Digital SLRs and Arri Alexa bite into RED's market

When budding filmmaker Lena Dunham was looking for an affordable camera system to shoot her new movie, “Tiny Furniture,” she was pleased to find out that her editor, Lance Edmands, already had Canon’s then-new EOS 7D — the latest Canon still camera that can shoot HD video — available for her use. Her d.p., Jody Lee Lipes, was excited about the technology, she said.

But when asked today what he liked most about using the 7D compared with film or another digital camera, Lipes commented simply, “I don’t like anything about it better. It’s not a format that I’m happy with or that I would ever want to use again.” For their next project together, a pilot for HBO, Dunham and Lipes moved to the Red One digital camera.

Indie filmmakers and others seeking to find a way to shoot low-budget projects and stay within their means have, for the last several years, been turning to the Red, which, at $25,000, is significantly more affordable than bigger studio-quality cameras, such as the Panavision Genesis, Sony F23 or Viper Filmstream. But other systems, such as DSLRs — including the Canons — and Arri’s new Alexa, are posing a challenge.

For filmmakers, though, the choice isn’t clear. As Lipes noted, what may look like a cost-effective way to get production rolling may not turn out to be what a director needs to get the job done. On the other hand, spending more on a higher-grade system can eventually push acquisition costs above the budget, especially when the costs of additional essential gear required or more expensive post-production are figured in.

“You have to realize, you get what you pay for,” said cinematographer and Intl. Cinematographers Guild president Steven Poster. “But there are uses for all of them.”

‘A big look’

Image quality has never been an issue with Canon’s DSLRs, particularly with the 5D, whose image sensor is about the same size as a VistaVision frame and twice the size of that of the 7D.

“The difference with the Canon cameras, in terms of pure chip technology, in pure color science, is Canon’s had a lot more time developing their color science for still photography,” explained Poster, who used the cameras on a recent project. “I started seeing the Canon footage come back, and I started saying, ‘You know, I could match this to the Red (footage), and I could use it as the main camera.”

The Red One also has fans — as well as detractors — in terms of its image. D.p. Frank G. DeMarco shot Nicole Kidman drama “Rabbit Hole” with the Red, and also used the system on a new, small-budget film, “Margin Call.”

“It was necessary,” he said. “It’s an affordable way to shoot a movie and give it a big look. In the past, you would shoot Super 16 or some crappy video, and it would just not look right. Now you can get a big look.”

But DeMarco also discovered that qualities of the Red image aren’t right for every project, including “Rabbit Hole.” “I would have preferred to shoot that on film. The Red isn’t kind to women — it has a harshness to it.” Upon viewing test footage, he said, Kidman herself observed, “?’It’s kind of harsh, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘Yes, it is.’

“I ended up getting around that by using some 30-year-old lenses I had that weren’t as sharp. But it picked up freckles on Nicole that you can’t see with the naked eye — Nicole Kidman does not have freckles.”

Poster found a similar issue with the camera. “There’s something about the chip that makes skin quality look very plastic,” he said. He had hoped Red’s upgraded image sensor, its Mysterium-X, would solve that problem, but he said, “I find the new chip as unpleasing as I found the old chip.”

Jellovision blues

DSLR users and some Red One users have found the cameras have a problem recording fast motion, such as in whip-pans or fast-moving subjects. The CMOS image sensors, found in both SLR cameras and most nonstudio digital cameras, such as the Red and Alexa, use “rolling shutters” that expose and refresh the image on the chip line by line. “It made, like, a stuttering or a ‘Jello’-like image,” says Lipes, of test footage shot for “Tiny Furniture.” (CCDs, used in image sensors on higher-end cameras, record the image all at once and so don’t have this issue.)

The solution, said Canon’s Chuck Westfall, is to plan ahead. The “Jellovision” problem is a “characteristic of CMOS sensors. So the best way to overcome it, in terms of trying to prevent it, is to try to reduce as much as possible shots that would involve a whip-pan or other fast motion.”

Dunham said, “We were fine with that, because our film was mostly pretty talky, without a lot of movement anyway.” But, added DeMarco, “The camera’s telling you not to have motion in the motion picture. That’s not what an artist wants to hear.”

Some filmmakers have noted that the Red One also had a “Jellovision” issue with its CMOS sensor, though certainly not to the degree found in a DSLR. Red’s Ted Schilowitz calls it “basically a non-issue.” He acknowledged that while the problem does appear in whip-pan moves, “It’s not visually objectionable most of the time. People just know what it is, and it’s accepted.”

James Mathers, cinematographer and president of the Digital Cinema Society, added, “I like the Red. I’ve shot seven complete feature films as well as a number of TV series with the Red, and I’ve never had an objectionable problem having to do with the rolling shutter.”

Schilowitz also said that the company’s new Epic camera, though it has a CMOS sensor and rolling shutter, features a shutter nearly as fast as that of a film camera. The Epic already has drawn much attention from filmmakers, particularly from Peter Jackson, who has ordered 30 of the cameras for shooting his upcoming 3D two-part feature “The Hobbit.”

Alexa the great?

Another camera that has quickly garnered a great many fans, particularly for its ability to provide an affordable cinema-like camera image (both for indie shows and big features alike) is the Arri Alexa.

“It’s Alexa vs. the World,” says d.p. Dick Pope, who recently wrapped Richard Linklater’s upcoming film, “Bernie,” using the Alexa. “No question about it, the camera’s a revolution. It’s completely changed everything,” added the first-time digital user, who was won over from film at first just by the Arri name itself. “It’s got a look that’s so akin to film, it’s uncanny – skin tones, landscapes, whether you’re inside or outside.”

With 13 stops of exposure latitude, the camera’s sensor is able to pick up a wide range of highlights and shadows, even within a single frame.

“It’s phenomenal in low light,” said Bryan Carroll, who teamed with director Michael Mann on all of his features from “Ali” through “Public Enemies,” and who now, as an independent producer, is shooting a documentary with the Alexa. “We shot tests, kicking a soccer ball through trees, between bright and shaded areas, with five or six stops between them. It looked great.”

Cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, who uses the Alexa on ABC’s “No Ordinary Family,” had a similar experience. “We hardly ever use any fill lights on our sets; just work a lot with practicals. I often walk on the set and am amazed at how dark it is,” said Bokelberg. “The Alexa sees more than the eye does, which is quite fantastic.”

The menus are also simplified on Alexa. “I can change the ASA setting myself, without our digital imaging technician,” said Bokelberg. “Any changes we have to make are done in seconds.” Added Carroll, “I was up and running in 30 minutes with that camera. It’s quite simple to use.”

While the consensus from users is that the Alexa appears to be a new favorite, there is no right camera for everything, and there’s more to come. Both Sony and Panasonic have what some call “DSLR killers” in the pipeline — single sensor cameras that offer the low cost and many of the features of DSLRs without as many of the drawbacks. And Red’s continuing improvements to its camera — including an upgraded sensor, its Mysterium-X — make it viable for both small and large budget features, attractive to a wide variety of filmmakers.

DSLRs, along with any lower-cost camera, do one job they’re intended for — to get people making films. Said Poster, “Anything that gets good images, cheap and easy — I’m all for.”

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