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Camera Class: Understanding the Evolution and Revolution of RED’s EPIC

When the RED Digital Cinema Camera Company introduced its groundbreaking RED ONE camera at the 2007 NAB Show, they already had 1,080 pre-sale reservations. The RED ONE wasn’t the first digital cinema camera, of course, but it was marketed as the first that independent filmmakers could afford. This CMOS-based 4K camera is $17,500 (body only, more for lenses and accessories).

EPIC-M with SPINNER mount and BOMB EVF viewfinder

Then last year RED brought out the RED EPIC camera, which builds on the basic concept of the RED ONE, adding a modular design. EPIC is already being used on feature films including Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and James Cameron’s Avatar 2.

Ted Schilowitz, who claims the professional title of “first employee of RED” and serves as the company’s enthusiastic product evangelist, describes EPIC as the second generation of RED. “It’s a still and motion camera, and it has already become the dominant force in high-end digital cinema.”

For Schilowitz, this is a step forward in the democratization of digital feature film production. “There is no difference between the cameras these mega-budget movies are using and the EPICs that are available to indie cinematographers,” he says. “In fact, they are the most refined digital cinema cameras on the planet, with a price tag that doesn’t reflect their performance.”

With 14 megapixels per frame, the RED EPIC’s 5K Mysterium-X sensor has 60 percent more resolution than the RED ONE in a relatively small form factor that’s one-third the size. The science inside the camera is based on RED’s visually lossless REDCODE RAW codec, which utilizes constant bit rate wavelet compression. You can choose a compression ratio from 18:1 to 3:1, but most DPs find the sweet spot at around 5:1. You can output footage in raw format or as .R3D files.

EPIC-M with THE CLUTCH shoulder rig
and RED TOUCH 5.0” LCD

Practical Magic
Getting the best out of any camera requires experience behind the lens, so I asked three RED EPIC veterans—Offhollywood’s Mark L. Pederson, cinematographer Peter A. Holland and digital imaging technician Dean “Dino” Georgopoulos—to provide some practical tips.

“One great advantage of the EPIC is that it is a modular concept,” says Mark L. Pederson, CEO of New York’s Offhollywood rental/post service facility. “So when something like a new wireless video technology comes along, and it will, it is easy to upgrade the EPIC to take advantage of it.”

While shooting with the EPIC, Pederson recommends turning on the camera’s unique HDRx dual frame exposure capability to extend dynamic range. HDRx records two video streams in parallel for each frame, but with differing shutter speeds.

EPIC-M with RED TOUCH 5.0” LCD,
RED PRO Matte Box and flags

“Effectively, HDRx is highlight protection,” Pederson explains. “A classic example is shooting a character standing in front of a bright window. Previously you would have to either blast the actor with light to compensate for the blown-out background or take the time to gel the windows. With HDRx, you expose one stream for the character’s face in the A-track and the other for the window in the X-track. Then these can be blended together in post using REDCINE-X software to get the best from both exposures.”

When bringing EPIC footage into post, Pederson says, take advantage of the data density of the REDCODE RAW output of EPIC’s .R3D files. “It easily transcodes into something like Avid’s DNxHD 36 for on-set playback and creative editing, but you should do your color correction and master your final DI with the RAW files. You simply have many more pixels for repositioning the frame, stabilization, blow-ups and for fine-tuning the image colorimetry.”

These steps are easily accomplished in ASSIMILATE’s SCRATCH finishing system, although Pederson’s facility is moving toward SGO’s Mistika NLE to finish 3D projects. Of course, using the EPIC’s HDRx feature doubles your storage requirements, but it can save a DP’s day in a tough lighting situation.

Peter Holland with EPIC,
shooting Code Name: Geronimo

Peter A. Holland, a freelance cinematographer who has used EPIC on two features—C.B. Harding’s Complicity and John Stockwell’s Code Name: Geronimo—wants to alert his fellow DPs that EPIC has a few quirks they should be aware of.

“The camera has only one video out, for example, which means you can’t use the EPIC’s articulated onboard touchscreen monitor and its electronic viewfinder [EVF] at the same time,” he says. “So we make a point of running the SDI output of the camera into an onboard LCD display like those from TVLogic or Marshall Electronics and then loop its output to a display monitor that can sit in the video village viewing area. Then you can run the EPIC’s video output to its EVF and replace the touchscreen monitor’s functionality by using the camera’s REDmote controller to wirelessly navigate through the camera’s menu settings. The REDmote software can even be run on an iPad.”

Unlike the RED ONE, Holland explains, EPIC does not have a power out connector. “That means it is pretty essential to have a RED V-Lock battery plate with a D-Tap output that can also power your accessories,” he says. “We usually run RED BRICK batteries to power ancillary equipment such as the onboard monitor, follow focus unit and video transmitters.”

EPIC-M with DSMC Side Handle
and DSMC 1.8” SSD Side Module

Shooters also need to be aware that, even at a 5:1 compression setting, the EPIC’s high-megapixel recordings require a lot of data storage. Dean “Dino” Georgopoulos is a freelance digital imaging technician (DIT) who has worked on EPIC shoots including Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Scott Speer’s Step Up: Revolution, along with numerous TV commercials and promos.

“You need to bring enough SSD cards to the shoot,” Georgopoulos cautions. “Even shooting at 5:1, you are going to use about 6 GB per minute. That means a 40-minute clip will require a 256 GB card. A day on a feature can fill between 500 GB and 2 TB of storage. I bring extra cards along to make backup copies for myself and the clients. I always bring a robust 12-core Mac Pro filled with all the RAM I can fit into it, connected to two 40 TB RAID 5 SANs equipped with four RED ROCKET cards that can process the data at 3x real time. That way I can duplicate a 10-minute clip in two and a half minutes. It pays to be prepared when shooting with the EPIC.”

On last month’s National Geographic Channel documentary Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron, the crew recorded 16 TB of data in two days, Georgopoulos says. “We shot five cameras for eight hours nonstop. The only time we cut the cameras was to switch out the cards. It was a pretty gnarly job in terms of the amount of data we generated.”

RED has been revolutionizing the highest end of digital cinema acquisition for both studio and indie productions. RED shows that digital acquisition can indeed get better even as it democratizes the cost of entry.

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