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Red: The Camera That Changed Hollywood

How a sunglasses entrepreneur helped end the golden age of the 35-millimeter film camera.
December 19, 2011

In Hollywood history, 2011 will go down as the year during which the last three companies still making traditional 35-millimeter film cameras—the gently whirring behemoths that directors sit next to on movie sets—all said, in effect, that they were getting out of the business. Film cameras would remain in inventory, but Panavision, ARRI, and Aaton announced that from here on out, all their new models will be digital.

Movie magic: A scene from The Hobbit being filmed in 3D using digital cameras made by Red.

The analog-to-digital transition that is occurring in industries around the world is largely responsible. But special mention should go to a small Southern California company whose technology has stirred the imagination of a roster of legendary directors. The innovation: a line of digital movie cameras that, almost miraculously, are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than film cameras, yet have comparable image quality.

Red Digital Cinema Camera Company, located in Irvine, California, was founded in 1999 by Jim Jannard, who had no experience in the movie business. He was, instead, an entrepreneur who had made a fortune with his line of Oakley sunglasses—must-haves among the California fun-and-sun crowd. 

While Jannard is an active participant on Red’s user forums, he rarely gives interviews to reporters. Ted Schilowitz, who was Red’s first employee and serves as a spokesman for the 400-person company, says Jannard originally became intrigued by the idea of a digital camera that would be a no-compromise alternative for feature-movie makers.

That interest in cameras, says Schilowitz, was a logical extension of Jannard’s Oakley business, which also sold prescription glasses and protective goggles for athletes. “Jim is obsessed with the way the world sees things,” Schilowitz says.

In the “standard model” of technological disruption, a relatively inexpensive, low-end product, which at first might appeal only to entry-level users, slowly improves in performance until it meets the demands of even the most discriminating power customers. The PC is the prototypical example; current models have the horsepower that until recently was the exclusive province of supercomputers.

The path Red took was slightly different. Digital movie cameras were already on the market when the Red team began their work. But the image quality of early digital cameras was nowhere near what was required for a feature movie. Quality was improving—but Jannard wanted his first model to leapfrog past all current digital cameras and exceed the strictest performance specs, even for film.

That required several years of engineering, mostly related to the semiconductor chip that is the heart of any digital camera and converts photons into electrons. The Red team came up with a chip that was the same physical size as a frame of 35-mm film, the Hollywood standard, and produced an image that was virtually indistinguishable, albeit digital.

“When we looked around, we saw digital cameras slowly moving up the food chain,” recalls Schilowitz. “But none of them were even close to living up to what we saw as the magic of film. We didn’t really know what we were doing, so we started from zero, but that turned out to be a huge advantage.”

The first Red model was introduced in 2007, and immediately attracted the attention of filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Steven Soderbergh. Since then, directors have used Red cameras to shoot some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, including The Social NetworkThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and installments of such blockbuster Hollywood franchises as The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Spiderman.

The camera also has ardent fans outside the Hollywood mainstream. The last two winners of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film—The Secret In Their Eyes, from Argentina, and last year’s In A Better World, from Denmark—were both shot on Reds.

Price comparisons between Red and traditional film cameras aren’t especially informative, since most film cameras are rented rather than purchased. Schilowitz says that a fully-loaded version of the latest Red model costs between $45,000 and $60,000, perhaps a quarter as much as a new film camera—if anyone were still making them.

Lights, bytes, action!: The Epic digital camera starts at around $31,000. The camera has become popular among Hollywood directors, but now faces competition from electronics firms like Canon.

The body of the Red camera isn’t much bigger than a professional-sized still camera. All the same, it isn’t as though the cinematographer walks around the movie set with the camera strapped around his neck, snapping pictures like a tourist. A fully configured Red system, with lenses, dollies, and the rest, can be as imposing as a traditional film camera.

But filmmakers say they like to take advantage of Red’s greater portability when they need it. The lower price also means that some crews use multiple cameras. The crew filming The Hobbit in New Zealand is using 48 Red cameras, including models configured for 3-D effects.

Digital cameras can also capture more images per second than standard film, enhancing the image quality. Jackson, who is directing The Hobbit, has said the effect is “like the back of the cinema has had a hole cut out of it where the screen is, and you are actually looking into the real world.”

Digital movie cameras are one of the last steps towards a “film” industry in which actual celluloid film plays no role. Currently, even movies shot on film are usually digitized afterwards, so that editing and effects can be done on computer. The movies are then printed back onto film, and shipped to theaters, most of which still use traditional threaded film projectors. 

But theaters are also in the midst of an epic transition to digital projectors, which could allow studios to simply transmit copies of movies to theaters using high-speed Internet connections. Not an ounce of celluloid will be required once big-screen movies are both filmed and projected digitally.

Exact figures on the film vs. digital split in Hollywood moviemaking are hard to come by, but there is little doubt that film’s market is shrinking. Both Kodak and Fuji still sell movie-film stock, but many of Los Angeles’s developing and transfer facilities for film are closing down or consolidating. Executives from film camera companies have been quoted in the trade press as saying they expect 85 percent of moviemaking to be digital a few years from now, but they aren’t making predictions much beyond that.

As a private company, Red won’t reveal information about sales or profits. Clearly, it will need more than an innovator’s head start to remain a leader in what is becoming a very crowded market. Incumbents like Panavision, with deep roots in Hollywood, are busily promoting their digital models, and Sony is active in the market as well. Canon just checked in with a feature-caliber digital system of its own, recruiting no less a figure than Martin Scorsese to sing its praises.

Red will press on, of course. Schilowitz wants to make clear his company is not on any anti-film vendetta, even though its camera had been called the “Panavision killer.” Schilowitz says, “It was never our goal to kill film. Instead, we wanted to evolve it.”

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