RED Day

RED Leader Jim Jannard at Ren-Mar RED Studios on Saturday.

On Saturday 16 January, RED hosted three open-house sessions in Hollywood, for CML (cinematography mailing list) members, ASC (American Society of Cinematography) members, and for RED ONE owners. I attended the CML session, and here’s a quick writeup on what we learned. [updated 10:15pm PST: M-X performance details]

The sessions were held at Ren-Mar studios in downtown Hollywood. RED Leader Jim Jannard started off the presentation by announcing that RED had acquired Ren-Mar, closing the deal that very Friday—so that we were, in fact, holding the meeting in RED Studios Hollywood.

RED will have a small office at Ren-Mar RED Studios, but the bulk of engineering and business will continue in Lake Forest for the time being. RED will keep operating the facility as a studio rental space, and will use RED Studios as a home in the heart of the production community, and as a handy facility for shooting tests (and perhaps more: there was no discussion of this, but if I were Jim, I’d want a studio to use my new cameras in. I wouldn’t be surprised to see RED take a more active role in making films, not just making cameras).

After this bombshell, Jim talked about new developments and the overall direction of the company. He started off saying that he loved film: the look of it, the texture, the way it rendered images. But “the problem with film is that it’s not subject to Moore’s Law.” He went on to say that pressing HD cameras into service for film output was unfortunate: the comparatively low resolution of HD doesn’t scale well to the large screen; HD cameras tend to oversharpen; HD color space, gamma, and dynamic range are limited. RED set out to build no-excuses digital cine cameras, with the resolution, dynamic range, and colorimetry needed for cinema work.

Jim was quick to admit that he and his crew are new at this, and that perhaps in the early days they didn’t know as much as they should have—but they’re getting better at listening, and getting input from the production community. Indeed, that was the point of the event: to show off work in progress, and get feedback from production folks, in a less-harried atmosphere than NAB or IBC. Throughout his talk, Jim kept saying, “don’t take my word for it”, and “go look for yourself”, and words to that effect; there was none of the hype, bombast, or aggro attitude of the early days, but a much more open-minded, realistic, reasonable tone. He also said, “RED is a trajectory, not a moment in time”; look at what we started with, see where we’re going, and make up your own mind.

Now, part of this may have been a show tailored to the notoriously prickly and skeptical CML crowd (it’ll be interesting to hear from attendees of the ASC and RED ONE owner’s sessions), but I for one was impressed with Jim’s tone. The hyperbole-heavy marketing RED has been famous for has always rubbed me the wrong way; I’m an engineer by training and disposition, not a marketeer or a fanboy. What I took away from Jim’s performance was that RED doesn’t need to act like brash, in-your-face rebels any more: with RED now an established, unquestioned mainstream player, they now have the confidence to engage with the industry in a calmer, more rational, and mutually-respectful manner. The aggro, heavy-metal design remains (see the logo above), grin, but RED is now projecting a desire to work with end users and industry partners in a collaborative rather than a confrontational manner. (IMHO, of course. I may be oversimplifying things and overstating the magnitude of this transformation, but really, it struck me as the most significant thing about the presentation. I have to say I was mightily impressed; my respect for the company as a company, not just as a bunch of crazy wild-eyed rebels, basically doubled during the preso—and I say that as someone who advised the company I work for to buy three RED ONEs from those crazy wild-eyed rebels two years ago.)

Of course, there was other stuff shown and discussed, as well.

Work proceeds apace on the new M-X (Mysterium-X) sensor. Ted Schilowitz told me that the new sensor had higher sensitivity; rating the M-X any slower than ISO 800 resulted in excessive clipping. Upon reading this, Jim Jannard wrote me with a correction:

This sensor is EXACTLY like the original Mysterium sensor but with a much lower noise floor.

ISO 320 looks spectacular with the new M-X sensor and has exactly the same highlight protection as the original. The pixel size is the same for the two sensors… just much less noise.

DR is defined as signal/noise so it isn’t a big surprise that there is more DR in the new sensor.

(In Ted’s defense, he told me the clipping story at the Assimilate reception on Friday night, and both fatigue and wine may have played a role in his confusion [grin]. In any case, a much lower noise floor allows the camera to be operated at a higher ISO rating before noise becomes a problem; it appears that M-X pix at ISO 800 look at least as clean as current RED ONEs at ISO 320—and if they have the same highlight protection, that allows 1.3 stops more highlight detail to be captured without clipping when the sensor is shot at ISO 800, which is a win in my book. I love the filmic look of highlights with texture and detail, so I’d probably shoot the M-X at 800; Art Adams, who is willing to sacrifice highlights in favor of reduced noise, might well shoot the M-X at 320.)

Jim showed a clip shot the night before at ISO 1250, lit by firelight, and one shot at ISO 2000, lit by a match. There was a little bit of noise in the ISO 2000 clip, but it wasn’t objectionable, and the ISO 1250 looked pretty clean.

In the demo area, two RED ONEs were set up with M-X sensors. It’s hard to say from looking at the LCD and 720p outputs, but to my eye the M-X at ISO 800 looked about at least as clean as the original M (Mysterium) sensor at ISO 320. When I put the LCD into false-color mode, the shadows at ISO 800 even looked a bit cleaner than M shadows at 320; the dark blue and purple false colors showed less flicker and noise on the M-X than I’m used to seeing on our RED ONEs with the M at ISO 320.

There’s a new “color science” that goes along with M-X; it includes a new REDcolor matrix and REDgamma tonal curve, with a new FLUT (floating LUT) setting that lets you vary the midgrays at an ISO setting without affecting clipping, so that you can really calibrate the camera’s output to agree with your lightmeter for a given ISO setting. Graeme Nattress described it to me as a LUT that looks for clipping in any of the channels and applies a rolloff as needed (much like the shoulder of a film’s H&D curve, if you will) to prevent the clipping from occurring. “It’s not as good as having an experienced colorist hand-grading each shot, but it’s a lot quicker, and a lot better than hard-clipping the highlights”, he said. Graeme said he could explain FLUT in more detail to me, but then he’d have to kill me; I’m happy to wait until RED can send up an M-X-equipped camera for testing, at which point I can really analyze the practical effect of the FLUT. From what I saw in the demo area, it looks quite promising.

RED will be offering an M-X upgrade path for existing RED ONE cameras starting this coming Friday, 22 January: the US$5750 upgrade will take about two weeks, and involves swapping out the sensor and sensor board. An upgraded camera will be be able to exploit the M-X’s greater sensitivity, dynamic range (said to be 13 stops or more), and the new color science (which requires updated tools, like a new version of REDCINE-X to be released any day now), but it will still have the same range of image sizes, frame rates, and compression options, as those are determined by downstream electronics.

(Of course the new M-X cameras—Epic and Scarlet—will have expanded options, with higher frame rates and different image sizes, depending on the model. RED says, “Everything is subject to change. Count on it”, so there’s little point in my listing the specs as previously published, because, well, who knows?)

The playback format formerly known as RED RAY is now called RED 4K, and it offers 4K 24fps playback at a data rate of only 15 Mbit/sec (!). The screenings at the event were played off RED 4K through a new Sony 4K projector; I was sitting in the front row, inside of a screen width’s distance (and had a sore neck after half an hour from having to tilt my head up so much), and it looked pretty effing good from where I sat: scandalous amounts of fine detail and no obvious compression artifacts. RED will have a one-button encode option in a future tool for RED 4K encoding at this data rate (which includes audio, by the way); it won’t be quick, but it’ll be good. Delivery dates haven’t been announced.

Michael Cioni of LightIRON Digital, who is also active with REDucation, gave a run-through of REDCINE-X, RED’s latest, all-in-one on-set / preview / batch transcode / one-light grading tool. It’s designed to agglomerate all the best features of REDCINE, RED Alert, and REDRushes into one, so your OS X Dock or Windows program menu need only have one RED tool on it instead of three. Early betas of REDCINE-X are available for Mac and Windows; new betas with support for the new color science options are expected within the next couple of weeks.

View of REDCINE-X from the front row. Sorry, my widest lens was only 17mm.

REDCINE-X is Rocket-aware: RED Rocket is RED’s PCIe accelerator card for realtime full-quality decoding of RED raw files. It offers 4K, 2K, 1080p, and 720p output on DVI and HD-SDI connectors (ganged as needed for higher-than-HD resolutions) as well as high-speed transcoding to DPX or QuickTime files. Michael spent $36,000 on XServes, as well as an unspecified sum on the Xsan file system to connect them, to get 1:1 transcoding for LightIRON’s pre-Rocket setup; now the $4750 Rocket card can do the same thing in any PCIe-equipped Mac, Windows, or Linux box. Michael says that if you’re serious about RED post, you need to have a Rocket card; the days of waiting for transcodes to happen (or of charging clients for transcode time) are over; there’s no excuse not to have realtime playback of full-res decodes any more. RED Rocket is shipping now.

A PCIe extender from MAXX Digital with a RED Rocket for portable use.

In the demo area, RED was showing the MAXX Digital Mobile Rocket, a $1000 expansion kit for ExpressCard34-equipped laptops. Very cool; you won’t need a full tower computer to use RED Rocket on your DIT cart. This ties in nicely with Michael’s assertion that “the future of profitable postproduction is on set”, meaning that with the increased capability of things like REDCINE-X / RED Rocket, you can capture the Director’s and DP’s intents on location and fix them in the metadata, without having to rely on screen captures and other workarounds. We’ve seen this already, with things like Iridas’s SpeedGrade products; the general idea is that there’s increasingly little excuse for not having the full ability on set to capture the look of the scene in a way that is communicated transparently and completely to the editing and grading suites. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend your entire time in the “monitor tent”, but it means that you can have that level of control if you want it.

Due to a power failure (the whole block lost power briefly just as Jim was starting his presentation), the Mobile Rocket system wasn’t behaving properly. I asked the friendly RED demo guy (whose name I failed to register; apologies, RED demo guy) to switch off the Rocket acceleration on his 17″ MacBook Pro. He did, and restarted REDCINE-X, and at 1/8 res quality, REDCINE-X was still instantaneously responsive: not bad for a laptop-limited app.

One nice feature of REDCINE-X is that most windows are fully scalable (but not the histogram window yet, alas), so it’ll run happily on displays of constrained dimensions, and yet scale nicely to larger screens and dual displays.

Another nice feature of the upcoming version of REDCINE-X is that it can be driven by the Tangent WAVE control surface.

I expect I’ll be playing with REDCINE-X a lot more, and the older apps less, in the weeks to come.

There were also a variety of EPIC and Scarlet concept models and their various add-ons scattered about.

Normally skeptical CMLers crowd the displays as eagerly as any fanboys.

Epic mock-up with new RED support gear concepts.

RED Epic mock-up showing the V-mount modular connections.

The Epics and Scarlets were pretty much the same mockups as we’ve seen at other events, but my impression was that the various add-on bits ‘n’ bobs, like shoulder pads, handgrips, handles, and mounting accessories, are evolving rather nicely.

One actual working add-on was the new “bomb” EVF, a tiny little thing perhaps a quarter or third the size of the current RED EVF. It was attached to the M-X demo RED ONEs; sadly I didn’t shoot a picture of it. It has a higher refresh rate than the current EVF, so there’s less “color shattering” during eye saccades. It has two assignably buttons on the front, in place of the current EVF’s three buttons and dial.

There were also demo stations set up by LightIRON Digital, Assimilate (who held a very nice reception for CML the night before; thanks, Lucas!), and Hollywood-DI, showing off their products and services for RED post, which I would discuss more except that I ran out of time, and didn’t get to visit with them properly. Sorry.

Jim Jannard also described the three most important steps for getting good RED footage, since he’s tired of hearing how “RED lacks dynamic range” (when it’s badly exposed), “RED is soft” (when it’s badly scaled), and “RED’s color is hard to grade” (when the grading isn’t done properly). The fixes?

  1. Expose it properly. When you use the histogram and “traffic light” guides (and the new over/under bars in the upcoming M-X firmware), you can get perfectly good exposures. Most of the film shot on RED to date used older builds, like firmware versions 15 and 16, which had even more limited latitude and higher noise than current builds, yet they look pretty good. Yes, the current sensor doesn’t have film’s latitude, but the M-X is better, and even the current sensor gives fine results when you work within its limits, as I can state from my own experience.
  2. Do a full-res deBayer. Especially if doing a non-integral rescaling, like 3K to HD or 3K to 2K, make sure you use the RED tools to do a full-res decode. Yes, it takes longer than a half-res decode, but it’s worth it. Half-res can work when generating a half-size output (like 4K to 2K, or “4K HD” to 1080p HD), but for anything else, you definitely want a full-res decode.
  3. Use the white balance sliders in the raw decode before using RGB color balancing. When you use the white balance controls in the raw decoding tools, whether in RED’s own tools, the RED tabs in Apple Color, Assimilate Scratch, or other apps, you’re getting the full range of the raw data running through the color matrix. Do your primary correction using these tools, instead of the more traditional RGB lift/gain/gamma sliders, to exploit all that raw information. A problem folks run into, RED says, is ignoring the color balance sliders in the belief that the RGB sliders will work just as well. They won’t: once you convert the Bayer-mask raw data to 4:4:4 RGB, the matrix has been baked in, and if you want to radically alter the color temp of the scene, it’s too late to exploit all that raw data. Kelvin and Tint work on raw data and contribute to the decoding; RGB sliders work after the fact and have to deal with whatever the decoding has already done.

Tony Pratt of New Zealand’s Park Road Post, a post & DI facility with lots of RED experience, showed clips from “Knowing” (the first RED-shot feature) and “District 9”, talking about the severe grading and VFX that many of the clips were subject to; the RED’s depth of information and high resolution made both grading and motion tracking ouch less arduous than they might have been. He showed some pre- and post-grading helicopter plates from Peter Jackson’s recent “The Lovely Bones”, again illustrating that there was lots of information, even in the current sensor, deep in the shadows, so that there was room to push color and exposure around, and to stabilize shaky plates for VFX work.

After the demos, Jim held a “Q&A&S” session: Questions and Answers and Suggestions, soliciting feedback from the gathered crowd on how to make the cameras better.

The first questions were about the studio (which I covered above), and about the Lake Forest and the Las Vegas “RED Ranch” locations. The plan is to move most operations to Las Vegas, but an Orange County presence will remain, as not everyone can or will relocate to Vegas.

The next questions/suggestions dealt with information and support; many folks said that dealing with REDuser.net was extremely time-consuming and frustrating. Yes, important information is on REDuser, but it’s buried in so much noise and is so scattered and disorganized that it’s almost a full-time job extracting it. A frequently-voiced complaint was that any time Jim or another RED person posts some nugget of info, it’s followed by fifteen pages of me-too “noise” posts, with fanboys chiming in just to say “great!” or “hooray!”. One chap says that the only way he got information from REDUser was to do a search for posts by Jim, Graeme, Deanan, Jarred, Ted, Stuart, etc., and ignoring everything else.

The whole RED team nodded their heads; they’ve heard this before! There’s already a biweekly-or-so “Crucial Ordnance” email that goes out to RED owners, picking out important threads on REDuser that RED feels are worth a look (I find them helpful in winnowing down the threads that need to be read, but there’s still a lot of chaff in the threads themselves). RED is considering adding a no-comments-allowed section for Jim to post on, which will help; there’s also a redesign of the RED website in the works which will have an “education” section with more meaty info free from chaff and fanboy chatter [note: I’m the one using the derogatory “fanboy chatter” term; the RED folks were much more diplomatic].

“How about an optical viewfinder?” Jim said that it was very expensive (“electronics are easy; mechanical stuff is hard”), but that he had offered to build an optical front end if he could get 20 pre-orders (at some price in the many thousands of dollars; I don’t recall the exact amount). “The phone never rang”, he said; nobody was willing to actually pay for the darned things, so he didn’t pursue it any further.

“How about a behind-the-lens filter slot, so we don’t have to pile NDs on the front in bright light?” Jim said it’s something they’re considering for the new cameras. Since inserting glass behind the lens changes the optical path length, the cameras would have to have a plain glass blank in there when no filter was used, of course. TBD.

“Is REDCINE-X going to turn into a full-fledged grading app?” Jim said that the decision to add lift/gamma/gain controls into an upcoming version REDCINE-X was controversial as it was; RED doesn’t want to (a) step on the toes of partners trying to make money on grading apps, and (b) give things away willy-nilly; if they add too much they may start charging for the tools. So don’t expect to see secondaries / power windows and keyframable grades in RED’s free tools soon, if ever—though separate free and value-added paid-for variants may be possible in the future.

“How about better EDL support in RED’s tools?” The team said that this was a possibility in the future, but it’s fraught with pitfalls. There’s already XML interchange between FCP and Color with RED footage (which I can say from experience ain’t perfect, though it’s improving), and various folks are adding cross-application glue code (Clipfinder comes to mind), but the various third-party apps all have their own requirements, their own peculiarities, and their own moving targets, so this is more complex than it seems at first glance (the team didn’t say this; it’s my own interpretation from having tried similar things in a past life!).

And that it: time was up, and we had to make way for the next group of folks. Ted led a bunch of folks off to look at film transfers, and I headed back north to the Bay Area (I have seen RED footage transferred to film, and I already trust that it works!).

Stage 4 at Ren-Mar RED Studios following the Q&A&S session.

16 CFR Part 255 Disclosure

I was admitted to the RED Day event as a CML member; I received no special consideration outside of my CML membership.

Meets The Eye LLC, where I am employed, purchased three RED ONEs and various accessories from RED on my recommendation. We paid list price and have received no special treatment from RED before or since.

I know several people at RED (Graeme, Ted, and Stuart) from their pre-RED days, and sometimes chat with them by email. RED approached me in 2004 about my having an advisory role in camera development, but these discussions ceased before any arrangements were made. No material connection exists between myself and RED; RED has not influenced me with payments, discounts, inside information, or other blandishments to encourage a favorable writeup.


Adam Wilt

Adam Wilt has been working off and on in film and video for the past thirty years, while paying the bills writing software for animation, automation, broadcast graphics, and real-time control for companies including Abekas, Pinnacle, Omneon, CBS, and ABC. Since 1997 his website, adamwilt.com, has been a popular reference for information on the DV formats. He reviewed cameras for DV Magazine and started its “Technical Difficulties” column, and taught classes and led panels at NAB, IBC, and DV Expo. He co-authored the book, “Optimizing Your Final Cut Pro System”, part of the Apple Pro Training series. He currently writes for ProVideoCoalition.com and DVInfo.net, and creates iPhone apps like Cine Meter II and FieldMonitor.

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