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Black and White and RED All Over: Early Experiments with RED’s EPIC-M Monochrome

3/19/2013 9:21 AM Eastern

Last October, RED Digital Cinema astounded the professional production community once again by bringing out a new camera: the EPIC-M Monochrome. In an era of high-frame-rate 3D, 4K/8K and expanding color gamuts, it’s a glorious black-and-white throwback to an era when images favored greyscale over chrominance and dazzling contrast over spectrum saturation.

Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” video was shot by director David Fincher and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC, with EPIC Monochrome camera

The first question I wanted to ask RED’s Ted Schilowitz was, Why?

“Good question,” he laughs. But if you look at RED strategically, the question comes back as, Why not?

Actually, if you visit one of the sites RED recommends to see images recorded on the EPIC-M Monochrome—below, for example—the answer is obvious. This remarkable B&W camera shoots images you can drool over.

The EPIC-M Monochrome has a 14-megapixel black-and-white Mysterium-X CMOS sensor with a 5120 x 2700 pixel array that is rated at ISO 2000. The camera can capture 24 fps up to 5K, and 5K frame rates up to 120 fps. Frame rates expand to 300 fps in 2K mode.

The list price of the EPIC-M Monochrome (brain only) is $25,000. But almost any other digital cinema camera can be set so that the chroma component is removed. So why is RED producing a $25,000+ camera that can only shoot black and white?

(Readers should note that RED also offers the EPIC-X Monochrome, which is essentially the same camera as the EPIC-M Monochrome, but it’s assembled differently and from cast aluminum rather than machined metal. EPIC-X Monochrome (brain only) lists for $20,000.)

“It’s all about the purity of the B&W image,” Schilowitz says. “Most high-end CMOS cameras use Bayer color filters to distribute a sensor’s output to red, green and blue photosites. This reduces the practical resolution to 4K. But if you remove the color filter array of the Bayer pattern, you gain roughly another 20 percent of the true resolution of the sensor. That provides our EPIC-M Monochrome 5K recording capability at an effective 18 megapixel resolution with the extended ISO 2000 sensitivity.”

Paul Ellington receives two screenplay awards at the California Film Awards.

It is for this reason that the EPIC-M Monochrome has generated so much interest in the world of fashion and for experimental applications, Schilowitz says.

But the camera’s appeal isn’t nearly so narrow. Some of the best digital cinematographers have adopted the EPIC-M Monochrome to exploit its unique capabilities.

Paul Ellington
Paul Ellington (@Paul_Ellington) is almost as proud of the Pulitzer Prize he accepted in 1999 on behalf of his grandfather, jazz legend Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, as he is for having shot the short film “Dream Gamblers,” an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Now a master’s degree candidate at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Ellington has hopes of using the EPIC-M Monochrome in combination with other cameras on both a TV miniseries and a theatrical feature about his world famous paternal forebear who was one of America’s greatest composers.

“It is an incredible camera because it handles black-and-white images better than anything else,” Ellington says.

Ellington is especially impressed with the camera’s HDRx recording for extended dynamic range. With HDRx enabled, the EPIC simultaneously shoots two image tracks of whatever resolution and frame rate the user chooses. The primary track (A-track) is normal exposure, while the secondary track (X-track) is a “highlight protection” exposure that the user determines in the menu settings. ISO and aperture remain the same for both exposures. Both tracks (A and X) are stored in a single .r3d file.

Patrick Faith’s EPIC-M Monochrome captures footage for Puddles of Light.

Ellington explains, “For example, one track could be set to store the motion video at 24 fps with a 1/50th of a second exposure, and the other track could be set to record at 1/200th of a second shutter speed,” he tells us. “This all happens at the same rate that a single normal frame would be recorded. It can be used for exposure protection or to reduce motion blur.”

Some users have complained that the EPIC-M Monochrome can get too hot during shooting, but Ellington says he thinks RED is already working on improving the fan’s cooling efficiency. “Actually, this has only been an issue [for me] when I am shooting nonstop somewhere like in Florida’s 110° heat,” he says. “But if you are faced with that situation, having a second body along can be a good precaution.”

Patrick Faith
While you may not know Patrick Faith as a cinematographer, you have almost certainly experienced some of his work. Nearly every credit card transaction or airline ticket purchase goes through the artificial intelligence software he created.

Faith the cinematographer is currently working on a self-funded film called Puddles of Light, a narrative feature that concerns hunger in the United States. The story is about an augmented reality painter who finds malnourished children in his backyard. The film will combine virtual and live-action images.

A still from Puddles of Light

If that sounds pretty avant garde, think Roger Rabbit with a message. With help from software including The Foundry NUKEX for compositing, Luxology modo for rendering, Next Limit RealFlow for water simulation and a suite of Adobe tools, Faith thinks of this EPIC-M Monochrome B&W photography as setting the stage for his subsequent visual effects work.

Faith’s film is actually being shot with a combination of RED SCARLET color cameras and an EPIC-M Monochrome. The SCARLETs have their saturation set to zero for a black-and-white result. During post, he’ll use the X-Y coordinates from both cameras (which were positioned on a 90° angle from each other) to determine how to create the characters’ dimensionally modeled look on screen.

He is finding ways to take full advantage of the EPIC-M Monochrome’s impressive dynamic range. “It lets me drop production costs by bringing in inexpensive LED lights,” he says. “I can even light an entire room with just a candle by using ambient light to put some depth in the blacks. That lets me eliminate noise in the shadows by lowering the black levels in the background in post.”

John Marchant
KipperTie is a sophisticated corporate video production company and rental facility in Surry, England. John Marchant, who serves as technical director there, has found some unique ways to employ his company’s EPIC-M Monochrome camera.

Infrared photography with the EPIC-M Monochrome

“We had some major clients shooting nature documentaries who wanted to photograph animals in the wild at night using infrared light,” Marchant begins. “So we asked RED Digital Cinema to replace the camera’s OLPF [optical low-pass filter] with a custom-made one that would allow illumination in the infrared spectrum to come through. Combined with the EPIC-M Monochrome’s high native sensitivity to infrared, we could really see in the dark by getting the equivalent of ISO 4000.”

KipperTie’s tests actually revealed they could expect ISO 4000 at 5K, ISO 3200 at 4K, ISO 2000 at 3K and ISO 1280 at 2K. You can see the results of their experimentation online.

KipperTie’s chroma response test with EPIC-X, EPIC Monochrome and infrared

Another benefit Marchant has found of the EPIC-M Monochrome is that its HDRx feature lets him grab stills while shooting video. “When we are interviewing corporate executives, we can come back with stunningly beautiful B&W stills at the same time,” he says. “That gives us spectacular head shots for the client’s web site.”

I started this article by asking whether the market needs a black-and-white camera. It’s interesting to note that David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and House of Cards) recently shot the music video for Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” with an EPIC-M Monochrome (found below).

Also keep in mind that last year’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which audiences seemed to accept in all its monochromatic glory. That feature was shot on celluloid—Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 B&W Super 35mm negative film—but you can bet that if a sequel emerges, it will depend more on bits and bytes than sprocket holes. The EPIC-M Monochrome camera is just one more exciting tool for the rapidly expanding universe of digital cinema production.  

RED Digital Cinema’s EPIC-M Monochrome camera is often referred to as the “EPIC-M” in the production industry and on the REDUser Forum, but that name isn’t technically correct.

As Brent Carter, global brand manager at RED Digital Cinema, told me, “RED makes two versions of the EPIC camera body—the product-run EPIC-X and the hand-assembled EPIC-M—and both can be fitted with either their normal color sensor or the new 14-megapixel monochrome Mysterium-X version.”

This article uses the term “EPIC-M Monochrome” to reference this awesome new B&W 5K camera.