RED vs. Alexa, depends on the job

Occupying the niche in the industry that I do (as a colorist not associated with a lab or telecine house), I grade mostly digitally captured images, and I have to admit that I was tremendously excited when the Alexa came onto the scene.

I’ve worked as a DP for more than a decade, and I’ve consistently loved Arri’s product.  I also respected how they have handled the transition to digital, the care, research and planning that went into it.  It was clear that Arri was taking digital capture seriously and wanted to come out with a project that made traditional cinematographers satisfied.

However, now that I’ve graded close to a dozen spots captured on the Alexa, I have to admit, it’s not the right tool for every job.

There are two main area’s where the RED still beats the Alexa, and that’s re-framing (cropping in from the 4k image) and RAW.  Now, I know RAW capture is available for the Alexa, but right now I haven’t booked a grading job for Arri Raw, my clients prefer to capture LogC to ProRes.

First off, re-framing.  Re-framing wasn’t a priority for most filmmakers until the RED; we had all started on film, where re-framing was pricy and lost resolution, or we worked on standard def video, where it was easy as chips but looked awful.  So, even once we switched over to HD  and digital finish for film jobs, re-framing just wasn’t a top priority on the list for most people.  We had a habit of not re-framing, so people, by and large, didn’t very much.

Once the RED came along, that changed.  Producer’s realized that you could get both your medium and close-up shots out of the same shot (if you shot 4K and finished 1080P), so the constant refrain was heard on set “remember, you can crop in post, so shoot loose and frame it later and keep moving.”  I’m not kidding, folks really said that.

And you know what?  Many people changed the way they shot.  Framed a little wider than they would normally, to protect themselves, knowing they could always punch in later.  Maybe they saved time on set by not shooting the ECU they wanted, knowing they could pull it from the CU.  In the time crunch of production, and knowing that you could easily crop into RED 25-30% without much visible quality loss at 1080p, it was a smart, efficient decision.

One caveat; because of the Bayer sensor, you can’t actually crop in fully down to 50% image size without noticeable degradation in your image, which is an article for another time.

But now the horse is out of the barn, and director’s, producers and editors are used to that re-framing.  To go back to a straight 1920x1080 format, that offers no room to re-frame is a very tough proposition now; it’s like putting toothpaste back in a tube.

For instance, on one of the spots I just graded shot on Alexa, the DP was pushing to do a close-up, but the producer pushed them to move on, which is a valid point for a producer to make; they have a budget to hit, and time is money on set.  They didn’t shoot the close-up, the producer won the argument.  In post, the director wanted his close-up, and the editor, used to RED footage, punched into the master.  However, since it’s a punch in on 1920x1080 (not 4K), the punch-in is to my eye very noticeable and you see artifacting.

The other big drawback is that you can’t capture RAW.  One of the spots I worked on was with a major DP given the time and support to work as he wanted to, who nailed every exposure perfectly and dialed in precisely the look he wanted in camera, including being on top of every menu setting.  I did some massaging, some light vignetteing, a tiny amount of matching, but I don’t think I changed any shot more than 10%.  Still worth bringing me in, that final 5-10% can really make a spot sing, but I didn’t have to do anything major.  That’s where LogC excels.

I had another spot, run and gun (meaning not a lot of time to light, set exposure, etc.).  Through no fault to the filmmakers, the footage needed more help.  And to be honest, the Alexa, though it had a wide latitude, felt “thin” compared to grading from the RAW.  For once scene, the kelvin balance was off, which left some color artifacts after correction and felt more like 5D than RED (where you just pull down the menu and set the kelvin that works).  It was both surprising and frustrating to be back to grading that sort of footage after the luxury of grading RAW footage straight from the RED for so many projects.

For these two reasons, I think the Alexa makes the most sense for episodic television, docs and a certain kind of indie features, or any sort of project where you are likely to be shooting a tremendous volume of footage and are comfortable with it’s limitations, at least when working LogC ProRes.  It simplified the post workflow tremendously, which is very useful when working on a tight deadline basis (no transcodes!  Grade the ProRes without having to re-link to Raw!). 

  For a commercial or music video, where there is typically less footage shot and the ability to re-frame and go into detail with the grade are really valued, I think RED is still the smart move.    

Also, for indie features where you won’t have as much time to light, I’d still push to shoot RED to give the most room possible in post to smooth out the grade.

Especially since RED rental rates are going down with the Alexa and the Epic in town, I think right now RED offers an unbeatable price/result ratio


DA VINCI for Free is the best marketing strategy ever

Some colorists I have talked to have been very disappointed to discover that Blackmagic Da Vinci is about to be offered for free (or at least a slightly limited version).  Even though I will still be buying the software (the limitations of the free version will be a bit too much for me to use it as I need), I think this is the smartest possible thing that Blackmagic could have done, and I applaud them for it.

I am a capitalist at heart, and I have a tremendous respect for free enterprise.  Part of that is having a respect for salesmanship, which is creating value in your product that makes people willing to pay for it.  And the best way for Da Vinci to do that is to give it away for free.

A friend of mine once suggested that Final Cut Pro is easy to pirate on purpose, since  “Everyone who steals final cut pro has to buy a Mac.”  While that doesn’t sound much like what I know about Steve Jobs (I think he would've like us to purchase both), but it raises an interesting point.  FCP being very easy to pirate has both sold a lot of Mac’s and helped increased market share.

There are many, many reasons that Final Cut has pulled ahead in the marketplace, but piracy is undeniably one of them.  Any high school or college kid with a leisurely interest in editing or movies can crack it and play with it and learn it.  Those same kids are the folks who later end up working as editors or starting their own production companies.  And what do those editors and companies work with?  Final Cut, which they then purchase, because they know it so well.  With this scenario, piracy is a sales tool.

Software is a hard thing to sell, because no matter how cool it does something, its intimidating to the uninitiated.  I personally feel a bit of reluctance learning new systems to grade on, despite at this point being able to work professionally on 3 platforms (Da Vinci, Scratch and Color).  I thought about learning Quintal Pablo the other day, and I feel exhausted by the thought.  Software always seems harder than it is.

How do you get potential customers to believe that software is easier to use and more powerful?  Let them use it for free, become familiar with it, and they’ll grow attached to it.

You might argue that Da Vinci and Mac are in different boats, since Mac has hardware to sell, but so does Da Vinci:   Da Vinci for Mac requires a card made by Blackmagic, who, coincidentally, own Da Vinci. 

Also, free Da Vinci is limited to the basics; enough to get you hooked, without being enough to really deliver professional level work.

Right now, Da Vinci’s big competition is APPLE COLOR, which is effectively free.  All of the post houses where I work paid for their copy of Final Cut Studio, but when they did so, to their mind they got a “free” copy of Color along with it; they would’ve paid the same to buy Final Cut without Color. 

I have a pretty healthy number of clients who finish high-end, national broadcast spots in COLOR, hiring me as a freelance colorist to come in and do a grade.  Why?  Because they already owned COLOR,  the clients are already used to coming to the edit room, and they can control time and costs that way.  In all of those production companies and editorial houses, I’ve talked to the staff about Da Vinci, and they are all “thinking about it.”

They were all reluctant to use Color at first, because they were used to going to traditional color grading houses.  But then someone would start playing with that Color thing, realize how powerful it is, maybe finish a few small jobs in it, and voila, the world started to change.

Why haven’t they jumped to Da Vinci?  Because it’s $1000 and they aren’t sure what it can do.  Once it’s free, their assistant editor or some post coordinator will download and install and play with it.  See how it’s better than Color (and it is, at least for now), and then when a spot comes in that needs the full complement of tools, they’ll plunk down the $1K for full Da Vinci without a second thought.

More and more people will start to use Da Vinci, will start to feel comfortable and familiar with it, and it will gradually begin to infiltrate the whole marketplace.  It’s major competitor isn’t even Color (though we’ll see what happens with that app), it’s Baselight’s new Final Cut Plugin, that is supposed to give you a Baselight quality toolset right in FCP (saving you the roundtrip). 

 I can understand the frustration of those who put tremendous time and money into building traditional Da Vinci suites, but Da Vinci are making the decisions they have to make to grow and survive in a rapidly changing marketplace.  Like editorial went through when FCP hit the streets, the process of color grading is becoming more and more purely about the talent of the colorist and less about the tool used, but there will still be tremendous benefits to be the dominant tool, even if you’re going to be making your money on volume instead of massive margins.

EPIC and the change in RED from Consumer pricing to Professional Pricing

The RED Epic-M, originally announced to be $40K, is now up to  $58K.  Admittedly, it does more than the RED ONE, which cost only $17K, but does it do 3 1/2 times more?  And also, don’t camera’s always come out every few years that do more and stay the same price?  For instance, a top of the line Canon DSLR from right now costs about what a top of the line Canon DSLR did when the RED ONE came out 4 years ago, but does way more for that same price.  Camera’s are fancy computers, and computers keep getting both better and cheaper.

So, what gives?

In a nutshell, RED is switching from pricing at the consumer level to pricing at the professional level, which is an overall a good thing.

If you are unfamiliar with the distinction, consumer’s purchase products for their own personal use, and professionals purchase products for business use.  Compare something like sunglasses, say, which you buy to wear, versus a contractor who invests $350 in top quality tools.

Consumer businesses depend on volume to survive, while professional business’s depend on margin, meaning a high mark-up.  Think about a product like a digital camera, or a non-apple cell phone.  The manufacturer profits a very small percentage on each unit sold, but makes their profits on tremendous volume of products moved.  Motorola sold millions of RAZR phones per year, so even if they only profited $10 per phone, that could ad up to quite a bit of money.

However, when that phone breaks, what happens?  It’s hard to get Motorola on the phone.  A replacement involves a trip to the store, and often waiting a few weeks while you mail your current one in for warranty repair.  Would you want your business, your livelihood, to depend on something like that?

Compare that to the carpenter’s tools.  Sure, their $350 Dealt drill-driver costs 10 times as much as the little black & decker, but it’s worth it.    Even though a huge amount of that (I’m guessing, but maybe as much as 75%) is just pure mark-up profit for the manufacturer.

First off, because the professional tool is designed to undergo day-in, day-out rigor, and a customer service infrastructure is built-in (and paid for by that increased cost) to support you when your tool breaks down.  If you’re on a job, and your gear goes down, it costs you money.  As a contractor, you might loose the job altogether if your tools can’t handle it; as a DP, you might loose hours of set time dealing with finicky equipment.

But more importantly, it’s worth it because that tool pays for itself.  Since you use it in work (and in some fields, like film and medicine, bill directly for your tools use), the tool not only pays itself off but then generates money for you.  It costs more money, but because you can rent it out, in the long run it’s a profit center.

Nobody rents out consumer goods (ever tried to rent a RAZR?  Just buy one on craigslist for $20).  But professional goods can earn you money, so it makes sense that they cost more.  They are built stronger, and have a corporate level of support, that requires a higher cost, but it’s the right cost.

This is why I’m excited that the Epic-M costs $58K.  Because it’s a signal to me that RED is switching to a Professional business model, as opposed to a consumer model.

The REDONE wouldn’t exist without the brilliant idea to create a digital cinema camera around a consumer business model.  It was a revolution for the industry, whose effects large and small are still being felt and will be for time to come.  But, now that the revolution has occurred, especially considering the economic climate, it’s time for RED to go after a professional, not a consumer, market.

RED as a consumer company was a blessing, but it was also a curse.  Without their consumer model, they wouldn’t have worked so hard to bring a camera to market that did everything they advertised for only $17K (or $22K with the new sensor).  It was truly ground breaking.

But once professionals got their hands on it, there was some friction.  I remember one RED event where a professional asked a very reasonable question, and it sounded like the RED rep was shocked and annoyed.  I couldn’t figure out why, it seemed arrogant, then it hit me:

This was a company founded by a sunglasses maker.  If I walked up to Jim Jannard while he was at Oakley and said “I hear you used Polycarbonate OxyCetylne-12 in your lens’s, but that doesn’t properly block all UV at irradiated angles (I made all that up, by the way)” he’d laugh in my face.  That’s not how consumers deal with products; I’d come off like a conspiracy theory nut, and he’d be right to be annoyed by me.  Try asking someone at best buy about anything, really, and when you go into too much detail they get uncomfortable.  Detail isn’t for consumers, it’s for Pros.

Jannard once described his perfect client, Steve Soderbergh, as being someone who never complained, was always grateful and excited for whatever the camera could do.  That’s not a professional, that’s a consumer.  Soderbergh is powerful enough within his field, and well financed enough, that in a weird way, he’s kind of a consumer again.  He can adapt his projects to the camera, and spend money in post to clean up problems if they occur.  He is as much his own boss as anyone gets to be in the film industry.

But for the rest of us, we’re not that powerful, we have clients of our own who have needs from us, and hire us to deliver on those needs.  We ask questions and want detail and need support not because we’re suspicious, but because we’re turning around to our own clients and staking our name and reputation on the equipment that we invest in.  We CAN’T be like Soderbergh, as much as we might want to be, because our living depends on understanding the

camera’s and being able to deliver professional results with them.


I hope that the $58K price point is a sign that RED is acknowledging that if you are making digital cinema camera’s, you are delivering a professional product.  Whatever the margin was on the RED ONE (they might have lost money on them, for all I know, and made it back on the accessories), I hope it’s a very healthy one on the Epic.  Because professional products deserve a healthy mark-up, to pay for build quality (though the RED one was well built, no complaints there), and to pay for customer service and support that enable it to be a true professional tool.


Also, because of the economy, the volume on this camera is going to be lower.  Even though the economy is recovering, loans are harder to get than they were in 07/08, and will remain that way for a very long time.  A lot of people took out loans in those years in order to purchase the RED ONE who simply won’t be able to get a loan to upgrade to the Epic, even if they wanted to.  So, if RED is going to survive as a profitable company, it will have to do it in a lower volume, higher margin business.


This is all guesswork, for all I know RED made more off every RED ONE than it is making on the Epic.  But I for one am happy to see pricing for the Epic-M that reflects a professional business model.  With the opening of their store in Los Angeles, we’ve already started to see a higher level of customer service from RED, and I believe we’re going to see more of that going forward as the Epic increasingly becomes the standard for motion picture, especially Stereo, production.