Pulling focus on the RED camera!

A while ago I was asked by a friend to work as a camera assistant on a short he had written and was producing. I don’t usually do AC work, and actually, I hadn’t done any real focus pulling since film school, but I’m always up for a film making challenge and they really needed somebody and I was told they were shooting on the RED camera, so I was in.

Over the last few years I’ve heard a lot of hype surrounding the RED camera and so last week I finally got the chance to work with one of these things and what better opportunity could there be to get my hands on one and see what it could do than to work with one as a 1st AC for a few days?

My initial impression of the camera was that it seemed to be pretty solidly built, and at least on the surface, it seemed to be up to the rigors of a professional film production. I found it pretty intuitive to use, and not very much unlike working with a film camera. And my goodness, the pictures coming out of the thing just looked amazing.

However, the camera was not without its faults, and there are some aspects of it that definitely remind you that it is basically a computer inside. The thing takes a good 90 seconds to “boot up”. That can seem like an eternity if the entire crew is standing around ready to go for a take and you have to shut the camera down to replace the battery, or worse, the camera randomly reboots or shuts down (this never happened while the camera was rolling, however). But I came to realize that even though that boot up time seemed ridiculously long, especially considering most other professional digital cameras and especially film cameras start up instantly, it really wasn’t that bad compared to say, changing mags on a Panavision camera…

What I was maybe most impressed by, however, was the false color exposure meter mode. I feel that if someone were to make an external scope that would maybe sit next to a vector scope and waveform monitor, and it just did what this false color display on the RED camera does, they would probably sell it for at least $5,000 or $10,000! Basically it sends a real time, color-coded view of the image that tells you the exposure level of every part of the picture, like a souped up, high resolution, full color waveform monitor.

I think the false color view is a very quick,  intuitive and valuable tool for the digital cinematographer, possibly even a game changer. I think it could take the whole “painting with light” concept to a new level. This one feature alone almost makes the whole camera worth it. It also shows the potential advantages of having a camera that is basically a computer inside, especially since they are constantly improving the firmware and making the updates available to the public. They can just keep adding more features and it can just keep getting better! I also liked the ease with which you could access the more frequently-changed settings such as frame rate, shutter speed, ISO speed and white balance.

Lens change

It is customary to have armed guards when changing lenses

One thing that I may never get over is the whole concept of erasing media you’ve previously shot on and reusing it. The first time I had to format a previously used CF card, I had to stop and announce to everyone, after verifying multiple times that we did indeed have backups, that I was erasing everything we had worked on earlier that morning. The whole idea of overwriting media that has already been used just seems so wrong to me! But hey, I guess this is the future!

The audio recording side of things was somewhat limited and dealing with the adapter for the mini-XLR jacks was kind of a pain as well. I’m not really sure we really need 4 channels of audio… maybe 2 channels with regular-sized XLR jacks would be better for most productions of the size that would record audio into the camera? And there was very little control over input levels, with the audio sections of the menus in general being somewhat non-intuitive. But I suppose these are the kinds of things that can be improved with firmware updates.

Overall I’d say that I was rather impressed by the camera and the pictures we got out of it and there’s definitely nothing out there better for the price. But for you amateurs out there, let me be quick to remind you that you will need to shell out a lot more than the cost of the camera just on decent, professional level lenses and accessories! Not to mention the fact that you need professional-level quality on every thing you put in front of the camera, as well!

And now, on to the pulling focus part of this story. As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t done any AC-ing in years and boy was I rusty. It didn’t help that the first shot of the first day was wide open on a 50mm. Needless to say, I did not deliver and we needed to switch to a wider lens to make it easier on me. But it didn’t take long for me to shake off the cobwebs and start pulling focus like a pro.

I am particularly proud of one shot in which needed the camera to pan 180° while rolling on the dolly. The camera operator and I intially tried dancing around the dolly but that proved too unstable and dangerous. I ended up sitting on the front of the dolly with the mattebox passing over my head as the camera made it’s 180° pan. I started out pulling focus on the wheel on the left side of the camera, then while continuously pulling focus, switched to the focus wheel on the right side of the camera with my other hand. I gotta say it felt pretty good to pull that off!

All in all I had a great time AC-ing… I was kind of closed to the idea of doing it before, but now I guess I’ll take whatever comes my way, haha.

— Bryan

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