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My God, it's full of K's! What the RED announcement means for the industry

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Image credit: Benni Diez at Reduser.net forums

For the last couple weeks, Jim Jannard of RED Camera has been teasing everybody on the REDuser forums with vague promises and outrageous claims of revolutionizing the industry. Skepticism would be the natural response, but after the original RED One camera turned the industry on its head in 2007, people learned that the company said what they meant and made what they said. Early adopters knew they were getting in the ground floor of something that would not only change the industry but likely completely metamorphose once things got underway. As it turns out, they were right, and RED’s announcement today represents the ideal of the RED camera system made reality. What does today’s bombshell mean for the hi-def video industry, and what does it mean for you and me?

Unprecedented

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: these cameras represent much more than a black eye for Sony, Panavision, and any other player in the digital cinema game. To be honest, they already had a black eye from the RED One, and the original announcement of the Epic and Scarlet gave them a fat lip and a bloody nose as well. The announcement of this completely modular, low-cost, incredibly high-performance camera and accessory suite is nothing short of a knockout punch, a hardware haymaker which even some big names may not be able to withstand. This is not conjecture, it is as close to a statement of fact as can be made before the actual cameras are tested against the competition. The stated costs, capabilities, and resolutions of the RED sensor set and accessory/lens selection utterly outgun everything else on the market by a huge margin.

I’m not an insider on the subject of digital cinematography, but the difference at least in resolution should be plain enough to anyone who can count. These new sensors do not simply outstrip those in digital cinema competitors, which are still working to create a 4K camera to match RED’s, but also stack up against the most high-end medium format still cameras. Leaf’s newest and most advanced sensor, for instance, is 56mm wide, twice as wide as the RED One sensor but exactly the size of the second-largest Monstro sensor. That means that under the right conditions, a RED setup using a Monstro 645 will be shooting the equivalent of a medium-format digital photo from a $40,000 DSLR — fifty times a second. And this is to Redcode Raw, which has excellent color depth and dynamic range as well. The difference between that and capable but far more expensive cameras like the Genesis and Origin (from Panavision and Arri/Dalsa, respectively) is insane — and remember, we’re not even talking about the biggest sensor RED has. The absurd 28K Monstro 617 (not available until 2010, but we’ve seen how RED keeps their promises) will entail an aspect ratio wider than the ridiculous 2.76:1 used for films like Ben-Hur, which honestly seems a bit much; how left-to-right data pulling will work on a sensor that wide is something baffling even the experts.

Price and performance

The most frequent criticism of the RED system is the pricing scheme: sure, you could buy the “brain” or central unit for $17,500, but once lenses, rails, tripod heads, and everything else were taken into account, you’re looking at at least $60-70k for a real cinema setup. True that! But why don’t you try to price a comparable setup for its competitors? I think you’ll find that many of these cameras actually cannot be bought by a prospective cinematographer, and renting one costs at least $3-4k per day. Being able to buy a 6000-pixel-wide sensor for $12,000 and outfit it for another $40,000 is, in this business, an unprecedented bargain (if you don’t count RED One). It’s also worth mentioning that these increases aren’t comparable to the megapixel differences between, say, point-and-shoots and DSLRs. This is a change in order of magnitude, not an incremental improvement.

Many will ask, what is the purpose of such an insane resolution? Well, that’s a whole discussion in itself, but the world is increasing in resolution all over the place: 2K and 4K projectors will likely be standard in a few years and source video will have to be double that for producing special effects and so on. Right now the size and bitrate of the footage prevents easy direct editing, and this announcement exacerbates that issue, but filmmakers have dealt with that for a long time and they’ll deal with it now. More pixels is better these days, and this is a lot more pixels.

Let us not forget

And what of current RED users? Their prized, and still extremely well-specced RED Ones have just been completely obsoleted. Are they getting left out in the cold? I asked my friend, cinematographer Michael Ragen and owner of RED One #343. After assessing the announcement’s effect on the industry as “they shattered the hopes and dreams of every other camera maker in the world,” he mentions that as a RED One owner, the most enticing deal is for him to trade in his camera for $17,500 off of any Epic “brain.” That means that his camera has had zero depreciation, except for any accessories which may be incompatible with the new system, something which I don’t think has been determined yet. There are other deals: he qualifies for reduced pricing on a Scarlet body or new sensor as well.

Apart from the revolutionary nature of the sensors RED is putting out, the entire modular hardware suite they’ve created is absolutely stunning. As you can see in their announcement, you can practically stick a lens on a brain and you’ve got a working Scarlet shooting 3K, or you can put together dozens of custom parts to have a weather-sealed, multiple-lens monster setup with more rails than Amtrak. As a cinematographer this has to be exciting, as, like putting together your own PC, you only buy the parts you need or want. The compatibility with Nikon, Camera, PL, Mamiya, Alpa mounts and more means your lens selection is essentially unlimited.

But what does it mean for Joe the Plumber? (sorry)

I know what you’re asking: is there anything for you and me, the poor consumers and enthusiasts who don’t feel like taking out a loan to get the best gear out there? Well, the lowest-end device available appears to be the Scarlet all-in-one, the price for which isn’t available, but which we can safely guesstimate at somewhere between $3500 and $4000. That’s not exactly home video material, and of course 3K Redcode footage isn’t exactly iMovie material either. We may see something accessible come down the line, but the fact is RED was never meant to be a consumer camera company — even the Scarlet has always been intended as a professional camera, for handheld shots, small mounts, and so on. Unfortunately, that makes you and me into mere spectators of this momentous event — except for the fact that I may get to play with one later.

It should also be mentioned that the RED setups don’t serve every purpose; for example, they will only shoot up to 120fps, or far less for the larger sensors. This means that other digital cinema cameras like the PhantomHD will remain indispensable, so Panavision isn’t entirely rained out, and of course although the RED may have out-sensored Canon, Nikon, and even Hasselblad’s DSLRs, those cameras still have a far better form factor and infrastructure for still shots, so they’re not going anywhere either.

Damn

There’s a lot left unsaid, but this post is already far longer than it probably needed to be, so I’ll leave the rest of the commentary and discussion to those who know better (7500 reading the forum this very second). Let me restate, though, that this announcement really does live up to the hype that preceded it. RED already had the digital cinema industry sweating, and now every camera maker in the world will, trust me, be calling emergency meetings to determine the feasibility of even trying to compete. It’s a wonderful time to be in the business folks, with history being made as we watch. And somehow I doubt this is the last RED has to offer.

Update: Jannard has posted a clarification: the Scarlet system will be more restricted format-wise (video and audio) than the RED One and Epic. The Epic will be less restricted than the RED One. I guess something had to go to fit the Scarlet into a smaller package.

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