RED vs. Canon: Closing the Gap Between Cinema and Still
By J.R. Hughto
Five years ago, RED announced—with what was to become their signature bravado—that they were going to release a cinema camera that would revolutionize the industry. RED made 4K (4,096x2,304-pixel format) and RAW buzzwords overnight, and they promised that their system had the independent filmmaker in mind at a $17K price point. When the dust settled, it took over a year for RED to release what actually turned out to be a revolutionary camera, the RED One, though the actual cost to get a camera ready to shoot had ballooned to nearly $50K. That $17K price point, huge by amateur standards but a bargain in the film industry where cameras cost as much as Ferraris, must have remained in company founder Jim Jannard's mind, because on Thursday night RED finally released a camera that not only made good on their technological promises but on the dollar amount. RED's new Scarlet-X, the company’s less expensive companion to their higher-end EPIC, can indeed be set up ready to shoot for right around that $17K figure, depending on how many batteries or SSDs (RED’s recording medium) you wish to purchase.
RED’s announcement of the Scarlet-X came only hours after Canon had announced their own brand new cinema camera, the EOS C300, priced very similarly to the Scarlet-X at $20K retail with a rumored $16K street price. Based on the success Canon has enjoyed with their video-shooting DSLRs, and in the wake of the announcement of the March release of their flagship EOS-1D X, the C300 is a purpose-built video camera that bears the EOS label and marks the company’s first official foray into a market segment traditionally dominated by Panasonic and Sony.
Canon wasn't satisfied with simply announcing the C300, however. They went on to explain that the C300 was the first in a new Cinema EOS brand that would not only produce video-only cameras like the C300, but also include future DSLR releases designated with the new C that represents the line. Whether this means the well-equipped 1D X or the long-awaited 5D Mark III will be the first of the breed remains to be seen. Regardless, Canon seems to be finally taking the video side of their large-sensor cameras seriously by developing well-considered and designed responses to a rapidly changing camera industry and a more technically demanding user base.
When stacking the principle competition in the price bracket against each other, what advantages do each offer? All three prominent rivals—the previously released Sony PMW-F3, the Canon EOS C300, and the RED Scarlet-X—have Super 35mm sized sensors (roughly the same size of Canon’s APS-C format in use by cameras like the 7D). The Scarlet-X seems to have stolen Canon’s thunder in large part due to their 4K RAW recording, a feature that no other camera can boast in the price class. RED CEO Jim Jannard went so far as to boast that “1080 as a concept is discontinued”; RED’s always had the best hyperbole. Jannard described the camera as a 5K stills shooter as well as a 4K cinema camera, and when configured as such it is highly reminiscent of the Pentax 67ii, that old beast of a medium-format shooter that so many 35mm shooters preferred due to its SLR styling. By emphasizing the Scarlet-X’s still photography capabilities, he both distinguishes it further from the C300 and the Sony F3, and also places it in competition with still-image-priority cameras like the EOS-1D series. In fact, the RED has been used for magazine cover shoots for Vogue, Esquire and Vanity Fair due to its capability of pulling a single, RAW frame at 4K.
The Scarlet-X will have all the capabilities of its big brother EPIC with the only real drawbacks being a slightly less powerful processor, which will mean more compressed recordings (6:1 compression at 4K rather than the EPIC’s 5:1 at 5K). In essence, shooting with the Scarlet-X should produce results better than what we’ve seen coming from the RED One, which was used on such films as David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” Mike Mills’ “Beginners,” and Steven Soderbergh's “The Informant.” Of course, at nearly 200GB/hour for video recording and five to six times the cost, it doesn’t seem at all likely that the Scarlet-X will become an event shooter’s video replacement to the EOS 5D Mark II, or even the 1D-X when it arrives.
In contrast, the C300 and F3 make sense for the event shooter because they balance fantastic video results with manageable file sizes. The C300 can store 80 minutes of video on a 32GB card, and either can be used to create images good enough for the big or small screen. What is quite interesting—and also quite surprising—is that both RED and Canon have allowed the prosumer video market that averages $5K for a camera to continue to be dominated by Sony’s NEX-FS100 and Panasonic’s AF100. Both cameras offer a good deal of the quality of the C300 or F3 at a fraction the cost.
Perhaps the only bad news for those image makers looking for a stills-first camera that can also do a great job on video when needed is that the November 3rd announcement is just that—another announcement of a later announcement for a future release. Clearly, Canon has rededicated itself to making stills cameras that can compete with the far more expensive cinema cameras that are now arriving on the scene. Just as clearly, we all have to wait just a little bit longer to see what they'll have to offer.
J.R. Hughto is a filmmaker, educator, and co-founder of Clockmaker Digital, a production and post-production training and consulting firm. Hughto has advised dozens of filmmakers with budgets ranging from under $5K to over $100M. He currently teaches at the California Institute of the Arts.