Totally Epic: the red-volution continues

RED is back with the Epic. Due to the ambitious nature of the camera, compounded by the Japanese tsunami, delays were had, but that’s only added to the anticipation. Daniel Graetz gives the Epic a 360 degree analysis.

Back in late 2009, the RED Digital Cinema Company unveiled plans for Epic, the successor to its revolutionary RED One Digital Cinema Camera. In the last few months a small number of handmade Epic bodies have been released to early adopters as well as feature film productions such as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, and a rumoured 50+ units to James Cameron for a possible Avatar follow-up.

We were fortunate enough to receive one of the first units in Queensland and I can honestly say the wait has been more than worth it. RED has managed to reduce the camera size by more than 50 per cent, while delivering increased resolution and higher frame rates. Importantly, the startup time of the Epic has been reduced to nine seconds from a previous 50 seconds, from pushing the power button to being record-ready. In its smallest configuration, the Epic is about the size of a Hasselblad medium format body, and can be operated with one hand. In this configuration the camera records to compact SSD modules, and is powered by a small battery in the handgrip (or alternatively by an external RED brick). The camera can still be built up to a larger production unit by snapping on modules that are in the process of being released. These modules will include hot-swap large cell battery modules, input-output modules including a wide range of audio, video and timecode/sync options, and an interesting H.264 proxy module. Operators or assistants can also control most of the camera’s settings and functions wirelessly using the REDmote, which docks with the camera when not in use.

Cinema meets photography
Epic falls under RED’s new Digital Stills and Motion Capture (DSMC) initiative, which connects the worlds of digital cinema and photography. The operator can move between full motion video and stills mode with a simple slider located under their index finger on the side grip. Fashion photography icons such as Annie Liebovitz and Greg Williams are already embracing this new paradigm, running full motion video where they would normally shoot stills then selecting individual frames in post. The side handle includes flash sync ports for connecting to light triggering devices. RED will shortly release Canon and Nikon mounts for the Epic, allowing for electronic focusing by simply tapping on a face on the camera’s touch screen. These mounts should also create an interesting bridge between high-end digital cinema and the burgeoning DSLR video market with its wide range of affordable lens options. Leaders of the DSLR revolution such as Vincent Laforet and Phillip Bloom have already taken delivery of Epic systems and are effusive in their praise of the camera’s capabilities.

The Epic shoots up to 5K of resolution (6xHigh Definition) or the equivalent of 14megapixels at up to 120 frames per second (or up to 300fps at 2K). The small form factor of the body opens up new possibilities for lightweight 3D (stereoscopic) production, putting mirrored or even side-by-side rigs in places they could never previously go. The Hobbit, The Amazing Spiderman and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus are three of several major Hollywood 3D features currently shooting with dual-Epic rigs. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful will soon commence stereoscopic Epic principal photography.

One of the most exciting breakthroughs is the HDRx feature which extends the dynamic range of the camera to 19 stops – surpassing the range of 35mm film and letting cinematographers hold detail in bright highlights and dark shadows simultaneously. Epic carries the same MX sensor as the Red One, providing 13 stops of DR even before HDRx is employed. By comparison the Arri Alexa provides an impressive 13.5 stops of dynamic range but as yet doesn’t provide the option of the additional six stops of highlight 
protection that HDRx gives. Epic achieves this by simultaneously recording an ‘X-track’ biased towards the highlights of a scene. This X-track can then be blended back into the image in post, restoring highlights that would otherwise be blown out in the case of even 35mm film.

The impossible shot
HDRx is in its infancy, and could be one of the most significant imaging breakthroughs in recent years, but it does raise questions regarding post production. Since the early days of the RED One cameras there have almost been too many ways to approach post workflow, and in many cases we see RED footage passed straight through the post pipeline without the full potential of the digital negative being realised. Arguably the most revolutionary aspect of RED’s digital cinema system is the REDCODE codec. Not only does this allow for extremely high resolution imagery to be recorded at relatively small data rates, it also brings RAW power to the post workflow. In the same way that a photographer shoots RAW and gets the most out of their imagery in the computer after the day’s shoot, RED footage rarely reaches its full potential without accessing the RAW data after filming and performing ‘onelight’ colour corrections (to use 35mm film parlance). This is especially the case when shooting with HDRx – the benefits of which do not show up on the monitor while filming – but only once in the edit bay where a colourist or DIT can choose a blend point between the X-track and the ‘normal’ recorded image. Australian RED pioneer Mike Seymour recently demonstrated the ‘Impossible Shot’ with an Epic mounted on the bonnet of a car traveling from inside a tunnel, out to midday sun. By making two HDRx outputs in post (one for the shadows and one for the highlights) and then essentially cross-fading them as the car exits the tunnel, they were able to seamlessly resolve a shot that would have been impossible with a single camera.

When the first RED Ones arrived, many production companies (especially in short form production) employed data wranglers to back up digital footage, yet often at the expense of a clapper/loader/2nd AC. Our RED specialists often found themselves needing to perform the tasks of a 2nd AC rather than maximising the potential of the RAW footage. We’ve been making an effort in recent times to re-educate our clients and demonstrate the cost savings that can be found in post-production when a Digital Imaging Technician is able to spend time on set, creating looks with the DP, verifying data integrity, performing one-light grades and even creating offline and/or online quality transcodes of RED footage for use in Avid or Final Cut suites.

Essentially, the Epic only reaches its full potential with a holistic approach to filmmaking. The most successful adopters of RED maintain as much knowledge of the post pathway as they do of the camera’s capabilities on set. That said, the Epic is still evolving. We see new firmware updates released every few weeks that address issues and open up new and surprising capabilities in the camera system.

The last four years have seen a massive shift in the way we capture the moving image. With revolutionary cameras such as the Epic and Arri’s Alexa offering terrific options for capturing filmic imagery without prohibitive stock and processing costs. It’s also exciting to see the places a compact unit like RED’s Epic might appear in future productions. We’ve already found angles and mounting options we never thought would be possible – and we’ve only just begun.

Dan Graetz is Director of Graetzmedia,


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