Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to the RED One

In 2010, David Fincher shot the award-winning, critically acclaimed The Social Network on the RED One camera. He remarked that, “it’s light and small, and I could walk away from the set at the end of the day with a wallet full of CF cards, take them to the editorial department, download them, and go back and use them again. I call it a righteous workflow” (Prince 84). Fincher is a known supporter of digital cinema, and makes no secret of his advocacy for the perceived advantages of shooting digital over film. However, digital videography was no stranger to other filmmakers before Fincher. George Lucas is credited as one of the major influences on the popularising of digital filmmaking as a result of his decision to shoot Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) on the first full high-definition digital studio camera, the Sony HDC-F900. Following this, the Sony CineAlta range of cameras, along with several other models from leading manufacturers Panavision and Thomson were used to shoot many big budget features. However, in spite of this take up many cinematographers and directors remained unconvinced that digital video would ever surpass the quality of film stock. In 2005 Leo Enticknap commented, “feature studios have preferred to stick with film: new generations of stock remain compatible with their existing cameras, the perceived image quality of HD is not believed by most people to match the best that film can offer and as yet there is no demonstrable economic advantage in abandoning film” (224).

At the National Association of Broadcaster’s (NAB) trade show in 2006, Red Digital Cinema Camera Company founder Jim Jannard (also the founder of sunglasses brand Oakley) announced he was developing a camera designed to level the playing field. However, “all the company could offer during its first NAB show were brochures and a reservation policy. For $1000, any interested party could put down a reservation for the right to purchase the eventual camera RED was proposing” (Kadner 4). After the event and in the year that followed the RED camera was accused of being “vapourware”; a term used to describe a product that is announced but never released. A year later in April 2007, at the next NAB, the first three working RED One cameras were revealed. Jannard also revealed a surprising test reel that wasn’t a test reel at all. Instead the footage shown was a twelve-minute short titled Crossing the Line (2008) from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. The short had been shot on two alpha versions of the RED One in New Zealand over just two days of shooting (Behar). The film was a World War I action set-piece designed as a demonstration of the impressive features of Boris and Natasha (the affectionate nicknames of the alpha cameras). The short went a long way to persuading sceptics that the RED was a challenger to film stock as the preferred format for major features. According to public spokesperson for the company, Ted Schilowitz, “Jannard originally became intrigued by the idea of a digital camera that would be a no-compromise alternative for feature-movie makers […] Jannard wanted his first model to leapfrog past all current digital cameras and exceed the strictest performance specs, even for film” (Gomes). The RED One achieved film stock image quality through a number of attributes that other digital cameras did not yet possess.

The RED One used a proprietary CMOS sensor built by Jannard’s team from the ground up, based on the RAW image capture format used by DSLR stills cameras. The ‘Mysterium’ sensor was the key defining feature of the success of the RED in recreating film image quality, as it was capable of shooting footage at 4,096 lines of horizontal resolution, commonly known as 4K. Other digital cameras such as the Sony HDC-F900 were maxed out at standard HD (or 1,920 by 1,080 lines of pixels). Though film stock resolution is not readable in lines as it consists of emulsion, it is generally thought to be comparable to 4K, which meant that the best digital cameras until the RED One were shooting at less than half that. The resolution of the ‘Mysterium’ “means a sharper picture, and it also means a greater potential to enlarge and reframe shots in postproduction without losing apparent image quality […] in short, there are a lot of pixels to play with in a 4K image” (Kadner 16). Its sharp resolution and image size gave the RED the edge over other HD digital cameras and the sensor also improved upon previous HD cameras in its incredible similarity to the frame size of 35mm film.

One of the biggest challenges faced by digital filmmakers was the loss of depth of field control, “because the camera image sensor is smaller than a frame of 35mm film” (Prince 85). The term depth of field describes the distance between the closest and the farthest objects that will appear in focus (Elkins 177). Cinematographers control the length of the lens and the lens aperture in order to create a soft image and a shallow depth of field. This is one of the main contributing factors in giving features their typically ‘filmic’ aesthetic. But digital cameras have cropped sensors. This means that “typical 2K and HD digital movie cameras keep everything in focus. [However] the 4K Red One [which has a sensor that is the same size as 35mm film] is more like an analog camera, allowing depth of field control, which blurs the foreground or background” (Behar).

Along with the developments in the sensor, the RED One shot footage in 24p (progressive), which surpassed the previously used 60i (interlaced) format used in digital cameras. The change from 60i to 24p was a move which made HD digital footage more comparable to film, as cameras captured twenty-four discrete frames-per-second rather than thirty half-frames, much in the same way as film stock exposes a discrete length of film per minute. Though the RED was not the first ‘prosumer’ camera to make this change, the huge leap that Jannard’s camera made was its ability to not only shoot at 24p, but also high-speed; that is, up to 120 progressive frames per second if required. Again, though the RED was not the first camera to provide high-definition high-speed image capture, it did make high-speed accessible to a range of independent filmmakers; those without the immense budget required to over-crank film cameras or use highly specialised digital cameras (such as the Vision Research Phantom) and expensive lighting equipment (Elster).


The first feature length film to be shot entirely on the RED One was Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008). Even “though the camera was somewhat experimental, Soderbergh wanted to use it because of its portability and sensitivity to light” (Prince 84). The portability element Soderbergh valued so highly is instrumental in the ‘righteous workflow’ noted by David Fincher above. The RED uses a unique recording format known as REDCODE, which transfers data from the CMOS sensor to Compact Flash (CF) cards or hard drives as RAW files. The CF system eliminated the need for the bulky HDV tapes and the heavy mechanics used for the tape deck required by earlier digital cameras. This “makes the camera a lot lighter and a lot less mechanically complex; in fact, there are no major moving parts inside the RED One” (Kadner 16). This furthers the possibilities open to independent or ‘prosumer’ filmmakers who don’t have the budget for large, expensive grip systems, and maximises the efficiency and ease of mounting the camera on 3D rigs.

But it was the RED’s revolutionary methods of controlling and creating the image that were so economical, and so similar to 35mm film, that particularly appealed to Soderbergh and Fincher. Stephen Prince describes Che’s “very filmlike appearance, a product of the camera’s ability to handle tones, shadows and highlights with an impressive dynamic range” (84). The dynamic range refers to the range of light intensities that can be captured by a sensor. To have a wide dynamic range gives the image more depth of colour and shadow, making the highlights brighter and the blacks richer. The RED “beautifully renders Che’s landscapes and lighting tonalities, and the film’s colour pops with a carefully modulated intensity” because of the cameras dynamic range, which “has been tested to handle thirteen stops of light and with minimal noise at the low end” (Prince 84). The ‘noise’ Prince discusses is always a challenge for digital filmmakers in low light conditions, but the footage from the RED is seen to show noise in the same way that film grain is visible in images shot on film in low light.

The narrowing of the disparity between image texture on RED digital footage and film was a major achievement of Jannard and his engineers. But there was a further advantage of the RED One that edged the camera ahead of both film and other digital cameras alike; it was cheap. When Jannard first revealed the RED One at the NAB 2006, all that potential customers had to base their interests on were a brochure of tech-specs and a mock up “about the size of a loaf of bread” (Behar). However, one note in the brochure which had the reservations list packed out was the price tag: a mere $17,500. Film cameras are usually priced on a rental basis, but they carry hefty price tags many times the cost of the RED, as do many HD digital cameras. Film cameras also require the purchasing of many thousands of feet of film stock, and digital tapes require a certain amount of digital imaging work before the footage is useable in postproduction. Here the efficient and convenient workflow of the RED helps to keep the costs down; CF cards are cheap to replace and easy to transfer data from, and most of all (unlike film) they are reusable. The RED eliminates the heady costs of transferring film to 2K digital format without any compromise on image quality, unlike older HD cameras.

The price of the RED, the ability to use the same lenses as a 35mm camera, the tapeless workflow, the filmic image quality and texture, turned heads in the film industry and shaped the the debate over whether to go digital or stay analogue. Since its unveiling at NAB 2007, the RED has gone through many upgrades and changes. In 2013 RED released the Epic Dragon, which shoots footage at 6K (6,144 horizontal lines of resolution) and up to 100 frames-per-second. With specifications like these, it seems RED and its digital competitors are beginning to dominate the market. In 2011 “the last three companies still making traditional 35-millimeter film cameras […] all said, in effect, that they were getting out of the business. Film cameras would remain in inventory, but Panavision, ARRI, and Aaton announced that from here on out, all their new models will be digital” (Gomes). The Red One’s formative role in the contemporary cinema can hardly be underestimated.


Behar, Michael. “Analog Meets its Match in Red Digital Cinema’s Ultrahigh-Res Camera”. Wired. 8 Aug. 2008. Web. Feb. 15. 2014.

Elkins, David E. The Camera Assistant’s Manual (Third Edition). Woburn, MA: Focal Press, 2000. Print.

Elster, Carl. “How to Shoot High-Speed”. 2014. Web. Feb 15. 2014.

Enticknap, Leo. Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital. London: Wallflower, 2005. Print.

Gomes, Lee. “Red: The Camera That Changed Hollywood”. MIT Technology Review. 19 Dec. 2011. Web. Mar 24. 2014.

Kadner, Noah. RED: The Ultimate Guide to Using the Revolutionary Camera. Berkley, CA: Peachpit, 2010. Print.

Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. New Jersey: Rutgers, 2012. Print.

Written by Jake Stickley (2014); Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2013 Jake Stickley/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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