RED Digital Cinema: The NAB 2010 Event

(Note to readers: My apologies on the still image quality. My still cam battery failed, and I
could only pull stills from a Flip HD, per RED’s strictly enforced “no unauthorized video” policy.)

Working EPIC camera prototypes were on display at this year’s Las Vegas RED party. The big boys at RED – Jim Jannard, Jarred Land, and Ted Schilowitz – were carrying their EPIC cameras into the thick of the crowds, allowing eager users to handle them periodically and answering a relentless barrage of questions. There is no other camera company in the world that offers you the opportunity to spend 45 minutes standing next to the shoulder of the head of the company, while he patiently listens and responds to user questions and ideas. RED has indeed created a unique user experience that is not merely related to the quality of its products.

Epic is Epic
As a result of the enormous direct response from their user base, they have built a camera for the future. A small group of us stood around a cocktail table in the middle of a poorly lit room, while Jim Jannard dialed the camera to 2100K and pushed the ISO over 2000 – yes, you read that right, past the 2000 mark – and it looked remarkably good in the viewfinder at T2.9, using the new 17-50mm RED zoom. It undoubtedly would display some noise at a higher resolution than the 720p LCD revealed, but it was clearly a viable image, even without noise reduction.

I have looked at many lowlight images in many challenging environments with the original RED ONE sensor, and I can tell you definitively that the original Mysterium sensor can’t touch the new technology. This is clearly a breakthrough. The new Mysterium X sensor at the heart of the camera is truly an enormous leap forward for RED and its users.

But the innovations don’t stop there. It almost seems as if RED is enabling features for the sake of enabling them, because they can, and will see what innovations result from their user base. For instance, the camera is Ethernet enabled and will now be able to record directly to an H.264 enabled module that will allow the user to upload dailies directly to a network and be downloaded directly to iPads for producing lightening-speed dailies. And that is just the beginning. Having a networked camera opens up a range of possibilities and applications that most of us probably can’t even perceive yet.

The cameras can be purchased with a small REDMOTE controller, about the size of a small cell phone, which allows you to operate the camera at a distance of about 100 feet. The start-up time for the camera has also been pared down from 80 seconds to 13 seconds. Jim indicated that it may be possible to do even slightly better than 13 seconds in release models — a vast improvement over the RED ONE.

RED’s competition has started releasing ultra-high resolution digital cinema cameras, with the Arri Alexa and a Sony digital cinema  announcement. But if the image qualities are similar among these cameras, as they appear to be upon initial scrutiny, what will separate them will be price point and feature set. RED appears, for the moment, to have a substantial advantage on both these counts and undoubtedly has a few more rabbits to pull out of the hat. They have created a modular camera system and modular post-processing software designed to accept easy add-ons, as soon as they are developed. Anything that can be imagined, can also be delivered into the modular system. No camera is absolutely future-proofed; the nature of technology is change. But RED has put its best thinking forward and pulled no punches with the development not only of a camera but of an affordably priced total imaging system.

The Hybrid of the Future
RED has solved the central problem of hybrid technology by allowing you to program the camera’s still mode with one set of settings and to program the video mode with its own, separate set of settings. You can separate the still from the motion settings without any toggling between them and with no compromises between them. And it’s all beautifully raw.

To have separate but equal still settings and motion settings is really going to set these cameras apart from other hybrids. When I asked him directly about the possibilities for HDR, Jim Jannard replied that they would also be “adding a super-secret HDR mode that I’m not going to talk about.” Since he has deep roots in photography, you can be certain that whatever they are cooking in regards to HDR may change the way we see our world forever.

Ergonomics without the “Ergh!”
Ergonomically, the new EPIC body weighs in at 5 lbs. The prototypes were lightly rigged with LCD, new REDVOLT battery grips, REDMOTE, and CF modules, to show how adaptable the camera is for a range of fast environments. The lightly rigged EPIC looks like a DSLR on steroids. Jim handed the EPIC across the cocktail table to my new RED-using pal Eythan from Atlanta, saying “You want to hold this, don’t you?” Eythan later told me excitedly that “it was as easy as holding any camcorder.” RED is currently planning Nikon and Canon EF mounts for EPIC, and with these lighter lenses, the camera can be rigged as an excellent documentary and event camera. You can easily build the camera, including in-camera audio inputs, for around 8 or 9 lbs., depending on the lens.

RED also planned for formal presentations of the EPIC. They had a designated room with working cameras set up and shooting. The cameras, two EPICS and one Mysterium X-enabled RED ONE were focused on a rather unfortunate gothic tableau of a waif-like woman incarcerated in what appeared to be a prison. This slightly surreal selection was designed, I think, to showcase the sensor’s lowlight capabilities. But the weird gothic concept was fortunately eclipsed and outdone by the gatherings ‘round the cocktail tables outside the theater, where users could hold cameras, ask questions, and hang out with the rockstars who run RED.

“Daddy, I want it NOW!”
Sorry, Veruca, but these are the first working EPIC prototypes on display. The first few field cameras, dubbed the TATTOO versions, will be released to RED’s hand-picked early testing crew, which is roughly anticipated in May. TATTOO users will be bashing on their cameras for 2-3 months until they are satisfied that the EPIC is finally release-ready. RED knows that, with their success with RED One, an expanded base of users will have raised the bar higher for EPIC and will be less forgiving of buggy new technology. Their goal is to bullet-proof EPIC as much as possible before unleashing it on the rest of us. The disgruntled Scarlet user base, who have been waiting and waiting and waiting for their perfect camera at the perfect price point, can now rejoice also. The consistent message at the RED event: the SCARLET program, which benefits directly from the EPIC experimental phase, has only a two-month lag time behind the EPIC release.

Post-Processing Perfected
Which leads me to the latest developments in post-production. As forward-looking as these new cameras are, the post-processing is nearing perfection. For those of you who still have doubts about having to process RAW footage, RED’s new free software release REDCINE-X will allow you to create a look in the software and send it to the camera via compact flash. This is huge. You can create a library of looks, load them on a flash card, and keep them with your camera. And while the look is baked into the acquisition process, it is also still in a RAW format and fully adjustable in REDCINE-X on the post-production side. The look is infinitely adjustable. I can’t wait to play with this feature. REDCINE-X is now a complete round-trip tool that allows the consistency of the look to be maintained from acquisition to post-processing. No other camera system offers this level of seamless functionality between camera and software support.

They have also enabled a three-button “still store” in REDCINE-X that allows to you save looks on individual clips, which allows you to compare looks within the clip that you work on and also compare looks between clips.

But wait, there is more goodness. RED just announced that they have designed their software with “hooks” that will allow the nearly infinite development of add-on modules. The first module is already in release and — hold your breath — it is a Magic Bullet module. Magic Bullet opens up in your GUI as a layer in REDCINE-X. There will be opportunities for XML modules, and any other module-based feature that third-party developers can cook up. Magic Bullet looks can also be customized and saved and sent straight to the camera.

RED has also added RGB curves to their luminance curves for more total image control. They have also added a custom framing tool which requires no complex calculations. And they have introduced the ability to work with other formats, including MXF wrapped media for AVID. The new REDCINE-X also now includes a feature for creating Quicktime wrappers, so you can cook your look and, without any rendering at all, apply it directly to editable Quicktime wrappers, for the fastest turnaround.

Not brand new, but worth noting: the new REDCINE-X also boasts sound-synch technology which allows your timecode enabled sound recordings to be easily synched to your clips, with controllers for adjusting for drift, when necessary.

The new REDCINE-X also includes an intuitive interface, which they modified for ease-of-use using a single screen. Oh yes, did I mention that the new REDCINE-X is now enabled for use with both Tangent Wave and Euphonix MC Color control surfaces?

The goodies are coming fast and furious from the RED labs. The new release is less than 24 hours old, as of this writing, so you can expect even more tweaking, a few bugs (the demo crashed shortly after launch and needed to be re-launched), and the rapid development of new modules. But RED is clearly taking all of the feedback that they have received regarding post-production and delivering a fast, user-friendly solution that not only solves prior issues but brings a seamless functionality between acquisition and post-production.

The Third-Party Party
One of the biggest original complaints about the RED system was the lack of third-party software support for RED’s proprietary R3D files. Several third-party software breakthroughs were announced at the RED user event. Adobe, with its adoption of the Mercury Engine technology, seems to have hit the ball out of the park. The new Premiere Pro in the CS5 suite can handle up to 4 layers of R3Ds in the timeline. All with 64-bit processing. The Adobe rep played back a clip with 9 layers of AVCHD clips overlaid by a single R3D in the same timeline, and Premiere chugged through it without a single dropped frame. It was truly impressive. No transcoding or re-wrapping was required. R3D files could be pulled straight from a compact flash card and placed into a timeline. It was easily the cleanest NLE integration that I have seen to date.

Adobe’s rep also showcased Adobe’s new “smart” roto tool in After Effects. Using new technology developed for Photoshop, After Effects now makes the tedious job of rotoscoping into a relatively simple set of keystrokes, dramatically compressing the time that it usually takes to cut complex mattes. It needs to be seen to be believed. I have never had a lot of patience or dexterity for matte cutting, but this new roto tool requires only gross motor skills and a few keystrokes to make a clean matte.

Adobe also showed their remarkable sound-synch technology, which allows users to synch sound via – get this! – a script. The new CS5 release can “read” the text from your script and convert it to sound synch with the audio in the timeline. Furthermore, you can scroll through the script and it will match your timeline cursor. Conversely, you can scroll through your timeline, and it will highlight your place in the script, to be able to match the contents of your screenplay or dialogue with the audio in the timeline. Crazy cool stuff. Certainly useful for RED operators, who frequently shoot double system sound.

And one final goodie: Adobe has integrated Final Cut XML into Premiere, so that it works seamlessly with Apple products and allows easy round-tripping to Color. As the Adobe rep said: “We play well with others.”

Avid’s latest update of Media Composer sported some similarly impressive new features. Their rep demonstrated real-time, native R3D playback in the timeline. All of Avid’s formats are fully supported. Their rep also showed the software’s more advanced data management and compositing component, the AVID DS. I don’t work in Avid, but the capabilities of its nodal compositing structure and the flexibility of its conform and data management system made this one to watch as well.

The laggard in R3D support continues to be Apple and Final Cut Pro. The latest Quicktime plug-in, supporting RED’s new color science was released on the same day as the Reduser event took place. On any other day, this would have been hugely welcome news, but after seeing all of the bells and whistles that Premiere has built into their product, the release of a beta Quicktime plug-in seemed anti-climactic. Even though it is an important item which allows Final Cut to finally implement the new color science, it almost serves to underscore the emptiness of Apple’s contribution to the shifting RED landscape.

Apple, unlike either Adobe or Avid, was one of RED’s original partners, back when RED One was still a twinkle in Jim Jannard’s eye. Jim shows a remarkable loyalty to Apple, even though, at least on the surface of things, they appear to be the least responsive of the major NLE developers. They had the headstart, and now they seem substantially behind in supporting a RED workflow, unless something really eye-popping emerges from the Apple developers soon. Apple was conspicuously absent from the third-party party. I have quite a few dollars invested in Final Cut plug-ins, and I hate to see them made obsolete by their failure to compete in the rapidly shifting media landscape.

Rays of Hope
One of the unsung moments in the RED event was the use of RED RAY for true 4K delivery of the Mysterium and Mysterium-X reels. RED has been using this technology for awhile now, since last year’s event, but they quietly boxed up new RED RAY prototypes into glass display cases and set them out on this year’s exhibit floor. These new units look ready for action, and it is my speculation that we’ll be hearing about them soon. All RED RAY needs is a champion in the distribution chain, someone who can speak on its behalf, just as Peter Jackson and Steven Soderbergh spoke up on behalf of the prototype RED ONE units, someone who loves gadgetry and is willing to take risks with new technologies. Calling Mark Cuban! Your RED RAY awaits you! It is clear that quite a bit of development has taken place in terms of fitting RED RAY (recently re-dubbed 4K RAY) into its own glamorous and functional housing. RED’s crystal ball indicates that 4K delivery is the future of theatrical distribution. They have clearly made this commitment and, though they have kept mum about it publicly, I believe that they are working quietly but furiously behind the scenes to make true 4K delivery the standard of the future. The machined housing looks nearly ready for prime time, and it has been working publicly for at least a year, since it was used to project the Mysterium reel at last year’s event.

The Changing Media Eco-System
One of the big reasons to attend any RED party is to hear Michael Cioni speak. Michael is a colorist and tech guru at LightIron Digital, one of the premier post-processing houses for RED-based projects. He presented a thought-provoking Digital State of the Union address. He offered the crowd a roadmap for the rapid changes in the media landscape, comparing the 1999 consumption of hard media with today’s digitized media. He incorporated figures from Blockbuster and the now-defunct Tower Records from 1999 and compared those to our present modes of media consumption, to shine a light on the state of media consumption today. His central argument is that we are in the very beginning of major changes in how data is managed and consumed and argued persuasively that success in the future requires an understanding of the speed of these changes in the media landscape. Michael has an uncanny knack for breaking these things down for his audience. He is probably the most under-stated futurist of our time. Even if RED is not your thing, an hour of listening to Michael speak about the future of media technology is always transformative. Come for the food, stay for a few shreds of insight.

Food and Fun
RED throws a fun party, with an abundant food buffet, an open bar, and a free raffle. Throw in a chance to rub shoulders with the head honcho, get your paws on the camera of the future, and learn at the knee of one of the brightest minds in color correction and data processing. All for free. Jim Jannard is an incredibly generous, open-handed, and hospitable host. And he understands his customers like no other. What became clear from this year’s event is that the RED party isn’t just for RED users: it’s for anyone who enjoys a glimpse through the window into the future of all imaging processes.

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About The Author

Meryem Ersoz

Meryem's work has appeared on NOVA, Comcast Entertainment Channel, Versus, and Lifetime. She has worked on major commercial shoots for companies such as Audi/Ducati, Conoco, and Wendy's. She has also shot footage for major nature and wildlife documentaries, including Lion Ark and Ice Age Death Trap. She is a partner in BlackWing ASL, offering specialty camera rigging to all air, sea, and land transports. The centerpiece of her business is a 10 ft. Motocrane mounted to a Porsche Cayenne Turbo.