Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Overrated RED

If you read my previous post about my ideal digital cinema camera may have noticed that I didn't talk about the RED cameras.  They are easily some of the most popular cameras out there.  And for a long time I bought into the hype.  What's not to love?  Extremely high resolution, variable frame rates, wide dynamic range, raw recording, all at a competitive price point.  The RED has it all, right?

A couple years ago I became disillusioned with RED.  And my frustration with their cameras and the company itself has only grown.  Currently I am in the middle of editing two features both shot on RED.  I was on set for working directly with a RED Scarlet for one of them.  So I have first hand experience with what has become a love/hate relationship.

The number one (and most obvious) reason a producer or director wants to shoot on RED is resolution.  I've heard, "If I don't shoot in 4K I don't have the option of a theatrical release!" and the famous "I want my project to be future proof" many times.  But is that really true?

The founder of RED, Jim Jannard, crossed a line for me when he went from preaching about the advantages of super-sampling, cropping, and down-scaling from 4K to HD to preaching that 4K delivery is here now and your project isn't good enough unless it's mastered in 4K. The belief that HD isn't good enough has led to a resolution race that has no end in sight.

So can I release an HD movie in theaters?  Well, the biggest mega-blockbusters in the last ten years have almost all been finished in 2K (which is close to HD resolution).  Just to name a few: Man of Steel, Star Trek, Hobbit, Avengers, Avatar, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy... has anybody complained about these movies not being sharp enough?  In fact I can only think of a small handful of major movies that have been finished in 4K: Amazing Spiderman, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Skyfall.  Oh and Skyfall wasn't shot in 4K, it was uprezzed.

So what about future proofing?  Maybe HD resolution is good enough today but what about tomorrow?  I don't know about you, but I still watch DVDs.  One of my favorite shows is Flight of the Conchords and it was shot in regular standard defintion.  Clearly content trumps quality.  That doesn't mean I want to shoot in a lower quality format.  But my point is obsessing about the format of tomorrow isn't going to make your project any better today.

Some projects don't need to be future proofed.  Do you really think we'll care what format a shoe commercial or a corporate training video was shot in ten years from now?

And to be honest, future proofing is impossible.  How can you know for certainty what the standard ten or even twenty years from now is going to be?  What if we make a switch to holograms?  Who really knows?  But what I do know is that if a movie is worth hanging onto it will be for its story and not simply because it was shot in the most advanced format of the day.

Yes, 4K is technically better, but it's advantages are barely noticeable.  We should be focusing on improving color sub-sampling and and compression quality instead of the number of pixels.  We got in this resolution race to beat out the quality of film and when it comes to sharpness digital clearly wins.

You really don't have to do everything in 4K.  And shooting with RED means dealing with 4K or even higher resolutions.  Not only that but it records in raw.  raw images have their advantages, ISO and white balance aren't baked into to the image and more information is saved from the sensor.  But it also comes with the bane of extra processing later and more data storage eaten up.  Don't get me wrong, this can be completely valid if you have the time and money to deal with it.  But if it isn't necessary for a particular project then why deal with it at all?

However, the workflow for Red has improved dramatically over the last couple of years.  I am editing footage shot on RED in Final Cut Pro X.  It's quite a simple process to import the footage and transcode proxies in the background which allows me to get straight to work.  But it still isn't nearly as simple or quick as working with footage shot directly to ProRes.  If I want to playback RED footage natively in real time with some reliability RED expects me to fork over thousands of dollars on one of their RED Rocket cards.  Yeah, that's not going to happen.

RED really wants you to buy into their ecosystem when there are many other valid cameras out there to shoot on.  As an editor and shooter I want to be able to shoot on whatever camera best meets the needs of the project.  If I've invested heavily in RED it really limits my options.  And RED is a heavy investment, with many hidden costs.

All cameras have accessories, but RED takes it to the extreme with their modular camera system.  All the pieces, the brain, the lens mount, the handle, the viewfinder, pretty much everything is sold separately.  Even their complete kits aren't very complete.  The idea behind this was to allow you to upgrade your camera bit by bit in order to keep it from becoming obsolete.  But in reality it is quite annoying when you find out you're missing a certain custom cable or modular piece and end up spending another couple grand to make it work.  Those costs add up quickly.  And when you've become fed up with that game and want to sell your RED don't forget about the ownership transfer fees.

One point that Jannard himself can agree on is how frustrating it has been when their company fails to deliver on time and as promised.  It is a very open company.  If you follow their forum there have been many announcements about tech that never got released or evolved and was delayed.  I admire RED for their initial efforts that changed the industry forever.  But I don't think they are that company any more.  While they dreamed up new cameras the competition caught up to them.  They no longer have an edge.  And I feel they have stopped focusing on the little guy.  This has allowed Canon and Blackmagic to fill a void.  Once upon a time I would done anything to purchase their 3K for $3k Scarlet, but it never came out and was replaced by something much more expensive and very different.

But there's not much point in obsessing over cameras that will never be.  What is it like to work with one of their existing cameras?  Well, I've had better.  For one thing the cameras overheat, a lot.  And when they over heat they don't even give a warning.  They just shut down suddenly.  Not cool when you're in the middle of a take.  The camera also takes forever to boot up.  And why is the power button also a record button?  I'm not a huge fan of the form factor, especially with all the little bits you put together to build it up.  It's not the worst thing ever, but it is far from my ideal camera.  Don't even bother with RED Volt batteries.  They are crap and don't last much longer than ten minutes.  Get a third party battery solution.  Don't shoot HDRx, what a waste of time!  RED attempts to sell off the unwanted mixed shutter speed artifacts as "Magic Motion" when it really looks like crap.  Plus it requires even more work in post to process those images.  Thankfully the menus have been improved since the days of the RED One.  Overall the experience is bearable since the picture quality can be impressive if you know what you're doing.

I've been on this rant for a long time now because I feel like many video production people are duped into thinking they must shoot RED and it's the best camera out there.  But it really isn't.  Not a bad tool, but depending on the project you could go with something much more preferable.  The Canon and Sony cameras are far better in low light for example.  Arri Alexa has mind blowing detail retention in the highlights, but who can afford it?  The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is extremely affordable, renders beautiful colors, and shoots straight to ProRes as well as raw.  There are many great tools to pick from.  Don't just choose RED to be a fan boy.  These really are just tools.  Don't get blindsided by hype.  Pick the right tool for the job.

About Me

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Sandy, Utah, United States
I make movies with my friends. I like to find humor in just about anything. I live in a dark cave similar to Batman's as far as cool computer equipment goes. But my cave lacks the gym, car, and suit...