fine cut

The Red Dawn
by Josh Kerr

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At first glance the Red One camera doesn’t seem all that different from other high-end digital video cameras. Sitting there on Toronto based actor Jonathan Baldock’s antique dining room table the camera is underwhelming despite having generated so much excitement.

Two years ago the Red One was just a rumour. It was the mythical beast of digital cinema. No one had seen it – but if the rumours were true, it was going to change the industry landscape. It seemed almost too good to be true.

The Red One is an independent filmmaker’s dream. It’s a cinema quality digital camera with resolution and depth of field comparable to traditional 35-millimetre film. It’s also the first digital camera to use the standard PL lens mounts. And it does all this for almost $100,000 less than other comparable digital video cameras on the market.

Baldock who rents out the camera when it’s not in use, has nothing but praise for the Red One and the company that developed it, Red Digital Cinema.

Baldock is not the only one who has good things to say about the camera and the company. Acclaimed Canadian director Bruce McDonald used a Red One to shoot his latest film Pontypool.

When a producer first suggested using the Red One instead of 35-millimetre, McDonald was somewhat skeptical. But when his cinematographer looked at test footage shot on the Red and could barely tell the difference, McDonald embraced it. He says he’ll definitely use the Red One again.

“I felt very fortunate to be one of the guinea pigs,” he says. “From what I understand Red Cam is constantly refining the camera.”

“It’s true,” says Ted Schilowitz, the defacto spokesman for Red. “In the first 14 months the Red One was on the market it was upgraded 17 times.”

Schilowitz was the first employee recruited by the founder of Red, Jim Jannard, the billionaire who also founded Oakley, an eyewear and apparel company.

A former product manager at AJA video systems in California, Schilowitz’s corporate title at Red for the first year was “Leader of the Rebellion.” Now that the Red One is used by thousands of filmmakers he’s changed his title to simply ‘insert title here.’ While the corporate titles may be a bit of a joke – Jannard’s is ‘madman’ – Red Digital Cinema is serious about making the best camera it can, and then making it better.

“We never look around and say ‘good enough, we’re done. Let’s just calm down and pack it in and let everyone use these cameras happily for the next x amount of years’, ” says Schilowitz on the phone from California. “We go full steam ahead, so we’re working on our next generation of sensors.”

It’s the breakthrough sensor technology developed by the team at Red Digital Cinema that makes this camera so revolutionary.

Unlike other digital video cameras, which use an RGB, filtered CCD chip, Red One uses a single super 35-sized CMOS, which allows it to perform more like a traditional film camera.

“We designed a camera as close to a film camera as we could,” says Schilowitz. “It’s an electronic version of a film camera. It’s not a video camera.”

The other technological breakthrough is the compression software, Redcode, which allows the giant 4K images to be compressed to a size small enough to fit on a compact flash drive without sacrificing image quality.

The mix of cutting edge technology and a price point that is a fraction of the price of its competitors – a fully functional 4K Red One retails for $35,000, while the 2K Sony F23 is more than $100,000 – has made the Red One wildly popular.

“I think we’re as surprised as anyone at how quickly it has been adopted by so many markets,” says Schilowitz.

The rapid market penetration of the Red One has certainly surprised Toronto based cinematographer Samy Inayeh.

“Since June I’ve probably done 50 jobs with the Red,” said Inayeh. “I can’t tell if it’s just the trendiness of new exciting technology, but it’s here, you can’t ignore it, so let’s dance.”

While Inayeh prefers working with film he has lots of praise for the Red One. But, he says, “the technology seems to be a little like the Wild West, like they’re still trying to figure it out.”
And, he’s right.

“We chose to bring the camera before it was fully done,” says Schilowitz. “We learned a lot bringing the cameras to market that way…how we should increase capabilities and what we should focus on.”

It is a unique strategy that Red has employed working with its customers to build a better camera based on user feedback but for some filmmakers, like Saul Pincus, the pace of the technological development can be frustrating.

Pincus shot his latest film Reverie on a Red One using anamorphic lenses; these squish the image in the viewfinder so it has to be decompressed to get a true view of what the composition actually is. To do this on the Red One meant that Pincus had to spend several thousand dollars to rent equipment to convert and expand the image. A few days before the end of the six-week shoot, Red offered a firmware update to decompress the image in the viewfinder of the camera itself – meaning Pincus had essentially wasted thousands of dollars.

“We found out about that three or four days before we were done shooting at the end of one of our killer days and we all looked at each other like,” Pincus shakes his head and smiles, “what can you say.”

Despite the ironic firmware update Pincus says that he was happy with the quality of the camera over all and with the attention that shooting with the Red One lent to his project.

“When we started doing interviews we discovered there were people who wanted to work on this film because of the camera we were using,” says Pincus.

The Red One is an amazing piece of technology that has in less than two years, become pervasive in the film industry, but the ‘madmen’ at Red aren’t stopping. Later this year, probably sometime in the late summer, early fall, Red is coming out with two new lines of cameras with a new generation of sensors: a smaller 3K camera called Scarlet priced at less than $3000, as well as a high-end version called Epic that comes in 5K, 6K, 9K and 28K models. Customers who already own a Red One can exchange it, for the full purchase price, for a new Epic body.

“We really want to take the concept of digital cinema to the next level and make it more democratic,” says Schilowitz. “To make a tool that everyone can have access to.”

Courtesy of Judy MacAlpine, on set of Reverie 2009

Fine Cut 2009