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Working With The Red One Camera

It was a sense of utter frustration that drove steadicam operator Stefan von Bjorn to the Red One camera.

“I would suggest a shot, and suggest a setup and then I would try to get the steadicam to the first mark. I couldn’t get the frame, because the camera was too long. Or, I couldn’t get it through a door because I had to go through a profile. I thought it would be really cool if we could do a sort of Gordon Willis and be outside the door, and the size of the camera precluded doing it in the hallway. So, we could never get that shot.”

He was working as the steadicam operator on the second season of “Jericho” when he first learned about the ability to pre-order the Red One. After experiencing limitations working with an HD system that measured roughly three feet from lens to the camera’s converter, von Bjorn spent a lunch break putting a down payment on the Red One camera system.

“As soon as I knew that this was coming down the pipeline, I said ’This is the future.’”

In 2006, the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company first announced the construction of a new type of HD system. With the internal functions of a computer housed within the body of a camera, cinematographers would be able to merge the sophistication of a film camera with usability of a video camera. Introduced to the marketplace in 2007, the Red One has been embraced by many cinematographers. Currently, there are roughly 4,000 cameras in circulation. What presents a challenge to some users is the computerized element of the Red One. This camera does not function like Hi Def video cameras. As Cliff Hsui, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technologies for Sim Video Los Angeles, explains, “With conventional Hi Def, users could manipulate the images right there on the fly with instant results. With this camera, you’re recording raw. Any manipulations done on the camera is going to be meta data.”

“Meta data” is the raw computer code that is captured. The footage captured at this point is a series of ones and zeros. The color settings on the Red One do not affect the recorded data. The settings act more like a video tap, providing a “guideline” for what can be done in post production. All images recorded as meta data have the ability to be modified after the footage has been rendered.

“The Red brings shooting back to the film technique where you make your footage look as beautiful as you can with the lighting, composition, filtration, and choice of lenses,” said Hsui. “You’re not dealing with settings on the camera while you are rolling, so for people that are used to being able to tweak while you are rolling, all of a sudden, the Red system is going to be new for them.”

Stefan von Bjorn’s enthusiasm for using the Red One did not over-shadow his desire to educate himself. His training began many years prior, when he immersed himself in a 60 hour, five day HD intensive offered by UCLA. He had been hired as Cinematographer/Camera Operator, Steadicam Operator, and DIT for “Kim Cattrall: Sexual Intelligence,” and wanted to walk onto the set completely prepared. During the intensive he met Rob Sim from Sim Video who helped train him on the HD cameras and language.

“A thick negative in HD means you’re actually underexposing, whereas thick negative in film would be something you’re overexposed almost a half or quarter of a stop. There are some polar opposites; it’s almost like speaking another language,” said von Bjorn.

When von Bjorn’s Red One arrived, he contacted Rob Sim for assistance and additional training.

“I’ve heard rumors of people being utterly destroyed by their indifference to learn the technology and by saying ’You know what, I’ll just turn it on. How hard could it be?’” said von Bjorn. “It’s a whole career change.” In addition to the cinematographer’s need for education, some crew positions have to be modified. Although all primary roles remain intact, such as focus puller and second assistant camera, the role of film loader is replaced with a data manager position.

“A conventional film loader is working in a dark room on a camera truck or with a light proof bag changing out hundreds or thousands of feet of film,” said Hsui. “The data manager position is doing exactly the same thing. They’re taking the shot stock, which in this case would be a CF card or a red drive, plugging it into the computer, plugging the computer into target drives, and they’re essentially moving the data.”

Depending on the budget of a shoot, you may have additional staff that can perform quality control while the data manager is downloading. Images can be spot checked immediately.

Other crew positions that have had to modify their approach to working with the Red One and other HD systems include set design, wardrobe, and hair and makeup. Von Bjorn feels that the HD revolution has empowered the individual department heads, leaving them in more control of creative details and protective of the overall appearance of their craft.

“Textures had to be more infinitely detailed to top light or soft light or how things were caught on the camera,” said von Bjorn. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to do a hair and makeup test or a wardrobe test, or shoot a test of an actor. These details are now deferred to the department heads, and these details could mean a reshoot.”

As with any computer, the Red One is consistently being upgraded. New releases are available for camera upgrades, with beta versions of the next release in development as soon as a release hits the shelves. The Red Cinema Camera Company has a forum for end users on their website where they obtain information regarding improvements to the system and work these into their builds.

“One thing about the Red camera is that they listen to their end-user. Depending on the requests that have been made, how many requested it and the cost oft it, they will put it in the next build and see how people like it,” said Hsui.

Aside from upgrades that have been developed by the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company for the Red One, camera attachments have been created by many companies and inventors to enhance the camera’s performance. Bases, lenses, even eye piece extenders have been developed to enhance the overall performance of the camera. Sometimes, even the end-user takes their needs into their own hands.

Such was the case with von Bjorn. When fellow steadicam operator John Myers approached him with an idea he developed after using the Red One, von Bjorn was eager to jump on board as an investor.

“In this world of instant food and drive thru-s, we’ve got an actor on the set, we’re not waiting for a camera to reboot,” said von Bjorn. “Jon pointed out this huge detriment, and told me that he had a solution.”

The “solution” Myers was referring to is a box that sits between the camera and the battery. When a battery is unplugged, the camera will retain power for roughly a minute while the battery is being changed. This prevents the camera from shutting down and needing to be rebooted. Myers and von Bjorn are calling their invention “The Hot Swap” and are in the process of getting the device trademarked.

Having been mentored by legends such as cinematographer David M. Walsh, von Bjorn enjoys sharing what he’s learned with novice camera operators. Although he owns two Red One packages, he admits that sometimes the needs of the project should dictate the equipment used.

“As with the steadicam, I like to help recommend what’s best for the job. It might be easier to do the job on a dolly; it might be a little more graceful. Or, it might be a little less subjective to use a dolly,” said von Bjorn. “You choose your tools like an artist chooses a brush for each stroke of a painting.”

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