Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th March saw the REDucation training workshop arrive in London at the Met Film School in Ealing Studios West London. I’ve used a Red One but have yet to land a shoot where I can really get my hands on the newer cameras and system. When I was offered the chance to attend the course by Kit Plus magazine I naturally jumped at the opportunity. The course is run over two days in the UK and so there is a lot of information to pack into the 18 hours of guided tuition, lead by John Marchant and Steve Johnson and Dado Valentic on the post and workflow side. Sam Measure was present from RED UK and assisted the groups in setting up of cameras and answering technical questions. Jon Theobald and several Met Film School graduates were also assisting the groups once we got started with the cameras.
The course was neatly broken down into camera setup and operation, shooting, workflow, some basic colour theory and post-production overviews. It began with operations from basic to advanced, the user interface (the menu often puts people off), shooting great images, testing the camera, tips and tricks, inside knowledge and info, ‘touch every button’ and camera builds. As the participants of the course were all introduced to one another in the first half hour it was clear that there was a broad spectrum of experience, professions and interest in the room. From high end stills photographers, their crew, facility company staff, filmmakers, RED owners, graduates, one stop shop small production companies, producers, and the likes of me – freelance camera operators, DoPs and directors from the world of Music Video, Fashion and Independent film, Broadcast and Corporate production.
From an operators perspective it was useful to go through some of the essential maintenance procedures such as cleaning the Sensor / OLPF (Optical Low Pass Filter) and also the most base level of setup – charging batteries, navigating the first level of the menu and optimising the fan settings and formatting your media. One key nugget of information here was to allow the camera to warm up for about 10-15 minutes before you begin shooting with it – and also before you calibrate the black shading of the camera. This is something that I would always do with any rental camera since you have no way of knowing how recently this was done with any hire.
The best thing about RED is the RAW workflow, but this workflow demands a specific approach and understanding of how to get the most out of it. It really depends on what you are producing for and how much time and consequently budget you will have in post to deal with your images. Second to that one cannot fail to mention the overall build quality – the cameras are not low cost but the high quality manufacture of the cameras and their constituent parts – the ‘ecosystem’ is considerable. The RED One is the system that started the Digital Cinema revolution and really made world class experienced Directors and Cinematographers believe that Digital Cinema cameras would and could soon offer greater latitude and dynamic range than traditional film stock. Now with many of the digital cameras out there we are at a point where digital cinema technology far exceeds the visual capability of what was previously achievable on film. But what is so different and special about RED? For those who are converted to it – it is like a religion, something for them to shout from the rooftops and evangelise over. I was keen to find out.
The strangest thing for me or anyone coming from a background of shooting with the correct White Balance in camera, the right ISO setting, perfect exposure and so on and so forth is to understand that with RED RAW you are not restricted to the settings that were on camera at the time of recording. With that in mind we were instructed to shoot by recording ‘as much light as necessary’, but not so much that we blow out highlights we wish to retain. This seemed to me an interesting point, but if I’m honest one that I typically follow whatever the digital camera system I am working with: More light = less noise. It is always far easier in post to scale information back a little than to bring up shadows that are underexposed – this will only ever introduce unwanted noise.
Where the RED comes into its own is the control in post over the ISO and especially FLUT. FLUT enables the DiT or post operator to very subtly change the ISO of an image in a non incremental way – unlike ISO which happens incrementally. This is extremely useful as you can overexpose by half a stop or more when shooting and then bring it back to a correctly exposed level in post. That way making sure we have the highlights texture and we do not have any area of the image with too little light that we can’t adjust. This is by far and away one of the most distinctive and advantageous points of the RED workflow. The exposure dynamics are extremely forgiving. This is perhaps one of the cameras strongest points but also I’d argue its weakest – I do feel that there might be an over-reliance on this latitude by over zealous operators. But, that’s just my opinion. Back to the course. In the afternoon of the first day we spend a good hour and a half shooting some camera tests. We looked at compression ratio setitngs and experimented with the various available frame dimensions, rates and ratios. This is another key point of RED above other systems (that is until Blackmagic Design just integrated compression ratio and RAW into their new UrsaMini camera… more on that in another post). The ability to set in camera the compression ratio used allows exceptional flexibility in the way that you can set the camera up depending on your final delivery and platform.
The second day was headed up by the extremely talented and charismatic Dado Valentic, Dado clearly had passion and emotion for his work and it rubbed off on the participants whom all needed the energy after loosing an hours sleep to the British Summertime clock change. Dado covered lots of ground on the second day; colour science and theory, grading, DiT, workflow overviews, DaVinci Resolve and RED Cine-X. Now this is a lot to fit into a day of course you could spend weeks, months and certainly years learning these subjects but what Dado managed to do was to present complex technical, mathematical and artistic information in a way that was easy to understand for everyone in the room. Dado took footage the groups had shot the previous day in the camera tests and took us through the Cine-X software and later into Resolve, having someone as talented as Dado really demonstrated how the flexibility of the system can be maximised to achieve really any look you want at the end of production. I was keen to learn the main workflows for handling the files and post with the .r3d files. These were standard and in a way for me self-explanatory but for sure if you are going to shoot on RED or any other RAW system then you better plan your post and workflow before you arrive on set. With the latest updates to Premiere Pro CC it’s possible to stay with the original .r3d files all the way through the pipeline from camera > edit > grade and this is truly exciting – though it will require the latest in hardware to make the process a smooth one.
I would definitely recommend the course for anyone who is interested in working with RED on either the camera or post side or like me both. I found it very informative, extremely professionally delivered and full of nuggets of information that will be applicable straight away shooting with any of RED’s cameras. The way in which learners were supported was great, as was the provision on equipment, the group sizes were not too big which meant hands on for lots of people. If you are going to work with RED and want a solid overview then this seems like the logical place to start. Finally, if you’re thinking of buying you receive a discount at the RED store for a week after the course and if that’s not enough to convince you, you’ll get a very cool large mousemat and a 16GB memory stick with the course literature and some RED reel test shots for colour grading – the ideal Weapon with which to practice.
Back in December a Line Producer I know gave me a call and asked if I was available to work on a short film with some provocative (read slightly kinky!) content. I chatted with DoP Anthony Dias and he was short of a Lighting Assistant / Gaffer. When I heard the kit list I became excited – here was an opportunity to get really creative in an excellent location (even if the ceiling was way lower than ideal) with some serious toys and so I offered my services. Anothony’s brief was to ‘update film noir’. Now that’s a fairly tall order but I like the vibe.
We were shooting S-Log 3 in 4K RAW on the Sony F55 using Cooke prime lenses and typically using filters and NDs so the lenses were wide open. But the really cool thing about the shoot was the workflow, Mission Digital were testing out some new kit and ideas and the production really benefited from this. The thing about S-Log is that it is fantastic for post production but means that the output image to a director looks overexposed, lacking in contrast and is generally very unflattering. From the DoP, camera assistants and lighting perspective it can also present difficulties when predicting exactly what the picture will look like further down the line after editing with a LUT applied and colour correction or more extreme grading. LUT’s or REC709 can be used in camera viewfinder to give a more flattering image to work with but the SDI output from the camera is clean and shows the true S-Log image. Step in Colour Front software and three talented DiTs with some sharp eyes; 1. Live Grading 2. Playback (Video Assist) 3. Digital Dallies (syncing and outputting colour corrected files).
The live grades can be exported in a variety of formats with the grades applied or the grade values can be exported as a CDL or Colour Decision List for use once the production has been cut. In real terms it means that the Director, DoP, Lighting Technicians, MakeUp Artists, can see a close approximation or even final graded result live as the pictures are being shot. Lighting for 4K but also lighting for the grade. The live grading DiT can communicate constantly with the DoP regarding exposure levels and lighting continuity. It makes collaborating that much more efficient and brings (one would hope) better results. This is surely a clear example of Digital Fluidity – digital technology bringing about a more fluid and creatively liberating production mode. Why would anyone want to compress these images if they didn’t have to?! RAW images being lit and exposed for the way in which it will be graded and finished. It’s a win win scenario. If you were to introduce compression then you would be losing valuable information and the pictures would not be acquired in the way they were intended to be, and taken into the edit with less control over the look. Again the best thing about this ‘live’ workflow is that you can light and work with the end result in mind but still make no actual solid commitment to these looks that are used when you shoot. If the director or DoP later changes their mind about the extremity of a look lets say contrast, level of black then he or she can do so. This bridge between production and post is critical to the modern 4K workflow as it allows DoPs and the camera department to light and expose the image with an approximation of the end result right in front of them as they shoot. The most effective post workflow will now always begin on set, this workflow will surely save time and by extension money when the production side is wrapped. The maximum control over the images can be gained this way and the DoP is able to work with many more pairs of critical eyes and ears than shooting on film or indeed shooting without the possibility of live grading. Whilst standard on a large scale production the value of a dedicated playback engineer (video assist) cannot be underestimated on a small independent production of this size. It is so much easier for the DoP and camera assistant to be able to request playback than having to operate manually from the camera. It is straightforward to simply ask for it when required be it to check performance, sharpness, shadows, or whatever. The software outputs a burn in CC in the corner of the directors monitor to denote when viewing a colour corrected or graded image. And it’s not just the camera, lighting and directing departments that benefit from this workflow. The value of the colour corrected image extends beyond these departments to hair and makeup and the art department, and into post with the editors and graders. Editors get to work with prettier pictures and graders get to begin their finishing process with a great starting point, with all the information provided by RAW files and S-log curves on top of all the information they need to begin a grade with much of the early work already complete. In short, everyone is able to take something away from this progressive new school way of thinking. The F55 has a few quirks and irritations from a 1st AC’s and operators point of view but with this production we were all in no doubt that under the photographic direction of Anthony the lighting, critical eye of the DiTs, and top notch work from camera assistant Alfie and the great location made for some fantastic pictures. Really looking forward to seeing the fruits of our hard work after it’s final grade.
It was with much excitement that myself and fellow camera operator Darren Lovell pulled out the two brand new Sony FS7s this week in a fancy west end hotel. Shooting a Made in Chelsea pool party launch event for the new Sony Experia Z3 telephone it made sense for the production company to go with Sony’s latest new video tech, we were not complaining and dived in (not to the pool) to shooting handheld with the camera. We had an array of visual treats to try out the camera on in the form of an ice bar, a DJ booth in the pool complete with sharpie moving head lights and LED pars, a NailsINC bar with lots of colours, and plenty of generally aesthetically pleasing celebs, and marketing bods plus cocktails, champagne, and canapés to aim our lenses at.
I shot with the Metabones SpeedBooster EF adapter, Canon 24mm-70mm lens and a vocas shoulder mount and plate. The camera is noticeably lighter without the plate but operating for four hours handheld I was happy the camera came supplied from the hire company like that. However, the Vocas plate did mean that I couldn’t lower the arm as much as I might have liked to; that said once the arm was extended a little it was comfortable and balanced on the shoulder. The menu system is easy enough to navigate but we did spend a while tweaking various settings such as zebra levels, peaking, white balance, slow and quick motion frame rates etc and put up against a C300 I’m disappointed it doesn’t currently have waveform monitor, least I couldn’t find one anyway. We shot S-Log3 in custom mode, 1920×1080 25p, XAVC-I – at the time of writing I don’t actually have any of the camera files but I’m hoping to be able to include a few stills from the shoot subject to permissions. I’d of course be keen to run the images through my edit system and have a proper look at them on an SDI monitor and experiment with LUTs.
So what did we think of the camera? Well there’s a lot that’s already been written about it so I’m going to keep it tight and focused. The general feeling was we loved it! We liked the layout of the buttons on the camera, the various record buttons, the chunky ND wheel, the function keys, I love the ability to switch it into a cinema mode and run ISO rather than gain, and in general the build quality (especially of the body) seems good. For the money the image and the usability are fantastic but like anything it’s far from perfect in the current form – both from a hardware and software perspective. Key issues we found as follows: 1. The loupe is a waste of time in run and gun handheld situation. The screen itself is okay but I ended up wearing the loupe round my neck in case I decided I needed it for a shot, but to be honest it’s plastic, oversized, and nicked straight off the FS700. It needs a proper viewfinder and then it might be functional. It is enough for digital online content for sure but any more serious applications will require a monitor. It’s not a deal breaker as I always prefer to shoot with a monitor anyway but I question the longevity of the loupe and it would benefit from being upgraded to a better viewfinder. 2. The Arm is a bit odd, and I mean both in terms of style and functionality. With the arm and an aftermarket shoulder mount fitted (the supplied one is not comfortable enough for long periods of operating), it is impossible to place the arm at 90 degrees in order to set the camera down on a flat surface. This is totally unpractical and beyond irritating when you just need to put the camera down for thirty seconds as you adjust an element in shot, give direction, or simply rest. The functions on there are useful but took an hour or so to get used to and learn the required muscle memory. I can imagine like many cameras the usability will be improved by trial and error building your own rig to work with the beautifully designed camera body.
I guess it’s a little unfair to dismiss the arm at this stage as until Sony release their servo zoom lens we won’t fully appreciate whether it is actually going to work well for the remaining functions. From a software perspective I would like a proper waveform monitor, the menu system itself whilst easy to navigate feels a little sluggish and laggy – as is the setting of exposure values from any of the control points. I am sure that many of these teething issues will be remedied by the new year when the ProRes update is released. This is the beauty of software – progression can occur after the camera has been released that takes on users feedback and extends the life of the product. The camera is way better than a C300 or C100 out of the box for shooting handheld. I didn’t feel too tired even after more than 3 hours carrying and operating, I am sure I will discover more interesting features and quirks next time I shoot with one but as I said last week when I first saw it at the TV Kit Plus tour I am sure it will become extremely popular. We only shot in 1920×1080 25p with the camera and so I would love to try shooting in higher resolution. I will definitely be using the camera again in the coming weeks, I really enjoyed shooting with it – the 150fps slow motion stuff especially looked absolutely stunning and for a product launch event or sport coverage this feature will surely get people excited. It will be interesting to see how the other manufacturers respond to this truly well thought out offering. I don’t think there is anything on the market currently that can compete with the amount of features the FS7 is packed with at anywhere near it’s price point. Same image as the F55 for one third the price, with a reasonably low cost adapter all DSLR and C300 users can continue to use their trusted, proven and understood Canon lenses. Once the slow reaction on the f-stop adjustment is sorted out it will be really highly useable for many different applications from broadcast television, to indie film, corporate, event, and commercial work. For single operation documentary filmmaking this is a formidable tool. I’m excited by it’s release and will be recommending it for use on upcoming shoots. The cameras we used this week had firmware 1.0 installed and already an update to v1.0 is available here.