Making the Red One Work

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Sun, 03/08/2009 - 20:00 -- Nick Dager

A Veteran Cinematographer Talks about his Experiences By James Mathers President and Cofounder The Digital Cinema Society The number of digital cinema cameras in the marketplace has grown exponentially in the last year and half. It’s been adopted by such high profile directors as Peter Jackson Steven Soderbergh and Alex Proyas and has been used by such prominent ASC cinematographers as Vilmos Zsigmond Roberto Schaefer Don Burgess and M. David Mullen. The Red has also brought high-end digital cinema acquisition into a realm of affordability for many more Filmmakers. Truth be told there are probably more cameras around now than there will ever be professional assignments to utilize them. Literally thousands of new camera owners have been able to scrape together the cost of a Red One camera. However a $17 500 box with a sensor does not make a complete camera system and it takes a lot more to build a camera package that can integrate into a professional filmmaking environment with the capability of being rented to amortize the owner’s investment. The Red One is a marvel of industrial design and they got a lot of things right but [Red founder] Jim Jannard himself would be the first to admit that there is always room for improvement. It is truly a work in progress and besides the constant evolution of product from Red a cottage industry has developed to provide accessories specifically to bolster the camera’s utility if not fix certain inadequacies. As an early adopter of the Red One and owner of camera #30 I was happy to provide feedback to Red and others with the goal of making a better camera. I’ve done a lot of research in putting my package together and continue to study the myriad of new options for outfitting the Red. Following are some of the items that have caught my eye lately many of which have become part of my kit. Element Technica is a company that has evolved to provide solutions that help the Red One better fit into the framework of professional motion picture production. With backgrounds ranging from industrial design to years of on-the-set practical experience as a first A.C. the owners Stephen Pizzo and Hector Ortega are well positioned to bridge the gap. In fact their first product was a “bridge” plate that adapted the Red One to the Arri standard in order to work with the vast arsenal of gear that was already out there to service film cameras. Constant improvements have led to their latest product the Hybrid Bridge Plate which is not only convertible between 15mm 19mm and Panavision rod standards but with horizontal and vertical centering adjustment can easily adapt between studio and lightweight hand-held configurations as well as the upcoming Epic and Scarlet designs. This means that owners who buy accessories for the Red One can be assured that they will still find use with Red and other future cameras. The same is true of their new Mantis hand held rig which slides into the standard dove tail and provides highly adjustable shoulder support in height and horizontal pitch adjusting not just to different cameras but also the various physiques of camera operators. An early success for ET which can be found on hundreds of Reds is their breakout box which converts the unpopular and fragile Mini-BNC connectors to the sturdier full size versions. Another popular ET product is their highly adjustable bracket to hold the Red electronic viewfinder solidly in place including a new extension which allows the EVF to be positioned far enough back to allow use with a geared head. One of their latest products is a vibration isolation mount to help cure the problem of lost data when the Red on-board hard drives take a jolt in situations such as shooting on car mounts or other high vibration environments. AirSeaLand (formerly known as Toys4Red) is another Red outfitter that has taken the concept of a breakout box to new heights. Their new “RIP” (Remote Interface Panel) provides quick and easy access to all critical Red One connections. The RIP interface attaches to the side of the camera and can be used in Stand Alone Mode offering sturdy multiple BNC and XLR connections for audio HDSI timecode and genlock; but what really sets it apart is the optional “RIB” Remote Interface (Break-Out) Box. Using a single industry standard DVI-I Dual Link cable you can have full access to all of the camera's immediate I/O's at distances of up to 50 feet away. I’ve been testing this gear and find it invaluable; besides getting rid of the “spaghetti factory” coming out of the side of my camera with one small DVI cable the 50-foot extension puts the connection hub at a comfortable distance. This keeps the immediate perimeter around my camera a clean and peaceful environment even during reconnections. It is ideal for JibArm setups which I tend to use quite often and includes start/stop tally and five-pin audio for multichannel and return. When selecting lenses I tested everything from Red’s zooms to Zeiss Master Primes as well as the latest from Cooke and Angenieux. I settled on a combination of new and used lenses but they were not cheap especially since so many new PL mount cameras are making such lenses scarce. Just one of my new acquisitions the Angenieux Optimo 17-80mm sells at more than three times the cost of the camera body. It is a beautiful piece of glass quite fast for a zoom at T2.2 and has a good focal range for the kind of narrative work I do wide enough for the master and just long enough to also get close-ups without a lens change. Although quite expensive I believe higher quality glass is justified. I want to obtain the best image quality I can from the Red and it all starts with the taking lens. An image is only as good as its weakest link so it doesn't seem to make sense to me to scrimp on the first link in this chain. However realizing that few Red owners can afford such glass Angenieux has also come up with a high quality zoom at a much lower price designed specifically for the Red. It’s called the Rouge and offers the same quality as their 17-80mm but at only about half the cost. You do give up some range; it only stretches to 30mm on the wide side and it is slower at T2.8 but it is also much lighter giving it the ability to work in handheld mode. Cooke Optics has also come out with a combination set of S4/i zoom and prime lenses aimed specifically at the Red market. It includes a 15-40mm zoom as well as 50mm 75mm and 100mm primes a good basic foundation for any package. Besides two of Red’s own zooms these are the only lenses that feature Cooke’s i-Technology for communicating crucial lens and camera data frame-by-frame to be recorded as metadata which can greatly aid in post VFX. Necessitated by budget many owners have ordered their Reds with still camera lens mounts to take advantage of lenses they may already own. Still camera lenses do cover the full sensor and although the optics can be excellent for the application they were designed for problems arise in trying to use them for motion picture photography. When a still photographer zooms and focuses then frames his shot he is not bothered by image shift or breathing but these can be pretty funky effects in a movie not to mention that focus marks are not easily repeatable and the short throw designed to help a photographer easily grab focus is a detriment when you are trying to line up precise distances with engraved markings on the lens. Although I have decided to stick with lenses designed for cinematography rather than stills there are new adapters such as the Birger Mount which enable many important functions of electronic still camera lenses such as iris and focus to be accessed by the Red. The Birger EF232 adapter allows the use of Canon EF-mount lenses with electronic control of focus and iris functions controlled over the RS-232 or USB serial port. Prior to the development of such adapters these electronic lenses could only operate while mounted on a compatible still camera. For lens support and accessories such as matte box and follow focus I’ve mostly stuck with tried and true Arri products originally designed for film cameras. Some of the Arri components in my package are at least 30 years old and still going strong; so you know they are built to be rugged and dependable. However they can be expensive and I’ve found I can also supplement with a few items from companies like Zacuto and RedRock Micro who have been offering quality gear for small format cameras and are now adapting their products for digital cinema production but at a lower cost than the more established brands. To meet the increased demand Arri has also come out with a line of lower cost matte boxes and follow focus units. They don’t have all the durability and utility of their more expensive units but they are a very good value and meet the basic needs of most Red owners. A number of neutral density and color correction filters have proven to be indispensable when shooting with the Red. Picking a slower speed film stock more appropriate to the light level used to be the answer when shooting in brightly lit situations like a sunny daylight exterior. With the fixed sensitivity of the Red’s digital sensor (ASA 320) it is necessary to add many stops of neutral density compensation to remain in the sweet spot of the lens maintaining maximum clarity and avoiding excess depth of field. However these ND filters do nothing to filter the undesirable effect of excess Infrared contamination which can be seen in an overall lowering of image contrast even making certain shades or textures of black appear as brown. Filter manufacturers such as Schneider Optics have come to the rescue with the creation of their Tru-Cut IR filters developed specifically to deal with this situation. Alone or in filters combining IR and various degrees of ND these filters control the Infrared portion of the light spectrum which is not visible to the human eye but can result in odd color shifts and prevent a camera's imagers from capturing true black tones. Another series of filters getting to be popular with the Red are those that correct tungsten balanced lighting to be in closer harmony with the Red’s natively daylight balanced sensor. As Art Adams has discovered in his research for the Red is challenged when shooting under tungsten light. A 3200K light has a lot of red in it and very little blue and silicon sensors are least sensitive to blue. Silicon sensors function very well under daylight conditions because daylight is mostly blue which more than compensates for silicon’s blue insensitivity. But under tungsten light where there’s very little blue the blue sensor flails because it has nothing to do. And like film emulsion when a sensor has nothing to do it does its own thing: we call that generating noise. Art has found that adding a color correcting filter such as the series 80B C or D (depending on how much light loss you can afford with these deeply saturated blue filters) can greatly help in critical situations such as green screen compositing. These filters have been around for years but aside from special effects such as day-for-night never saw much use in film production where again you would have just selected an appropriately balanced stock. Sticks and heads are of course a matter of personal taste but even though the Red camera itself is only about 10 pounds sans battery and lens by the time I set up a studio configuration with my zoom and accessories I could be looking at 70 to 80 pounds; so for my package I chose the very substantial O’Connor 2575 with heavy duty Ronford sticks. Probably the most popular head with Red owners however is the O’Connor 1030HDS with a rating of 40 pounds; and for those who need to support a bit more weight the O’Connor 2060 which comfortably supports up to 60 pounds is also very popular. With the Red’s modular design and so many choices of accessories and support Red owners can build extremely varied packages to meet their particular needs. My interest and background are in narrative filmmaking working on sets with trained professionals who have come to expect a high standard of performance and reliability from their support gear. There is a lot of exciting innovation in the marketplace and new products are constantly being introduced. Please remember that my opinions and analysis are based on my particular experience and perspective...your mileage may vary. All comments are welcome: [email protected]