Seeing Red

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By Dan Havlik


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Even if they've never shot a single frame of digital video in their lives, most photographers have probably heard the name Red One. Hailed as the "next big thing" in camcorders since it was only a whisper of a rumor three years ago, the Red One aimed to do for digital cinema cameras what the Nikon D1 did for digital SLRs in 1999: create an easy-to-use and affordable tool for capturing beautiful, high-resolution, digital imagery.

To say "high-resolution" in conjunction with the Red One is a crazy understatement. The camcorder can capture what is called "4K" digital video which is more than four times the resolution of High Definition, all at a price ($17,500) that makes it six times cheaper than comparable digital cinema cameras. Of course, add on lenses and assorted essential extras�such as a computer that is powerful enough to edit all that 4K footage�and that price can quickly skyrocket.

But partially what has made the Red One so appealing to photographers is its capacity to use�via special mounts�Nikon and Canon still photography lenses. Even more dramatically, photographers have been drawn to the potential to pull high-resolution still images from the 4K footage to use in print ad campaigns, effectively making the Red One the two-in-one professional digital imaging device they've sought for so long.

Built for Cinematographers, Designed by Photographers

Although it is still struggling to meet the demand for its products from cinematographers, Red has made no secret of its affection for still photographers as well. Red's billionaire founder, Jim Jannard, who made his fortune by starting the Oakley sunglasses empire, is an avid photographer himself, while Red's chief product "evangelist," Ted Schilowitz, has described the Red One to PDN simply as "a digital still camera that can shoot video."

Indeed, when you read Red's spec list, it almost sounds like you're describing a top-of-the-line digital SLR�way top of the line: 12-megapixel "Mysterium" sensor, able to capture 12-bit RAW footage at 60 frames per second; 35mm Cine "full-frame" size sensor; optional Nikon and Canon mounts, etc.

Red One's futuristic-looking, rough-and-tumble body�it looks like what you would probably want to use if you were hired to shoot an "Alien vs. Predator" fight�has also appealed to professional photographers who are already used to banging around dust-proof, water-resistant, gasketed and sealed professional digital SLRs.

In other words, if you hired a photographer to design a camcorder, it might look something like the Red One.

Merging with the Red One

One photographer who got on the Red One bandwagon early on and hasn't looked back is David McLain, a National Geographic shooter based in Portland, Maine. Faced with an increasingly competitive market for still photography while sensing the looming potential of the new media landscape, McLain decided that rather than fight change, he would embrace it. In 2003 he launched Merge, a boutique production company that combines still photography with video to produce multimedia advertisements for companies interested in building their brands.

Working with video expert Jerome Thelia, McClain had been using a Panasonic AG-HVX200 to create unique mixed-media spots for his clients that blended high-resolution still pictures with the motion and clarity of high-definition video. When the Red One came along, McLain saw it as the next evolutionary step in his Merge concept.

"There's so much cynicism in photography now because it's all changing and you can either run from change and stick your head in the sand or you can embrace it." McLain says. "To me, Red seemed like the perfect tool to embrace change and that's what Merge was all about."

Getting his hands on a Red One wasn't easy, though, because of the heavy demand. After putting his name on a waiting list last year, McLain had been told he would receive his Red camcorder by June, just in time for a planned shoot in Baja, California, for one of his clients, an activewear clothing company called Horny Toad. Only problem was, by the time June rolled around, he still didn't have his camera.

Instead of scrapping their concept to shoot the Horny Toad commercials with the Red One, McLain and Thelia decided to rent a Red camera and proceed to Baja as planned. After eight days of using the rented camcorder to shoot the commercial spots, they came back more convinced than ever about the potential of Red.

"We were scared at first," Thelia admits. "But it turned out really well. The client was so thrilled with what we were able to deliver and we couldn't be more psyched. We were expecting a lot of technical problems; the camera overheating because we were going to be shooting on extremely hot days; all sorts of glitches; but everything went smoothly and the camera performed well."



Eight Days in Baja

For the Horny Toad clothing shoot in Baja, the Merge team decided to stick to a formula that had worked for them in the past; keep it loose, keep it simple, keep it real. Rather than use professional models for his commercials, McLain typically hires a "fixer" to set him up with quirky, photogenic locals who might be interested in appearing in the spots.

"This person usually introduces us to his cool friends, and those friends become the models for the shoot," McLain explains. "And along with modeling, lots of times they generate many of the creative ideas for the spots."

One of the concepts for the Baja spots was to create a makeshift fashion "runway" effect by having the models casually parade along a dirt street in front of a colorful 1960s-era mobile home. So, along with capturing playful footage of locals dancing, shooting squirt guns at each other and mugging for the camera in Horny Toad activewear, McLain and Thelia can pull individual still images from the Red footage to use as part of a print campaign.

What they quickly learned about Red is that grabbing individual shots from the high-resolution video has some caveats.

"There's a trade-off in Red between the resolution and the frame rate," Thelia notes. "The higher the frame rate, the lower the resolution of the image. We shot a lot of the stuff with the Red in 3K mode, which gave us a resolution of 3072 x 1536 pixels at 60 frames per second which is unheard of in an HD camera. Out of that we can extract a 10 x 5 image at 300 dpi, which, by digital SLR standards, is not that huge of an image, but is still pretty big. It's certainly big enough to do a small print ad campaign with."

Red Alerts

One of the issues they encountered with Red's RAW footage (known as "Redcode") is that it is completely unprocessed when it's shot.

"When they say RAW, they really mean 'raw,'" Thelia says. "There's no sharpness applied at all so that throws a lot of people off at first. Even with Adobe Camera RAW importer, when you bring in image files from a DSLR, there's an amazing amount of processing that goes on before you see it. When you're working with a Red image, it's completely raw, so there's low contrast, low saturation, and no sharpness. To the untrained eye it looks relatively soft. But this allows you to apply your own sharpness later so you're not a victim to what every Nikon or Canon wants to apply in-camera, or Adobe wants to apply in ACR."

Consequently, it takes a very different, much more labor-intensive postproduction workflow to extracting workable still images from Redcode.

Red Cine, the basic Redcode RAW conversion software, is included with the camcorder, but Thelia prefers Scratch, a high-end video editing program from Assimilate. Video neophytes be forewarned: Scratch is not easy to use and isn't cheap.

McLain doesn't think the technical obstacles of working with Red�or any other type of HD camcorder, for that matter�should discourage photographers from exploring new media opportunities. It should, however, make them seriously consider partnering with others.

"Photographers just need to be smarter about collaborating and understanding what they're good at and what other people are good at. I might not necessarily want to learn Flash or Final Cut Pro, but other people do and you should seek them out. You're much stronger if you partner with someone else anyways."

Despite the video-editing learning curve, McLain doesn't think photographers will struggle with the Red camera itself.

"Using Red in the field is unbelievably natural," he says. "Any still photographer would look through the viewfinder of Red and just fall in love."

For the Baja shoot, McLain pulled many of his old fixed-focal-length, manual-focus Nikon lenses out of mothballs to put on the Red including a 135mm f/2.0, a 35mm f/1.4, and other classic Nikkor glass. Autofocus actually doesn't make sense in a motion picture camera because you don't want your lens racking in and out as it tries to lock in on the movement.

A Big Toolbox

One of the misperceptions about Red that McLain and Thelia learned while using it on the Baja shoot is that it's some kind of technological Swiss Army knife. For now, at least, it's just one tool of many to help you expand your business from still photography into multi-media content.

"At this point we approach each situation by asking, 'What's the story?' Then we sit with an art director and figure out what the best tool for that story is. If it's exclusively a still campaign, maybe the Canon 1Ds Mark III is the best tool. If it's a Web campaign, maybe the Red is the best tool, or the Panasonic HVX-200. Or it could be all three," McClain says. "You need a big tool box to be a modern content provider."

Though the Red One provides enough resolution to extract a usable still image for print, grabbing a frame from Red poses the same problem as grabbing a frame from a 35mm motion picture camera, namely, motion blur.

"One of the limiting factors is motion," he notes. "Anything you can't freeze is going to come out as blur when it's extracted as a still."

McLain and Thelia were also surprised at how much bigger and heavier the Red One was than they had imagined. Thelia estimated that with a battery and lens attached along with other assorted hardware such as a viewfinder, the camera weighs about 25 pounds. "It's pretty damn big and pretty damn heavy," McLain says. "You're not a fly on the wall with that camera."

He added that the downsides of the camera are outweighed by the opportunities it presents, along with the sheer thrill of trying something new again.

"I find shooting motion fascinating. It's the same feeling I got when I first saw a black-and-white print come to life in Dektol developer 25 years ago in my high school photography class. And from a business point of view, when people see it, they get it. You can see the light bulb go off in people's heads."

Though Horny Toad is a small company that doesn't have the budget to use Merge's Baja footage as part of a TV campaign, it plans on showing the video spots on flat screens in their stores, as well as posting them on the Web. Meanwhile, still images from Baja will be used in Horny Toad's catalogues, print advertisements and Web site.

Another client for whom the light bulb went off is venerable underwear manufacturer Jockey, which hired Merge to create still images and a television spot with the Red One after seeing the Baja footage. "They immediately got it," McLain says. "We are so stoked."

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