RED in the Real World: Test Shots with SCARLET-X
We’ve been transitioning to 4K video acquisition long enough now that camera designers and manufacturers are already looking at 6K, 8K and 12K resolutions and beyond—RED’s EPIC is a prime example of such a camera that’s now available for lease and purchase. But what about quality-minded producers who don’t have the budget to support such a high-end option? Until quite recently, no 4K cameras have been available without correspondingly large price tags. The 4K production landscape may be about to change, however, with the introduction of RED’s long-anticipated SCARLET camera.
It’s dubbed SCARLET-X in recognition of its Mysterium-X sensor, which enables the capture of 4K and even limited 5K raw video. Pricing starts at $9,700 (SCARLET-X “brain” only). Basic packages start at $13,000 and accessories can easily double the price, but this camera is still priced well below the competition.
You can capture 4K and 4K HD (16:9) REDRAW at 24 and 30 fps, 3K at up to 48 fps, and 2K at up to 60 fps. You can even capture at 5K, but with a 12 fps limitation. On the other end of the scale, SCARLET-X does 120 fps at 1K resolution.
Also included in the feature set is HDR (high dynamic range) recording, which protects highlights with an exposure latitude of up to 18 f-stops. To achieve this, the camera actually captures two streams of video: one exposed for highlights and the other for shadow. There is a tradeoff, though—when this feature is enabled, maximum frame rates are cut in half.
SCARLET can be outfitted with either a standard cine PL mount or Canon EF lens mount. It records up to four channels of audio, with levels adjusted via the touch-activated VU meter in the menu’s audio “chapter.” Color-coded audio levels are displayed in the viewfinder and LCD screen. There’s no mic mount or utility shoe included with the basic package, but other options exist once rails are added.
The camera records raw sensor data using wavelet-based REDCODE RAW compression to the REDMAG. REDMAG solid-state media is available in 64, 128 and 256 GB capacities. The compressed raw data is then transferred from the digital media to the Mac or PC workstation running REDCINE-X PRO software, which can perform color correction and simple editing. REDCINE-X PRO’s primary use is to prepare the REDCODE RAW data for editing and conforming by other post applications.
I tested the Canon EOS package, which included a Canon EF-mount SCARLET brain, DSMC Side Handle, RED TOUCH 5” LCD monitor, 64 GB REDMAGs and a RED STATION REDMAG for media offload. I used my Canon 100-400mm EOS and Tamron 10-24mm lenses. Unfortunately, despite being a perfect fit, neither the automatic exposure nor the auto focus features worked with the Tamron lens.
And even with the “integrated” Canon 100-400mm lens, there were challenges in calculating exposure. With digital cine cameras such as the SCARLET-X, what you see in the viewfinder isn’t necessarily what you get—and even though there may be a lot of exposure latitude, it’s good to be as correctly exposed as possible. A histogram is provided, but I imagine that most ENG shooters could probably benefit from some education in reading such histograms, and it took me some time to get consistently accurate results. With most ENG cameras, you get low light level warnings and zebra bars to avoid clipping highlights. You can get the same information from the histogram, but the user feedback and evaluation processes are different and can easily fool a neophyte such as myself.
For ENG-style shooters, it’s worth noting that SCARLET’s user interface is quite different than that associated with most ENG and lower-end EFP cameras; SCARLET’s interface is perhaps more similar to a DSLR. However, digital cine camera users, and RED users in particular, should feel right at home.
I launched my evaluation, shooting primarily outdoors and mounted on a tripod. I was impressed with how smoothly and easily I was able to pan and tilt the roughly 10 lb. SCARLET package, and also how comfortably I was able to move around with it in brush and mire.
Despite SCARLET’s touted integration with EOS auto exposure and focus functions, I faced challenges with each. My biggest issue with focus was inconsistent results in connection with the color-coded center focus assist feature; there’s a red “box” in the center of the viewfinder that’s supposed to turn yellow when you’re nearly focused and green when you’re spot-on. I found that it often stayed red even when I was well focused, and it rarely stayed green. More often than not, it flickered back and forth to yellow or red when I shot at shallow depths of field. I ended up making the final focus call with my eye, as the assist feature seemed so inconsistent.
I found that in exposing, you can certainly better your margin of error by using the HDR function; however, doing so cuts your maximum frame rate by half. When shooting backlit subjects, the frame rate tradeoff is worth it, but you don’t really need to resort to HDR if you’ve got good frontal lighting. As one of my foremost objectives was testing the camera’s slow-motion capability, I used HDR sparingly.
I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the slow motion, even though it maxed out at 2.5x real time. When capturing slow-moving creatures, the languid effect was quite noticeable, and also quite “clean” thanks to progressive frame capture. I was disappointed in not being able to crank up to 120 fps for really palpable slow-mo, but I was pleased with the 60 fps result and believe I could push it to 120 fps in post.
I need to note that when I first tested SCARLET-X, the 1K mode wasn’t yet enabled, so I couldn’t visually verify what difference a doubling of the max frame rate to 120 fps would make, albeit at reduced resolution (1280 x 720). Luckily, I was able to get a SCARLET for evaluation again shortly after the v3.2 build was released. Among other enhancements, v3.2 included a 1K SD mode and widescreen SD modes for higher resolutions. As expected, higher frame rates can be achieved in SD than in HD modes. The disappointment was in learning that the maximum 120 fps rate could be achieved only in WS (SD) mode.
Oddly enough, 89 fps (not 90 or 96) is the max rate achievable in 1K HD mode. Considering that VariCams max out at 60 fps (1280 x 720), though, this isn’t all that shabby. In fact, I found this approximately 30 fps difference to be quite noticeable when I viewed footage of my long-legged mixed Shepherd running at full gallop. At 89 fps, appendages such as dangling tongues and ears seem to hang suspended for seconds before gently descending. At the more familiar 60 fps, they fell much faster, much as anticipated by my mind’s eye. I found a similar effect with flying geese and crows. Perhaps the simplest way to summarize 89 fps slow-mo is that it produces a much more “dream-like” effect than is possible at 60 fps.
The ultimate beauty of capturing raw footage with SCARLET is the amazing latitude in post—at least 10 to 12 stops. REDCINE-X’s color correction and overall image correction capabilities can undo a multitude of errors. I found REDCINE-X fairly easy to work with and was able to turn the dull, low-contrast raw images into sparkling, perfectly exposed and naturally colored scenes in a short time. You can quickly apply the same look for a series of shots and cut a simple sequence out of them.
The camera does have one limitation, though: cold weather. When temperatures hovered around freezing, I occasionally had to tap the screen several times for a response. The answer was in the specs, which state that the normal operating range cuts off at 32°F, which for northerly shooters could be a serious liability. Heated jackets are an option, but not for sustained and extreme cold.
In many respects, RED’s SCARLET has exceeded expectations by bringing in very high resolution shooting capability at a better price than most pro 1080p cameras. Its modular design makes it feasible to shape the unit to be the camera you want it to be.
The big shortfall I found is SCARLET’s somewhat limited slow-motion capability. In many respects SCARLET is quite similar to the RED EPIC, so if you’re looking for a much more affordable alternative and are willing to compromise on a few features, and you don’t need to shoot at more than 4K resolution, this may be the camera for you. It looks and handles the same as the RED EPIC, although its image may not be quite as stunning.
SCARLET is not intended for shooters married to the ENG shooting model, but rather for those ready to take the plunge into feature-style small crew production of dramas, reality shows, documentaries or music videos. If you’re involved in these, SCARLET-X may be well worth adding to your camera toolkit.
Product: RED SCARLET-X
Pros: Same 5K sensor as EPIC (but with less processing power). Many resolution modes from 5K to 1K, all fully color correctable in raw mode. 4K quality is outstanding. Wide range of frame rates up to 120 fps (1K). Very wide dynamic range. Menu is user friendly, especially with touchscreen LCD. Rugged construction. Modular with excellent options. EF and PL mount option.
Cons: 5K maxes out at 12 fps; 120 fps is possible only in 1K; 60 fps in 2K is a bit noisy. Limited sensitivity, slow startup, high power consumption, noisy fan, no XLR audio input. A bit pricey when fully configured ($16-$20K+). Can’t output to third-party recorders.
Bottom Line: Despite its limitations, SCARLET-X offers excellent 4K capture and high dynamic range with the full gamut of pro lenses for under $15K. It is essentially an EPIC-(ultra)lite that does a limited range of things really well and others reasonably well at a fair price.
MSRP: $9,700 (brain only) and up