it with Red they think it is film and ask me what stock I used. The colors are really crisp. You get all the colors and then in post you can do whatever you want.
The only thing the camera does that you get used to after a while is the highlights show up magenta when you shoot, but when you got to Final Cut the magenta is gone. It’s just something that shows up in the on board monitor. At first I was really scared and wondering why my skin tones looked strange. But that doesn’t appear in the footage. But the skin tone, along with low light, is really where the Red camera shines. When you talk to DPs that shoot 35mm film they always say they prefer film because there is not an HD or digital camera that captures skin tones like film. Red does and that is what is most impressive about it.
Were you using the Red lens? Any other lenses in you kit for these two films?
Usually I would with (Cooke) S4 or Zeiss lenses but both 3 Days Gone and Heist are low budget features so we didn’t have the money. So we used the Red zoom lens, which of course is not a Zeiss lens, but it gives you a really good image and the weight is good for handheld. I did use Zeiss lenses, a 135mm and 85mm. I will have no worries about using the Red lenses once they come out. It gives a certain look and for these films it looked great. There are certain things that could be better on it: it has a little too much play and it stops down only to a 3.1. I wish there was a little faster speed on those lenses. Having said that the actual image I got at night with just a four-bank of Kinos and one 2K HMI to light a sidewalk and the camera picked up really well with minimal lighting using that lens. So that night shoot really sold me on the camera.
We started working with the Red codec in Final Cut. It seemed to be working but then there was some corruption somewhere in our media and it completely crashed our system and we couldn’t do anything. So we had to find a workaround. The codec was brand new and Final Cut was having a problem with it. So we took those Red files, the proxy files that Red creates as it is recording the 4K files, and we compressed those into HD with ProRes. So using those files we made our HD offline files retaining timecode and all the metadata that will allow us to go back and online. So we editing with those. It was a bit of a workaround but now that we are there everything looks really nice, we’re able to screen something that looks very impressive. So that’s big for an indie film that is going into post still trying to find distribution and some extra cash to finish the thing.
Were there any other issues you have encountered with the footage?
It is a pretty typical workflow and it is getting better all the time. Ideally you would take those proxies and make your HD QuickTimes as a safety so if you run into problems down the road you can go back and edit from those. As of now in Final Cut it can be a fairly typical workflow.
What is your impression of how it looks?
The footage is absolutely beautiful. You have so many options in color and what you do after it is such a nice canvas to work from. What I really love is the stuff that is done at night, the stuff with black in it. It looks really sharp and very sharp, very rich and very close to film. The proxies look nice, they are a little dark but when you look at the 4K stills it just blows you away. If I was going to do an action or horror movie right now there is no doubt that I would use the Red camera. The way it handles that type of footage is impressive.
You can play the 4K files back with the Red Alert codec at sort of half-speed. It’s not perfect but it gives you sense of what it is going to look like.
You are now serving as the DIT on a second indie feature (Heist) being shot with Red. What were the immediate lessons you learned about the Red workflow?
You need to have someone on set to deal with the Red files. It’s that way for any tapeless workflow but especially with Red, because it is so new and there are technical issues.
Any workflow problems on Heist?
On this film we are shooting 24fps and we’re rolling sound at 23.98, which should work in theory but after Day One I did a test to sync the sound and the sync was drifting. So we went back and changed the frame rate of the sound to 24fps and it worked fine. It’s just one of those things that Red is so new and the workflow is so new that to have someone there that is testing that type of thing and dealing with the footage can save you lot in the long run. We would have had 16 days of footage with sound that didn’t sync.
What did you learn from 3 Days Gone that you could apply to this film?
What I learned on 3 Days Gone and what I am doing on Heist is I am making those HD QuickTimes as I am getting the Red footage. I am making those compressions every day, whereas on 3 Days Gone we were learning on the fly and I had to compress all that footage in bulk into ProRes. Having learned that I can just do that every day so that we have all the Red files and all the HD QuickTime files mirroring the Red files and the editor can choose how they want to work.
What are you recording to on Heist?
With Heist we are recording onto a hard drive on the camera, which holds about 300GB, and also to the P2 deck for playback. So you can shoot all day without reloading. At any time you can pop the hard drive off the camera and plug it into your laptop and screen your dailies in realtime right there like any other QuickTime movie as long as you have downloaded r3dcode.
You seem to have had some difficulties with the workflow but the quality seems worth it. Looking back on it, what are your impressions of the Red workflow?
It is not perfect yet. But when you get past the hiccups and minor headaches you’ve got some really nice footage on your hands and it is a pleasure to edit.
There are such extreme opinions about Red. It’s like the Mac. People either hate it or think it is the greatest thing in the world. A lot of the discussions seem to have been in those types of extremes but the reality is that it is not perfect but it is working.
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