Yes, yes, I GET it. IT'S BIG.

Earlier this month, I had a chance to work extensively with a RED ONE digital cinema camera. It’s a joy to handle. It’s like a really expensive erector set. It shoots gorgeous footage. The firmware isn’t perfect and its long and somewhat unreliable startup process can be… troubling, when working in a high-pressure situation, but it’s the nicest footage I’ve ever gotten from a non-film source, and if it weren’t for the RED ONE’s lack of an optical viewfinder, I would never have given it back to the rental house.

Yesterday, RED announced their product lineup for the next two years, based around two different models: Scarlet and EPIC, built on an extensible array of components and accessories. Some of the announcements are blindingly brilliant—bodies with interchangeable lens mounts so you can go from using a Nikon lens to a PL lens without needing to re-collimate your camera body, for instance, are an idea whose time has come.

Let me talk now about something that I don’t understand: among the various sensor sizes that RED announced was a Technorama-sized sensor—186mm wide, three times the width of an IMAX frame, with native output of 28K. That means each frame is twenty-eight thousand pixels wide. To contextualize that number, the RED ONE shoots 4K native, which is the same resolution at which 35mm film is scanned for digital intermediate purposes. The IMAX footage in The Dark Knight was scanned at 8K—still less than a third the width of a 28K frame. For a better perspective, here’s a snip from Dorkman’s Blog on the announcement:

“If that’s still too abstract, lay a 14-story office building on its side in your mind. That’s roughly the fucking native resolution of 28K.” [Link]

28K Redcode eats up an astounding 500 megabytes per second of footage, and the 28K body, projected for spring 2010, will cost $55,000, which is a real steal if you need to buy a digital cinema camera capable of projecting on the moon and eating up hard drives faster than you can buy them. Then there’s the lenses, which will have to be enormous, like large format still photo lenses but faster.

Here’s what I don’t understand: why would anyone ever use this thing? What venue could you possibly be delivering for that requires such outlandish data rates? There are few projectors in the world capable of screening digital material even at 4K, and printing to 35mm at higher than 4K is pointless anyway. The other problem is focus. As the sensor area increases, the depth-of-field decreases, making focus more finicky. There’s a reason that large-format still cameras have those complicated bellows systems on the front: focusing on anything at that scale is very, very difficult. Imagine how hard it would be with a moving image. And how in the name of Pete do you check critical focus in a frame that size on even a 1080p preview monitor?

I can understand how having a 28K camera lets RED come in first place in the technological pissing contest with Phantom and Panavision and Arri, but is there really a need for more than, say, five of these cameras to exist in the entire world?

For more commentary on yesterday’s announcements, ProLost is where you want to be.

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