First announced in 2008, RED’s new 4K camera has a lot of competition in the documentary gear marketplace.
When the RED Scarlet was announced three and a half years ago at NAB 2008, it was gasp-inducing. RED proclaimed it would produce a camera that could shoot “3K” — nearly triple the resolution of the current HD standard — at a price of $3,000.
This was at a time when the standard was a camcorder with a 1/3″ sensor, and 24p was available on only a handful of camcorders. DSLRs with video was new.
At the end of 2009, the Scarlet was still unreleased, and the anticipation was turning into frustration. Wired gave it a Vaporware of the Year award, and then the camera missed its 2010 debut as well.
Today, finally, something like what had been promised has arrived. The RED Scarlet-X is on the market, with 4K video, but with a price three times the original: $9750 for the basic body, or $14,000 for a package that includes a viewfinder, battery and lens mount. Although RED announced December 1 as the expected shipping date, some blogs say cameras went out earlier, around November 18.
These years later, it’s turned out not nearly as revolutionary as it had seemed to be.
In the last three years, manufacturers of cameras have rethought what “video camera” means. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II was the breakthrough camera the Scarlet wasn’t. The Sony PMW-F3K, Sony NEX-FS100, Panasonic AG-AF100 and Canon EOS C300 are now in a marketplace full of cameras that give filmmakers much of what they’d wished of the Scarlet three years ago. And RED’s own EPIC competes in a (higher-priced) high-end digital camera market with Arri’s Alexa and Panavision’s Genesis.
Was the Scarlet the engine that forced big manufacturers to innovate, or was it an overhyped, unrealistic and ultimately compromised promise? Maybe a bit of both.
Earlier this week, I watched Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s new Eames: The Architect and the Painter, which speaks to the Eames ideal of making good design accessible to average people. I don’t know what Cohn and Jersey shot their film with, but I’d be no less surprised if it was on a $600 Canon EOS T2i than on a $30,000 RED EPIC, because even the 4K video has to be crunched down into a package our computers or televisions can carry. The days in which the format mattered, in terms of its cost and the quality of the final product, are over. Where once any viewer could tell the difference between amateur/low-budget VHS and professional/expensive 16mm film, now the fact is that with 1080 HD still the viewing standard, the camera, as a film tool, has become transparent. It’s only noticeable when things go wrong. The differences between video quality today are so small that documentary filmmakers have never had so many options.
So the Scarlet is finally shipping, and with people such as Philip Bloom weighing its merits as part of a pack and not as a standard of its own, it underlines the amazing changes in the field in the years since it was announced.