I shot three spec TV commercials with the RED camera and this is my report of the experience. Here are the spots:
1. About the RED camera
The RED camera was released in 2007 and satisfied a desperate need for a digital camera that can truly rival the look of 35mm film. It shoots in full 12-bit 4K resolution (frame size 4520 x 2540) at frame rates ranging from 23.98fps to 120fps. The physical frame size of the sensor is 24.4mm x 13.7mm, which is the same size as a Super35 film frame. The RED camera has a PL mount, which allows the use of the best cine lenses available in cinematography.
The RED camera also records 4-channel uncompressed, 24 bit, 48KHz audio.
2. Shooting 3 spec TV commercials with the RED camera
The RED camera we used was Build 18. We used a set of Zeiss Super Speed 1.4T prime lenses (18mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm) that contributed to an incredibly clean and beautiful look. These prime lenses also allowed us to shoot with an open aperture, which is important to me because I have a strong preference for a shallow depth of field. We shot at 24fps.
As a production monitor we used the Panasonic Professional BT-LH1710 17-inch LCD Production Monitor — a very high-resolution monitor that gave me a very faithful view of what the camera was actually shooting. On several occasions the monitor enabled me to determine that the subject’s eyes were not sufficiently sharp, which is exactly what I would expect of a reliable production monitor.
The RED camera records footage as proprietary R3D files on its on-board hard drive. This means that the length of takes is not limited by the need to reload the magazine with film. This undoubtedly saves time, but there is the occasional need to reboot the RED camera, which takes about 90 seconds. The camera also emits noise when the fan is operating in between takes; obviously this does not affect the actual shooting.
At the end of each day the DIT downloads the raw footage from the camera’s hard disc onto portable G-drives. Copies of the raw footage are held on duplicate portable drives, in case one of them fails.
3. The look of RED camera footage
I love the look of RED camera footage. Even the raw uncorrected footage played back on the monitor between takes looks very beautiful. The depth of field was very shallow, especially when using longer focal lengths; this made the focus puller’s work very challenging, especially in a shot that involved the camera tracking forwards while the main subject was walking towards it, which made it very difficult for the focus puller to have a reliable frame of reference. It was a very tricky shot to keep in focus and it required many takes, but I got exactly what I wanted and it was totally worth it. We still finished on schedule, thanks to a first-rate crew, including a fabulous first assistant director.
The RED camera has a high-resolution LCD viewfinder, but that is purely for the operator’s use; focus was taken care of by the focus puller as with traditional film shoots, and additionally I stringently scrutinized the HD monitor to make sure I was happy with the focus. With such a shallow depth of field, even a few inches of difference in the camera-subject distance can compromise focus.
The RED camera produces a remarkably beautiful look. It looks so good that it is way beyond being a substitute for film; it is very much its own look and I find it exceedingly appealing. It has none of the appalling ugliness of all the HD cameras that were the only alternative to film in high-and production before the RED camera was invented. RED camera footage has a beautiful texture and a delightful softness, thanks to the absence of electronic sharpness enhancement. When used with high-quality prime lenses, the quality of the footage is absolutely superlative. I was VERY impressed!
4. Post-production: RED camera workflow
I edited the spots using Final Cut Studio. I downloaded the white paper from the RED website and chose Workflow 3 (Apple ProRes 422), outputting the finished spots as 1920 x 1080. Before editing can begin, the raw R3D files need to be transcoded into a format that can be edited — in my case, Apple ProRes 422. Before transcoding, I used the QuickTime reference files to select the takes I wanted, so I only transcoded the takes I needed for the edit.
Editing was very straightforward and there were no complications. We had two copies of each sound take: one recorded directly by the camera simultaneously with the video, and one recorded separately with a DAT recorder. The sound recorded by the RED camera was perfectly satisfactory and was used in the final edit.
The completed spots were graded using Apple Color. The Apple ProRes 422 files are so data-rich that the colorist has plenty to work with. We were able to achieve a slightly different look for each spot, and again I was very pleased with the results.
I love the RED camera. It fills a painful void that plagued filmmakers for a whole decade before the RED camera was released. Before the RED camera, independent filmmakers had to choose between the appalling costs associated with shooting on film and the intolerable ugliness of even the most high-end HD cameras. This issue is now definitively resolved and the RED camera provides a truly viable alternative to shooting on film; indeed, its uniquely appealing look might be outright preferable in many circumstances.
Its low costs, convenience and beautiful look have made it the camera of choice for independent filmmakers, and deservedly so.