Since November 3, I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole independent cinematography industry. Some amazing things are happening, even if they aren’t exactly where we want them to be. There is MOVEMENT, which is perhaps tantamount to all else. And so, for the three people out there that are actually interested in yet another opinion on the matter, here’s what I’ve been thinking. Feel free to bring up flaws in my logic or start a rant of your own in the comments.
First of all, we need to talk about this whole Canon C300 announcement. Aside from the fact that it was the worst product announcement I’ve ever seen in my life (was it TWO HOURS into the announcement before they finally revealed anything about the camera?? Really? Am I the only one with a threshold for boredom here? And then they didn’t announce price or availability until someone asked about it during the Q&A at the end?), after all that the product wasn’t all that amazing.
Then there was the Red Scarlet announcement. And their servers crashed, so that was probably a close second place behind Canon of worst announcement experience ever. But the cessation of information dispensation did not stop it from blowing my mind and enthralling me. I loved what I was hearing. And when contrasting the Red announcement with the Canon announcement, even the way that the information got out seemed very similar to the end of the US Civil War, with the losing team showing up nicely dressed and polished, and the winning team exhausted from working so hard.
My reasoning for loving the Scarlet is really different than what you might think, though. To me, it’s not about price (and actually, the Canon will end up being MUCH cheaper than the Scarlet in order to make them comparable – more on that later) or even about specs. To me, it’s about forward motion. It’s about moving the entire filmmaking industry forward. There are a lot of people smarter than me that would disagree, but in my mind, Canon just released another camera, like when Panasonic went from the HVX200 to the HPX170. Sure, it’s a bump up, but… meh.
1080p at 24fps and 720p at 60fps? My Canon 7D does that. Heck, my PHONE can just about do that. Obviously frame rates and pixel dimensions don’t specify whether a camera is “good” or not. But as an independent filmmaker, if I’m going to be forking out many many thousands of dollars, I want a camera that’s going to last a while. When I bought the iPhone 4S, after making out with Siri for a few hours and taking some surprisingly decent 1080p video, it dawned on me that this phone is going to look like a rusty turd next year when the next iPhone is out. But that’s fine. I go into my Apple purchases realizing that Apple will give me exactly one year before it ends the love affair with that product and has me yearning for something new.
But when I spend tens of thousands of dollars, I expect some staying power. I expect that whatever I get is going to continue to tug on my heart strings for years. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when the Canon 5D Mark II was released – right after I paid about $7,000 for a Panasonic HPX170 and a bulky, awkward 35mm lens adapter that I set up once, and HATE. But that taught me a valuable lesson – if you’re going to spend serious money, do it on products that are moving the industry forward. I bought a Canon 7D and have never regretted it, because it was a massive step in the right direction. At about $1700, it changed everything for me, and has been one of my favorite tools of any kind. Ever.
And now I’m ready to graduate from my Canon 7D to something more. With how fast the entire industry is changing, I don’t want to spend the money on an Epic or an Alexa. And this Canon C300 is really not a massive step in the right direction. But I think the Red Scarlet is. Do I need 4k right now? Nope (well, kinda – 4k scaled down to 2k is much better than any image I’ve ever seen that starts at ~2k off the camera). Is the dynamic range of the C300 already way better than the 7D? Sure. But I’ll take the 18 stops of latitude in HDRx instead, thank you. And is the C300′s MPEG compression better than the 7D’s current H.264 offering? Yep, but I’d rather shoot RAW, with next to no compression (visually anyway).
But it goes even further than that for me. Canon could have easily done some really great things here, and they didn’t. For example, you can purchase two different kinds of C300′s: one with a PL lens mount and one with the EF lens mount. But you have to pick a horse and ride it, because there are no horse changes here. If you get an EF mount, and you happen to get PL-curious down the road, you’re stuck. I prefer the ability to use both if I need to, without the need for buying an entirely new camera. Red understands that I’m not a lens racist and gives me all kinds of choices, for a much smaller fee than buying an entirely new camera.
Another thing that boggles my mind is this thing about autofocus. I’ve heard from a few different places that the Red Scarlet can understand and interface with the autofocus on Canon lenses, but the Canon C300 can’t do that. I’m not going to hold this against Canon, because I’m sure this just something I’m missing and don’t understand. This can’t possibly be correct. Red can’t work with Canon lenses better than Canon does, right? Right??
In other unbelievable items, the Canon can’t take still images. I can’t wrap my head around this one. They are the ones that started the DSLR revolution with this camera that was so handy, in part because it took great stills AND video. For many filmmakers, this isn’t that big of a deal. But I LOVE the ability to take stills. I use it in pre-production as I’m scouting locations or trying to get a sense of what a location looks like at a certain time of day. Sure, I can do this with my iPhone, but it’s so much better to capture those shots with the actual camera that I’m going to be using for production. I also use stills for visual effects. For my workflow, I often use parts of still images that I can cut up and animate, or it might be more feasible to take a still and then animate it with projection mapping than it would to actually shoot some crazy shot. I really don’t like lugging around multiple cameras for this type of thing. Unless I missed something in the C300′s spec sheet, point Red on this one.
I know that the Canon also produces just beautiful images, but when doing visual effects and color correction, I really want as much data as possible. The Canon does 8-bit 4:2:2 at its best, while the Red does 16-bit RAW. This is HUGE to me. Canon also uses long-GOP MPEG compression, which I’ve had a beast of a time editing with natively in the past. Now, I’m the first one to admit that this might be something I’m doing wrong. But I know that when I drop in a 4k R3D (Red RAW) file into Premiere, it just works. You wouldn’t think that a file FOUR TIMES the size of HD that is also RAW would work at all, but it does. Compression method is everything; far more important than video dimensions, at least for efficient editing. I’m making a bunch of admittedly ignorant assumptions here, but I’m going to preemptively give this one to Red as well. Their codec is just amazing. Then again, if I had to edit a feature with both, and had to transcode loads of both, I might change my tune.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Red fan boy really. I admire a lot of what they’re doing, but they’ve made a lot of mistakes. For example, I ordered my Scarlet within minutes of it going on sale, and even though they’re supposed to start shipping today, I haven’t heard anything. They took a $1500 deposit from me, and then haven’t been in contact in a month. At all. It would cost $10 for them to pay a customer service person to call me and just let me know that they are aware that I bought a camera, and give me a ballpark of when I can expect it, since it will obviously be sometime after it’s released. And they’ve been in constant backorder on many of the items they sell since the time they went on sale. I understand limiting supply in an effort to increase demand, but they take it to a ridiculous level. They had a month to prepare for the announcement of Scarlet, then another month to prepare for the launch of Scarlet today, and they couldn’t even deliver the orders placed within minutes of it going on sale. Why would you put something on sale if you couldn’t even fulfill the orders of people that ordered the first day, let alone the first HOUR?!? There have been thousands of orders placed since then. When will those people ever get their cameras? Hopefully by Christmas. In 2012. Good luck planning the shoots that you need to put food on the table. So as a company, Red has a lot to work on in the fulfillment department.
The Canon C300 also has a lot of benefits over the Scarlet. First of all, it’s more compact, complete, and weighs about half of what Scarlet weighs before you even add all of the things you need to make Scarlet functional. The Canon is also way more self-contained. The C300 has built in ND filters. That’s AWESOME. The Canon also has XLR inputs. To get the Scarlet doing the same thing, it takes about an extra $3000.
And speaking of money, people are giving Canon a hard time because they think the C300 $20,000 and Scarlet is less than $10,000. This is kind of ridiculous, because Canon’s price is artificially inflated and Red’s price is artificially scaled down. The $10,000 Scarlet is just a brain. That’s it. Completely unusable. To get it up to operating speed, you need some way to store batteries, some way to display the image, and some way to store the recorded footage. Canon comes with all of that stuff out of the box. When taking into consideration that Canon’s price is probably the MSRP, and will probably be sold for much less, the prices for both cameras are about the same.
But are they really? No, they’re not. The Canon is actually far cheaper to use in practice. Even if we didn’t get Red Pro I/O box that allows XLR inputs and even if we didn’t get the almost FIVE THOUSAND DOLLAR Red Rocket graphics card (that many users swear is necessary to use Red footage effectively) – even if we didn’t get these arguably necessary extras which would push the Scarlet to thousands of dollars above even the worst case scenario price of the Canon, the operating costs of the Red are far beyond that of the Canon.
The C300 can record to Compact Flash cards. Scarlet records to SSD cards that are almost SIX TIMES more expensive. On top of that, those cards (64GB CF) in a Canon records over an hour and a half of footage, whereas the same card in the Scarlet can get about 19 minutes before it fills up. At $1000 for 19 minutes of footage (at 4k), that’s not that much footage for a lot of money. Although the prices of the batteries are about the same, in standby mode (without even using the camera), a $200 Scarlet battery will last 36 minutes. THIRTY SIX MINUTES! I’ve had longer bowel movements. That basically means that on a 10 hour shoot on location, you’ll need almost TWENTY batteries (~$4000), assuming you don’t have the ability to charge them and assuming you don’t actually record any footage, in which case you would need more. And let’s not forget the media storage, which will be significantly more expensive for RAW 4k than it will be for compressed 8-bit MPEG files. So, yeah – I think Canon wins the battle of price. (Although, I should point out, the fact that Red lets you purchase the camera in pieces like this is kind of like a layaway plan for filmmakers on a budget. Buy what you can, and then you can rent the rest until you get the full set).
So, why did I end up choosing to buy a Red Scarlet instead of the Canon C300? Well, for me, this is an investment as much as it’s a camera. This is not some practice tool. I’m really going to use this camera to make money. And as I invest, I’m looking to invest wisely. I wanted to invest in a COMPANY, not just a camera. When I look at the history of what Canon has done and what Red has done, I’d put money on Red. Every time. Years after the Red One was released, and after they had already moved on and started developing the Epic and Scarlet cameras, Red still put out FREE firmware upgrades that added more functionality to their cameras and increased their specs. Who does that? They also created and released new color technologies that would help add better processing to their RAW files, and users could use this retroactively, even to stuff they’ve already shot. All for free. They came up with a software application that would adjust the color of RAW files, transcode the media, edit it, etc. They give it out for free on their website. And the’ve updated it twice in the last few weeks. They also came out with the Red MX sensor upgrade, so you could pay a bit of cash and completely pimp out your Red One with an entirely new, better sensor. The Red Epic camera still isn’t officially available to the public, and they’ve already increased the specs on it through a retroactive firmware upgrade. Free? Yep. People were waiting in line as it was, and they’re STILL improving it!
Has Canon ever done anything like this? Will Canon ever give me the opportunity to make my 7D significantly better? Of course not. And not only that, but they’ve locked the blessed saints that make Magic Lantern from being able to add key features that would save my life like audio levels, zebras, etc. Why would I want to invest in a company like that? Canon didn’t make the camera as good as it needed to be, so then someone else volunteered to do it for them for free, and then they blocked that effort?? Really? Well, you can suck it, Canon.
Red has already bumped up the specs for Scarlet, even before it shipped. It was stated at the announcement that HDRx was not available in 4k in the Scarlet. I bought it anyway. Then it was stated that it’s going to be added in a firmware upgrade later. I love that. Red’s new motto is “obsolescence is obsolete”. In other words, they get how annoying it is to have to scrap your camera and get an entirely new camera when a new one comes out and you want some new feature. At that point, you not only have to scrap your camera, but a lot of your compatible gear. Red is trying to fix that, and they’ve already lived up to their promise. The Epic and Scarlet can share virtually all accessories. So if you need to rent an Epic for a day, all of your Scarlet gear will work. They’ve already announced that their next big step is not a new camera, but a new sensor (the “dragon” sensor), and it’s an upgrade that Epic and Scarlet users can pay for.
On the other side of things, my 7D purchase doesn’t help me at all if I want to get the C300. My batteries won’t even work in it. And Canon has already announced an upcoming 4k DSLR camera that will surely be targeted at the same audience as the C300 is (who else besides filmmakers has any desire to shoot 4k video?). Your C300 will be obsolete, and you’ll have to start all over again with the purchases. With Red, everything costs more, but it will stay good for longer. Canon has millions of projects going on. They won’t miss your money. They are too big to care about individual customers; they care about whole industries. Red only has these cameras. This is their future. They don’t make printers or fax machines. If the Epic and Scarlet fail, the entire company is toast, and they know it, and they work like it. The president of Canon would never talk to you. The president of Red talks personally to users on the Reduser forums all the time. And you can tell that filmmaking and cinematography are his passion, not just his business.
So, I’ve switched from a Canon customer to a Red customer. Thus far, I’m suffering from Red’s track record of not delivering and keeping their customers in the dark. And it sucks more than you think it would. But I still have confidence for now that I’ve made the right choice. I’m going into pre-production on a feature film in a couple weeks, so I’ll be doing a lot of camera tests and writing a lot about my experiences with it. No matter which team you’re on, this is without question the most exciting time to be an independent filmmaker that has ever happened in the history of ever. It’s easier and cheaper than ever to make a Hollywood-looking movie on your own. Life is amazing. Go shoot the crap out of it.
Creator of Movies & Computers. Filmmaker. Author of How to Cheat in After Effects, The After Effects Illusionist, and of several video training series on Lynda.com, Video2Brain, Total Training, and VTC.