Scarlet Wars

I have to admit, I’m a little perplexed by the angry reaction within the HDSLR community regarding Jim Jannard’s recent snarky comments that the planned RED Scarlet will no longer be aimed at the prosumer market.

Sure, I suppose it’s annoying for the head of a camera company to lecture us about the pros and cons of using a less expensive, competing HDSLR.  I’m sure I would be similarly annoyed if the head of Audi gave me a hard time for buying a Hyundai, reminding me, again and again, that my acceleration sucked, my horse power was lacking, etc.  But I wouldn’t get angry about it.  I’d just shrug it off.

The more I think about this spat, the more it feels like much ado about absolutely nothing.  Who cares about any of this?  If Mr. Jannard wants to claim that the Scarlet, if and when it makes its long awaited appearance, will exceed the specs currently available on a Canon, Nikon, or Panasonic HDSLR, why should that get under anyone’s skin?

I’m honestly confused.  Isn’t RED ONE footage clearly better than 5DmkII footage?  Is this actually up for debate?  I loved the look of the House episode shot on the 5D, but, let’s face it, it was a little soft.  Not all the softness can be explained away by shallow depth of field.  Canon DSLR footage is not particularly crisp.

In my own work, this isn’t a huge problem.  The projects I deliver to clients are intended for the Web or DVD.  I do all my editing at 1280×720, so, technically, I’m working at 67% the size of my 7D’s source footage.   By now it’s pretty evident to everyone that the Canons aren’t shooting at a true 1920×1080 anyway.  What are they shooting at?  Not exactly sure.  They won’t say.  But it’s not 1920×1080.  And so, as soon as you shrink the footage to 67% its original size, it suddenly, miraculously, gains sharpness and clarity.  Then you can boost the sharpness in Final Cut or After Effects to achieve the look you’re after.

When using the 7D, I don’t concern myself with issues such as color depth either.  Whatever I’m doing at the 8-bits that the 7D provides seems to be working nicely.  One thing I’ve tested and chosen not to do with the 7D is shoot in the Super Flat picture style.  I know it’s popular, and has many adherents, but I’ve tried it and haven’t been convinced that removing color, contrast, whites, and blacks in the source footage just to go through the bother of putting them all back again in post is worth the effort.  Then again, as I mentioned, I shoot for Web and DVD delivery, and squeezing every last bit of dynamic range from the camera is not my top priority.

I don’t feel badly about the camera I use.  I don’t feel any impulse to apologize for using it.  But I’m acutely aware that it’s far from perfect.  Very, very far.

The situation seems to be improving, or so we’re being told, with the release of Panasonic’s GH2.  What can it do that the 7D can’t?  Well, it has an articulating screen, touch screen focusing, auto focus in video mode, and an electronic viewfinder that not only stays on while recording, but allows for an HDMI output signal to an external monitor at the same time.  The 7D can’t do any of this.

But should all filmmakers ditch the RED ONE, Panavision Genesis, or Silicon Imaging 2K, not to mention 35mm film cameras, and use the GH2 on all their future projects?  Of course not.  Is the GH2 in any way equal to a RED ONE?  Obviously not.  Why are people even debating this?

I don’t want to waste time stacking one camera’s specs against the other’s.  It’s silly.  If someone wants to shoot their next feature on a bunch of GH2s, I’m sure he will get a lot of great buzz on HDSLR sites, and I’m also fairly certain the footage will look superb.  But will it look like it was shot on film when projected in a theater?  Will it even look as good as something shot on a RED?  I highly doubt it.

But why only focus on the narrative side of the argument?  Let’s look at it from the opposite perspective as well.  Reality programming, news, and sports today are mostly shot on high-end HD cameras.  On a reality show, a DP doesn’t want shallow depth of field.  The subject and the environment always need to remain in focus.  There’s going to be zooming, and lots of it.  There’s going to be running around too, and no DP will abide excessive rolling shutter.  But no one is making the argument that HDSLRs should replace professional HD television cameras.  A broadcast HD camera such as the Panasonic AJ-HPX3700, with its 2/3″ sensor, 3-CCD chips, full 1080P, and 4:4:4 color sampling is a mighty expensive camera — a hell of a lot more expensive than the RED ONE actually.

And let’s not forget that the HD motorized zoom lenses available for these cameras are outrageously expensive, often costing more than the already pricey camera bodies themselves.  So why is all this anger being directed at RED?

Can we agree on one point? No one is stopping anyone from using any camera of their choosing.  No one.  There are no camera police.  99% of my corporate clients couldn’t care less what camera I use.  They don’t really pay much attention to shallow depth of field either.  If they notice it, and aren’t too distracted by it, they may find something nice to say about it.  But the majority of non-film people don’t appreciate soft focus all that much.

Filmmakers do notice depth of field, and the narrative directors I’m friends with aren’t inclined to dismiss HDSLR footage simply because it’s been shot on affordable equipment.  Many directors act like kids in a candy store anyway, and are likely to be amazed that a lightweight and affordable “gadget”  can produce such beautiful images.  On the other hand, they’re never going to compromise on such things as dynamic range, color depth, rolling shutter, video artifacts, moire, banding, or bitrate just so they can say they’re using an off-the-shelf camera.  An A-list director such as J.J. Abrams may be a huge fan of HDSLRs, and maybe he’ll even figure out how to incorporate them into future projects, but he’s not going to use one as his principal camera.  Not yet anyway.  (And, yes, I’m fully aware that Philip Bloom used a 7D on second unit shots for George Lucas’s Red Tails.  I’m absolutely not arguing whether or not these cameras can be used on big budget features, just that they’re not likely to replace more expensive cameras any time soon.)

Every piece of equipment at every budget level has drawbacks and workarounds.  Anyone who has worked with 35mm film cameras, and certainly 16mm or Super 16mm film cameras, knows that.  HDSLR users understand the drawbacks and workarounds of their own cameras as well as anyone.  I won’t list the drawbacks — boring — but I’ll go ahead and mention a few popular workarounds:

— To ensure proper focus, DPs can either use an external HDMI monitor, an LCD magnifier, or — a more recent development — an external, magnified, articulated HDMI electronic viewfinder.  Unfortunately, these options are all quite costly, and negate some of the benefits achieved from using less expensive equipment in the first place.

— To guard against excessive rolling shutter on HDSLRs, DPs often choose static set ups over quick pans and all the rest.  Lots and lots of static set ups.  The trend in movies over the past two decades has been away from locked-down shots, toward a more fluid, mobile, and oftentimes documentary aesthetic.  But the current crop of HDSLRs are not optimized for this style of shooting.  HDSLR movies, therefore, tend to favor static framing.

— To combat limited dynamic range, DPs can choose a Super Flat picture style on the Canons.  So, whereas in the past DPs working with film strove to create images that didn’t require color correction — that looked incredible with almost no modification in the lab — today some of the finest HDSLR DPs are shooting footage that looks pale, flat, and frankly a little sickly before it gets graded (rescued?) in post.

There are a million more workarounds.  I could literally go on for hours.  But when did we go from accepting these workarounds to actively defending them?  Isn’t that similar to the Stockholm syndrome, when hostages express warm feelings for their captors?

The Scarlet, if and when it finally hits the market, will have its own drawbacks and workarounds.  It will be more expensive than a typical DSLR.  Big drawback (though it will still probably cost less than Panasonic’s forthcoming AF100).  But keep in mind that professionals will attack it as well.  It can’t possibly produce images equal to the Epic.  No company can sell two products at wildly different price points that produce identical results.  There will be naysayers on both sides of the argument: those who say a Scarlet isn’t any better than a Canon or Panasonic DSLR, and those who say its image quality is not on par with its more expensive siblings.  In a way, it’s a lose-lose situation for the Scarlet.  It’s damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t.

So why are we getting so worked up about this?  Everyone, including Jim Jannard, but also his critics, could benefit from taking a step back from this argument and acknowledging that the right camera for the job is the camera you prefer at the price you can afford.

One day, if the thing finally makes an appearance, and it’s rocking out with a PL mount, a true 3K image, minimal rolling shutter, and a huge range of variable frame rates, then you can be damned sure I’ll try to get a deep-pocketed client to spring for a Scarlet rental package.  Until that day arrives, I’ll keep using my 7D, and, who knows, maybe I’ll even dive in and invest in the GH2.

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7 responses to “Scarlet Wars

  1. I have a friend who viciously maintains that the 7D is not only better than any camera I’ve rented, but actually goes so far as to claim that it’s flawless– I’ve brought up the above drawbacks, and other such as H.264 recording, but he maintains it’s godliness.

    I think DSLR users, for some reason, maintain a misguided brand loyalty that they refuse to admit. I mean, we all have our preferences, but as much as like Panasonic over Sony, I’ll still try out the Sony alternative to the AF100 when it comes out. It’s difficult for people to remember that they’re all just tools!

    • Great points. Thanks Zak. I don’t think any one can afford to get too hung up on brand loyalty these days. We use what we use because we can make money using it. If something else comes around that’s an improvement over what we’ve got, at a price we can still afford, I’m all for it. As Philip Bloom likes to say: your main investment is the glass, not the bodies. As long as I can use my lenses with whatever body I happen to be using, I’m happy.

  2. HI,

    just stumbled across your blog.. very interesting 🙂
    can i ask you for some tips regarding this post?

    I’ve waited for the SCARLET but these days it looks like at least a year or 2 to be made..
    so- as i am an indie run&gun kinda guy,with tendencies for shaky docu shooting,
    i have to carefully think about investing in the best budget Dslr at the moment.

    i havn’t used them until now, and considering investing in a GH1 or GH2.. (i prefer them over the canon’s)..
    mainly shooting with an old canon 50mm fd. keeping it simple.

    can you please give some input on the matter? mainly about all the recent info regarding the GH1 vs GH2.. (+ i live in PAL land)

    hope i’m not out of boundaries here…
    thanks 🙂

    • Hi Roei, for what it’s worth, I would say give the GH2 a try. There’s an option to get it with an inexpensive kit lens, which is probably a good way to get going. Your Canon lens won’t autofocus or autoexpose on anything but a Canon, so keep that in mind, but there are inexpensive adapters you can buy to attach a Canon EOS lens to a micro 4/3rds camera. The new Nikon D7000 also looks interesting, though no one has given it a proper video-related review yet. But the GH2 does look very promising. Let me know what you end up getting.

      • thanks for replying 🙂
        so you’re in favor of the GH2 over the GH13?
        i don’t think they would let people hack it..
        you’re saying the GH2 is a better option even without hacking?

        trying to find out about the D7000- but still no analyzing at the moment.
        though i read that it still lacks a lot of video features.

        i don’t worry about auto focus or exposure.. if it’s mainly for filming.

        the main thing that worries me is dealing with AVCHD…
        it seems as not really user friendly in terms of workflow…

        thanks !

      • If workflow is your main concern, then you should definitely have a look at the Canons, especially the new 60D. It’s easier to get from that codec into Final Cut. Regarding the GH1, I would say if you already owned one, you’d be fine, but getting one now that’s hackable is very hard (and still expensive). The GH2 shoots in native 24P, though I don’t think it shoots in native 25P. For PAL, I think the GH1 hack does allow for native 25P shooting, though, like I said, you may have trouble finding one now. There is no perfect camera, that’s for sure. You could hold off a bit to see what people are saying about the GH2, D7000, and 60D, to see which one is best for PAL. Regarding manual focus, that’s definitely the way to go, but remember that the hardest thing to do on an HDSLR is keep focus. It’s the thing that takes the most practice.

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