[Update 2010.09.27: Spanish version / versión en español with thanks to / gracias a Carlos Zapater.]
At five minutes to midnight on 13 September, I received a short message from RED Digital Cinema’s Jim Jannard: “Want to come to the studios and get a sneak peak of EPIC and the soon to be famous HDRx?” Eight days later—this past Tuesday, at high noon—I stood at the gates of RED Studios in Los Angeles, not really sure what to expect.
I wasn’t disappointed.
There is a short delay while the gate guard checks me in; I’m not in his day book and phone calls have to be made. After a bit, he tells me to walk down the driveway, turn right, and proceed to the seating area opposite the cafeteria, where someone will meet me. That someone turns out to be an attractive young woman, who leads me towards the door of Stage 4, the same stage where the RED Day event was held in January. Before we reach the door, RED’s “Fire Chief”, Jarred Land, pops out with a handheld EPIC bearing a Canon 70-200mm zoom. He sends me on in to meet up with Jim, and dashes off on a brief errand.
I enter the studio door, and am instantly beset by two guard dogs, a king charles spaniel, “Lucky”, and a white maltese furball, “Snowflake”. Neither one comes halfway up to my knees. I foil their attack, wander down a short passageway, turn left, and emerge into Studio 4.
Worklights in the grid above gently illuminate the space. A black drape bisects the studio. To my left an exotic motorcycle crouches in front of several empty display cases. Ahead, a white field tent holds a camera dolly and other bits of filmmaking paraphernalia. A blood-red 1970 Chevelle 454 is parked in front, the overhead lights gleaming off its buffed finish and meticulously polished chrome. To my right, another tent is lined with cluttered worktables; in its center a RED camera sits on sticks, focused on a chart stand. Instead of a chart, the stand holds a throw rug with a skull-and-crossbones design. Beyond the tent, filling most of the west wall, is an elaborate Wild West storefront set. Worktables form an L around a few ergonomic office chairs in the center of the space; the tables hold a scattering of lenses, REDVOLT batteries, a naked 2/3″ Scarlet camera body, a large RED RAY professional player with a stack of Esquire magazines on top, and assorted tools, notes, and odd bits of hardware. The uppermost Esquire is the famous Kate Beckinsale issue, shot by Greg Williams with a prototype EPIC a year ago.
Mr. Jannard is nowhere to be seen.
I successfully fend off a second dog attack, and while I have Snowflake pinned and Lucky distracted by vigorous back-scratching, Jarred returns, asking if I’ve seen Jim yet. I say no, so Jarred leads me up onto the porch of the Wild West bank: the bank’s lobby is Jim’s and Jarred’s office, and Jim is sitting against the back wall, hidden behind a 30″ NEC LCD monitor.
Jim rises, greets me cordially, asks if I can tolerate his cigar. The three of us repair to the chairs in the center of the stage, exchange pleasantries for a bit. I ask if I can lay hands on Jarred’s EPIC, which is sitting on the table.
Handholdable EPIC with RED PRO 17-50 T2.8 PL-mount zoom.
This EPIC is built up in handholdable “DSLR” style. The central “brain” module, a vertically-elongated cube containing the sensor and processing circuitry, has a handgrip / control module bolted on the right side.
The top of the handgrip has a big red start/stop button on it and a control dial, in front of a blindingly bright blue-white LCD like the one on the back of the RED ONE. This LCD may eventually show menus or status, but today it is blank. Four numbered programmable buttons sit behind the LCD, and five lettered buttons curve down the back of the grip, along with three unlabeled buttons (at least, I presume they’re buttons; at the moment I’m more interested in balance and feel than in details of the controls). The back of the grip has a Canon-style control dial surrounding a four-way rocker and an ENTER button, and what looks like a thumb-operated zoom rocker: it seems that EPIC will have a lot of button-per-function controllability. The handgrip itself contains a single REDVOLT battery, good, I’m told, for half an hour of operation.
EPIC’s SSD module.
The module on the left of the camera stores clips on a solid-state drive. It also has a start/stop trigger on its front, along with two more programmable buttons and a Lemo connector for the LCD or EVF.
The back of the EPIC takes expansion modules and/or a REDMOTE detachable remote control.
The back panel of the camera is designed to allow adding other modules: I/O options, different recording media, adapters for RED BRICK batteries, a dual-well REDVOLT battery module, and so on. Doing so turns the EPIC from a flattish, DSLR-like form factor into a more traditional, long-body camera. A REDMOTE control panel can dock there as well, or on any of the dockable modules.
Jarred powers the camera up; boot time is around 18 seconds, and Jim says they’re working on getting that down to nine seconds. Two tiny fans whir to life below the lens mount, drawing cooling air into an L-shaped chimney behind the sensor and blowing it through heat exchangers, finally exhausting it out the top of the camera beneath the slotted top plate. Jim tells me that this cooling duct is sealed; no air blows through the camera other than through this passageway (just like on the Arri Alexa, I note), so you can go ahead and let rain fall onto the camera without risking damage to anything more expensive than the fans.
Jarred hands me the camera with the Canon 70-200mm lens still on it (the photos above won’t be taken until an hour later; my camera is still in my travel bag).
I’m gobsmacked. It works. The danged thing actually works.
Some background: The RED ONE camera doesn’t win any awards for ergonomics, and the hard-edged EPIC of the early renderings and mockups didn’t encourage any hope that RED would soften their aggro design ethos merely to accommodate the frailties of human flesh. RED’s announcement of the DSMC concept—Digital Stills & Motion Camera—also seemed misbegotten; too big and bulky to work as an eye-level still camera, too whacky to work as a mopix camera.
But then, at NAB this year I shot run ‘n’ gun video with a Canon 5D MkII, and found to my delight that the eye-level DSLR form factor worked very well for video as well as stills. Maybe there’s something to this DSMC business, after all.
The handheld EPIC is half the weight of the RED ONE and a fraction of the size. By DSLR standards it’s a hefty thing; the body alone is something like five or six pounds, twice the weight of a top-end DSLR like a Canon 1D or Nikon D3, and three times the weight of a Canon 5D MkII or a Nikon D300. Add a still-camera lens, at something on the order of 1.5-3.5 pounds, and the differential is more favorable; the EPIC is more like half again to twice the weight of a comparably tricked out Canon or Nikon. Heavy, yes, but not armbreakingly so.
The handgrip module provides plenty of purchase; my right hand wraps right around it, so I have no problem keeping the camera upright and level on both pitch and roll axes. My left hand supports the lens just as it would with a conventional still camera, and I can both focus and zoom. The edgy, rectilinear lines of the grip have been softened just enough that I don’t feel any discomfort; indeed, the thing is easier to hold than five-pound handycam-style cameras like the AG-HVX200 or PMW-EX1.
I congratulate Jim and his team on their prescient design, and give forth this rant:
This is the thing that both Panasonic and Sony are completely missing the boat on with their upcoming large-sensor, interchangeable-lens, prosumer camcorders: they’re built like oversized handycams. The AF-100 looks like a pregnant HVX200/HPX170 (at least they have the good grace to make the vestigial handgrip removable), while Sony’s “HVR-Z7 on steroids” will be equally unusable handheld as soon as you put any lens on it: handycams with horizontal handgrips cease to be handholdable much above the four-pound point, the more so the more unbalanced they are. And once you can swap lenses, front/back balance goes right out the window. If you want to build a camera heavier than four pounds and fatter than a DVX100, and make it usable off the tripod without a support rig, you have two choices for the design: shoulder mount, or DSLR. Handycams just don’t work at this scale.
The RED folks nod, say “thanks”, and smile quietly to themselves.
Now, it’s not all beer and skittles. The lower left corner of the camera, propped on the palm of my upturned left hand, digs in sharply. The base of my right thumb tends to mash the D button on the grip, which triggers false-color metering on this rig, and it’s unclear to me how many of these buttons will be usable without relinquishing a firm and stable grip on the camera when I want to mash ’em. The tiny fans buzz insistently. Viewfinding is an issue: the tilt/swivel touchscreen on this particular rig is too close for eye-level handholding, and I’m not sure exactly where the BOMB EVF will attach for this operating style (not that I have the presence of mind to ask about it; that’ll have to wait until another time).
The BOMB EVF. Will any ever go through TSA screening without black camera tape obscuring that word?
So no, compared to the refined ergonomics of a Canon or Nikon, the EPIC is still a bit of a pig’s breakfast as still cameras go; neither is it a weightless, carry-it-anywhere shooter like a Panasonic GH1 or GF1. As a still camera, it works, but it’s not optimal.
But for a motion picture camera? It’s a substantial leap beyond the RED ONE: it’s the smallest, lightest, full-frame 35mm-sized, full-resolution-without-line-skipping-sensored, digital mopix camera around (or will be, when it’s released). It’s small enough and light enough and well-enough outfitted with controls to be usable handheld—not shoulder-mounted, handheld. It’s smaller than an Eyemo, fercryinoutloud.
I like this: a RED I can tote without a Mantis rig, when I need to run’n’gun. A RED light enough for lower-cost, lower-weight Steadicams, like Flyers and Scouts instead of Archers (if we at Meets The Eye decide to buy a Steadicam, that’s a $17,000-plus savings right there, never mind the savings in ibuprofen for the aching operator). A RED small enough for tight quarters, like car interiors.
True, buzzy fans are part and parcel of the compact form, but that’s a compromise I’m willing to accept. The nearly silent blowers used in the Alexa, or the Aaton digital back, are only possible when you have a camera the size of an Alexa: near-silence requires low velocity air, and low velocity requires larger passages and radiators. Presumably the little guys quiet down during a take, as the fans on a RED ONE do.
Deanan DaSilva, “Fire Starter” (I think this means R&D Engineer; Deanan was previously a Production Technologist for Dalsa Digital Cinema), wanders in and says hi. Jim launches into a discussion of HDRx: EPIC’s new High Dynamic Range capability, as reported previously.
Jim holds that RED must meet three challenges to equal or surpass film: resolution, “feel”, and dynamic range. With the 5K EPIC, he says the resolution is there; he mentions a shoot the day before, when Greg Williams had a tiger (!) in the studio, and promises to show me the footage on the forty foot screen. He also claims the RED has the “feel” of film (I’ll get back to this), and that with HDRx, the last of the challenges has been met.
We walk across to the other half of Stage 4, beyond the black drape. It has the same big-screen setup as seen at RED Day, but the rows of folding chairs have been replaced with a wedge of deluxe theater seats on a sloped floor: a proper screening room setup. Jim asks Deanan to load up the tiger footage on the 4K Sony SXRD projector, and suddenly there is a tiger’s head, 40 feet wide, looking right at me.
Here’s the thing about a 5K capture scaled to 4K for playout: it looks, really, really good. Most of the tiger’s face is in sharp focus, so there’s no imperfection-hiding blur; each and every hair on the tiger’s nose, each whisker, is pin-sharp. I walk right up to the screen, close enough to see individual pixels (which, on a 4K projection, is mighty close), and each tiny detail is faithfully reproduced, with no stairstepping, aliasing, or any sign of color moir© (if I shot a resolution chart or zone plate I’m sure I could see some subtle artifacts at these high spatial frequencies, but none are visible in this real-world image).
I see some minor chromatic aberration around a couple of high-contrast whiskers at the edge of the frame, and I turn to Jim and say something like, “well, this is no good, look at this horrible chromatic aberration.” Jim looks shocked, then worried, until I assure him I’m winding him up; if the worst thing I can see in the image is some insignificant subpixel CA (an artifact of the Canon 70-200 zoom, not a sensor problem), then the image must be pretty good. Jim relaxes, and asks Deanan to play the clip.
The tiger comes to life, licking its chops and blinking hungrily (or so I imagine; there’s a certain glint in its eye, and on the large screen its fangs are as big as I am). Its fur moves and ripples naturally from frame to frame; there’s no twinkle, screen-door effect, or other sign of undersampling or poor deBayering.
Jim calls up RED’s current demo reel, with a variety of car spots, dramatic scenes, a higher proportion of unusually comely women with bee-stung lips than one sees in real life, aerials, and so on, all tied together by closeups of a blowtorch-wielding metalworker with sparks flying (it’s pretty much the reel that was shown in January). What really stands out are achingly gorgeous aerials of a snowbound London in late evening—images of such depth and detail that I feel I can look right into each office in the Gherkin from a thousand feet away, and see shopfronts miles distant, in the corners of the image. It’s wide shots like these that really sell high-resolution imaging: closeups look pretty good even on Super8 or standard-def video; mid-shots are fine on HD; but the farther back you pull, the more detail your eye wants to see, and the more a 4K image stands out. It’s as mesmerizing as 3D, but without the funny glasses, the eyestrain, and the arguments over interaxial spacing and convergence.
Back in Jim’s Wild West office, we load HDRx images in RAND (Graeme Nattress’s in-house code) and REDCINE-X, talk about motion artifacts, processing, and dynamic range, and look at a variety of clips shot three days earlier in Las Vegas. Jim decides to show the clip posted on reduser.net that Sunday on the big screen, and starts a half-res (2.5K) render; he scrounges a spare solid-state drive from Jarred’s desk (when you’re dealing with multi-megabyte TIFF files, a USB thumbdrive just doesn’t cut it any more) and dumps the resulting image sequence to it. He hands the SSD to Deanan for transfer into the Clipster, and suggests we go next door to the company cafeteria for lunch.
Next: Lunch? Not so fast…
As we head out, I see Jarred twiddling bolts with a hex key; he’s swapping the lens mount on the EPIC. I ask if I can photograph this process after lunch, and Jim says, “do it now.” I grab my camera and capture a few shots:
EPIC without a lens mount. Observe the fans: the camera is still powered up!
The lens mounts attach with four hex-socket bolts. The machined silver areas are the “landing pads” for the mounts, precision-ground to ensure accurate spacing of the mount from the body. A row of pogo pins couples the camera to the mount electronically; there are no ribbon cables to fuss with.
PL mount on the left; Canon EOS mount on the right, face down.
Swapping mounts is a trivial exercise, easily done in the field. The Canon mount carries full EOS data and control, and has a breech-lock collar that clamps down the lens’s bayonet mount for added security. Back-focus / flange back setting is performed in the “brain” module itself, by turning an adjustment screw.
Four screws is all it takes…
…to secure the mount…
…add a 17-50mm T2.8 PL-mount lens…
…retighten that screw again; it’s a bit loose…
…and there we are, lovely PL-mount camera!
Deanan says that the TIFFs are transferred, and we return to the screening area to watch a fire engine in Vegas drive by, again and again and again… we spend probably ten minutes watching that clip on the big screen, all of us seeing it forty feet across for the first time, and trying to dissect it visually in every way possible. I get more and more distressed as time goes by; I’m simply unable to detect the “Magic Motion” look while the clip is playing. It should look worse than normal photography, with more staccato stutter, but it doesn’t. If anything it looks better: smoother than it should, more like a film capture than a digital capture. Is it just me? In the twenty-four hours following my visit, others will see this same demo (or another, rendered out at the full 5K resolution) and post similar comments on reduser.net; it’s not just me at all.
This “Magic Motion” stuff may be an important step in emulating the look of a mechanical shutter’s penumbral sweep (or at least triggering a similar response in the brain); if so, then another key differentiator separating the “feel” of film from that of digital has been overcome. Jim talked earlier about getting that “feel”, and he didn’t know then just how right he may turn out to be.
The more I watch, the more excited I get. The EPIC itself is exciting in the manner of any whizzy new hardware, but it’s an everyday sort of excitement. As I watch this clip I have the same sort of feeling I had when I first saw HD in 1982, or played back a DV tape in 1995: an Important Milestone sort of excitement; the impression that Something Is Happening Here. Again, congratulations are due the RED team, and I offer them.
We walk back to the “office” side of the stage, and I proceed with a few more photographs:
EPIC atop a pro RED RAY player, with a RED focus collimator and a hard-used Scarlet body beside it.
Jim is proud of the RED RAY player. He says the that they’ve decided to up the bitrate to a staggering 15 Mbps from the 10 Mbps originally expected; still, this is less than half the data rate of Blu-Ray, despite having four times the image information to compress.
LCD menu display, with Deanan working away in the background.
Jim apologizes that the f-stop readout isn’t working (My guess is that it’s because this prototype PL mount lacks data pins; it was probably working when the Canon mount was attached). I observe that the menu item selector is positioned over “AF/AE”, something the Canon EOS lenses make possible.
Dual-battery module, which would snap directly onto the EPIC… except that it’s upside-down in this picture.
Note that the PWR LED is red in this picture: that means the onboard battery has enough juice to turn the camera on. I ask Jim how quickly that handy status indicator depletes the battery; he says it’s a tiny drain, and the camera will go for days with no appreciable loss.
Assorted rigging bits on a cart: the chaps in the machine shop have been busy.
While I’m shooting these photos, Greg Williams (of yesterday’s tiger shoot, and Kate Beckinsale fame) strolls in to chat with Jim and Jarred.
“I pushed this button, and strange things happened.”
“Oh, yeah, don’t push that button, it doesn’t work in this release.”
“I had to reset things, and before it was version mumble mumble fifty, and when it reset it said it was mumble mumble thirty?”
“Well, yes, it’s a brand-new release, and there are some bugs…”
Just another day in the shop with alpha code in the hands of testers, grin. Some folks might be perturbed hearing such things, but I’ve spent two decades working in software and embedded systems, and these exchanges are as common as the days are long… and sometimes the days are very long indeed.
Jim readily confirms that things aren’t fully baked yet: “if you want to shoot a feature on the EPIC, and shoot it on the stage next door, that’s something that can be done today. We’re here, and we can support it. But if you wanted to shoot a feature in Indonesia or the Philippines, or somewhere else far away? We’d have to turn you down.”
We’ve now worked through lunch; I apologize, but Jim says it’s probably better for him anyway.
“If you’ve got the time, I’d like to show you something else.” I readily agree, and we walk outside into the overcast daylight. “A lot of people say we’re just a branding exercise,” Jim says, “but it’s not true. Yes, we work with other companies, and we buy components, but we do our own engineering, and we’re increasingly doing our own manufacturing, too. We have labs in Lake Forest, Austin, and San Jose, and we have one here…” He waves his key fob past the electronic door lock on Stage 6, and we enter.
Stage 6 is the second-smallest stage at RED Studios, it’s “only” 70 feet wide and 160 feet long. Since there’s no black drape bisecting it, it feels larger than Stage 4; the entire, cavernous space (there’s 30 feet of headroom) is open. That’s room enough for nearly two basketball courts end-to-end.
The stage is crammed to bursting with laboratory workbenches in long, back-to-back rows. On average, there are two people per six-foot workbench, each perched on a lab stool and focused intently on his or her task. There’s a constant, muted buzz of conversation—techs and engineers are huddled in animated groups of two or three throughout the space—but the high ceiling and the absorptive soundstage wall treatments keep the noise at a minimum. Jim leads me up one aisle and down the next, talking quietly; nobody looks up from his or her work as we pass.
There are prototype circuit breadboards the size of, well, breadboards, crammed with discrete logic and FPGAs: proving grounds for the logic designs and firmware routines condensed down to ASICs on form-fitting boards for EPIC and Scarlet cameras. There are EPICs in various stages of assembly, with ribbon cables running to test and measurement equipment and in-circuit emulator pods. There’s a Canon still lens on a lens mount clamped in a vise; engineers are working on fine focus control through the EOS interface. There are board-rework stations for replacing surface-mount parts. There’s a gap in the benches along the north wall of the stage: room for a camera test setup, with lights and charts rigged and a fellow working on lens alignment procedures.
There are engineers rapidly paging through PDFs of board layout diagrams, discussing firmware changes, and poring over code listings. While there are plenty of young Asians, Stage 6 is no H-1B sweatshop: it’s a diverse crowd, including quite a few graybeards. There’s an electric intensity to the place, a sense of nervous energy. I know the feeling; I’ve felt it when I’ve worked at tech companies, in the weeks leading up to an NAB or IBC trade show or an initial product shipment.
Jim stops at one workspace to show me a naked EPIC. Its side is missing, and the density of its innards is apparent. It looks like there are three circuit cards layered in the front of the camera, snapped together with low-profile, high-density mezzanine connectors. The L-shaped cooling chimney runs behind these three boards; more boards stack up behind it, with no wasted space—and no clutter. There aren’t ribbon cables going everywhere, there aren’t a lot of green-wire fixes.
Jim explains, “when we did the RED ONE, we didn’t know what we were doing. We learned as we went, and made some mistakes. EPIC and Scarlet are new from the ground up; we started over on them. There’s nothing wrong with the RED ONE, but the new cameras are built to an entirely different level of integration and precision.” I mention one of the rules I learned early on about building complex software systems: “plan to throw the first one away”, meaning that you learn what you’re doing on version one, then do it over—from scratch—on version two, so that you don’t carry over any of the imperfections of the first one. Jim nods; we’re talking about the same thing. Indeed, there’s nothing hesitant, exploratory, half-baked, slapdash, or jury-rigged about anything I’ve seen; these folks have a good idea of where they’re going, and they now have the experience and skill set to get there.
He leads me down the last half of the last row of benches. “This is our prototype assembly line,” he says. “We’re building EPICs by hand, so we can see what works and what doesn’t work in the assembly and test process. That way we can work out our manufacturing bugs before we set up our real production line.”
We walk back to Stage 4, and I’m trying to find the right image for what I’ve just witnessed: the scene in a Bond film where the supervillain reveals his vast army of mad scientists building killer robots / atomic spaceships / flying submarines? A stealth Santa’s Workshop, where highly educated elves engineer digital cinema toys for an upcoming Christmas?
Note: Jim did not say, nor did I ask, when Christmas is likely to come.
We talk a bit more:
I ask about the BOMB EVF, and Jim digs one out to show me. It’s crisp and clear, and very nice looking, though I wish the eyepiece magnified the image a bit more.
Is the BOMB shipping? No, not yet; it’s done, but it’s still going through final FCC RF/EMI testing and certification, and that’s also the reason the RED Station (a modular stack of CF card and hard drive / SSD docking bays) hasn’t shipped yet.
What about the older EVF: it’s not being built any more, but can existing ones be repaired (we have one that’s acting a bit wonky)? Yes, no problem; send it in.
I ask if EPIC will let me expand the image while the camera is rolling; Jim says it will, and that different outputs can be magnified independently (so the operator can see the whole frame even while the 1st AC zooms in tight to check focus).
Jim says EPIC has twice as fast a CMOS reset time as the RED ONE: that means it has half the rolling-shutter “jellocam” of the earlier camera.
At 3pm, Jim’s next visitor arrives, and Jim needs to let me go, for which he apologizes. On the contrary, I say, I’ve pestered him and Jarred and Deanan an hour longer than planned, and made them miss lunch as well. I thank them for their time and hospitality, and I depart.
This EPIC thing? Even in its current state, it’s a lot more usable than I expected it to be. I think it’s going to be pretty darned cool once it gets done.
FTC Disclaimer: No material connection exists between me and RED, other than as a customer. My employer, Meets The Eye LLC, purchased three RED ONEs two years ago on my recommendation, and we have since purchased two M-X upgrades (soon to be three), three RED ROCKET hardware decoders, two 18-85mm zoom lenses, and a selection of accessories. We are in line for EPIC-X upgrades, which we applied for several weeks ago. I do not personally own any RED products nor do I have any financial interest in the company. I paid my own way to Los Angeles ($182.95 airfare and rental car) and received no material compensation from RED, other than a Starbucks Coffee Frappuchino from the company fridge: retail value about $2.50.