Big Day in Digital Cinema

I was under the impression that the RED Scarlett had been put on hold, and likely cancelled, because the RED Epic was going to be…well, epic, and there would be no need for something like the Scarlett. Today RED actually released the Scarlett-X, and so that is clearly untrue.

The Scarlett-X, like the RED One, seemed too good to be true. It boasted giant performance in a midget body: resolution at 3k, simultaneous video and still image capture, high burst-rate image capture, brain-based construction, which allowed for impossibly simple versatility, a low price, and a host of other features straight out of a cinematographer and photographer’s wet-dream. Today, RED made that dream come true. In fact, like the RED One, the reality is actually better than the dream.

The Scarlett-X exceeded expectations with, “burst modes up to 12 fps at 5K resolution and 4K video from 1-30 fps, it enables users to capture motion footage and still content simultaneously.”  The base price for the Scarlett-X is $9,750.

Only a handful of hours apart, Canon announced its first dedicated digital cinema camera:

The Canon C300 is a worthy contender in the new battle for small, comparably cheap, and high-definition digital cinema cameras. Rather than dig into the specifications, it is best to say that it is on-par with the Scarlett-X, if just shy, but still more than the majority of filmmakers will require.

Also, rather than talk tech, here is the first short to be shot on the new camera:

Stylistic choices aside, it looks good. It is a step past the likes of the 7D, and the 5D MK II. It’s a good entry, for now, and it’ll work, for now.

That said, the Scarlett-X is not RED’s most advanced camera, thus Canon’s first entry already a step behind. The RED Epic (48 of which are being used to shoot The Hobbit in 3D,) is a marvel of the modern digital cinema. The RED Epic is capable of 5k resolution (with some Wikipedia speculation of 28k,) moving-image capture-rate of 1-120 fps, and the same promise of versatility and brain-based interchangeable parts, which is supposed to make the camera infinitely upgradeable. It’s price is roughly three times that of the Scarlett-X, but its potential is exponentially more grand.

Here is Peter Jackson playing with his new RED Epic 3D camera system, which, I must say, has done more to pique my curiosity in 3D cinema than anything I have ever seen:

In film school, I fought against the digital revolution. I edited digitally, but I scorned shooting on digital. At that time it was not unreasonable to believe that film was a better medium. Digital was in its incipient stages and it looked like cheap hell. Digital enthusiasts pointed to hack-experimental filmmakers, 28 Days Later, and portions of The Phantom Menace, as examples of its promise. Digital Cinema was the dorky kid on the playground who claimed he could play as well as anyone else. We laughed at him because at the time he couldn’t compete, and he didn’t show any promise. Until the RED One was announced, I didn’t think digital had a shot.

Upon the release of the RED One, it became obvious that digital had more than a chance to replace celluloid. The RED One promised more than could be believed, in terms of resolution, size, features, and price; and then the camera delivered everything it promised, and more. It handed every filmmaker an opportunity to shoot film-grade digital images, at a fraction of the price and bulk of Sony, Panavision, and Arri. Panavision may have had their Genesis 2 camera, and its full 35mm sensor ready, but RED had the courage to take the extra step and be more than just an invisible and comparable film replacement. RED wanted to be better than film, and they went for its throat – immediately.

The RED company has done the majority of the leg-work to legitimize digital cinema. George Lucas, and Sony’s CineAlta helped, but the poor artistic quality of the Star Wars prequels undermined what Lucas has known since Laserdisc: digital is the next medium, and its victory is close at hand.

Recently, Roger Ebert wrote about the death of film, in his online journal. He admits defeat, but laments the loss of a beloved medium, which has served, dutifully, for over 100 years. Film processing plants have closed. Arri has stopped making film cameras. Many camera companies only make film cameras on demand; the market has become saturated with used film cameras. The workflow of every modern filmmaker has become so digital, the unique aesthetics of film, once its strongest selling points, no longer outweigh the comparable picture quality and convenience of a $9,000 digital camera.

Though I credit RED with this transition, in truth, it was the final blow in long battle. The dream of high-definition video replacing film is as old as video, with modern specifications appearing at some point in the 70s. However, digital cinema, comparable to film, was not viable until the last 5 years, with the release of the RED One.

Today, we see the release of two digital cinema cameras, which should count as the next generation of digital cinema. If my memory serves, in his book, In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch estimated that a digital image would have to be about 10 mega-pixels before it could be compared to a frame of film. The RED Scarlett-X is capable of shooting moving images at 4K, and still images at 5K, which amount to roughly 12-13 megapixels, per frame.

Here’s a graph:

Just so you know, the first digital cinema projectors were 2K projectors. Many have been updated to 4K, and soon they will have to be updated again. A film enthusiast would argue that a 35mm print of an early German Expressionist silent film would play on a modern 35mm projector with absolutely no need to upgrade.

Here’s Soderbergh and his crew discussing the first days of the RED One. Maybe he had more to do with the success of the RED One:


4 thoughts on “Big Day in Digital Cinema

  1. Not to gloss over most of your post, but wasn’t Phantom Menace the film that made the push for theaters to upgrade their projectors? If they didn’t upgrade, they couldn’t play it and the theaters would have lost millions in revenue from that film alone. (Although they would have saved thousands from having their childhood shit on because of it. Bacteria is what allows someone to use the Force?!?)

    I’ve read and heard many discussions about 3D film making (I’m sure there was one on DB) and how it should be dying soon since studios are just trying to cash in on it. What many of the naysayers would also mention is that if a competent director used it to add to the storytelling, it could be a fantastic tool.Obviously, Jackson is taking advantage of that, and not just to boost ticket sales.

    Now this is a bit of a parallel to your aversion to digital, but I haven’t had enjoyable experiences with digital books.I can’t see print being replaced completely with the devices available. Granted, the only digital reading I’ve done has been on my phone, which is in no way ideal, but the tactile sensation of holding a book is as much to the experience as the words on the page. I hope film purists stay around for decades to come and companies remain to satisfy their needs, just as I hope books and bookstores have product lives after digital books overcome their shortcomings.

  2. Attack of the Clones was the movie Lucas used to push the digital projectors. Sony didn’t have the CineAlta camera ready until part-way into the production of The Phantom Menace, and so the movie was only partially digital, whereas Attack of the Clones was entirely digital.

    3D is tricky. Studios are definitely trying to cash in on the format. Most of the people in charge of forcing the 3D movement are tasteless jerks who are just trying to ride the brief profit wave, and make a couple bucks. These people have no interest in becoming any good at 3D cinema, and they will ruin any chance 3D has to become legitimate.

    For my part, I would say I don’t like 3D. Currently, it takes away much more from the experience of a film than it adds. 3D on film is a definite mistake. The effort required to sync cameras is insane, as is the bulk of the system required. I hate wearing the 3D glasses in the theater, and I hate the reduction of brightness and color necessitated by 3D viewing systems. I doubly hate the effect a 3D projector has on standard 2D cinema:

    That said, Peter Jackson’s set up looks like a serious effort to compensate for the short-falls of 3D, as well as a decent attempt to advance the technology. I love the mirror idea, and the ability to change the depth effect mid-shot. In-shot depth change should be made by someone of taste, though. I can see it getting out of hand very quickly. Jackson’s taste is dubious, but in the hands of a skilled filmmaker, Scorsese, perhaps, its use might be subtle and extremely effective.

    Jackson’s use of 48 fps is also really interesting. Ebert has been championing a 48 fps film system called Maxivision for years. I’ve seen some of their footage. The internet isn’t the best place to make a comparison like that, and so I can’t say much about Maxivision, but I can comment on 30 and 60 fps. Since 48 fps is in between those two, I might be able to form some solid speculation.

    I don’t like the way 30 fps looks. It reminds me of television, and television reminds me of crap. It looks fake, and it lowers the impression of the production quality.

    24 fps is something I am incredibly used to seeing, and it reminds of film, of the theater, and the grand art of cinema. And the more I research into TV, the more I find that my favorite shows were shot on film, at 24 fps. Oddly enough, HDTV has gone a long way to support 35mm and the 24 fps format.

    60 fps is its own thing. It’s incredibly smooth, and for stuff like sports, it looks great. I wouldn’t take it away from a narrative filmmaker, but I don’t know if its something I’d want to use, just yet. Maybe someday. Even so, it’ll require a projector that is capable of projecting at 60 fps, which really shouldn’t be a problem, especially with a digital projector.

    Since 48 fps is exactly double 24 fps (go ahead and check my math,) my guess is that the 48 fps is being used to compensate for choppy motion in 3D cinema. It is probably also an attempt to save some color, brightness, and the headache of conflating two projected images. Perhaps the more images which are up on screen at one time will reduce the effort the mind has to put forth to jump from one frame to the next.

    Perhaps. I’m really curious to see how it works, anyway.

    As for digital books, I’m totally on board. It took me about a month to fall in love with my Nook Color, and it’s not even an e-ink display.

    I don’t want to read every book I own on the Nook. The Nook isn’t a perfect replacement for standard books. I do like holding a book, I like the smell of a book, etc.. but honestly, I’ve come to realize that the physical sensation of reading a book is easily overcome by the quality of the book that you are reading. A good book is a good book, no matter the format.

    For school and study I need the immediacy of a physical book. It is not nearly as simple to thumb-through a digital book. I cannot have two digital books open at one time, if I need to compare passages. It is much easier to lend a physical book than it is a digital book (unless you steal the digital book.)

    But, a digital book offers everything else a standard book offers. I like having both formats. I really don’t like the battle between the two formats. There is no reason that we can’t use both.

    In cinema, the issue of projection is huge. If a theater doesn’t want to invest in both types of projectors, they have to chose: digital or film, and that decision will prevent them from showing certain movies, which may or may not be to the detriment of the theater. Since having more than one type of projector is a pain in the ass, and requires a real technician to operate, it is not viable for most theaters.

    The distribution issue is not at all that complicated for books. A regular person is perfectly able to buy a physical book AND a digital book. They can read the book on their computer or their e-reader, or they can read the physical book at their computer or in the same chair where they read their e-book. It shouldn’t be a competition; and since the production of e-books is so tiny, there is no good reason that one format should be out to kill the other.

    And reading on your phone totally doesn’t count.

  3. Watching the clip of Jackson and Co. at work, the issue of brightness and color dampening popped into my head and I started paying attention to the light setup and the adjustments to color they were making. The timing of my thoughts and then their explanation of compensating for the downfalls was uncanny.

    I’ve heard about the differences in fps used in various formats, but without looking up the numbers I wouldn’t know specifics. The differences are pretty stunning though. I’m not a fan of 3D, the glasses are a pain in the ass and I wear glasses regularly. They fit over my regular frames, but they are still cumbersome. I’ve only seen a few movies in 3D, but watching Toy Story 3 in 3D was great. However, great use of 3D is so much easier for animated films. I’m very curious how The Hobbit will turn out too, because LotR was such a visually stunning film (With the abundance of CGI in the film, one could argue that it was animated in a way.).

    I haven’t seen any video games played in 3D, other than a 3DS display at Target. I’d love to see it, but don’t want to have to pour money into the peripherals.

    I’ll try reading another e-book someday on a proper device. However, I’ll still be stubborn and hold on to the paper as long as I can.Just to be a dick.

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