Canon C300 vs. The RED Scarlet-X – The Battle Begins
In recent years, RED and Canon have changed the professional and indie marketplace in ways never before imagined with industry giants Panavision and Kodak falling at the wayside of digital democratization. RED Digital Cinema first announced their RED ONE 4K digital cinema camera back in 2006 and although many cinematographers in the industry were at first skeptical of RED’s “4K” system, the RED ONE eventually delivered thousands of cameras to the marketplace in just a few short years. In 2011, we’re seeing major Hollywood blockbusters being shot with RED ONE and EPIC cameras by a who’s who of cutting edge directors, including David Fincher, Ridley Scott, Steven Soderbergh and Peter Jackson. Even more disruptive, the Canon 5D Mark II, released in 2008, was kind of a fluke in that Canon wanted to offer A.P. still photographers the ability to shoot video clips to go along with their high res stills. Little did Canon know that cinematographers would soon see the power of the VistaVision-sized sensor to create cinematic shallow depth of field at a fraction of the cost of high end digital or film equipment. It must be noted that the 5D Mark II and 7D nearly saved the video industry during a harsh recession by allowing anyone with a little bit of disposable income the opportunity to create a professional looking film. So on Thursday night (11/3), the two powerhouse companies made two huge announcements concurrently. And yes, the timing was not coincidental.
As a disclaimer, because the two events were held near simultaneously, I was only able to attend the Canon event so I might have a little more information on the Canon release. (Look for more detailed reviews of both camera systems in future issues of HDVP.)
EOS Cinema – A Red Carpet Affair
Canon held their big announcement at Paramount Pictures at 3 p.m. with RED holding their announcement less than a mile away at 5 p.m. At the beginning of the presentation, Canon managed to land legendary director Martin Scorsese to deliver his great stump speech on the importance of our Hollywood film history. (Another disclaimer: Scorsese only mentioned the word “Canon” once and we later learned that Canon made a generous donation to the Film Foundation he heads.)
For those of you who read HDVideoPro, I don’t have to explain the significance of the DSLR revolution since most of you are the ones who helped create it. Because of the revolution, Canon was perfectly positioned to release a large sensor video camera that could potentially create a second cottage industry of digital cinema cameras, lenses and 3rd party accessories from companies like Redrock Micro and Zacuto.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty of what Canon is calling EOS Cinema. They are basically releasing two identical systems with the exception of one containing a PL mount and the other containing an EF mount. The EOS C300/C300 PL contains a Super 35mm-sized CMOS sensor and records full 1920 x 1080 resolution to CF cards. The sensor measures 24.4×13.5 and is slightly larger than the APS-C sensor, which the Canon 7D and 60D employs. The camera uses the same excellent codec as the XF camcorder line, which is MPEG-2, 50Mbps, 4:2:2 color sampling and is far superior to the H.264 codec that DSLRs and large sensor camcorders like the Panasonic AF100 and Sony Fs-100U employ. In terms of frame rates, the C300 captures 59.41i, 50i, 29.97p, 25p and 23.98p, as well as a 24p mode that matches the 24 frame-per-second frame rate of film cameras for compatibility with film workflows.
Regarding the looks of the camera, like the RED EPIC, the C300 has sort of a medium format shape to it or even more so if you propped up a DSLR on its side. The camera has a viewfinder but also contains a unique LCD monitor that you can attach to the camera’s hot shoe or on a handle that attaches to the camera for raised viewing. The 4”, 1.23 megapixel LCD flips out and can be adjusted 270 degrees as well as give you playback controls. Canon also revealed an iPad app that will allow you to control certain functions of the C300. It sounds cool and hip, but I’m really wondering what use this will have.
The C300’s biggest selling point is its ability to shoot in low light while still maintaining clean images. It’s able to accomplish lower signal to noise because of the new DiG!c III DV processor combined with the newly designed CMOS sensor, which does not use typical debayering algorithms to readout individual RGB components. The C300 is also Canon’s first digital video camera to employ Canon Log, which like Sony’s S-Log or RED’s REDCODE RAW, gives you better tonal reproduction in the highlights and shadows. According to Canon, it maintains a total dynamic range of 800% or up to 12-stops. The filmmakers who created short films with the camera (Richard Crudo, ASC, Félix Alcalá, Sam Nicholson, ASC and Vincent Laforet), stated that they were getting not only usable, but virtually noiseless images at 16,000 ISO. In all honesty, I can’t say this was entirely true in terms of no noise in the images, but Laforet – the novice filmmaker on the panel – smartly conceded the importance of cinematography lighting.
Canon’s other big announcement is that they are releasing a series of cinema-style EOS Cinema Lenses that offer 4K optical performance. For zooms, Canon offers a wide-angle 14.5-60mm/T2.6 as well as a 30-300/T2.95-3.7. They will offer both PL and EF mount versions of the zooms. For people who want more speed, Canon is offering three prime lenses (EF mount only) – a 24mm/T1.5, a 50mm/1.3 and an 85mm/1.3. Since Canon is a top imaging company known for their quality optics in both the still and broadcast markets, their transition to cinema glass should be top notch. Pricing wasn’t available at the time but if they do deliver 4096×2160 lines of quality, don’t expect the cinema style lenses to be in the same ballpark as EF DSLR lenses. But you already knew that.
Wait, It Costs How Much?
Speaking of price, here’s where the evening got interesting. Canon kept the wraps on the price until the end of the presentation when one of the audience members casually asked the retail price and availability. Canon reps hesitantly revealed that although preliminary, both the PL and EF system would be approximately $20,000 and would be available in early 2012. Sighs of disappointment were noticeably heard in the theatre. This was the one point of the evening where I think Canon completely missed the mark. The Cinema EOS C300 looks to be a great motion picture camera but unless you own a production company or have a large trust fund, a $20K price point really puts the camera in the rental market rather than individual ownership. And if you’re a pro DP, I’m not so sure you’re going to pick this camera over an ARRI ALEXA or the new Sony F65 for studio movie production. In my opinion, if Canon would have developed a digital cinema camera priced at around $10K, they could have possibly turned RED’s lights out and cut off the heads of the F3, FS100U and AG-AF100 – all in one night. Canon did reveal that the C300 is the first of a series of cameras so we can be sure that this is only the beginning, especially with 4K just around the corner.
RED held their event at their RED Studios in Hollywood, which was the former home of the famous Ren-Mar studios where historic television shows like I Love Lucy, The Jack Benny Show, Seinfeld, etc., were filmed. It was obvious in what they were trying to do and I have no doubt that Canon was not pleased that RED was riding on their coat tails. The SCARLET, which has had a number of starts and stops, that many were wondering if it would ever come out at all. The camera was originally announced back in late 2008 but due to the 5D Mark II, it was quickly and wisely scrapped. Perhaps the biggest issue with the original SCARLET was its 2/3” lens mount. Not only was it a much smaller sensor than the 5D Mark II’s full frame sensor, but with it contained a lens mount that pretty much only caters to the ENG market.
Well the SCARLET is finally here, or as RED puts it, it’s all “grown up”. For a camera manufacturer that has been charged with arrogance, not to mention an off putting habit of knocking their competitors (Canon in particular), you’ll be pleasantly surprised that RED delivered a camera system for the indie market that will probably hurt and help Canon at the same time. So what is the SCARLET? In a nutshell, like the new EPIC and C300, the SCARLET is a small compact box shaped camera (think medium format, i.e. Mamiya, Hasselblad, etc.) that RED is marketing as both a hybrid still and video camera. It captures both 5K stills and 4K movies. RED has been recently promoting the fact that world renowned still photographers like Bruce Weber and Greg Williams have used RED EPIC cameras to shoot photo spreads for Vogue, Harpers Bizarre, and W Magazine.
I should point out that although I was not at the event, my editorial director, Chris Robinson, attended and revealed that the main difference between the EPIC and the SCARLET are data rates. According to Robinson, Jannard revealed at the announcement that RED has a surplus of chips built for the EPIC that have been bought and paid for, but spec out at lower performance that is necessary for the EPIC performance. He explained that these ASICs (Application-Specific Integrated Circuits) are essentially free for the company so the grown up concept for SCARLET ultimately came to have the same sensor as the EPIC with the same 4K motion and 5K still capability but with lower performance because of lower-spec ASICs.
The SCARLET’s sensor is a 14-megapixel Mysterium-X with a pixel array of 5120 x 2700. If you’re familiar with the RED system, you’re probably aware of their acquisition format, REDCODE RAW, as well as their 16-bit RAW processing. The biggest surprise for many about the RED SCARLET is that three out of the four packages are offering a Canon EF lens mount. This move is truly ironic since Canon is the company who has done the most damage to RED’s business with the majority of emerging pro filmmakers opting to buy boatloads of 5D Mark IIs and 7Ds due to the low entry price. RED CEO Jim Jannard never gets tired of bashing the DSLR’s problems with aliasing and moiré due to its inferior line skipping technology. But because of the DSLR’s price point, Canon has virtually controlled the indie market, as well some of the lower budget professional commercial and music video productions. With control of the indie camera market, Canon controls another important market for filmmakers and cinematographers – lenses. A staggering number that was floated out at the Canon announcement was over 70 million EF lenses have been sold. Jannard is no dummy and he knew he had to play ball with Canon.
The base SCARLET will retail for $9750 and with that priced to own point, it targets indie shooters who probably can’t afford to rent expensive PL lenses. In the indie game, the lens mount has become the make or break feature on a large sensor camera. RED made the correct decision – a decision that just bought the company more time to survive in the big leagues.
All in all, whoever came out on top, there was no denying that we’re truly living in an amazing time for digital filmmakers.