Without further ado, here are 10 things that every 1st AC should know about the RED One camera…
1. It’s Heavy
Those touching the camera for the first time will notice that it doesn’t feel cheap – in fact it feels quite heavy. A full RED package outfitted with a lens, rails, EVF, LCD, battery, hard drive, cables, follow focus and a matte box will add up the pounds quick. I don’t have a firm number but it’s certainly between 25 – 40 lbs depending on how the camera is accessorized.
Besides giving your biceps a workout, this is an important consideration to have along with the director of photography when discussing the camera package. A suitable (and comfortable) handheld rig should be rented. Many opt for the mantis rig or else they get left with two RED handles and a towel over the shoulder.
Unlike Alexa, RED doesn’t have a groove meaning that the baseplate is often placed directly on the operator’s shoulder. This is terribly uncomfortable and at one point I had to design a shoulder mount to accommodate. I’ve also had to accommodate the RED for Steadicam use since its weight caused the top-heavy Steadicam to be unusable. Being aware of the weight is important when mounting the camera in unique situations. Car mounts can be especially precarious.
2. 90 Seconds to Boot
No matter what you do to avoid it, this is also going to be a big pain. The boot-time of a RED One is excruciatingly slow, especially when the entire production is waiting on it. Unless you have a hot-swap battery option, the camera will have to re-boot everytime a battery is changed. PLAN these changes accordingly. Nothing is more frustrating for a DP or director to have to wait 90 seconds for camera because the battery was swapped right before the take, or worse, the camera shuts down during the take. Doing these changes during major lighting setups or resets is ideal. Anytime the camera needs to be re-booted try to do it during downtime. This may mean doing things earlier or later than your comfortable with.
3. Each RED is Different, but All are Quirky
This tip is less concrete and more abstract than the others but just as important to keep in mind. Almost every RED I have worked with has had its own quirks and personality. The first RED I worked with would randomly go into timelapse mode and roll off a burst frame or two without anybody touching i. Then there was another camera that would often boot up without the back display showing up so that battery and recording space information was unknown. The point is to recognize what unique quirks the camera your working with has and to work with and around them. Being able to recognize these early and deal with them on your terms makes the camera much less frustrating.
4. Check the Flange / Backfocus!
Back-focus/flange focus is the distance between the lens mount and the image sensor. It’s important because if it is not calibrated correctly, then all of the witness marks on your lens will be wrong. That isn’t to say you wouldn’t be able to focus, but it would make it harder, less dependable and you could risk certain things like not having a true infinity focus. Making sure that this is correct is crucial to using the RED camera, especially if you will be using it on a feature film. Having the back focus off will make it harder to pull focus since you won’t be able to trust distance markings on the lens.
Most rental houses should do this already when they service their cameras, but more often than not RED’s will be rented from private owners. They may not always be up to do this. The easiest way to check this on the RED is to mount a mid-range lens (i.e. 50mm) on the camera and place a focus chart (or dollar bill works) about 10 feet away from the camera. Focus by eye using a big monitor and then check against the witness mark. If the mark is at 10 feet then check the camera at intermediate distances like 6 feet and 3 feet. If that mark is off, get out your allen keys, download the RED One manual here and scroll to the section about Back-Focus.
5. Be Able to Read the Dial
When I use the term “dial” I am referring to the two numbers on the back display of the camera that read for “Power” and “Media.” These two numbers are between 1-100 and designate the percentage left of battery life and memory card space. In terms of battery life, it makes sense, but for the memory cards, it’s harder to read. What is 50% of footage left on an 8GB memory card? The answer is close to 2 minutes depending on the compression, aspect ratio and resolution you are shooting at. Be able to calculate these numbers tailored to your project based on its compression, aspect ratio and resolution. When a director or DP asks you how much time is left on a card, they don’t want to be told 2 GB or 25% – those numbers don’t really mean anything. Knowing how much footage is left, in terms of minutes, is the camera assistant’s job. Luckily, there are iPhone apps that can do this if you are ever unsure.
6. Watch for Dropped Frames
On the LCD or EVF display of the RED, next to the power and memory readings there is another box that designates dropped frames. Keep a watchful eye on this box and make sure it doesn’t go above zero. At the sign of your first dropped frame, if you have one, it is recommended you dump the card or hard drive you were shooting on immediately. A dropped frame can compromise the entire card or drive you are recording to and subsequently cause you to loose more clips if you continue shooting on it. Explain to people on set that it will only take a moment and that the delay is worth it to not risk losing more footage and costing more time in the long run.
7. Which Settings are Meta-Data and Which Aren’t
One of the cooler things about the RED camera is that many of its settings are recorded simply as meta-data in reference to the raw footage. To explain what meta-data is, I am going to use the example of color temperature. Say we are shooting an exterior scene but the color temperature was set to tungsten (indoor) lights. The camera records a raw image and along with it records settings like color temperature. When brought into the computer, it’s noticed that the image is strikingly blue due to the color temperature being set incorrectly. Simple fix, because of the meta-data, is to change it to daylight balanced. This is because the color temperature setting isn’t recorded into the image – instead it’s recorded along side of it and applied over the raw data. Like layers in Photoshop, that means that certain settings can be overlayed or turned off after-the-fact.
Bonus tip: On my first RED gig ever, the first AC was toying around with the camera and set the “Gain” setting to “0” thinking it was unnecessary to add gain for this project. Upon shooting a few camera tests, the images came up blank on the computer although there was a clear image on the monitors during recording. Because of the meta-data, the digital imaging technician was able to set the gain back to its default of “1” causing the image to appear again. Basically, the camera reads a gain of 0 as negative gain, causing there to be no image. A gain of 1 is the default and actually means there is no gain at all applied to the image, but it is also taking nothing away. Makes sense….right?
8. Varispeed Shooting
Another impressive feature of the RED One camera is its ability to shoot varispeed up to 120 frames-per-second along with timelapse and ramping modes. This capability doesn’t come without a price, however, and that price is resolution and compression. The higher the frame rate the lower the quality of the image. Most of this comes down to computing power and the nature of the beast. For instance, to shoot at 120 fps you have to drop down to Redcode 28 (the highest compression, lowest quality) and drop down to 2K resolution.
If you know your project will be shooting slo-mo stuff, shoot some tests with the DP and know before hand what settings you have to drop down into to be able to achieve that frame-rate. With the new firmware upgrades, RED will not have an issue if you try to shoot 120 fps at 4K until you hit the record button where it will give an error message. There is a handy chart in the RED manual (download here) that displays what frame-rates are compatible with what settings. You don’t want to feel dumb with everyone ready to roll and an error pops up.
Another downside to varispeed shooting on the RED is that it crops the sensor effectively causing wider lenses to become longer. Depth-of-field also becomes greater since the sensor itself isn’t relative. As the RED site explains:
When choosing 2K or 3K acquisition, the RED sensor is “windowed”, that is to say, a smaller area of the sensor is used, creating less selective focus, but having the advantage of allowing higher frame rates and longer recording times. Shooting 2K “scaled” means that the 4K area of the sensor is sampled and downrezed, or scaled, to 2K to enable a 2K recording with 4K DOF (depth of field). Scaled capture is not available on the RED ONE. Because scaling is processor intensive, requiring full sensor scan and de-interpolation, there is no frame rate increase with scaled technology.
While technically it’s the DP’s job to know this and compensate for it, it is definitely an AC’s job to know it and explain it to the DP if they ask or to make them aware of it if they previously didn’t know. This is why shooting tests is important during prep and I highly recommend it especially for Varispeed shooting to nail down a frame-rate that is acceptable in concert with resolution and compression compensations.
Bonus tip: One of the settings that is important to re-adjust when changing frame-rates is the shutter speed/angle. Fortunately, RED has a nifty feature that does this automatically. If you go to the “Sensor Menu >> Shutter >> Shutter Mode” you can set the shutter speed to “relative.”
What this does is keeps the shutter angle/speed the same no matter what frame-rate by automatically adjusting it relative to the setting it’s at for 24fps.
9. Data Management
The RED camera is a robust digital cinema tool and as such it generates large amounts of data fast. On average, I experience about shooting 100GB’s of footage per day of a shoot. That means for a feature film you’re moving close to 2 terabyte’s of data. As first AC, you may often have to serve as your own data loader or D.I.T. and need to know the basics of effective data management. The first AC is in charge of the camera department and though it’s debatable whether data management falls within the camera department or the editorial, it’s best to have the knowledge of the entire workflow. For more information on this, read the article I wrote about best practices for media management and do your best to follow them. Those 1’s and 0’s recording within the camera are as valuable as a film negative.
10. Computer Inside of a Camera
For all its K’s of resolution and Oakley design aesthetics and ability to mount the highest quality lenses on it, the RED One camera still boils down to being a computer inside of a laser-gun like casing. Its inner workings are full of circuity, cooling fans and cable strips. This is why it takes 90 seconds to boot, why it weighs so much and why it’s so quirky to begin with. The amount of complexity inside the camera is massive and when topped off with software that is comprehensive, the camera seems to run on Windows ME or something.
Remember that like any computer the camera has a risk of over-heating in extreme environments. Having ice-packs on hand to place on the top of the camera is necessary in hot weather scenarios or even interiors that may get boiling hot like Satan’s armpit on Ghosts Don’t Exist. Treat the camera like you would a computer. Don’t leave it in vulnerable places. Don’t toss it around. Be patient with it. To capture those high-quality images, the camera has to work through so many technological hurdles.
As an AC on a RED shoot you will be expected to be the person in charge of the camera and know all the answers. While I have listed 10 useful tips about the RED camera, there is a plethora of knowledge out there that needs to be learned to know everything about it. There are also resources such as the manual, menu maps and forums that can help you become a better AC with the RED camera. Don’t be intimidated, however, because if you are any good with technology, the RED camera will open its box of secrets and let you in. In the end, it still records by pointing it at a subject and pressing a red button.