Video’s Game Changer or Emperor’s New Clothes?

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In 2006, a video startup made a startling announcement that sent shockwaves through the professional video world: the production of a camera that would capture images at a 4k resolution direct to hard disk or flash based memory cards, with the ability to use prime cinematographic lenses, for only $17,000. The Red camera was heralded as a game-changer for professional video, and production companies around the world plunked down a $1,000 deposit for the mythical camera. Red involved themselves in several online forums, and involved their customers in the design of the camera, further promoting brand loyalty before they ever had a product.

In 2007, Red released the first 25 Red One cameras to great hype. 4,000 cameras have been ordered and Red has already announced their next product line, a 3k handheld camera called the Scarlet, and a 5k camera called the Epic.

So what does this all mean? In short, the U.S. standardization body (the National Television System Committee) decided in the 1940s on a video standard that called for a video picture that was drawn with 525 lines 30 times a second. For more than 50 years, that was what video was. In the early 1980’s, an international body developed a standard for High Definition video that called for a video picture to be drawn with 1080 lines 30 times a second. 20 years later, technology finally caught up with these goals and HD video became prevalent.

In digital terms, Standard definition images are 720 pixels wide by 480 pixels high, while HD video varies between 1280×720 pixels to 1920×1080 pixels depending on which mode you are shooting in. The Red One captures images at up to 4k – 4096×2304, more than twice the resolution of the highest HD standard – for only $17,000 (minus the lenses). This means you can shoot 35mm quality video at a fraction of the price. So why isn’t this splashed all across the news and why aren’t agencies bursting to deliver the highest quality video for their clients?

Because for many, these cameras are still vaporware. To date, Red has shipped, maybe, 2,000 units. It’s not uncommon to find posts online from disgruntled customers who were given a ship date, paid in full, and then told that their camera was on hold indefinitely. Apparently, Red is incapable of keeping up with the demand. Adding insult to injury, they are already trumpeting their next line of cameras while they still can’t fulfill the orders of their current line.

There are those that suggest that Red used the reservations for R&D money, rather than having to give up a portion of the company to a VC firm for startup funds. Still others suggest a kind of corporate shell game, where one is enticed to order the Red One, then encouraged to upgrade to the Epic before ever getting one’s hands on the first camera. While the first statement may be true, I think what we have here is the beginnings of another video revolution, mirroring what has happened over the last 10 years in the storage market. these cameras are real and are shipping.

And the game is starting to change. Already companies are working hard to compete with Red on price and quality. Although, there are some problems associated with the Red One, once this company matures, they, along with Apple’s Final Cut Pro, will have forced the high end video market downstream, giving the little fishes a chance at the big time. The real test will come when the Scarlet is released. A 3k video pocket professional camera for under $3,000 with no reservations will blow the prosumer market wide open, and all these premium HD camcorders will start collecting dust.


  • Al
    May 28, 2008, 1:20 pm  Reply

    RED has no clothes.

    As a professional working in this business for 20+ years, I would like to offer a first hand experience opinion as to why RED has not, and will never be a “game changer”.

    Despite a lot of slick marketing, and non-expert “professional opinions” the camera is not good, even for the price, period. The RED is 4K in name only.

    Sony makes an HD camera called the EX1, and sells it for $10,000 less than the RED camera body. The Sony EX1 comes with a lens, viewfinder and flash memory storage card. The RED camera does not. Now you might think the Sony is less expensive because it’s only “HD”, well then why does the HD camera have more visible resolution than the RED camera? The images of the test can be found on-line. Visible resolution is the only resolution that matters, not the resolution of the sensor.

    RED’s issues with their imaging system are plentiful, the workflow is awkward at best, and data security is near non-existent. RED designs products for wedding videographers, film students and local TV shooters in middle-of-nowhereseville, who (I’m sorry to report) truly don’t know better.

    Professionals can never have data loss, “just re-shoot it”, or “we warned you the camera is still ‘in development'” are never acceptable answers in professional situations when there’s a problem.

    The only actual 4K digital cinema camera is made by DALSA. To be perfectly blunt, RED does a disservice by saying they are 4K.

    Last month at the ASC technical committee meeting in Hollywood, RED’s “Leader of the Rebellion” Ted Schilowitz, stated the camera doesn’t actually have 4K worth of visible resolution, but that they feel it’s okay to say 4K because that’s how many pixels they have in the camera.

    It’s kind of like saying, our fancy new $17,500 (RED’s body price) car has a V8 engine, but when you drive it only 4-cylinders are ever functional. But we feel it’s proper to call the engine a “V8” because we have 8-cylinders. And by the way, if you want tires, seats and a steering wheel, well all those are extra. All said and done your new 4-cylinder powered “V8” car is going to cost you $40,000 (What a RED with accessories runs).

    You could have driven to your grandmother’s for Thanksgiving faster and in more style, (and probably not break down along the way) by driving a proper car, made by a company that has actually built a car before.


  • Rob
    May 29, 2008, 10:05 am  Reply

    You make some good points there, Al. The body alone is $17k, so to trick it out, it costs a lot more. And the lack of data security is ridiculous in a shipping product.

    However, the rationale I’ve read on the 4k resolution question is that the visible resolution ends up being about 3.8k, which is equivalent to a telecine transfer of 35mm. Granted, digital video still does not have the latitude of film yet, but it also doesn’t have the associated costs.

    I think that Red is changing the game by introducing a much greater value for the $40k you will ultimately spend on it. That said, they’ll have to beef up their products and their business model if they want to be a viable player. Regardless of whether or not they survive, though, I think they’ve stimulated the market in a way that is beneficial to professionals as well as the Nowheresville amateurs who don’t know any better.

    What will be really interesting is seeing what “Che” looks like, since Steven Soderbergh shot that entirely with the Red One. I would say that his opinion qualifies as an expert as he shoots his own films, and he apparently likes this camera. Unless he has changed his mind.

    Apparently Red.com has some testimonials from some other non-experts like Doug Liman, Tony Richmond and Crash (https://www.red.com/interviews).

    Now I’ve never shot with the camera, and don’t know anyone who has (possibly a buddy out in LA, but I’m not sure if he shot with it, or just knew someone who had), but I’d give it a once around the block to see for myself.

    – Rob

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