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If you’re looking at investing in a raw camera system, specifically RED and are predominantly using Canon DSLR’s or Sony FS100/700 (or something similar), you may get something out of the lesson’s I’m learning. If you’re not into cameras or post production, this blog is probably not for you 🙂
It’s fair to say myself and Shane have shot more hours of footage on a Canon 5D Mark II than any other camera. However, as detailed in a previous blog, ‘Why a Red Scarlet?’ – we eventually decided we were after a more serious production camera. Higher resolution, raw capable (preferably compressed raw) and an s35 or greater sensor size preferably. Something we could use for personal work (shorts) and not need to pay to hire.
We took a leap on the Red Scarlet and I can honestly say we haven’t regretted it. Having now shot a 15 minute corporate drama, six TV Commercials (waiting to go to air), four music videos and a handful of other pieces on it, I can now discuss how this transition has been for us. I’ll talk expenses, ergonomics, using the camera, accessories, post production workflow and software (not necessarily in that order).
Our Canon 5D (and Sony FS700) post workflow:
On the Canon we would always conform to Cineform (10 bit 422). We found this worked more smoothly in Adobe Premiere (CS4 and 5.5) and also yielded better results in colour grading than the h.264 it natively records in. Our master copy would also be in the Cineform codec, which for those who don’t know for comparisons sake is comparable to pro res. I was still working in CS4… that would soon all change.
Starting to work with REDCODE footage one of the first things I realised is the increase in file size from 1080p DSLR h.264 and Cineform files to 4k RED footage. We can’t afford infinite hard drives and very soon realised how important it was that we went for a compressed raw camera system. We nearly went for the BMCC (I’m not anti that camera or any camera, I think it’s amazing for the price) and although the uncompressed raw would have been good for some gigs, for many of our jobs it just simply would not have been feasible to use (won’t talk about the smaller sensor size/cheaper price etc).
Despite downloading RED importer add-ons for Adobe Premiere I still couldn’t get RED files to work reliably in CS4 so I bought CS6. I was due for an upgrade anyway but still, that’s over $1200 there. In CS6 (other than the larger hard drive space requirement) working with REDCODE is in some ways easier than DSLR. For one, there’s no need to transcode the footage (you don’t NEED to anymore but it is better for grading) and it plays back seamlessly at ¼ resolution in premiere. No hassles. Even at ½ resolution un-rendered on our systems with no effects added. (Half resolution is 2k or 1080p)
That said our old 8gb ram quad core computers were very slow at exporting or adding any sort of effects/grade to the footage. So we upgraded to new computers with NVidia 680 graphics cards, 32gb ram, i7 CPU’s, new 2 and 4tb hard drives and solid state C drives (much faster). Then we were cooking, but again it all costs money. We really were due for an upgrade so the expense was easier to justify.
Before we started working through our first paid job with the RED Scarlet I thought, what is our master format going to be? We needed a high quality master format 12 bit 444 capable, but we didn’t want the file size to lead to overly huge additional hard drive expenses. We didn’t want to export uncompressed (RED isn’t uncompressed, seemed like a waste of space). We purchased Cineform studio ($299 x2) which gives you 4k and up capability and compressions of 422, 444, 4444 (with alpha channel) 10 bit, 12 bit and at varying levels of compression. We now master everything in Cineform and convert it to h.264 for the web or blu ray, mpeg2 for DVD etc. I’ve found it to be a reliable format and I’m happy with the results but am all ears to other suggestions!
I’ll come back to talking about working with the Red image in post in a bit but first.
Kit and price:
You are in for some expenses to get this camera to be production ready. We already had a Cinevate DSLR rig that works great with a 5D. And in fact we used a modified by Shane version of it on ‘When Separating – Parents that Fight’ which we shot on RED.
But it’s meant for lighter cameras and we’ve had that rig for a while (I think the kips need replacing). We found the front handles would slip a bit (I’m not sure if this is due to wear and tear, I don’t recall it doing that much if at all with a 5d). But some shots just had more shake than we intended to give it.
We bought a Zacuto Recoil rig. Good decision! (Still using the reliable Cinevate Durus follow focus on it with Cinevate gears) The way the front arms/handles lock together on the recoil gives it rock solid stability, it feels so sturdy on your shoulder. It was built for this camera and it shows. I was only able to get through a 19 hour shooting day because of the recoil. It was my first time using it and it came in just two days before.
The tricky part is that you can’t actually see the side handle when it’s on your shoulder. I’m looking at a monitor but can’t see the buttons I’m pressing. That said, I think the RED side handle is really well designed, you can program it yourself and 90% of the time it’s not an issue for me. I can easily change aperture with the push of a button and feel my way no problem. Every now and then I press the wrong thing and need to take it off my shoulder and correct the settings.
We got our RED Scarlet with a 128gb card, this gives you about 45 minutes of 6:1 4k compression or an hour of 8:1 which is very useable. We bought a second 128gb card and find that’s enough for us so long as we are able to offload during the shoot. We’ll offload and backup to two externals then clear the card so it’s ready for when the 2nd card fills up and then repeat the process. However if you are on a shoot where you are unable to offload then you are going to need more cards. In Australia after postage it’s over $1300 for one 128gb card.
POWER – We got 3 Red Volts with the camera. They’re great for quick shots/very small shoots and for the lighter weight on your shoulder on long days. But really, you need something longer lasting, or a lot of Red Volts which I think would be a bit of a pain to change all the time. After a bit of searching we opted for the Wooden camera 3x Switronix battery kit. These clip on the back give you probably an hour of recording time each and surprisingly charge up relatively fast, an hour – hour and a half. We’ve found three to be the perfect number. One runs out, slap it on the dual charger. By the time the second battery is drained the first one to go on the charger is usually charged or almost charged and we’ve got a third ready to go too. The only issue is that it doesn’t fit into our pelican case with the battery mount on, so we have to screw it on at the start of every shoot and unscrew it at the end. Not really a problem with the system, more our case but still. A hassle if you’re going the pelican case route using the standard scarlet/epic cut-out.
One other issue with the Red Scarlet compared to a DSLR is the fan is loud, not crazy loud but enough to annoy the soundie. I’ve heard that’s been improved and there’s a new one available with new firmware to run it but I haven’t used it so can’t talk about it. But as it is, no shotgun mic’s on the camera.
Like a DSLR, the RED doesn’t have one. We have a variable ND and a tiffen 4×4 filter. The variable ND is a cheap one, about $150 and does soften the image a little, not noticeable at all if delivering at 2/k or 1080p and can be a pleasing look depending on the circumstances. But I prefer not to use it. We also have a tiffen filter to go with our matte box but I haven’t used that with the Scarlet yet.
The improvements that stood out first and was later confirmed with a side by side comparison is the unsubtle increase in detail and the wider dynamic range (from the h.264 recording on a 5D). I haven’t compared the Magic Lantern RAW hack to the RED yet. Now, some would argue that you can get quite a nice little image straight out of a 5D, and I would agree I like the clean look (for certain uses, particularly for corporate and TVC’s). The look of RED (this is all subjective) say with red color 3 straight out of the camera ain’t too bad at all, but it feels like it’s destined for moderate to heavy grading. Fair enough it’s a digital cinema camera, that’s what it’s designed for. What you CAN do with it is phenomenal. (Just want to be clear I think it looks nice out of the box but RED have left a lot of the image control to post production rather than baking a ‘look’ in.) I prefer the image off the RED out of the box but its capable of so much more than what you initially see, the Canon DSLR’s out of the box are very nice for what they are, cost etc. Raw gives you an impressive amount of flexibility that I didn’t fully appreciate until after using Red and going back to grading 8-bit footage. With Red, say goodbye to 8 bit banding on plain walls and in the sky! Say hello to long shots that aren’t soft and mushy. Say hello to making sure you have a good makeup artist because every fine detail in a close up is going to show on someone’s face!
The RED Scarlet is not a great low light camera. It’s not terrible and raw helps but it’s meant to be lit for (like a real movie). Even the Canon 5D Mark II out performs it in low light. I’ve heard it said it’s sweet spot is either iso 320 or 800 (or in-between). I’ve used 1600 in music clips and a drama briefly, but ideally to get the most out of it and cleaner shadows we’ve found it best to light for 320 iso. (Since writing this I’ve been told on reduser 800 iso treats highlights better… yet to test)
When the footage gets noisy or we are pushing it in post I find the noise much more appealing to my eye and like film grain than anything from any DSLR or Sony FS series camera. The noise isn’t as colourful.
Okay so on that note of ‘video looking’. That’s a vague term I know and could be debated to the end of the Earth and it’s subjective blah blah blah. Coming back to the image and grading, my DSLR workflow was usually edit in premiere and grade in after effects with colour finesse. No fancy resolve by me, not yet! I’ve now got adobe Speedgrade, but haven’t started to really crack that nut yet (and the integration and RED support in CS6 isn’t that great I’ve heard… but we’ll see). I originally thought about building up a catalogue of looks to work with the RED files for different projects and just making minor adjustments to them.
Then I came across Filmconvert. This has been raved about by a bunch of prominent film/video makers including Philip Bloom and Vince Laforet and for good reason. For those who’ve been holed up in a barn somewhere being attacked by Zombies it’s a plugin (for premiere, after effects, final cut) or standalone program that matches the way various cameras sensors read colour to different film stocks. So it emulates film colour and film grain. I love the look and feel of real film. If it was affordable to shoot on it and I knew how to use a film camera, I would. This plugin works marvels with REDCODE. It gives you much nicer skin tones from the get go (in my opinion/to my taste) than standard Red Colour 3 or the other pre-sets/profiles pre grading, gentler roll off to white and beautiful contrast… But you still have to expose correctly! Richness and texture are two terms that come to mind.
Previously on fast corporate videos I would shoot Cinestyle on the 5D and just apply the technicolor LUT. I tried out film convert instead of the LUT and found Filmconvert so much more pleasing on the 5D. It would bring the contrast out in the image but not to the point that I was losing detail. The colour/texture… everything is just much nicer to look at (to me). See this example below. I lose the moon in the sky in the LUT version. I also found in this piece that the film convert grain helped to mask the appearance of banding and moire too.
Artsource with technicolor LUT
Artsource with Filmconvert
Filmconvert provides pre-sets to set your REDCODE metadata so it accurately emulates film under the same conditions, not using this is like playing an out of tune guitar. I was originally using the RED COLOR 2 version, but now Rubber Monkey (Filmconvert makers) have released different profiles. I’m now using RED LOG FILM, RED COLOR 3. This automatically sets the iso to 640. We aim to shoot at 320 where ever possible. What I (generally no one’s got a gun to my head) do is convert all the footage to this preset, and then, only make adjustments to the iso. For example if the skin is too bright I bring the iso back down to 320, 400 or 500, or put it up to 800, 1000, 1280 or 1600 if necessary. If skin is in frame, that’s my guide. Film convert gives you additional controls such as colour wheels or you can export your project into Speedgrade or resolve or whatever you are using for some more heavy duty grading. Or you can go back and make little tweaks to the metadata in Red Cine X (or Premiere source settings). It’s up to you. I’ve done this a bit, mainly just adjustments to contrast, curves and bringing down shadows. I’m still figuring things out. I’m by no means saying this is what you should do!
I am not a colourist but most of the time I do grade my own work, which is why I love this plugin so much. I want my work to look like film, with this it can get a lot closer without too much fuss. Back in the day people didn’t spend a billion hours doing power windows and making a zillion little changes to the image. You had to get it right on set and could only make little tweaks in post. I’m not against heavy grading (done well) I look forward to delving deeper into that side of things. But whether you’re going to do tonnes of grading in resolve or not, Filmconvert is worth a look for a fast organic film like image from RED or Canon. (Still to try on Sony FS700).
These projects (below) were both shot on our Red Scarlet and graded with filmconvert and only minor adjustments made in Red Cine X and after effects. I had two days to grade Parents that Fight and filmconvert saved me. I basically just adjusted the iso in the metadata and used three different film stocks. The scenes in the mediation room are too overexposed outside in the long shots. We did shoot an empty room plate exposed for the sky but I just didn’t have time to add the layers in.
Parents that Fight – Legal Aid WA short film
Katie O’Donnell – On the Inside (music video)
Rodrigquez Reuben – Concerto De Aranjuez: Adagio (music video)
The Red with FilmConvert = AWESOME. What I’ve been looking for. Would love more dynamic range and better low light… Oh yeah Dragon is on its way! But… that costs more money!! The main thing I would say is, don’t think of it as a ‘video camera’. It does not suit many jobs (especially for a small business like us), it’s a digital film/cinema camera.
I still use the 5D (generally with filmconvert now) on corporate shoots/web videos and freelance videography. There is still plenty of jobs 8 bit heavily compressed video is perfect for and that isn’t worth filling up a hard drive over. We may look at upgrading our Mark II to a 5D Mk III or a C100 in the future for those jobs. But for short films, music videos, dramas and most TVC’s the Red Scarlet is definitely my tool of choice at the moment.