Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, November 28, 2011

RED Dawn: Digital Cameras, Moving into Movies

How often does one get to meet one's movie hero?

Not often. I did interview Harrison Ford once about his helicopter training when I was writing The God Machine, and also John Lithgow for Harvard Magazine, but those talks were by telephone, so they don't count as up-close.

The hero-meeting I have in mind was three weeks ago, when I was at a location shoot in Maine for the History Channel. The show will air for the centennial of Titanic's loss: April 2012.

The object in question is the Red One digital camera, which is something I've wanted to see since it came on the market four years ago. The Red One offers a max resolution of 4,480 by 2,304 at 60 frames per second, which is well beyond what any television can reproduce. It's movie quality.

The production unit for Lone Wolf Documentary Group was using the Red on a wheeled crane, which will give a cinema-like feel. 

An operator holding a remote control was responsible for changing the angle, focal length, and focus of the camera. Here's the business end:
Here's a profile, from the company:
Typical attachments to the body are a hi-res monitor, filter,  a battery pack, a storage device, and a carrying handle. The Red is very much a modular design.

I know there are other brands of digital cameras now capable of moviemaking, and a newer Red model, the Epic, surpasses the Red One in features like pixel array. But the One has a special place because it opened the door to more independents by greatly lowering production costs. I first picked up a Sony video camera in 1980, starting reading American Cinematographer, and wondered how long it would be before video could match the 35mm cameras from Arri and Panavision.

I talked to a technician on the set and he said the latest video equipment records light better than filmstock in some respects, including underlit scenes. Very bright spots of the image are still a challenge for video, which tends to wash them out, but bracketing can improve the rendering. 

It's not just a question of resolution; a successful product takes the right combination of lenses, sensors, mounts, image-processing software and workflow, and storage that can reliably handle the huge flows of data. The Red One started with hard-drive storage, but now flash cards are common.

There weren't many skeptics about what a Red One could do after Peter Jackson took up the company's offer to try it out. Jackson did more than play around with it: he hauled two of them to New Zealand and came back with a short-form WWI costumer called Crossing the Line, filmed in two days. It drew a lot of attention at the National Association of Broadcasters' 2007 convention. Here's a low-resolution clip from it, posted on YouTube:
Since then, many major productions have dropped film stock and gone Red, including Social Network and Contagion. Here are more titles

There was a long waiting list at first; now availability is better. Renting the Red One body and a package of commonly used accessories costs about $2,500 per week from an LA rental house. 

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