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October 30, 2022

RED Still Championing High Resolution

From its formation seventeen years ago, the digital cinema camera maker RED has been pushing the boundaries of higher resolution – first with 4K and then with 8K. In a new film, cinematographer Mark Toia extols the virtues of 8K capture along with the features RED has integrated into their cameras. Below we summarize some of the key points of his commentary.

First, a little background. Back in 2005, few foresaw the rapid rise of 4K digital video that RED helped enable. The company’s vision, embodied by its founder Jim Jannard, turned out to be correct, with early adopters of the first camera, the RED one, waiting up to a year to get their hands on one. RED is credited with accelerating the industry’s digital transition. By 2016, over a quarter of the top 100 grossing US films used RED cameras.

RED Promo Films

When you sell cinema cameras, the best way to show off your products is by showing captured content. In 2017, RED released cinematographer Mark Toia’s film called WHY RED, which has clocked over 350K views on YouTube. In it, he explains the advantages of shooting with 8K resolution and how it’s less the camera than the lens that creates the image’s look and feel, for example, whether it’s soft or sharp. RED cameras capture so much information in RAW that Toia feels he’s no longer in a “color-baked world”.

Last month RED released Toia’s WHY RED 2, this time going deeper into resolution. On YouTube, the film already has more views than part one. The critical points for the 8K community are described below.

Of course, both films have amazing shots.

Top-level requirements

He starts by saying that moviemakers need RAW files with vast amounts of HDR, at least at 8K resolution with decent frame rates (as the voiceover says this, we see 120 fps on screen).

In today’s competitive world, moviemakers also need real-time workflows where they can directly grade and edit the camera output without needing transcoding. Toia believes we shouldn’t need an offline edit anymore as we can edit and color grade in the Cloud, saving a copious amount of time and money.

The all-important sensor

RED’s latest sensor has 35MP, which, uncompressed, represents 200 MB per frame in 16 bits. This resolution is greater than many pro stills cameras in use. Toia contends that the RED is, in fact, a stills camera that can shoot up to 120 fps in 8K

Seven 8K and RED myths

  1. Files are too heavy to edit – it used to be challenging, but now you can drop a RAW file directly from the camera to the timeline to edit and grade on a laptop very fluidly. There’s no longer a need to transcode and re-conform content.
  2. The cameras are too hard to use – Toia demonstrates its use in a nine-step tutorial in the film:
    1. put in a memory card
    2. turn on the camera
    3. adjust fps
    4. set color temp and ISO (which can both be changed later thanks to all the data in the RAW file)
    5. focus
    6. set aperture
    7. [set resolution]
    8. [frame]
    9. record
  3. RED files are too hard to grade – Toia demonstrates salvaging a “nightmare shot” where all parameters were wrong – again thanks to the richness of the RAW format
  4. Images are too sharp – this is lens related; the sensor only captures what it’s given, [in any case, softening can always be done in post, but it is had to make a soft image sharp]
  5. RED can’t capture skin tones adequately – if the image is well captured, there is no issue; problems only arise through transcoding when data from the RAW file is lost
  6. RED files don’t have enough dynamic range – Marc Toia shows us examples proving the opposite
  7. We don’t need all that resolution – many answers here, some of which are use cases to extract images for billboards and provide 400% magnification when the director asks for a tighter shot or 8K content for 8K screens. 8K might be (too) forward-thinking for many, but it ensures films will still be relevant in 20 to 30 years

The secret of shooting RED is that there is no secret.

The only significant risk is overexposure

To alleviate this, the onscreen histogram is an ultimate light meter; ensure it’s never too far to the left (underexposure) or the right (overexposure).

Underexposure

Overexposure

Wrap

So, in the end, Toia uses these cameras because he gets more creative options both on set and in post through:

  • color-depth
    • dynamic range (the new Raptor sensor has another two stops in the blacks and one more in the highlights)
    • resolution
    • RAW that can be edited in real-time
    • frame rates up to 400 fps at lower resolutions

The 11-minute film is worth the watch. It demystifies the use of RED 8K cameras that have created their own category in the market. The 25k USD price tag may seem high for a prosumer (5x the Nikon Z9 we cover regularly), but in the world of professional cinema cameras, where prices can reach millions, it’s dirt cheap.

I was disappointed the film isn’t available on YouTube in resolutions beyond 4K. Hopefully, that’ll be the case with WHY RED 3, and we won’t wait five years between installments this time.

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