A Monumental Change
Just recently, an amazing thing happened to me. Not one, not two, but three different clients within a two-week period requested that we shoot their project in 4K RAW. Big deal you say? It actually is a big deal and in this blog, I’m going to focus on why this represents an actual global mind shift, at least for our clients. Frankly, compared to the feedback we were getting before this on what formats our clients wanted us to shoot, the whole thing has left me feeling like I’m living in a parallel universe. It’s like that Seinfeld episode where Elaine meets three doppelgangers for Jerry, George and Kramer who are the same yet completely different in attitude and actions (if you can’t tell, I’m a Seinfeld fan and go through life assuming that most other people in Western Civilization have also watched the show, weird, huh?) In the episode, Jerry tells Elaine about the existence of a Bizarro world where everything is the opposite of the reality that you know.
A Change of Attitude
For years, I’ve been trying to convince our clients of the value in shooting their projects in RAW. When I shoot still photography, I have been shooting RAW files for as long as I could remember but for video, shooting RAW, until fairly recently, was an expensive endeavor in both budget and time. It’s still is to a point, but the bar has been rapidly falling as media costs, storage costs and computers and editing software become more and more common. Our clients mostly have clients who are the studios in the PR/Marketing and Home Entertainment departments and even today, most of these clients are very conservative as far as preferring 1080 over 4K or anything greater resolution. We typically shoot a bunch of long interviews for these clients’ projects. A good portion of this footage is shot green screen, so I’ve been trying to get our clients to move to shoot RAW, especially for when we shoot green screen.
Which of these two formats that our camera shoots do you think would be better for shooting great green screen footage?
- XF-AVC – UHD (3840×2160) 8-bit 4:2:0 shot at 160 Mbps.
- Cinema RAW Light – DCI (4096×2160) 12-bit 4:2:2 shot at 1 Gbps.
As an editor who occasionally composites, the 12-bit footage would allow for pulling much cleaner and smoother composites without a doubt.
The Cost Is Considerable
There’s a considerable cost to shoot RAW footage though. That cost can be broken down into two categories, media and editing/archival storage cost and time.
To give you an idea of the media costs that it takes to shoot RAW, of course, it varies with the camera. On the high end, cameras like the Panasonic Varicam 35, the Canon C700FF, the RED lineup and the Arri lineup are all capable of shooting RAW 4K and in some cases, up to 8K.
As an example, if you use the Canon C700FF, the add-on Codex RAW recorder costs you about $7,000. Plus, you need to add on another $7,000 per 2 TB storage drive. And don’t forget another $5,700 for the Codex drive reader. All in, you’ll pay an additional $20k-plus to shoot RAW on that camera. If we go down the line to the C700FF’s little brother, the C200, the economics to shoot RAW change considerably. The C200 shoots a fixed 5:1 compression ratio Cinema RAW Light format to CFast 2.0 cards. In the beginning, a little over a year and a half ago, these cards were pretty expensive, but since then, because there are now so many other cameras that can shoot the same cards, economies of scale have kicked in and you can buy a 256 GB CFast 2.0 card for as little as $149.
If I can buy a 256 Gb for $149, how long of a recording will that card hold? With it’s fixed data rate of 1 Gbps, the C200 will record 34 minutes of DCI 4K to the 256 GB card. A 256 GB SD card for the C200 won’t record 4K RAW, but it will let you record 4K (UHD) XF-AVC at 160 Mbps, but that recording will be 8-bit, not 12-bit and will not work very well for green screen compositing. The XF-AVC recording is 6.2X smaller than the CFast 2.0 recording though.
Time Isn’t On Your Side
One other thing you should consider is the time it takes to download and clone these RAW files. To shoot 34 minutes of XF-AVC, I can download the footage to a drive in about 3 to 4 minutes whereas 34 minutes of the Cinema RAW Light footage takes between 24 and 28 minutes on average. You can see how, if you’re shooting hours of long interviews in RAW, it’s easy to fall behind and possibly run out of cards to shoot to. This has been the other major factor that has, until recently, soured our clients on letting us shoot at least some of their projects in RAW.
A Change of Heart
I attribute a few factors to our clients’ recent change of heart about letting us shoot at least some of their projects in RAW. The first being that storage drive costs have continued to fall. We recommend the Seagate Backup Plus Hub 8 TB drives that have been available at Costco for as little as $129 on sale, less than $18 per GB, which is quite incredible. The drives are name brand, as reliable as anything else on the market and while not fast enough to serve as a good editing drives, they are an excellent value for storage drives to hold client footage. We always insist on a minimum of a double backup for all footage and highly recommend triple backups for crucial projects, with at least one set of media being stored at an alternate location from the main drive(s). The cost of storing RAW is now pretty minimal for clients.
The other big factor has been simply picture quality. We make sure to light green screen properly, but even with perfect lighting, pulling clean composites can be challenging with blonde hair, hair that’s thinning with the green screen shining through it, the view through lenses of glasses and other challenges like this. Having 12-bit 4K makes compositing much less of a problem-solving exercise as the 12-bit, when properly exposed, gives you an incredibly robust signal to work with. Clients have seen the value in better-quality footage and now seem to be willing to spend the extra time for us to shoot RAW, download it to their media and for the extra time it takes their assistant editors to convert the media to proxy for off-line editing.
As a cinematographer, shooting the best quality format and resolution makes me happy because it gives clients the most options to do what they need to with the footage. Shooting RAW makes clients happy because it results in fewer headaches with quality, being able to adjust white balance after the shoot and they can archive essentially what becomes a digital negative, just like we used to do with physical negatives in the days of shooting film. Shooting RAW isn’t the ultimate panacea for all problems, and it’s not right for every workflow, but it’s definitely worth considering if you’re trying to differentiate your work and the value you can add to clients, studios and distributors.