We all know that Hollywood often chooses RED cameras, especially for mainstream blockbuster films, but what about using a state-of-the-art (more about this later) RED WEAPON 6K camera on shoots that are decidedly much smaller in scale with a minimal crew? RED cameras have been used on a considerable amount of documentaries, as well as narrative features. How would a $50,000 RED camera perform on a minimally crewed, run-and-gun-style documentary shoot? A small-crew promo video shoot for an NPR station?I shoot a lot of behind-the-scenes and EPK footage on popular TV shows and features, and typically, when I see a camera like a RED WEAPON 6K being deployed, the fully rigged-out camera resembles something out of one of the Transformer films. The camera is typically mounted to a baseplate and/or shoulder mount. Rods extend from the front of the camera and are equipped with lens supports to cradle heavy cine lenses, a swing-away matte box and either a manual follow-focus, or more often these days, a full FIZ set. FIZ stands for Focus, Iris and Zoom, and there are often three small motors around all three corresponding FIZ controls on the lens. The 1st and sometimes 2nd ACs use remote FIZ controllers to set the camera’s frame, exposure and focus remotely. The rear of the camera is often equipped with another set of rods that support a spare brick battery, often an onboard monitor for the operator, wireless video transmitters, a time-code lock box and a plethora of other camera support devices.
The end result often ends up weighing upwards of 30 to 40 pounds. The overall camera rig also exponentially increases in size and length. If you examine the bare RED WEAPON body, it’s actually quite small and relatively light, especially the carbon-fiber body version I evaluated. But by the time the camera is fully rigged for crew-served television production, the actual size of the camera becomes irrelevant because all cameras end up being relatively large and heavy when weighed down with all of the auxiliary gear needed by crews today for professional television or feature production.
I wanted to try the RED WEAPON 6K a bit out of its element on some small two- and three-person-crew shoots that my company produced over the past few weeks.
What’s The Big Deal About The RED WEAPON?
The WEAPON uses the RED DRAGON sensor. It’s a 19.4-megapixel S35 CMOS imager with 6144 x 3160 effective pixels. RED rates the imager at 16.5+ stops of dynamic range. What sets the WEAPON apart from 4K cameras on the market is that it can record full 6K format at up to 75 fps, 4K at up to 120 fps and 2K at up to 240 fps. The camera operates from a 2:1 compression ratio, all the way to a 22:1 compression ratio using RED’s proprietary REDCODE RAW acquisition format. The camera is also capable of recording in Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD formats at the same time the camera records in REDCODE.
The RED DRAGON sensor, until recently, was RED’s top-of-the-line imager. But in 2016, RED introduced the HELIUM 8K S35 imager, besting the DRAGON’s 6K imager with an 8K S35 imager. In the time I was reviewing the 6K WEAPON, RED introduced the MONSTRO imager, an 8K full-frame imager. You can never say that RED is satisfied with whatever their current technology is. I’m looking forward to reviewing the HELIUM 8K imager, but as a recent convert from 1080-only cameras like the Canon EOS C100/C300 to shooting with 4K cameras like the Sony FS7 and Canon ESO C300 Mark II, shooting 6K sounded intriguing.
Going Against the Flow
Unlike the way most users rig their RED cameras, I used the most minimalist setup I could configure. Since I already own a full set of Canon EF mount lenses, I requested the RED to be equipped with a Canon mount instead of a PL mount. Since I planned on using the camera for a run-and-gun shoot on a documentary I’m currently producing, I wanted to keep the camera’s footprint and weight to a minimum. Most PL mount zoom lenses are large, heavy beasts, and I didn’t want to have to carry around the extra weight.
I also utilized the DSMC2 RED Touch 7.0” LCD and equipped it with a sunshade, as I knew we would be doing at least one shoot outdoors in bright daylight at the beach. My kit also included three RED V-Mount batteries, a two-bay quick charger and two 512 GB RED Mini Mags.
WEAPON Shoot Number One
The first shoot up for the RED WEAPON was a promotional shoot I was hired to do for a local NPR station. We had two different crews—one set up in a conference room, shooting sit-down interviews with the station talent, while the second crew was to concentrate on shooting beautiful B-roll of the talent at work, in the studio on the mic, shots of the newsroom in action, story meetings and the like. The B-roll footage was a combination of handheld footage mixed with some smooth tripod moves of various employees participating in meetings, going through their normal workday. The station actually had decent quality of lighting in most, but not all of the common areas, with large, round LED ceiling panels that actually output a decent, relatively soft, directionless light.
The challenge was that the actual light levels weren’t very high throughout many of the areas that we were shooting in. With the introduction of their newest sensors, the RED DRAGON 6K sensor is no longer positioned as RED’s best low-light, available-light tool. To see what it was capable of, we raised the camera ISO level up to 1600 for some scenes and even up to 2000 for others. This brought out a decent amount of grain in the image, which we could see even in the 7.0” RED touch screen. The colorimetry still looked good. Even at these higher ISO levels, but overall, the images seemed grainier than I would like, although the image still had good contrast and punchy colors. Of course, with the RED RAW format, you can shape and manipulate the RAW image however you would like in post, although processing time can be a challenge without using RED’s ROCKET-X. Optimized for the 6K RED DRAGON sensor, this product is designed to accelerate the .R3D (REDCODE) workflow. RED ROCKET-X allows for direct 4K playback and works with 6K files faster than real time.
We also simultaneously recorded 4K ProRes with a Rec. 709 LUT applied in-camera so our editor would have something to put into the rough cut, as processing all of the REDCODE files would just add time to an already short deadline. Overall, the images looked good, although they did require the application of noise reduction through DaVinci Resolve 14 in order to clean up the excess grain in the image. It appears that the RED DRAGON 6K imager is more designed for well-lit scenes than available light, which makes sense since the camera was predominantly engineered for narrative filmmaking where you almost always light your scenes.
WEAPON Shoot Number Two
The second project we were to shoot with the WEAPON was footage for a documentary film my company is producing on women’s Hawaiian outrigger racing. We were scheduled to shoot some interviews with two of the competitors who are featured in our film. This shoot would be crewed by just my co-producer and myself. We purposely chose a difficult exposure situation, our talent standing in front of some of the club’s boats in the beach with an ocean bay behind her with strong, side-lit lighting cutting across to her side and behind her. We wanted to test the 16.5+ stops of dynamic range that RED claims for the DRAGON imager.
In shooting, it was easy to determine correct exposure using RED’s on-screen histogram/waveform and zebras, but frankly, what we saw in the RED’s 7.0” touch screen didn’t look that great; it looked a bit washed out.
We knew that if we processed the image correctly in REDCINE-X, RED’s RAW development and processing application, that we could coax out more latitude from the image than appeared on our screen. We played around with various raster sizes and frame rates as we shot, curious to see the quality of the slow-motion shots. I’ve been told that the typical default compression ratio is 8:1, but even at 22:1, the maximum compression ratio, the REDCODE RAW signal still retains more color space than ProRes HQ.
Upon returning to my office, downloading and processing the footage, we were pleasantly surprised at how much latitude the images retained and how good the variable frame rate footage shot at 120 frames looked. To a point, unless you’re pixel peeping, you can maximize shooting time by manipulating and changing the compression ratio. As to whether or not the resulting compression artifacts are noticeable to you or not will depend upon many factors—lighting, noise levels and other mitigating concerns.
The RED WEAPON’s basic menu system was fairly easy to use and simple to understand, allowing quick access to the most commonly used settings while allowing a deeper dive into the menus to access less commonly used functions. Many DPs and ACs that I know and work with sometimes seem alienated with RED’s menu structure, being more familiar with the straightforward menu design of other cameras. I wouldn’t say the RED menus and controls are any more or less complex than many other popular camera systems, but they’re different and kind of unique to RED and the RED way of doing things.
An example would be black shading. On my Canon cameras, it’s a simple process of accessing the ABB (auto black balance) menu setting; the actual black balance usually takes about 45 seconds. On the RED WEAPON, to do a full black shading that would be effective for all frame rates, it took the camera a full hour. There’s a quicker way of doing the black shading, but that method supposedly isn’t as effective as the full, one-hour black shading process. That seems to be a recurring theme with the RED WEAPON; there are many recommendations on many ways to do things with the camera, how to set it up and calibrate items. This factor, to me, means that the RED WEAPON is better suited to higher-end productions where you would typically have a camera prep day with your ACs to work out all of these various settings and factors.
I very much enjoyed my time shooting with the RED WEAPON. Shooting 6K footage gives you a lot of framing choices, the images look superb, and the camera is a mechanical work of art—it feels solid and special. The carbon-fiber body is simple and functional. All of the accessories feel like they used to with film cameras, solid and robustly built. There are several ways to configure any RED camera and many different accessories. From another viewpoint, though, to me, a camera system like this is more at home when it’s supported and prepped by assistant camera operators on larger-budget narrative, commercial and music video projects. This camera wouldn’t be my first choice for run-and-gun documentary or behind-the-scenes filmmaking. The WEAPON’s ergonomics allow you to cradle it with a side handle and shoot or, of course, use it tripod-mounted or shoulder-mounted, but its shoebox, square form factor isn’t the most ergonomically pleasing shape to try to mount on your shoulder.
Of course, the final factor, for me, for the RED WEAPON is its price tag. The Brain alone retails for $49,500. A bare-bones package with just basic accessories retails for $64,645, putting the camera into the rarefied air of rental houses and major studios. The camera makes images that are beautiful; it’s a nicely engineered, solid piece of gear. For the majority of projects that I shoot myself and produce, though, this camera is overkill. Can the WEAPON be used for small-budget projects without a camera support crew? Yes, it’s surprisingly usable for a single, documentary shooter. And for certain higher-budgeted and bigger-profile projects, this camera is perfect. In my mind, though, the RED WEAPON is most at home on a narrative, Hollywood film set, shooting blockbuster features with name-brand, big stars. That’s where its images shine the most, when you can properly light and compose beautiful images.
Flavors Of RAW—RED Vs. Canon: Is shooting RAW the great equalizer?
I recently spent a few weeks shooting with a state-of-the-art RED WEAPON 6K camera package. This is the same camera that has been used on countless Hollywood features, TV shows, music videos, commercials and documentaries.
The WEAPON 6K is known for its outstanding imagery with its ability to record images in RED’s proprietary REDCODE RAW format.
High End Vs. Low End. On some of the same shoots where I recently used the $50,000 RED WEAPON 6K, I shot side by side using Canon’s new $7,500 EOS C200 Cinema camera, which also shoots a new RAW format Canon has introduced called Cinema RAW Light. Like REDCODE, the Canon is a compressed RAW format and operates at an approximate 5:1 compression ratio, reducing the amount of data throughput and storage required to approximately 1 Gbps. Unlike Canon’s fixed 5:1 compression that the user can’t adjust, the RED WEAPON 6K allows the operator to choose the compression ratio the camera uses, from a 2:1 compression ratio to a 22:1 compression ratio.
The question arose during my testing about how much visual difference would be seen between the C200’s Cinema RAW Light images and the RED WEAPON’s 6K images. All things being identical or at least close (subject, exposure, compression ratio, lens choice), would Canon’s version of RAW vary significantly from RED’s version of RAW? This was a very unscientific test, really more of a real-world casual observation rather than a test with carefully controlled lighting in a studio with charts and measurements but, nonetheless, it was interesting to observe the differences and similarities between the two cameras, each shooting RAW.
RAW Development Interfaces. RED’s REDCINE-X PRO software offers a lot more control over the image than Canon’s RAW Development software. With the RED images, you can manipulate the images in dozens of different ways, applying custom LUTs, and manipulating pretty much every image parameter, versus Canon’s RAW Development software, which at this point in time is more limited, and you can pretty much only change white balance, brightness, color space and gamma. It isn’t known yet if Canon will expand on other image parameters in their own software or allow the editing software developers to do so.
The Difference In Image? In my experience, the RED images offered more color information than the Canon images and, obviously, at 6K, offered more raster size to play with in re-framing. Meanwhile, the C200 images did hold up pretty impressively, although the RED images seem to be a bit more cinematic to my eye, if that’s a valid term. It’s impressive that, in 2017, a $7,500 camera can at least create images that begin to approach the quality level offered in a $50,000 digital cinema camera. I hope that Canon increases the parameters that can be manipulated in post with their Cinema RAW Development and with AVID, BMD, Apple and Adobe.
In the meantime, the RED images, at identical compression ratios as the Canon footage, seem to offer more color information to work with, and the RED images looked great, but honestly, so did the Canon images. I didn’t have time to explore the dozens of image parameters offered in the REDCINE-X PRO software, but it’s clear that the RED WEAPON 6K is one of the top two or three professional digital cinema camera systems on the market, in no small part due to its well-tested and smartly designed RAW workflow.
Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.