RED Epic – 5K and HDRx

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Here is a quick video of some of my initial camera tests with the RED Epic – (serial number 308, that’s where we got the title…)    We spent a little over a week driving around California thanks to Eric Kessler who sponsored our little project and shot a lot of behind the scenes footage that we will be sharing with you over the next few weeks on this blog.  

We initially ran into 4 days of very bad weather (rain and high winds) and it took me a little while to configure the camera in terms of handles, rods etc as well as to get to get to know it and the workflow that followed.   We’ll be sharing a lot of what we’ve learned with you (most of them will apply directly to HDDSLRs, Sony F3 etc by the way.)   We’ll be covering a variety of the gear we used as well as time lapse techniques (that were shot with the Canon 5D MKII and 1D MKIV.)    

After the video I’ll discuss two of the most impressive features of the RED Epic – the incredible 5K resolution,  as well as their HDRx technology.


EPIC #308 from Vincent Laforet on Vimeo.


Shooting video at 5K is nothing short of an eye opener.   The images you get are simply stunning.   In fact it’s difficult to see the video stream on what is one of the cleanest players on the web (Vimeo’s.)   No matter how good the compression – there’s no technology out there today that can do the footage justice.   Here is a still frame grab from one of the shots below (make sure you click on the image to see it at full resolution)– it will speak to this much better than I ever could.

Once you start to shoot with a camera like this – almost all video/cinema cameras quickly pale in comparison.   

AThat being said – an important point should be made:  given the current 1080p web streaming/delivery systems – it’s hard to tell the HDDSLR footage and RED Epic footage apart in terms of resolution when the footage gets compressed.   You really need to see frame grabs to appreciate what the RED Epic offers on the web.   I will quickly qualify that by saying that once  you see the footage on a TV screen, on a Blu-Ray or of course on the silver screen (especially a 4K projector) – there’s simply no comparing the two.   I now understand why RED initially had a difficult time releasing their demo footage of the Epic to the public – few codecs out there can truly do the footage justice.  (They ultimately settled on the X.264 codec.)

While the 1080p compressed footage online doesn’t do justice the resolution – you should still be able to notice the incredible latitude of the image, and the milky smooth gradations from light to dark and from one color to another.   This is the closest thing I’ve experienced in the world of motion – to shooting a still image.  It’s simply a pleasure to shoot with this camera.   As you saw from yesterday’s article – pulling frame grabs from the footage is a pleasure too.  Over the next few weeks I’ll discuss some of the best techniques for obtaining the best still grabs from video – both in terms of how you shoot them, as well as the post software involved that gives you a variety of exciting technical options.

So why 5K some of you may ask?  Well for one, it’s "future proof" – or we can expect it to be high enough resolution to look good on displays for years to come.    It’s also exciting to know that with a camera that is not much larger than a Hasselblad H4D – you can have your footage projected on any silver screen in the world.   

The 5K resolution (5120 pixels horizontal by 2700 vertical) was one of the deciding factors in my purchasing this camera – but not for the reason that some of you might assume.   What truly inspired me was the ability to shoot handheld footage at a high resolution, knowing full well that I could later stabilize it with technology such as Adobe CS 5.5’s Warp Stabilizer.  

I’ll be showing specific examples of that next week.  I think it has a good chance of changing the way we shoot our films – as we no longer need to obsess on getting that perfectly smooth slider or steadicam shot…   Warp will not only take care of a bump here or there, when used correctly, Warp Stabilizer can actually make an imperfect  handheld move look like it was shot on a dolly track.  

Again I’ll post on this very soon.  But the point is – the technology does this by cropping into the frame to remove movement – so one obviously needs to be working off of higher resolution footage to output to 1080p for example.  

Working off of 4K is ideal for outputting to 1080p.  The Epic gives you 5K which gives you a lot of wiggle room – and near lossless results when you do it right.   When you’re shooting 2K (say on Arri’s Alexa one of the other leading cinema cameras today)  you don’t have much to crop into.   That’s something to keep in mind for all cameras that are limited to 1080p or 2K.    The more pixels you start off with – the more you can correct for in post.  In fact you can punch into the same shot/setup and get both a wide and an medium shot from the same frame…     

Warp Stabilizer is truly AMAZING – and I’m not exaggerating here.  This technology has the potential to change the way many of us shoot – allowing us to rely less on complex stabilization devices – and more on smaller less complex camera support platforms.  This will allow filmmakers to shoot with a bit more freedom – which is exciting.  More to come…

HDRx – High Dynamic Range cinema:

Here’s another frame grab from the video above (make sure you click on the image to see it at full resolution.)  This shot uses RED’s HDRx technology.  Basically – it’s like HDR for still photography.   The Epic shoots two shots virtually at the same time.  The first one is shot at the "normal" shutter speed/angle you set, and the second at a faster speed, letting in less light.   You can tell the camera if you want the second exposure to be 1 stop darker all the way up to 5 stops darker – that leads to a pretty incredible potential of 18 stops of latitude.

I’ve found that 3 stops is a good number to go by in terms of the range that I need.   So far I’ve been so incredibly impressed with the sensor’s normal latitude that I find you’ll need HDRx in only extreme lighting situations.  If you keep and eye on your histogram as you shoot (and make sure no red tally lights show up) – you can almost always keep those highlights in range.

If you look carefully at the HDRx snapshots to the left (make sure you click on the image to see it at full resolution) – you’ll see that the 3 stop range works just perfectly to hold the highlights of the sun, and the hot spots in the water just underneath it at Mono Lake.   As we all have come to know:  film is the master of holding highlights.  Digital is the master of digging into shadows.  Yet the tell tale sign of a digitally shot image (especially in cinema) is the lack of highlight detail relative to film.  HDRx is the first step in eliminating that distinction.  It’s incredibly exciting.

So does this spell the end of film era then?   Well… no.  Not not so quick!

 There is of course a catch to this impressive technology.   If you think about it,  the camera is taking two exposures with different shutter speeds.   When you consider that most of the cinema/video footage you see has motion blur in it – you can start to see the current pitfall of the technology as it stands:  one of the two exposures will be blurrier than the other one,  because the one shot at a higher shutter speed/angle in effect has less motion blur to it.  If you think of a car moving left to right at full speed shot at 1/48th of a second – it will be blurry and make a horizontal shape of sorts.   The same car shot at 1/200th of a second (2 stops faster) will not make as long of a stretched horizontal shape – it will be noticeably sharper (and smaller if you will.)  When you sandwich (blend) the two exposures together to get the most dynamic range – the highlight areas don’t match because they are not identical.

Ergo the one main challenge with this technology:   it is ideal for the type of footage shown here – but not yet suited for fast moving subjects.  Shooting an action movie with this technique will lead to some interesting challenges.   Quick pans or tilts are to be avoided… for now at least.

But deveopers are already working on new software will only help to make this current limitation less of an issue.   I know that both RED and at least two other companies are working on plugins to extrapolate the motion blur mathematically.   This technology is so new that it can only get better with time and with new plug-ins, techniques and complex algorithms.  

Look at  the example of the Redwood trees (w/o HDRX) shot near Ft. Bragg to the left – a nearly impossible dynamic range challenge for any camera – film or digital.

Here is the same example shot with HDRx set to 3 stops higher and blended with the image above.   Notice the increased detail in the highlights, in the branches as they reach the overcast sky.   When used properly this technology is rather impressive.   The challenge is to master the right mix of exposure – as many of you know from a recent post, I’ve never been a huge fan of HDR techniques for still photography.

 If you go too far with this technology with the Epic – you can get the same surreal results you would with heavy-handed HDR photography of course.   What I have found interesting – is that I expose my digital frames a bit more like I would expose negative stock/film when I use HDRx.  In other words I open up more to capture more shadow detail on the "normal" exposure, knowing that I will then blend that exposure with the second darker exposure (that has more highlight detail.)   Both RED’s  RED CineX software and Adobe CS 5.5 support the blending of the two files very nicely.  

Of course this DOES mean that you are shooting two files instead of one – and nearly double the amount of data.   That’s a consideration given the massive amount of data this 5K camera is already shooting.  The RED Epic shoots around 3 GB per minute at an 8:1 compression setting according to this series of tests.   Yes – you read that correctly – THREE GIGABYTES PER MINUTE!  So with HDRx turned on – you’re shooting nearly 6GB/minute.   That’s a full 5K of course – and with a high quality compression setting.  You can choose to shoot at a 12:1 compression setting and find yourself shooting closer to 2 GB/minute.  Keep in mind also – that the Epic is shooting in a RAW format – similar to Canon .CR2 files… leading to a much larger files size – and a pretty incredible latitude to grade/color correct from.

So what does Epic’s HDRx look like compared to a RAW Canon 5D MKII .CR2 file?  Check out the image from the Canon on the left.  This is far from a scientific result, as the two images were made at different times of day with two different lenses.   One was shot with a Canon EF 14mm lens on the 5DMKII, and the other on the Epic with a Duclos 11-15mm lens.  The CR2 was processed in Adobe Camera RAW with the maximum highlight recovery settings applied (in Recovery and Highlights.)  While not empirical – it does show the two are not very far apart.  The Epic is rather impressive in fact.


Parting thoughts:

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, we’ll be releasing a series of behind the scenes videos related to this shoot up and down the coast of California.   We shot with the Epic, the Canon 5D MKII, and Canon 1D MKIV.   Well look at gear from Kessler Crane, O’Connor, Zeiss, Schneider Optics, Duclos, Mitra 3D Microphones, MaxxDigitalElement Technica, Anton Bauer, G-Tech, and how Adobe’s CS5.5 handles this massive amount of data (quite well!)   There’s a lot to learn – and as I mentioned almost all of it applies to the Epic as well as HDSLRs and other camera systems out there.  It’s been a fascinating ride to say the least.

What’s the only frightening thing?   The amount of data that one shoots with the Epic is scary – this kind of quality has a price.   I’m going to buy stock in G-Tech.  In all seriousness,   I’m going to be buying a lot of hard drives…. and so will we all I think – regardless of what cameras we use in the future!