Cinematic Stockholm Syndrome: How One Cinematographer Learned to Stop Hating and Love the RED
Cinematographer Christopher T. Probst and I have been good friends for two decades. We originally met in Arizona and immediately connected as kindred spirits. We moved to Los Angeles together in 1995, where we shared a one-bedroom apartment with two other people (ah, the wondrous years of real artistic struggle in Hollywood) and we made our way up the food chain together. Probst worked as a camera assistant and I worked as an electrician. When we shot our own projects, Probst would be my 1st AC, and I would be his gaffer.
Today, my friend is one of the most prominent and sought after cinematographers in music videos and he’s making a significant splash in the commercial world. He has also added two feature films to his resume, Detention, written and directed by music video veteran Joseph Kahn, and Fire with Fire, with Josh Duhamel, Rosario Dawson and Bruce Willis.
Probst rose in popularity as a music video cinematographer right around the time that the RED ONE was rearing its venerable head in the marketplace and producers were chomping at the bit to work with the new technology.
RED positioned itself brilliantly, coming out as a high-end yet inexpensive camera and promising the world, almost literally. I could swear that I saw ads that if you bought a RED camera, you also got a small island in the South Pacific and a carrier jet to fly you there.
Facetiousness aside, RED’s brilliant marketing and market strategy put them squarely on the radars of all producers wanting to “save a buck” and, things started to change for cinematographers. Suddenly they were being hired for “RED Jobs.” No more was the DP the deciding factor on the camera system to be used, but the producers and directors made the decisions before and for the DP. If you wanted the job, then you worked with the hardware of their choice. This is a trend that seemed to really start with the RED, but continues on now with many different digital cameras.
Hence, somewhat kicking and screaming, Probst was thrust into the realm of the RED ONE.
“The very first video I shot on the RED ONE was Chris Brown’s ‘Forever,’” recalls Probst. “That was back in the first few months of 2008, and the experience threw me head-first into a pretty steep learning curve in how to properly shoot with the camera, and how to handle raw cameras in general. I really didn’t know anything about the RED ONE—very few people did. The camera had just started delivery at the end of 2007 and most post houses couldn’t even handle the files from the camera.
“There were a lot of problems early on,” Probst continues. “The first version of the Mysterium chip had a noisy blue channel and it was more susceptible to overheating. If you were shooting in a hot exterior location, if the camera got too hot, you’d suddenly end up with what looked like scratches from a film gate running vertically right through the frame. If you saw those lines on the monitor, that also meant they were embedded into the recorded raw signal and you were screwed. The only real remedy to the situation is to get the camera cooler: get it into the shade, have fans blowing on it and pack ice all around it to keep it cool.
"The camera also had issues with its boot-up time—which is about 90 seconds, but feels like an eternity! This problem is exacerbated by the fact that if you let the battery run too low, the camera would go into an auto shut-down mode. And once you got that dreaded countdown warning, there was no way to stop it! Adding to the situation, the RED ONE takes a minute and a half to reboot. So you’d be all ready for a take, the set locked down, the slate in frame and then the camera would go down. Then while you’re waiting that minute and a half, the actors would lose focus and then the makeup artist would step in and do some tweaks…suddenly it has taken five minutes to get back to where you were! That’s really frustrating.
“Another major headache had to do with the way that camera handled shooting higher frame rates: by cropping the sensor from 4K to 3K or 2K, depending on the frame rate desired. So if I was shooting at 24 frames for performance and then wanted to do a pass at 60 frames—which happens a lot in videos—I would suddenly have to change lenses because my sensor was now half the size; effectively doubling my focal length. But if my shot was an extreme wide lens to begin with, then I would either have to carry another set of 16mm formatted lenses, or just be SOL! There were a lot of things like that that really made shooting with the RED ONE a real pain.”
As the technical editor for American Cinematographer magazine, especially considering the popularity and ubiquity of the RED, Probst was asked to pen an article that covered the non-propaganda side of the ONE—“Working with the RED” (February 2010). It was, in this author’s opinion, an extraordinarily fair, balanced and extremely informative article and it, of course, instantly raised controversy.
The forums lit ablaze with fervent support and criticism of Probst’s article. Contrary to the somewhat venomous responses, he was not derogatory about the camera, more so he was quick to point out that he had photographed over 100 projects on the RED ONE—including some of his favorite work! In fact, Probst had received several accolades for his work with the RED ONE, including two MTV Video Music Award nominations for best cinematography for Eminem’s “Not Afraid” and Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” which was also nominated for the prestigious Golden Frog award from Camerimage. In addition, Probst photographed Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas,” The Black Eyed Peas’ “Imma Be/Rock That Body,” Chris Brown’s “Crawl,” and Lady Gaga’s “LoveGame,” to name just a few, along with the feature Detention with Josh Hutcherson and Dane Cook, all on the RED ONE.
Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie" music video
“Basically from 2008 through early 2011 I shot the majority of my jobs on the RED ONE,” Probst attests. “There were some projects that we shot on film, some on the F23, or even F900, but most of them were on the RED. Especially by 2009, in the world of music videos, it was a very pervasive tool and almost all videos were shooting with it.”
While the reigning controversy over his article was still at a fever’s pitch, in the summer of 2010, I was asked to moderate a panel at ShowBiz Expo on the RED, aptly entitled “Seeing RED.” I invited Probst to join the panel along with Jon Sagud from RED. The discussion was lively, respectful and Sagud acknowledged Probst’s concerns about the camera and its shortcomings, many of which had already been remedied with newer versions of RED’s firmware and the new Mysterium-X sensor. In addition, Sagud promised that a new, better solution was on its way.
Of course we had all been promised the EPIC and SCARLET from RED. It seemed, just like the RED ONE, when it was initially announced in 2006, to be an impossible feat of engineering—especially for the price range.
When Probst’s camera house of choice, Camtec, received one of the first EPIC-Ms being delivered, Probst was quick to jump at the chance to work with the new camera and see if the promised improvements really were what he wanted.
“I had a job come up that I really didn’t want to take,” he recalls, “but it happened to coincide with the very first weekend that Camtec had gotten their hands on an EPIC-M. The Ms were the first EPICs released to the public, but were hand-machined and assembled in limited quantities due to shortages in the electronics industry from the Fukushima tsunami disaster. I decided to take on this guinea pig video and test out the EPIC and, fortunately, the production company agreed.
“The long and short of it is that the EPIC’s capabilities were immediately apparent to me. I could do frame-rate changes on the touch screen in six seconds, faster than I could do on an [ARRIFLEX] 435, and for speeds up to 96 fps, I didn’t have to change lenses because it wasn’t cropping down on the sensor. I could change compression settings instantly, there were no overheating issues, the boot up time was chopped down to just a mere 9 seconds (as opposed to the 90 seconds on the RED ONE), the resolution jumped from 4K to 5.1K, and the side-handle had its own small RedVolt battery in it so that if the main battery died, the camera would hot-swap to the handle without losing the take. It was all very impressive!”
Two weeks later, the video required a day of pickup shots on a white cyc stage. Unable to get the EPIC again, they settled on a RED ONE. Probst found himself back in the land of frustration with the older camera.
“Once I experienced the improved functionality and better imaging specs of the EPIC, I couldn’t go back ever again. I sat on set that day and said, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t go back to this camera… I should just buy an EPIC.’ My gaffer said, ‘You totally should, and I bet they’d be jumping at the chance to get one in your hands—the guy who hated the RED ONE just turned around and bought an EPIC.’”
RED did jump at the chance. Probst posted in the RED forums that he was “ready to put my money where my mouth is, I want to buy one!” and RED sold Probst an EPIC-M.
In the time since, Probst has worked with the EPIC on well over 100 music videos and commercials. Although he also shoots with the ARRI Alexa, Canon EOS 5D and 7D, when appropriate, a large percentage of his jobs are with his new favorite camera—which he openly prefers. With further upgrades such as SSD drives, Anton Bauer battery mounts, faster frame rates, playback ability in-camera, Probst’s love for the RED EPIC continues. He proclaims he’ll be one of the first to purchase the new Dragon 6K sensor when it’s available next year.
“Some people say I ‘drank the RED Kool-Aid,’” he laughs. “I prefer to say I’m suffering a bit from my own version of Stockholm Syndrome: I was prisoner of the RED ONE for so long, that when the EPIC came out, it felt familiar, but it solved all of the problems I had with the ONE. There isn’t anything else on the market that can compare with the size, performance, resolution and ease of use as the EPIC. Even the workflow is quite easy and flexible; so many people have heard bad things about experiences with the RED ONE but they just no longer apply with the EPIC. As RED comes out with new upgrades and modules and enables more and more features on the EPIC to make things even easier, it just gets better and better. It really is a fantastic tool.”
You can see many of Probst’s videos and commercials on his agency web site, www.lspagency.net