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‘Crossing the Line’ With the Big Red One

LAS VEGAS

When the Red Team pronounced during NAB2006 plans to deliver an operational 4 K/2K/HD camera within a year, they were cheered by some and lambasted by others.


(click thumbnail)Red Digital Cinema delivers Red One 4K camera, on display at NAB2007Skeptics insisted that the Red camera would likely cost 10 times their projected price point of less than $20,000, which was lower than any 2/3-inch CCD HD camera, and much less than any 4K or 2K camera.

Also, they didn’t have the benefit of a manufacturing facility or an existing product line to build on. Moreover, their team was not stacked with top engineers and designers from leading manufacturers of high-end cameras, recorders, lenses etc.

To some their project seemed more like wishful thinking than a credible effort to revolutionize electronic cinematography. But not to Ted Schilowitz, whose title is Leader of the Rebellion at Red Digital Cinema. “Red is a project of passion, starting with the vision of Jim Jannard to create an affordable 4K digital movie camera capable of the same quality as a high-end digital SLR. Maybe we were too naïve to believe that it couldn’t be done, so we just went ahead and did it,” he said.

NOT JUST VAPOR

A year later, at NAB2007, the skepticism largely evaporated with the debut of “Crossing the Line,” a 12-minute film shot with Red One prototypes. This short feature, the first shot with a Red Camera, was the brainchild of Director Peter Jackson, renowned for “King Kong” and the “Lord of Rings” trilogy.

“Crossing the Line” was shot in 4K using two alpha versions of Red One nicknamed “Boris” and “Natasha.” The finished film was projected in 4K in the Red Theater at NAB with Sony’s 4K projector and made Red Digital Cinema’s exhibit one of the hottest booths at the show.

Waiting lines often encircled the 40-by-60-foot exhibit in Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall, and only grew longer as NAB progressed and the buzz percolated.

The plot line of the film was fairly simple—a soldier’s seemingly desperate but ultimately successful effort to retrieve a wallet photo of his beloved blowing across a World War I battlefield, always just out of reach, until the end. However, the cinematography is as complex, intense and impressive as in any multimillion dollar action film with plenty of aerials, crane, boom, vehicle-mounted, tripod and steadicam shots.

At the NAB show, viewer reactions ranged from mild to wildly enthused and impressed. At minimum, “Crossing the Line” shifted the discussion from whether the Red Camera was technologically feasible in the near term, to how soon it would be shipping with what feature set.

For the more than 1,500 early adopters who pre-ordered a Red One camera before NAB2007, when it would be shipping, was the critical question.

Richard Bluck, director of photography on “Crossing the Line” answered key performance questions during an ad hoc Q & A session after a screening.

Bluck said both prototype cameras were kept busy 12 hours a day on two consecutive days. The cameras were mounted on everything from tanks to old biplanes and helicopters.

“The vibration aboard the chopper was so intense that it jeopardized recording to the Red Drive, so we detached it from the camera and kept it inside the chopper where vibration was less intense. We umbilicaled it to the camera and lens mounted outside. Both camera and drive worked fine that way and neither one failed us during the shoot,” he said.

The Red Drives are actually very compact external SATA raids. Each 320 GB raid records two-plus hours of 4K footage. All footage was captured at 4K native using the RedCode raw codec, at 27 MBps, with 12-bit processing.

According to Bluck, the efficiency of Red Code versus 35mm film was impressive. “We utilized over 500 GB of drive capacity but still had free space left after two days of shooting, even though I often kept rolling on the action much more than with film,” he said.

Operating was also fairly straightforward. “Recording raw, we didn’t have to do much tweaking after setting base parameters like shutter speed. We mostly shot at 24 fps in 12-bit mode. Occasionally, I had to change lenses and set exposure, but otherwise it was point and shoot,” Bluck said.

Bluck and Jackson used only film lenses.

“We used several Cooke primes and a short zoom, plus Angenieux’s long Optimo zoom depending on the application. The most time-consuming thing was mounting the cameras on tripods, trucks, cranes, booms, steadicams, helicopters, etc. The biggest challenge came from vibration in the air, and at the upper telephoto range of the Optimo, which is a large lens,” Bluck said. “Field monitoring was done mainly with a Marshall HD LCD monitor and with HDTV monitors via HD-SDI.”

Posting was surprisingly straightforward, he said. “We treated the raw 4K Red like film negative and edited in Final Cut Pro using the native 4K RedCode raw files, while looking at a lower resolution on the editing monitors. After making all our edit decisions, we reloaded it to a Pablo and reassembled it in 4K using our EDL,” he said. “We also color-corrected it in 4K on the Pablo,” a Quantel product.

They could have done the entire project in Final Cut Pro in Pro Res had itbeen destined for HDTV, he said.

COMING SOON

Schilowitz said the whole project materialized at the last minute. A few weeks before NAB, Peter Jackson told him he was interested in shooting “some test footage” with the Red camera.

“We organized quickly and flew out to New Zealand a few days later... We had no idea that the ‘test footage’ would be two intense days on a large action movie set. Peter’s crew was amazing, rigging everything up to shoot 4K, and we had some key Red team members there to work with them,” Schilowitz said. “When they arrived, Jackson and his crew were ready to roll, with a script, actors, period costumes, makeup, a set, and an arsenal of props including old army tanks and jeeps, antique fighter planes… plus all the big support gear for a big feature film. It was quite impressive,” he said.

“Both cameras performed well under pressure and captured the action as raw data. The editing also came right down to the wire. We got the final 4K cut just before NAB started, but it all worked out,” Schilowitz said.

Partly due to the lessons learned in making “Crossing the Line,” the target delivery date for the first batch of Red cameras has been shifted from May to mid-summer.

“We decided to make some final modifications before shipping the first batch of cameras. We are using a different development model with Red than most camera manufacturers. We work to real engineering targets rather than arbitrary shipping dates. When we reach those benchmarks, we’ll start shipping,” Schilowitz said. “Developing this 4K camera, and its workflow, has been an amazing rollercoaster ride. We’re just getting started and it’s going to be fun to see what develops when a lot of folks start shooting 4K with their Red One cameras.”