RED: Early Workflow Findings
We are some of the youngest people in the world to be using RED. I'm not sure, but we might also be the first student-run major production to be using the RED camera.
The project we're working on is through our school, Brooks Institute, and ties into a major car company launching a new model at the New York Auto Show in May.
We were lent one of the cars and asked to do something interesting with it. We're doing a 5-6 minute short that isn't narrative-based. It's not a straight sales piece. Though it features the car, and has some subtext about the car, it isn't an ad by any means.
The final presentation needs to work at any size, up to a 100 ft. screen with some ungodly pixel ratio, so we needed to work with a high-quality medium. Film was an option, but adding the kind of heavy VFX post we planned would have been far out of the budget of any grants we could have gotten, or any favors we could have swung to do DI post or even a D5 master. So the RED was a logical choice.
As far as I know, we're also the first to use the RED for extensive miniature work. It's mostly landscapes that we'll be compositing the car into, but we really wanted to test both the RED and our own limits. We also wanted the production to put our own stamp on something in the world of RED.
WORKING WITH RAW
There are plenty of places around the COW to get the details on what gets captured, and how, while you're shooting with RED, but the big advantage from the start is the RAW format.
The first thing to understand is that RAW captures everything the camera's sensor does, which leaves you all kinds of options for output and post trickery.
Say I shot at ISO 320, but I want to add a lot more light in post. All I have to do is open up the .R3D file (RED's version of RAW) and say "Hey my ISO is 800 now" and bam! - my ISO is changed.
RAW allows us to take a second look at what we've shot, and basically do a one light before we start the work: bump the exposure a bit, adjust the contrast, etc. We know full well that this will all be retimed, so we're just trying to get a clean image and enough data to start compositing.
I've worked with 4K Cineon files that keyed so cleanly I was sure I'd never key something as perfectly as that again - but the ease of keying this RED 2K and 4K footage is amazing.
I've used Primatte in Nuke, the Diamond and Discreet keyers in Combustion, but Keylight inside After Effects kills them all, especially in our shots with concrete dust flowing in front of the screen.
All the keyers detect the green screen and remove the background, but they leave an alpha filled with dust. Keylight is the only one that, on the initial pull, leaves the dust's brown color but zero artifacts.
I'd say it's because AE is my bread and butter and I know it inside and out. This wouldn't be so if it weren't for the COW, as I learned the program through Aharon Rabinowitz's COW tutorials and podcasts. Now I tutor and help teach the AE class here at Brooks Institute.
But the incredible speed of Keylight has nothing to do with skill or experience. It's simply the fastest key I've ever pulled, with great keys in about 30 seconds! Keys that preserved all the dust and other detail from the set.
When you first work with RED footage, the color looks a bit odd though. When we downloaded the footage from the CF card, it didn't look like it did on set, or with our monitors. The colors often seems a bit lackluster. I was initially worried that the greens weren't popping enough to key. I was very wrong though, as the footage keyed smoothly and evenly.
In contrast to the RED 2K files coming out of RED, the transcoded QuickTimes keyed very poorly - even when the movies were output to 2K. They required a lot of finessing to get a reasonable key, and often I found myself looking at stair-stepped edges.
RED QuickTimes are very compressed in comparison to the RED 2K 10-bit TIFFs. Since the individual 2K files are lossless and very good quality - and are universally understood by compositing applications - we chose to stay with them through the post process: motion tracking, pulling keys, adding CGI elements from LightWave and Maya, all output as 2K files.
Oddly, the only problems we had with them were in Final Cut Pro, which has trouble handling image sequences. This is one of my biggest issues with FCP, that it has no easy to handle these image sequences. This is a huge flaw, in my opinion.
In theory, I can understand FCP not wanting to process thousands of images on the timeline, but no other application I've ever used has an issue with it. Once we had our picture locked, we mixed inhouse with our ProTools HD system. From there, final grading before distribution, and then its debut at the New York Auto Show.
CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE CAMERA
I've shot with DVX, HVX, HPX, FW900, Bolex, Arri and others before I came to RED and I think the RED is a very good cross between standard HD and film. Much of it works the same way that other high-end HD cameras do, and it feels like a film camera, with footage that has many intrinsic values associated with shooting film.
But if you can't shoot the same thing with a DVX200 and have it feel and look good, then stepping up to 4K won't do anything other than make your flaws look that much worse.
Then again, experimenting can help boost your skills, and seeing your flaws in 4K is certainly a good way to learn.
Should the aspiring shooter use the RED camera? Well, if you can, grab it. Likewise, if you're a film shooter and you want to take a step onto the wild and crazy HD frontier, this is great way to start.
Either way, it won't make you a better DP.
THE VIEW FROM HAAKON, THE PROJECT'S CINEMATOGRAPHER
A solid RED setup should run around $30,000 for the system itself and a good carbon fiber tripod with fluid head.
I rent out a complete package with all kinds of extras like a wireless follow focus, mattebox and filters, HD monitoring and more, and I spent less than $50,000 for everything, including camera #69.
It's more than the "base" $17,500 price but much less than what some would have you believe.
Except for once using a Zeiss 85mm t/1.3 lens, all my shooting so far is with the RED 18-50 mm zoom. I've been blown away by its performance, and am greatly looking forward to the 50-150mm offering.
As for light levels, I shot everything in the f/3 - f/4 range with the camera rated at ASA320; I like minimizing that DOF as much as I can.
While operating, I use the RED LCD pretty exclusively. It has an onboard waveform monitor which helps to monitor exposure and it's the best tool I've found for judging accurate focus.
The LCD does exhibit some excessive banding and noise - characteristics which some have bashed it for - but these anomalies don't manifest themselves in the footage, so it's a moot point to me.
We send a feed to video village through the HDSDI port to a 17" broadcast HD monitor as well, more for the director and producers to monitor footage. In an absolute pinch, you could easily operate the camera effectively with just three people; an operator, a puller, and a footage management assistant handling downloads.
One of the most important and overlooked jobs on a set by young or inexperienced crews is a focus puller. You're dealing with true Super35mm depth of field with RED. You can't put an 85mm lens on it, shoot wide open, and expect to nail focus yourself while you also compose a shot.
Due to a limited budget, we have a crew of about 20 for this project. I would prefer another dedicated individual in my camera department and two or three more grips. But we roll with what we've got.
There are a few things I'd love to see in future upgrades/ versions of RED. The one they really need to address is simultaneous hot video outputs for monitors used by the director and the camera operator. It's a real pain to constantly switch back and forth manually so that both can see the frame.
I haven't fully examined the differences in latitude rendition and highlight roll-off between RED and film, but by eye I would say they're extremely similar. I would still love to see higher frame rates at the native resolution of the camera and even better highlight roll-off handling.
I'll be finishing my full "RED vs. film" tests soon. So far, after seeing them projected next to each other, film looks to me like RED footage with grain. The RED stuff is easily as sharp, retains that beautiful shallow depth-of-field, and is much cleaner.
I love film. It has an entirely unique aesthetic that can't be replicated by digital technologies. But RED is proving that they don't have to.
The image quality, combined with the workflow and financial advantages of RED make it a slam dunk for all kinds of people: from those who have been shooting big budget features for decades, to young independents who may never have shot a frame of film at all.
Some will say that this is a bad thing, that a camera like this being used by so many people is just going to produce a lot of 4K crap. But there has always been crap - in every format!
What's important is that the tools keep getting better and the choices keep getting broader. Ultimately, this benefits everyone.
We are definitely on the cusp of a new era.
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