Analog Meets Its Match in Red Digital Cinema’s Ultrahigh-Res Camera

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Michael Behar of Wired says that Analog Meets Its Match in Red Digital Cinema’s Ultrahigh-Res Camera — but I find the company’s founder just as fascinating:

Jim Jannard, 59, is the billionaire founder of Red. In 1975 he spent $300 to make a batch of custom motocross handlebar grips, which he sold from the back of a van. He named his company Oakley, after his English setter, and eventually expanded into sci-fi-style sunglasses, bags, and shoes. In November of last year he sold the business to Luxottica, the owner of Ray-Ban, for a reported $2.1 billion.

OK, you’re wondering, so what’s so cool about this camera?

His team of engineers and scientists have created the first digital movie camera that matches the detail and richness of analog film. The Red One records motion in a whopping 4,096 lines of horizontal resolution — “4K” in filmmaker lingo — and 2,304 of vertical. For comparison, hi-def digital movies like Sin City and the Star Wars prequels top out at 1,920 by 1,080, just like your HDTV. (There’s also a slightly higher-resolution option called 2K that reaches 2,048 lines by 1,080.) Film doesn’t have pixels, but the industry-standard 35-millimeter stock has a visual resolution roughly equivalent to 4K. And that’s what makes the Red so exciting: It delivers all the dazzle of analog, but it’s easier to use and cheaper — by orders of magnitude — than a film camera. In other words, Jannard’s creation threatens to make 35-mm movie film obsolete.
Soderbergh took two prototypes into the Spanish wilderness. “It felt like someone crawled inside my head when they designed the Red,” he says. What impressed him most was the cameras’ sturdiness. Movie sets are often a flurry of crashes and explosions, which can vibrate sensitive electronics, introducing visual noise known as microphonics into images. “A lot of cameras with electronics in them, if you fired a 50-caliber automatic weapon a few inches away — which we did — you’d get microphonics all over the place,” Soderbergh says. “We beat the shit out of the Reds on the Che films, and they never skipped a beat.”

Then there’s the economics: The Red One sells for $17,500 — almost 90 percent less than its nearest HD competitor. The savings are even greater relative to a conventional film camera. Not that anyone buys those; filmmakers rent them, usually from Panavision, an industry stalwart in Woodland Hills, California. Panavision doesn’t publicize its rates, but a Panavision New Zealand rental catalog quotes $25,296 for a four-week shoot — more than the cost of purchasing a Red. “It’s clearly the future of cinematography,” Peter Hyams says. “You can buy this camera. You can own it. That’s why people are excited.”

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