September 2011

The RED Revolution

Hollywood’s homegrown, ultrahigh-resolution digital motion-picture camera unspools the supremacy of film

MATTHEW
FLEISCHER

Ted Schilowitz is all smiles as he strolls the grounds of the former Ren-Mar Studios. In long blue and white surf shorts, a T-shirt and sandals, he looks like he’s at the beach—not at the headquarters of an emerging Hollywood power player. Steps away, Steven Soderbergh is in his office putting the finishing touches on his film Contagion.

There’s a good chance David Fincher may be coming in today for test shoots. “This studio was one of the M’s in the original MGM,” Schilo-witz tells me, beaming. “Desi Arnaz bought it in the ’50s, and it became Desilu Studios. They shot I Love Lucy here!”

For all I know, Schilowitz’s kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm may come naturally, but I’m guessing it has a little something to do with the fact he’s helped preside over one of the most meteoric rises in recent Holly-wood history.

A year ago, Ren-Mar became RED Studios, home of the Red One camera, and Schilowitz became the public face of RED, since billionaire owner Jim Jannard, who made his fortune with leading-edge optics and apparel company Oakley, is notoriously press shy. He was the first person brought on board when avid photographer and cinephile Jannard decided in 2005 he wanted to bring the quality of still-camera digital photography to the world of motion pictures. “At the time, there were a number of com-panies presenting glorified video cameras as cinema devices,” says Schilowitz. “That wasn’t good enough.”

The result was the Red One. With 4K resolution, the Red One had roughly four times the number of pixels as its closest HD competitors, giving it an image quality on par with 35mm film. For nearly three years, the Red One’s resolution was unrivaled—until ARRI Digital’s 3.5K Alexa launched last year. That camera, however, has a price tag nearly double the Red One’s $25,000 cost. It’s often less to buy a Red One than it is to rent a film camera—and that helped earn it the Industry nickname Panavision Killer.

Since the camera’s inception, four Red One films have won Oscars: The Secret in Their Eyes, In a Better World, Inside Job and, most famously, The Social Network. Schilowitz says on any given day in L.A. there may be 500 Red One shoots. The company has sold some 10,000 worldwide.

But things weren’t always all smiles and Soderbergh. Back when Jannard first brought in Schilowitz, the idea of a 4K digital camera was Loch Ness Monster lunacy to a business that had seemingly resigned itself to 1080p HD being as good as it gets. There was also the little problem of having the offices in Lake Forest, far from the heartbeat of Hollywood. “They don’t call it the Orange curtain for nothing,” says Schilowitz. “It’s an hour away, but it might as well be in Idaho.”

Orange County or no, RED was lucky enough in 2007 to get on Peter Jackson’s radar, who offered to shoot a test with a pair of Red One prototypes named “Boris” and “Natasha.” He came back a few weeks later with a 15-minute, high-intensity World War I action short called Crossing the Line. “Peter had a camera up in a helicopter, on cranes,” Schilowitz says with a laugh. “That model wasn’t built to leave the studio.”

Still, Schilowitz and Jannard were thrilled. They screened Jackson’s film a few months later at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas. Studio reps from Fox, Warner Bros. and Universal, as well as such producers as Dean Devlin, were in attendance. So were reps from RED’s prospective rivals. It was the motion-image debut of the camera. “Until that point, people were kind of laughing at us. There were a lot of pale faces after that screening. People were saying, ‘Hey, these guys might actually pull this off.’ ”

After a follow-up screening in Hollywood, Soderbergh committed to shooting both parts of his Che Guevara bio-epic on the Red One, and the camera gained a foothold in the indie world, where the stigma of digital was secondary to minimizing costs.

The Book of Eli’s Albert Hughes says, “The game has changed, and it’s due to RED. They’ve definitely put a fire under the ass of this industry.”

Hollywood was intrigued, yet the technology remained largely under the radar of public consciousness until director Neill Blomkamp used it in his Oscar-nominated sci-fi film District 9—a $30 million project with what looked like $200 million in effects. “We’d had a good insider reputation for some time,” says Schilowitz, “but if you didn’t know who we were after District 9, you weren’t paying attention.”

“The Red One lets you get the shots needed, you can shoot longer takes, and it’s cheaper over time,” Blomkamp told me last year in an interview with him for this magazine.

Albert Hughes, who directed the 2010 film The Book of Eli along with his brother, Allen, agrees with Blomkamp’s take. Their $80 million Warner Bros. movie was the first big studio film to use the Red One. “My brother and I always considered ourselves film purists,” says Hughes. “We never wanted to go digital. But after my experience with the Red One, I don’t see myself ever going back to film.”

Hughes says he still gets backlash on the move to digital when he hits the festival circuit, but he doesn’t care. “For me it’s the ease of use. By the end of the day, I’m looking at the dailies with effects. And the image quality is beautiful. The game has changed, and it’s due to RED. They’ve definitely put a fire under the ass of this industry. I hope Panavision and ARRI start getting their acts together.”

Indeed, Panavision built the pioneering digital 2K Genesis in 2004, but it hasn’t put out a new camera since. “There’s no doubt we’re competing with cameras that have the technological edge,” says Panavision executive VP of marketing Phil Radin, who says the company is in the research and development stage on a high-end digital-camera system. “Throughout Panavision’s history, new film cameras were developed every five to seven years. Modern cameras are more akin to computers in how often they need to be introduced to the marketplace. We are not conceding the market to anyone. We’re adapting.”

If those plans sound vague, be assured Panavision isn’t going anywhere. Though its cameras may be outmatched, its lenses remain the gold standard.

So Panavision can still figure things out, but catching up won’t be easy. RED just put the finishing touches on a 5K camera called the Epic. It has 60 percent greater resolution than the Red One, it’s a third of the size, and it weighs an anorexic five pounds. The Epic will make its feature debut in the latest Spider-Man reboot—a Sony film. Sony, if you haven’t heard, happens to make a camera or two itself. Amazing Spider-Man director of photography John Schwartzman, ASC, says using a non-Sony camera for a Sony franchise blockbuster was virtually unheard of—but necessity dictated the use of the Epic. “I love film,” he says. “But if you’re shooting 3-D, you have to shoot digital.”

The reasons are simple: 2-D retrofitting—shooting on film and then converting to 3-D—has earned a horrible reputation with the moviegoing public, which considers it a cynical ploy to extract more of their cash. Shooting in 3-D, however, requires twin-mounted cameras. Traditional film cameras are often considered too heavy and bulky to mount side by side and still pull off the elaborate crane, handheld and tight-space shots expected of any visually intensive 21st-century blockbuster.

The only camera that could pull off those shots in cinema-quality 3-D was RED’s Epic. “I can fit five Epics on the hood of a car, and they weigh nothing,” says Schwartzman. “These things are not much bigger than a still camera. I said to Sony, if you can build me a digital camera that can shoot 5K, weighs five pounds and has a data recorder the size of a Hershey bar, I’ll use it.” It couldn’t.

But there was still the little matter of getting RED on board. The company was already talking with Peter Jackson about using the Epic prototype for his eagerly awaited Lord of the Rings prequel series The Hobbit. But production delays gave Schwartzman the window he needed. “I got in there and told Jim [Jannard], ’How would you like to shoot a Sony movie on a Sony lot?’ That’s as big as it gets.”

Jannard agreed. Eight months later, Epic footage of a first-person Spider-Man web-slinging through New York had fanboys wetting themselves at this year’s Comic-Con. “There’s no question this is the future,” says Schwartzman of the RED Epic. “The genie isn’t going back in the bottle. This is the first time I felt like I’m not giving anything up. You can go home at night and know you’ve got it.”

With no other comparable device out there—RED stands poised to capture nearly the entire market share of Holly-wood’s growing 3-D fetish. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is shooting on Epic, James Cameron recently purchased 50 of the cameras, and at long last, Jackson’s Hobbit films are being shot right now in New Zealand.

No wonder Schilowitz is smiling. “We were definitely behind that Orange curtain,” says Schilowitz, reflecting back to the company’s Lake Forest days.

Not any longer.

MATTHEW FLEISCHER is a Los Angeles–based writer, editor and blogger. He can be reached at mattefleischer@yahoo.com.