CAMERA OPERATOR DAVID ELLIS WITH THE RED ONE CAMERA ON THE SET OF ASYLUM SEEKERS. PHOTO BY: WILMOT KIDD
The Red One is a high-resolution digital video camera that records data on little square flash cards like those used on high-end digital still cameras or straight onto a hard drive that can hold about 60 minutes of data. Capable of processing five times more information than an HD camera and matched with a 35mm PL lens mount, this new technology is considered by many to be the closest thing to shooting on film since, well, shooting on film. If all of Red‘s promises prove true and the around $17,000 price tag (without lens) for the camera results in a supply that keeps up with the demand, the Red One could become a favorite of independent filmmakers.
Red Digital Cinema first showed a mock-up of the camera at NAB in 2006 and began shipping its product on August 31, 2007. According to the company, thousands were already presold, and Steven Soderbergh was among the first buyers. Red‘s Web site quotes him as saying, “For me, this is the year zero. I feel I should call up film and say, ‘I‘ve met somebody.‘”
Is this all just hype? And if this technology does rock the indie world, how will key positions be affected? What new jobs might be created? What existing jobs might be lost? What does it mean for film?
The first two independent features to use the Red camera on the East coast were Asylum Seekers and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead. Both productions initially decided to look into Red technology because of dissatisfaction with the shooting options their budgets allowed. (I worked on an HD feature a year ago with a producer of Asylum Seekers, Molly Conners, and I worked as an electrician on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, which is where I first saw a Red camera.)
Rania Ajami, the director of Asylum Seekers, thought that her script, based on a play she wrote at Princeton, needed to be shot on film. It is a dark comedy in which six men and women, fed up with the abuse they suffer in their lives, seek asylum as inmates of a mental institution. Ajami felt that the sets, the costumes and the atmosphere were each as much a character in the film as any of the actors. Also, the movie was an ensemble piece, and that meant that a lot of coverage would be necessary. But even Super 16 was a compromise for her, so forget about the further reduction in resolution video would offer.
Molly Conners, one of Ajami‘s producers, had heard of Red 4K technology while shooting her previous movie. She went to Offhollywood, the Red camera rental and postproduction house in New York City, and acquired stills in JPG form and a 1K video transfer of Red footage to show Ajami on a laptop. Even in this rough format, it was instantly obvious to Ajami that the Red image would fulfill her requirement for a clean and ungrainy look. Ajami jumped at the chance to work with the camera.
Christopher LaVasseur, the director of photography on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, turned down his first opportunity to work with the Red One. On that project he opted for the Sony high-definition F900 camera instead because, as he puts it, the first thing he thought when he heard that Red technology recorded 4K of information compared to the 1K you got with HD was, “Uh-oh, four times more Formica.” He says a d.p. he knows says that “HD is Formica and film is like wood.” Continuing, he adds, “It isn‘t that HD is sharper than film, it‘s just that it looks synthetic. Film adds texture, depth and roundness to the image that HD just can‘t do. My first reaction to hearing about Red was that it would look four times more synthetic. Which is alright, if that is the look the director wants.” LaVasseur will not get drawn into quality comparisons between video and film. Both are part of his arsenal. When people ask him if he can make HD look like film he replies, “Why would you want to? You‘re asking me, ‘Can I make a watercolor look like an oil painting?‘ Why? You should decide based on what look you want.”
JORDAN GALLAND'S ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD.
The look that Jordan Galland, the director of Undead, wanted was clean and sharp with a lot of grays and purples. He had written a “parody of theater, actors and Shakespeare that takes place in a world where vampires are hiding among us,” and he wanted it to have “the shadowy quality of old horror movies with the cold afternoon light of a period piece.” This meant a fine gradation in grays, something beyond the capability of HD. LaVasseur felt that only a very fine-grain 35mm film stock would accomplish this, but being realistic about his budget he knew that he‘d most likely be shooting with a Sony F900. LaVasseur had just done a picture on that camera and knew what awaited him. Although many producers say that 35mm film is beyond the modest budget of smaller indies, very few factor in the cost of the increased number and size of lights, additional crew and the extra time necessary to bring the full spectrum of reality within the limited range of HD. On the F900 movie he had just completed, day exteriors took as long to set up as fully lit day or night interiors. 20x20 silks and solid blacks were required to bring down the overexposed highlights closer to the underexposed shadows. Achieving the shadowy look of an old horror movie was going to be very difficult on standard HD. The look they needed would require a high-end HD system such as Panavision‘s Genesis or Thomas Grass Valley‘s Viper, which are capable of recording more than 1K worth of data, but can cost as much as renting a 35mm film camera. So LaVasseur asked the producers to set up a demo screening of the Red at Offhollywood to see what “four times Formica” would look like.
As luck would have it LaVasseur saw what the Red could do on the very same day that he completed color corrections for the digital intermediate of the F900 HD feature he had just shot. He and his gaffer, Richard P. Ulivella, had been speculating for months what Red‘s capabilities might be, and as soon as he came out of the Red demo he called him: “Rich, if on HD you can see 10 distinct blocks in between the lights and the darks, with the Red the blocks all blend seamlessly into each other. The stuff looked creamy!” LaVasseur had a good feeling that this medium would accomplish the look that he and Galland wanted for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.
As Alex Twersky, producer of Asylum Seekers, remembers it, every day of principal photography for director Rania Ajami was Christmas. But for him, Conners and the rest of the crew it was like the first day of school. Over and over. Their picture was initially saddled with time-devouring glitches and nervous expectations of disaster that later filmmakers using the Red One would never experience.
In spite of the breakdowns and having to endure the “what have we done?” syndrome, Rania says that her concerns about the camera completely evaporated very early on once she saw how calmly and professionally her d.p., Lyn Moncrief, and his gaffer, Wesley L. Carrier, went about their work with the new technology. But what really set her mind at ease was each night‘s empirical evidence that she was getting exactly what she had visualized.
Red Digital Cinema has an excellent reputation for listening to the reports of users in the field and moderates a busy discussion group on the Web at reduser.net. So most of the glitches experienced on Asylum Seekers had been fixed by the time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead was shooting. But the camera was still occasionally afflicted by a seemingly inconsistent sensitivity to cold and on one occasion refused to start in a chilly stage, delaying the shoot for about 45 minutes. Another concern expressed by the camera crew was that the camera was still not as ergonomically correct as older, more evolved film cameras. “It is still just basically a box with a lens on it,” described one assistant. Also the viewfinder has a little ways to go before its quality matches that of the camera‘s 4K image. But ask Twersky and he will tell you that he would gladly shoot with a Red again. “It wasn‘t about speed or anything else like that,” he says. “With the Red, it was about the exceptional final look of the product.”
Richard P. Ulivella, the gaffer on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, worked last year on seven indie features shot on the following media/cameras: the HD F900 (twice), a 16mm SR3, a Panaflex Millennium, an Arricam (with JDC-Scope Anamorphic lenses), the F950 (HD but 4:4:4) and in December the Red camera. Ulivella tries to follow a project through to the end, so he will always request to be an observer during post-production. “Red is like going backwards, but in a good way,” he says. “This new technology is more like working with emulsion than it is like working in digital video. The main difference between HD and the Red is that unlike HD, once you‘re in DI the digital data will be able to be mined for the detail in the shadow and highlight areas in much the same way that is done with film. Think of it as a digital negative.”
The first thing LaVasseur wanted to test when he went to Offhollywood to prepare for Undead was the Red‘s range of exposure. He was amazed: “On HD the best you can do is four stops under[exposed] and one-and-a-half stops over[exposed] for a range of five-and-a-half [F]stops. Red‘s technology held on to an image nearly four-and-a-half stops overexposed and was still reading detail at four stops under. That‘s eight-and-a-half stops! The range of most film stocks is about nine to 11 stops.”
Once everyone was on board with using the Red One on Undead, how the look of the film was going to be accomplished had to be determined. On a production shooting film this step can take at least four or five days going from a mock set to the lab and then to a screening room or DVD player with the director. And then assessing what‘s been done and then doing it all over again. Working with Red technology the film pushed through this process in two days. From discussions with Galland and the results of these tests LaVasseur knew that he was going to rate the ISO at 320 and that most of the time the key light would be one stop over and the fill would be two-and-a-half to three stops under. Offhollywood took the sample footage shot this way all the way through DI so everyone involved would know what the end product would look like.
The next indication that they were working on something that was more like film than HD came during the first week of shooting. LaVasseur and Ulivella realized they weren‘t going to the monitor to analyze each shot the way they normally did with digital video. This is because, as Ulivella puts it, “With HD, what you see is pretty much what you get so that it becomes pointless to work with a light meter. What we see on a set monitor is very close, if not identical, to what audiences will see at the end of the process. The color and exposure spectrum of HD is very restricted and easily duplicated on a set monitor.” The commonly used high-tech monitor they had rented was not sensitive enough to measure the data the Red One was gathering on its flash cards, so after the first few setups, out came the light meters and they never went back into their cases. The high-tech monitor became the courtesy monitor and the only thing it gauged after the first week was framing and composition.
But if, as Ulivella says, “Working with the Red camera brings back the intuitiveness, the fun, the magic of working with film,” there is one important exception: It is no longer necessary to wait until the next day to see how the lighting looked, nor does one have to wait until the project is in post to determine what all the options regarding colorization, contrast, processing and in-camera effects will be. Red has all the benefits of working in digital video. On Asylum Seekers Ajami was able to look at slow-motion footage minutes after it had been shot to determine if this was the speed she wanted (the most recent version of Red is capable of reaching 120 frames per second). Working on film this test would have taken overnight to get back, and in HD getting an accurate look at footage shot in slow motion could take hours to render.
Even more useful is the Red One‘s capability, minutes after recording a scene, to Photoshop a still and gauge what will be possible months later in DI. In film this procedure requires freezing all the actors in their tracks as a photograph is taken of them and the set with a digital still camera. On Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, LaVasseur never had to pull out his Nikon. Once a flash card was filled he would have Ulivella Photoshop facsimiles of what he wanted these shots to look like after DI. Right on his laptop, while LaVasseur was shooting the next scene, Ulivella could approximate a bleach bypass or see what pushing the footage or taking out all the warm colors or increasing the contrast would look like. Ulivella points out that “it can be painful to be sitting in rushes and see that because of a bleach bypass you really needed a little more fill or a single on the blond actor.” Using this ability, a d.p. and gaffer can more accurately match lighting and contrast of reverses or wide angles to their close-ups. Ultimately this data will be used months later as a reference tool during DI, but on the set a d.p. and a director, as well as a gaffer, are able to communicate much more specifically when they have a visual aid like this available to them.
This raises the question of who on the set should be Photoshopping selected stills? On many films directors of photography do it themselves. On some films the job falls to interns that are proficient with Photoshop. On Undead, the task was the gaffer‘s but only because Ulivella has had a lot of experience in DI as well as Photoshop and he has developed his own sets of steps to approximate just about anything a filmmaker would want to do in DI. But on most productions a more likely candidate for this job is the second AC or the loader. On a video shoot, there is no loading to do. Loaders, third or fourth on the totem pole after the d.p. (depending on the budget), are currently in charge of making the rest of the crew‘s work easier. They organize and manage the camera personnel‘s equipment, set up the monitors and other analytical tools, help with the logging, and, when working in film, load mags. A loader adept with Photoshop or Kodak‘s Look Management System could prove invaluable to a production in any medium. It might even change the title and the union‘s requirements for this position in the future. Right now it‘s up for grabs.
For the lighting and grip department shooting day exteriors with a Red instead of HD means smaller units and less dependence on large silks and solids to control available light. In terms of rigging the camera on a crane or mounting it on a dolly, its size and weight is closer to Super 16 than to 35mm. But the quality of the image that Red delivers is closer to Super 35. Handheld shots will be smoother longer and Steadicam rigs and car mounts will be lighter.
The digital revolution has created a new position: the Data Tech who sets up monitors and instruments, reads the scopes and helps assess the data. On Undead there was a Red Camera Tech, Mitch Deoudes. His job was to check each flash card as it came out of the camera for any glitches resulting in dropped frames or anything else that might have gone wrong. On one occasion, for instance, Deoudes found a dropped frame caused by a bent pin in the camera not making proper contact with the flash card. The pin was easily straightened, the card re-inserted in the camera and the scene re-shot. It was the equivalent of discovering the gate or the mag had scratched the film, but the discovery was made right on the set. LaVasseur prefers working on flash cards rather than hard drives so he can check for problems every five or 10 minutes rather than hourly. Deoudes also backed up the flash cards on to two hard drives and then logged each shot. He was also responsible for finding the stills that Ulivella would then Photoshop.
In time Red will undoubtedly have competitors in the technology of high-level HD, most likely from Genesis and/or Viper. But although these systems still can‘t record more than 2K worth of data, they are already too expensive for most independent productions. What Red has done is eliminated the issue of quality vs. money. Films will be shot on a Red on the basis of how they look or how small the Red cameras are, not because it‘s cheaper to shoot on video. In the near future, the playing fields between high- and low-budget films will be leveled. Producers and cinematography will no longer be able to blame their tools.