Splintered

DoP Mike Costelloe of ukredcam.com Has Shot The First UK Feature Film Using Solely the RED One Camera System. Far From Being a RED ‘Fan-Boy’ Mike Puts The Use of The Camera in Perspective in The Current MarketThere has been much hype surrounding the release of the Red One Digital Cinema Camera. The way the camera has been openly developed and released as a ‘beta’ product attracted much criticism, it has also been spectacularly successful in generating some unique publicity. The question is, why would anyone put a deposit down on a camera that is just an idea and take delivery of it when it is not finished and fully developed? The first 100 cameras were sent out without all their features enabled, only to be recalled and retrofitted with upgrades, (all at the expense of  RED let it be said). As Jim Jannard, the man behind RED, and formerly Oakley sunglasses, says, “Everything in life changes... including our camera specs and delivery dates...”  

However, it is in this unique approach that the interest actually lies. Here is a company with a clean slate and no legacy of previous development, offering a chance to own a 4k digital imaging device with a 35mm size sensor and a RAW data workflow for $17,500. All you have to do is believe and agree to take part in the camera’s development… and then put a $1000 deposit down to show you believe!

Mike found shooting with RED akin to shooting film – in particular the process of lighting by eye not by monitor – RED footage from Splintered with Actress Holly WestonSo, who actually were the first RED believers? Not the larger hire houses that’s for sure. This seems to be more of a ‘collection of individuals’ type of revolution. If you trawl through ‘reduser.net’ you will be able to gauge the profile of the RED adopters by the content and tone of their posts. There are some very interesting and knowledgeable people out there willing to publicly share their experience. There is, as is inevitable in a public forum, a lot of ‘noise’ also.  As an early Red adopter myself, I have been lurking around reduser.net for quite some time and find the ‘fanboyism’ that pervades the site annoying at best and at worst it clutters the site, stemming the flow of free and essential information. Once again, this is the attraction of the site, the free flow of information. People are getting together online from around the world and sharing their opinions, experiences and often their frustrations on a public forum dedicated to a camera! Pretty odd!

Either it must have impressed me, or I’ve got a screw loose somewhere. I acquired three RED One Digital Cinema cameras with an aim to service low budget features and HD commercials in the UK. We have now just completed principal photography on Splintered, the first feature shot entirely on RED in the UK. UKREDCAM supplied two RED camera units, a RED dedicated Steadicam, data wrangling and edit facilities. My background is firmly based in the world of film, so why the sudden rush to shoot digital? 

I have been shooting commercials on HD for about the last four years and on film for even longer. I understand the financial imperative behind the adoption of non-film based cameras but I have never really being impressed by the compromises they force upon you. Part of the reason for this is the adherence to the design based on their ENG cameras, with 2/3 inch chips and zoom lenses. Inevitably this design restricts the way these cameras function, from the balance of the camera and how it physically handles, to the lack of prime lenses and engineer-based menu systems. Historically the B4 front end dictates the use of zooms and 2/3inch CCDs display an inevitable lack of control over depth of field. These cameras have made inroads into the traditional film market with the use of 35mm adaptors and Digi Primes, but I have been quite happy to say that HD cameras are not yet a match for their film counterparts. 35mm adaptors lose too much light and resolution and Digi Primes are costly to rent so they push the budget back towards the realm of film. The high-end offerings from Arri and Panavision (D20/21 and Genesis) have broken with the ENG tradition and both camera produce very nice pictures but at a cost that would again push me towards using film. They are also both very big and heavy units, not designed for handheld or steadicam use. 

Using RedCine, Mike was able to establish a look for the film from day oneEvery new HD camera introduced promises quantum gains in quality and the ability to slay the dragon of film with its incumbent processing and stock costs. So far I don’t think that any camera has really offered an alternative to shooting film in terms of ease of use, quality and at a reasonable price point… up until now. Now, here’s the dilemma, if I had the budget I would definitely shoot film, but what if we can’t afford to shoot film? 

Enter Jim Jannard, an ex-Oakley sunglass tycoon with a passion for photography, with the RED camera. What he offers fills that gap in the market that no-one else had looked at, a reasonable price camera with great image quality and full control over the image in post. This camera addresses what I find disappointing about ENG based HD cameras. The ability to choose whatever glass you prefer for the front end, from readily available PL lens sets, a 35mm size chip, with it’s ability to control DoF, and the advantage of the RAW workflow I have been using on my digital stills cameras for years and the control over the image this allows in post. (The latter is versus in-camera processing.)

The first 100 RED cameras were due to be delivered in mid June 2007. We had a low budget feature, The Butterfly Tattoo, an early Phillip Pullman novel, ready to go, all finance secured and green lit for September. We missed the chance to shoot on RED due to delivery delays and shot on HDCAM with Digi Primes. Then Notanumber Productions came to me with Splintered, a horror film slated to be shot in the Northwest UK on a budget of £200k. By the time the deal was done and the film was green lit we were in possession of our cameras and had just initially tested the workflow. We began shooting April 2008.

Initially the producers were not sure whether the offer of shooting on RED was a gift horse or a poisoned chalice and had their doubts. They were nervous about the data workflow. We shot some test footage on location and showed them the results and they were a little less nervous. With the budget limitations and the buzz about RED at the time, they decided to take the plunge. 

Behind The Scenes from SplinteredWe were able to offer a brand new 4k camera package at a similar price to HDCAM. After seeing the first few days rushes they felt more easy and soon as the rough assembly started to emerge this turned to outright enthusiasm. The film went to Cannes 2008 in trailer form and had been taken for distribution by Highpoint before shooting completed. A friend phoned me from Cannes, whilst we were still shooting, to ask me about the film as he was holding some fliers for it! There is a real buzz about the RED camera and Splintered can only benefit from this. Splintered is the first feature shot entirely on RED in the UK. 

Technically speaking, shooting with RED is simple. I shoot HD straight like a film camera, either tungsten ‘stock’ or daylight. I expose for the highlights and light the shadows putting the latitude of the scene within the tolerance of the camera, where possible. I overexpose by about a stop, creating a brighter and flatter image then you want, in order to give a good ‘thick’ digital negative to play around with in post. With HD, in the past, I found myself lighting much broader, flatter and softer than I would prefer. The RED camera seems to deal with direct, hard light in a very pleasing way without introducing the stark, high contrast image that characterises the HD camera’s usual lack of latitude. We soon found that we were introducing hard keys and eye lights to put some punch into the image. With RED it is easier to light by eye again, as you would with film, rather than having to constantly refer to the monitor.  Here’s the thing though, whilst we were changing between lighting set-ups, I could swing by the data wrangler’s station, load the .R3D files into RedCine and play around with a rough initial grade to export a 4K Tiff to the desktop for the director to view. Using this I was able to establish a look for the film from day one. 

Imade the decision to shoot 5000 degrees Kelvin and expose to 320 asa using daylight and HMI sources based on the response of the Mysterium chip to tungsten light sources. I found that Red channel over exposed significantly before Blue and Green and didn’t want to be in the situation of correcting this with filters and losing valuable light. Shooting tungsten would have further boosted the Red channel leading to premature overexposure on that channel far too early. (I believe that the next firmware build, 16, deals with this issue but we shot release build 15.)  We also took care to introduce an Infra Red 486 filter when ND’ing beyond .9 in daylight situations as the OLPF does not include IR filtering. ND filters block out light but not IR and allowing too much IR to pass, by ND’ing beyond three stops, changes the blacks to a more purple colour. I think Tiffen are working on ‘hot’ mirror NDs that will block IR spectrum, once again not available when we shot. 

The camera is modular in design making it is easy to accessorize and add mounting/holding points. This makes hand held and car work very simple and allows an easy transition to steadicam. The Red feels like a handheld film camera to operate, more like a Moviecam SL/Panavision  Millenium XL than an ENG derived model. Coming from a film background I find this weight and compact nature reassuring .

We shot about 80 percent of the film on steadicam, which allowed us to move quickly between set-ups and gave the actors the ability to let their performance develop shot by shot. It allowed us to constantly move with the actors and remain within the drama of the situation. I’m not suggesting that lighting and operating steadicam for six weeks of nights was a pleasant experience, but the RED camera and Ben Oliver, my 1st AC, made this possible.  The RED LCD display is extremely lightweight and displays an on-screen histogram making it possible to judge exposure on the move. For trickier shots there is the instant playback function within the camera. This made it possible to check takes for any problems. We were lighting areas and allowing the actors to move within those lit spaces, bringing in on-floor tickles for the close-ups. My Gaffer Mark Rickitt had to judge a lot of these shots and set-ups himself as they unfolded, as each shot would be different from the last. 

We shot to CF card on Steadicam giving a maximum of five minutes per take. Swapping out and reloading became second nature and took very little time at all. Any hand held or car shooting was also done on CF card to minimize the chances of dropped frames. There is a possibility of dropping frames using the RED drives as they are basically hard disks with spinning platters that may disengage during rough or sudden movement. We had one instance of dropped frames when an assistant dropped the hard drive at the end of a shot. The take itself was fine and made it to the cut! We were keen to shoot limited amounts at one time to the Red drives and planned to never shoot more than 15-20 minutes for safety before swapping out drives and downloading. On a couple of occasions we forgot and ended up with 30-40 minutes footage on a drive at the end of the day, much to the annoyance of the data wrangler!  

All cameras have their idiosyncrasies and RED is no different. Boot up times were initially a bit of an annoyance. Why is it in this business that 90 seconds can seem interminable when everyone on the crew is stood looking at you?  (BTW I have just shot a 35mm commercial using a Panaflex Millenium and magazine change times were about the same duration!). We simply became better at camera battery management and changed batteries and booted up when we were between set-ups. The fan noise was quite amusing, especially seeing Alan Sheldon’s face, (the sound man), when the camera was initially switched on. It remains in ‘cooling’ mode until turned over and then becomes silent! You can change these defaults but we had no problems and used this ‘silent when running’ mode.

In terms of crewing levels, we employed a Focus Puller, Camera Assistant and a Data Wrangler. During the whole six week shoot we never lost any data that we shot, the producer’s major concern! Data collection was simultaneous recording to two G-Tech portable, bus-powered FW800 Hard Drives. One was kept safe as a back up until the other was confirmed as backed up to the RAID storage drive and LTO-3 tape for archive. I tended to use the back-up as my 4K rushes source and graded scenes the morning after the shoot to check for consistency and any problem shots I felt were a worry. Our data wrangler, Bledar Bejupi, also did rough cuts on set from the QT Proxies to the amazement of the director.  These were played back on a 17inch HD MacBook Pro on set using the proxies as source. The immediacy of this was quite reassuring during complex setups involving SFX.

The way the camera deals with the shot footage is to record to RED’s proprietary .R3D codec and offer QT proxy files at ¼, ½ and full resolution to view. The QTs are merely ‘wrappers’ that reference the original material and need to stay linked to the originals in order to be able to be used. You can view low resolution versions of the originals on a laptop and higher resolution versions on the main edit machine. There is, however, a limit to the ability of even a fully loaded MacPro eight core to view 4K footage. Real time 4K viewing is presently not possible without high end investment, until RED release their RED RAY in 2009. If you have a need to view an online version there are several ways to go. Boxxlabs do a machine that runs 2K at real time using Scratch Cine or Maxxcube have an on-set solution with a full Scratch suite which enables full colour correction facilities.

Once captured, the footage is sent to the main edit suite. Our workflow is very simple and employs an Apple MacPro Eight Core running FCS2 and 8TB of very fast raid storage. The editor cuts on FCS2 using the QT proxies generated within the camera and transferred as a package file together with the R3D footage. Given the nature of the project the film can remain as an offline copy until it is necessary to export it as a DPX sequence for grading and film out.

For lower budgets the tools RED offers are extremely useful, especially as they are free! RedCine allows you to view 4k files and do simple colour correction and output as your codec of choice. This may well have been called Assimilate Scratch Lite! For budgets with a bit more to spend conforming using Assimilate Scratch is even easier as the proxies are instantly loaded and replaced with R3D footage to be available to grade. It is simply a case of then outputting to whatever codec you should choose from there, from SD to 4K DPX files. If you don’t have access to Scratch, there are lower budget solutions, such as Ian Bloom’s Crimson [crimsonworkflow.com] round trip programme which you can use to conform the proxies with the original R3D files using FCP 6 and re-import the cut footage back into RedCine for colour correction. Not as quick and a little more fiddly, but a lot cheaper.

As far as Splintered is concerned I do not think we could have got any more out of the production value at this price point. We shot for six weeks of nights in some amazing locations with great acting talent a nd excellent crew. The fact that we were able to offer the RED camera as part of the overall package has pushed the production value towards the 35mm end of High Definition. This, in turn, makes the product more slick and a better overall package for sales.

It is my opinion that RED’s real appeal is to this higher level HD audience, as well as those who would have to steal from other areas of their budget to afford to shoot on film. We bought these cameras in order to provide an alternative to what is presently available in the world of  HD cameras. This is where I feel RED is best placed at this time. For me, it is an indie-film, Apple-biased HD alternative, a viable low budget alternative to film and an alternative to all forms of HD.  

It is still very early days with RED and it is interesting that the development of the camera has lead to a flurry of parallel development from other smaller companies such as Element Technica [www.elementtechnica.com] and View Factor [www.viewfactor.net], making dedicated accessories for the RED system, at a similar price point to quality ratio. RED’s own development has pointed the way to progress with the RED RAY and the EPIC 5k. Forget the ‘fanboy-ism’ and the hype, Jim Jannard and RED have forced the development of HD into a previously uncharted territory and it is definitely a large step in the right direction. I think we are living in interesting times.

Splintered material thanks to Notanumber Films, Rachel Richardson-Jones, Simeon Halligan and Sarada McDermott. www.splinteredthemovie.com


Posted on May 11, 2010 and filed under case study, cinematography.