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  • Got RAW If You Want It

    Posted on April 11th, 2010 Mike 3 comments

    With the NAB convention taking place in Las Vegas this week, there are going to be quite a few announcements about all kinds of products. This being NAB, it should always be remembered that an announcement does not a product make, and most certainly, an announcement does not a ship date make. Product announcements are, first and foremost, tools to keep current customers interested and engaged, and potential customers intrigued. I’ll have a lot more to say about NAB announcements after I visit Las Vegas later this week, but one very significant announcement did not wait for NAB. The introduction of the Arri Alexa digital camera line took place in Los Angeles last week, in part to allow the many industry people who are working on television pilots at the moment to participate (why NAB always takes place smack in the middle of pilot season is something I’ve never understood), and probably in part to get some direct attention prior to the rather mad, free for all atmosphere that NAB represents. At any rate, the event was very well attended and very well presented, and illustrated the clear differences between Arri – a well established, well regarded and well known industry player for many years – and their primary competitor in the digital cinema camera arena at the moment, which would be Red – a company with a much shorter history, but a lot of interest, a lot of buzz, a very significant product line, and some big sales numbers.

    Although both companies are producing camera products that fall under the general category of “digital cinema,” the primary emphasis of each is different. Red has made its reputation and developed its following on the basis of providing high resolution imaging. High resolution has been Red’s mantra from its inception, with its founder Jim Jannard emphasizing the stated purpose of leapfrogging current formats, such as 1920×1080 HDTV and even 2K digital cinema, by going directly to 4K as a base imaging format, and recording a compressed RAW sensor image. This vision has driven most of what Red has done and is doing, with the only notable exception being the proposed 3K Scarlet camera line. This singular vision, while laudable, does lock its users into having to deal with those 4K images whether they need them in their final delivery or not. In other words, you’re always shooting 4K, and you’re always recording compressed RAW images, even if your target is 1920×1080 HD for, say, a television series. Although the files are actually very manageable in terms of size thanks to very effective and efficient compression technology  (they are, in fact, smaller than a number of compressed HD formats), they must be processed in order to yield actual RGB images in formats that can be used in post production. For much of the 3 year history of the Red One, this presented a bottleneck that has caused many established industry players to look elsewhere, to devices that could produce images in the sizes they actually needed, with very high quality, that fit into established work flows without additional processing required. Red addressed this problem very effectively in the last year by releasing a product called the Red Rocket that allows for real time processing of the compressed files into common RGB formats, cutting the time required for this task drastically. This has allowed Red to continue its focus on 4K and above images in a much more efficient manner for its users, albeit at a $5000 cost for the Rocket card. They have also pursued a partnership with different software and hardware companies through the release of a software development kit that allows direct access to the compressed files within host applications. The licensees of the SDK include such major industry players as Filmlight, Quantel, Digital Vision, Avid, Adobe, and a number of others. This has created widespread industry support for Red’s compressed R3d file format, but it has also led to something of a free for all in terms of post work paths, with many different methods of handling the processing, color manipulation, and ultimate deliverable creation for Red originated material.

    Arri has a very different set of priorities for its Alexa line. Playing off the general idea that resolution isn’t everything, Arri has concentrated their development on image quality and flexibility, and standardized work flow. They are targeting the general high end imaging market, but a lot of what they have put into the product indicates a particular interest in television production. Rather than jump to 4K with some potential compromises (at least in their view), they have settled on what is basically an oversampled 2K camera system that has extremely high quality, high sensitivity, and a very wide dynamic range. By licensing the ProRes codec from Apple, they have also recognized the need for file based recording in a format that can feed common editing systems directly, without any additional processing, and at a quality level that can serve as an offline editing format for feature work, but a final mastering format for television work. At the same time, they have also provided a way to record RAW sensor information through the use of third party recorders by implementing their T-Link protocol for uncompressed RAW output. This, at least in theory, gives users the best of all worlds. For a television production, you can record in Apple’s ProRes4444 format (Arri supports both ProRes HQ and ProRes4444) directly to SxS cards, allowing direct transport of those files into Final Cut Pro editing systems, and direct use of the files for creation of a final master. You also have the option of recording on HDCam SR tape or uncompressed DPX files by using external recorders and feeding them via the on board dual link HD-SDI interfaces. Or, if you wish, you can record the RAW information on an external recorder by using the HD-SDI connectors as a T-Link interface. And you can make those uncompressed recordings simultaneously with the ProRes files, with the same metadata being fed to each. As with Red, Arri is providing a development kit to make the RAW to RGB conversion task much more efficient and provide basic color conversion control (unlike Red, they are basing the SDK on GPU based video cards, thus obviating the need for a specific hardware solution like the Red Rocket card). For feature work, this really begins to come into play by providing offline editing files directly from the camera, while simultaneously capturing the RAW data for later conform and DI work. While all of this may sound a bit convoluted, it is anything but. Arri is recognizing that television series work does not and likely will not require anything like 4K images or, for the most part, RAW recording. Rather, it is efficiency that is the critical factor, and the primary reason that cameras such as the Genesis, Sony F35, and Arri’s own D21 have come to dominate high end television production by recording to HDCam SR decks to easily fit into existing post infrastructures. The ProRes 4444 codec yields a file that is arguably very close to HDCam SR in quality, far more flexible due to its file based nature, and directly supported on a popular editing system without any digitizing/ingest step. In other words, a “direct to edit” system that eliminates processing bottlenecks. Combine that with Arri’s reputation for quality and reliability, and you’ve got a very attractive product for television series work.

    Both Arri and Red have done a lot of work to maximize the dynamic range of their new products and push them closer to the current theoretical limits of film capture. They have accomplished this using different technical approaches, but both have done a remarkable job of minimizing noise and maximizing the usable dynamic range of their sensors. Both have taken different approaches to such things as physical design and ergonomics. Both have embraced a “modular” design philosophy, with Red’s being a bit more directly apparent, but Arri’s being almost as flexible in certain areas. Ultimately, the differences between the two companies are as much about philosophy as they are about technology. Red believes that capturing the highest resolution that can be practically captured is itself a worthy pursuit, regardless of the ultimate use of those images. Enough so that it believes its users should be capturing that high resolution all the time, whether it’s immediately required or not. Arri believes that different markets benefit from different solutions, and that the needs of the television market only partially overlap the needs of the feature market. They believe that providing an efficient path to finishing is more valuable, especially to the television market, than images of a significantly higher resolution than the medium demands. And they also feel that in the feature market, the availability of RAW recording from their 3.5K Bayer sensor will result in a 2K image that will be of sufficient quality in a digital intermediate world that is primarily using a 2K format at this point in time.

    Both of these companies, and all of their products, will be significant and important in our industry as we move forward into more digital capture. Television, for the most part, is already there, with nearly all pilots and over 60% of current single camera dramas being shot on digital cameras. This percentage will increase over the next year, to the point that by the 2011 fall season – perhaps earlier – it is very unlikely that there will be significant use of film for television production. Features will inevitably follow, although the timetable is considerably less predictable. But these cameras, as well as yet-to-come entries from companies both current (Aaton, Sony, and others) and future, are the beginning of our future as image creators. There will be lots of choices. Be educated and choose appropriately.


    3 responses to “Got RAW If You Want It” RSS icon

    • found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

    • Great informative article Mike. I can’t wait to hear your impression of NAB and especially how you think DaVinci Resolve for Mac will impact the industry.

    • Great article Mike. It was forwarded to me by my friend Jerome who is a colorist and post guru. I’m a cinematographer and he and I have debated the pro’s & con’s of the RED and digital cinema work flow countless times. It’s nice to read an article that’s level headed and not written from a fanboy place nor a hater place.

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