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The Future of Low Budget Cameras

Every so often an invention comes along that so revolutionizes technical industries that it serves to truly democratize them in a way that they’ve never been democratized before. Think of stock trading. Stock trading is not a particularly new endeavor, although it has grown heavily amongst non-stockbrokers through the latter half of the 20th century. However, at the very end of the 20th century, secure transactions allowed the aggressive evolution of the internet to cause a revolution in stock trading which led to an exponential increase in people jumping into these waters.

The prevalence of Sundance and its clout in the early ‘90’s, with legendary low-budget filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez getting “discovered,” caused a lot of people to try their hands at filmmaking without the benefit of film school. With the digital revolution of the late ‘90’s, more and more people started making films at lower and lower budgets. Cameras like the DVX100 and HVX200 gave a more film-like rate of speed and were affordable enough to become go-to cameras for most of us, but the quality was never something that could be confused with the high rez digital and film cameras employed by Hollywood. This inability to match Hollywood quality has always chafed the microfilmmaker, who’s combination of creative drive and lack of Studio restrictions have the potential to create far superior and original works of art.

Well, after years of desiring a camera that would truly make Hollywood visual quality attainable, a camera manufacturer that owes no allegiance to the old regime of camera companies promises to make that a reality. Jim Jannard and his team of hand-picked rebels at RED have now officially announced the Scarlet: a camera that is slated to be cheaper than the standard definition DVX100 yet aims to generate Hollywood quality images, color space, and speed options. If anyone else beside RED had announced such a thing, we would have, at best, called them lunatics and, at worst, called them liars. However, when you have actually just delivered a 4K cinema camera for $17.5K in the RED One that competes directly with $300K Sony cameras, you earn yourself a shocking amount of market credibility.

As this is an editorial, I will be going less into the tech specs of the Scarlet and more of what its eventual release could mean to microfilmmakers. (If you want to read more of the technical information and my opinions from NAB, check out my Editorial Overview of NAB ’08 in this issue.) Because the Scarlet is aimed to shoot in REDCode, which is a proprietary RAW format, it has the potential to change the low-budget special effects industry radically. Folks who use the RAW format in digital SLRs know that this format yields the least possible compression and color degradation. For special effects work, especially greenscreen and bluescreen work, this means that a professional amount of color is left in the images that are recorded. (Normal low budget video cameras discard between ½ and ¾ of all color information because the human eye notices color less than it does brightness. Unfortunately, this makes traditional keying on low-budget cameras extremely difficult to do well.) The ability to pull keys without having to compensate for color removal means that low budget films can have cleaner effects than have ever been possible before.

Additionally, the RAW format of REDCode means that an almost limitless amount of non-destructive color grading and adjustments can be applied to footage after the fact. Because RAW records all of the information about the camera, the only “permanent” elements found in the RAW codec are the F/Stop opening of the camera and the shutter speed. Everything else, including white balance, can be adjusted after the fact with amazingly clean results. (We shot most of our still pictures at NAB on a Nikon D50 that shoots RAW and the amount of information that could be pulled out of shots that at first looked unusable is absolutely amazing!)

The fact that the camera is designed to shoot in 3K, which is a higher resolution than most theaters in the U.S. can show, means that a projected micro-budget film could rival the actual visual appearance of a Hollywood film. (While some theaters in large cities have 4K resolution projectors, most digital theaters only have 2K projectors in the U.S.) Of course, films shot at 4K (which is the size that Hollywood’s Digital Cinema Initiative is trying to make the norm in Hollywood) which are then down-converted to 2K should look a little sharper than 3K footage that is down-converted to 2K, but the difference should be pretty negligible.

The fact that the camera is designed to be able to shoot 120 fps for extended periods of time (which is twice the max frame rate of the HVX200) and 180 fps in a “burst” mode means that low-budget filmmakers who want to shoot action sequences in the sort of syrupy smooth slow-mo that John Woo made famous can finally come pretty darn close. (Woo actually shot in 200 fps for most of his slow motion shots, so they won’t quite be able to match the master of gun fight films, but, like I said, they’ll come close.)

All of these things mean that more creative tools could be at the hands of microfilmmakers than ever before. And because REDCode is slated to be supported by PC editing platforms as of this summer, by the time the Scarlet is unveiled in 2009, virtually any platform should be able to edit it. (Of course, a 3K video stream will require serious computing power, but, luckily, processor and RAM pricing continues to drop on a nearly monthly basis.)

While Jim Jannard and his team feel confident that they can make the camera a reality in the first part of 2009, if the RED One’s release table is any indication, I’ll be wonderfully pleased if the Scarlet is shipping by Christmas ’09. That might be especially appropriate, since RED is the color of Santa Claus, candy canes, and the wrapping paper that proliferates the season. Perhaps, if we’re all good little boys and girls next year, we’ll open up our presents on that Yule celebration to discover something Scarlet beneath the red wrappings.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: today is an exciting time to be a low-budget filmmaker!

God Bless,

Jeremy Hanke
Microfilmmaker Magazine

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