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Mike finally gets to play with an Epic-M and HDRx

First impressions, what works, digging into HDRx

By Mike Curtis | May 01, 2011

This week my friend Eric Ulbrich that I met while working on the SCCE (Single Chip Camera Evaluation) got his Epic-M. He was nice enough to invite me over to play with it on Friday, here's some first impressions on the camera and its HDRx mode. Notes and pics follow.

So my friend Eric Ulbrich finally got his Epic-M, which are the roughly $60,000 handbuilt Epics that Red is selling to hand picked customers. Red is selling these to the folks with Red One experience they trust to struggle through the early developmental stage of the camera. Here's some thoughts/tidbits on what I know so far. The following are strictly my own observations and opinions, Eric is delighted to have the camera and is very happy with its current level of functionality and is itching to shoot all he can.

It is SMALL.

The Brain:

The camera is designed to be modular, and the brain is the core of it - the sensor and processing to record an image. The brain itself weighs about 6 pounds. Small, but very dense. There is an SSD module attached to the side of it, Eric has 4 of the 128 GB SSD drives, so we recorded onto one of those.

Side DSLR style handle:

There's an attachable side handle, that makes it more like a grippable big heavy DSLR - but you can hold it one handed with a (reasonable) lens attached. There will be batteries that fit in the handle, I don't know if he had any of those or not, he had it rigged up with a classic Red One battery (nice that those can be used on this camera). The grip handle has all kinds of buttons and stuff on it for controls, and a nicely dense little DSLR style LCD on it that told us the color temp, shooting frame rate, ISO, useful stuff like that. Perfect. (Update - handle batteries exist, Eric saw them all over at Red Studios, he just doesn't have any in hand yet. they run about 30-45 minutes in video mode.) I really like this modality - the one handed grip style for stills shooting mode. It is also a comfortable, convenient and familiar way to operate the camera even when on sticks. It isn't very ergonomic to shoot video for any length of time, but it is, as they say, handy. : )

Bomb EVF & 5 inch touchscreen:

He had one of the rarer-than-rare Bomb EVFs, the new smaller ones, and it worked just fine, although the rubber eyecup kinda sucks - you put your face up to it, and the eyecup stays flopped over, it doesn't stay sticking out - kinda like when a contact lens won't stay right side out. (Note, this was an early Bomb EVF model, perhaps that has been fixed since.) Aside from the name (have fun with that on your carnet for overseas shipping) - it is a pretty amazing bit of engineering - an itty bitty 720p projector in a tiny little package. But it worked well in use, same 720p as the MUCH bigger original EVF. And good thing he had it, because it seems that at least for the moment, the older EVFs DO NOT WORK on current Epic-Ms. Will they in the future? Dunno. But Red said they WOULD work on Epics, and since a.) older style EVFs haven't been made for a LONG time, and b.) Bomb EVFs have been back ordered MANY months (somebody I know has been waiting 6+ months with no delivery yet), this is a Real Problem. It may be a simple firmware update in the future (same cabling, same res output), but it doesn't work today, and the EVF shortage is a definitely viable issue.

The five inch touchscreen will have to suffice. Wait, that puts the wrong spin on it - the touchscreen is pretty groovy - you can control what you need to while seeing what is going on. Touchable screen areas, histogram, cool stuff. A nice evolution from the original. Menu hotspots to get into settings and stuff. Sweet.

Redmote

The Redmote to hang off the back? "It is on the way." He said. I don't know if that means it has shipped and will arrive tomorrow, or it if it backordered. Redmotes are way cool, let you control the camera from a large distance wirelessly, but it does need to be in your hands to do any good. I trust that Jim et al are doing their best, but sometimes their best is slowwwwww. Thus is the crux of the nature of being an Epic-M owner. Be patient, and know it isn't all going to work perfectly…yet.

It works wonderfully…somewhat

Part of why Red is being so tight with who can get one is that this is not for those who want a perfect camera ready to go. These are, in essence (IMHO), beta cameras sold to the select few that are ready to deal with the teething pains. Based on my brief time with the camera and some discussions with the Eric, here's what is working at the moment:

-5K only - no windowing for higher frame rates
-2.40, 2:1, or 5K full frame aspect ratios are selectable he said but we didn't test….I think, but our 5120x2700 recorded frames are about 1.9:1 aspect ratio - dunno what that is all about yet
-various compression ratios are shootable now. Awesome new feature in the redesigned (thank god!) menu structure - if you select a data rate higher than the camera will support for the given resolution, frame rate, and aspect ratio, it simply TELLS you that currently selected won't work, but offers the highest workable datarate. HOORAY! SO much better than "No….no….no…OK." test-and-finding method.
-you can shoot up to 96fps…in 5K! OK, that is pretty heroically awesome! 12:1 was the maximum compression ratio for 5K @ 96fps
-Can shoot at up to 3:1 compression ratio for 24p footage for the 5120x2700 pixel stuff we shot
-stills mode: NOT enabled. Drat. So much for a side-by-side HDR time-lapse hooraw with my D300S.
-frame rates: 12fps is as low as you can go right now, so no time-lapse. but up to 96fps @ 5K should assuage some of that sadness. : )
-color temp works, different frame rates work, basic camera functionality seems to work. People are shooting 3D, so I presume genlock and other timing things are working OK (Cameron/Pace just bought 50 cameras - hello, future Avatar movies!)
-as expected from working with a Red One with MX (the same) sensor, the camera is sensitive and FAST. At ISO 800, to get a decent exposure around 4pm on a street, we closed down to T32 on the 300mm Red Pro Prime I own. I dropped in an ND 1.2 and we got it down to T8/T11 for a decent exposure.
-the footage we shot for funsies looks great - we put my 300mm prime on it and shot some traffic coming towards us
-the SSD seems to be the officially advocated recording methodology at this time - and to read the files, the owner had a Red Station SSD reader module - important! If you're on a shoot, you'll need a means of reading those files off! So get a reader for the format you're recording.
-only crashed on us once in an hour or two of bash doodling, while we were futzing with something trying to see if we could make it do something. Eh - to be expected at this stage of the game. If you use it, know it is NOT a fully functioning "normal" camera…yet.

Thoughts:
-it was suggested by someone that Red should ONLY sell the Epic-M and scrap the Epic-X program. Why? Because the M cameras are milled not cast, bomber tough, and the price is higher - this would help the rental houses stave off the owner/operator masses. And the price is not THAT much higher - the brain is about $7500 more than the stock brain by itself. So, the theory went, why not just sell those only? Keep the market professional grade.

HDRx mode - YESSSSSSSS

This means you can can configure the camera to take TWO exposures (at up to 48fps max) at a time. The way this works: it records a doublestuff R3D file - there are literally two exposed and recorded images in a single R3D file. The way you set it up on camera is to set your normal, baseline exposure, then dial in the amount of HDRx you want - how many stops of under exposure.

At the time we had my 300mm Red Pro Prime on the camera, so we just irised down until we could see detail on the hood of the car we were shooting, about 3 stops - so dialed in 3 stops of HDRx. This meant that the original, normal exposure was exposed and recorded by the sensor, and also another shorter exposure was taken with 1/8th (3 stops) less exposure/light. So if my math is right, the original 1/48th of a second (180 degree shutter for 24p) and another 1/384th of a second exposure was taken and written into the same R3D file.

It is a bit confusing in post to figure out what is HDRx and what is not - there are NOT two separate files in a folder as I would have thought, instead both exposures are in the same R3D file wrapper - why I called it a doublestuff (like the Oreos). There's twice as much white stuff in the same cookie R3D cover, as it were. The only indication you get, other than the files are bigger than you might expect, is a single control that appears when an HDRx file is loaded in Redcine-X (or other tools that support HDRx) that allows you to blend the two exposures together. It appears to be a straightforward opacity blend with no HDR trickery (I verified this is Photoshop later - 100% true). In a presentation that I saw Michael Cioni give some months ago, he was touting that this was a simple to do thing in post, no fancy slow math required.

Well, this is of mixed benefit to my mind (I do a lot of HDR photography/cinematography) - it is fast and simple as an opacity blend, however this also means YOU ARE NOT GETTING THE MAXIMUM DYNAMIC RANGE BENEFIT OUT OF IT. I'll delve into this more another time, but of this I am SURE. How do you get the full benefit? Do some HDR processing, where the multiple exposures are mapped to an absolute luminance scale, and you get the highlights from the underexposed and the shadow detail from the over/baseline exposure, and the software does the math to tonemap them into a viewable image. Red's approach with Redcine-X, while fast, computationally inexpensive and works quite well, does not derive the maximum benefit from the files you have. Be happy with that or not - true HDR processing (as opposed to HDRx blending) is VERY slow. And the test frames I have, at 5120x2700, are SLOOWWWWWWWWWW to HDR process! OK, end of my nerdy ranting - Red's solution increases dynamic range, does it quickly and simply, and gives you an easy render pipeline to get results quickly. The cost: files are twice as big, therefore mags shoot half as much footage by time, maximum shootable frame rate is cut in half, processing time increases on the back end. But you can pick up a LOT more dynamic range. Good news.

The camera has excellent dynamic range to start with. With Redlog Film option, can see into the highlights pretty far as well. You don't need HDRx on most shots, but it is nice to have when you want it. Red's blend methodology is simple and effective, I'm just saying that if you are willing to go to a LOT more trouble you can get more out of it. Also, knowing Graeme Nattress' stills background, I wouldn't be surprised if more sophisticated blend options became available in the future.

Eric pointed out that he doesn't feel the need to use HDRx much so far, and is more interested in using its shorter, less motion blurred exposure for VFX tracking, matchmoving, and other sophisticated uses beyond shooting scenes with a lot of contrast in them.

Want to rent it? It is at Digital Film Studios up in Sun Valley right now, drop me a note and I'll hook you up with him. They have a variety of lenses and support options available.

Want one of your own? I'm selling my Red One package (early serial # 417) with Red Pro Prime lenses and accessories and I've already put $5000 down for a Stage 2 Epic-X. Wanna buy it all? Drop me a line!

Pictures of camera, screen shots of HDRx mode, HDRx results on next page!

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Comments

RC Fisher: | May, 08, 2011

Mike,
I haven’t used Photomatix in quite a while but those frames look pretty good. I have been using exposure fusion via Bracketeer for 3-4 years. I prefer the look with fusion over tone mapping which is what Photomatix originally used. I was an original beta tester for Photomatix and wasn’t happy with their method but at the time is was magic! i would love to get my hands on an Epic for my project “The Last Shuttle” looks like a great camera.

Cheers
RC Fisher

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