With a week to go before RED's big announcement of revised Scarlet and Epic specs, there's a temptation to speculate on what wonders Jim has in store for us. Instead, I'd like to present a roadmap that I would like to see RED follow for mitigating some of the confusion that surrounds their raw workflow. Specifically, as you might imagine, regarding color.
The RED One shoots raw. No color processing is baked into the footage, you do that yourself in post. The best aspect of this feature is also the worst—you can process it however you want. So people do—everyone a different way. This flexibility provides a lot of power, and more than enough rope to hang yourself. While the RED One, as comparatively affordable as it may be, is professional equipment that expects a professional post pipeline run by knowledgeable personnel, Scarlet is likely to be a much more accessible camera. Upon its release, thousands of new customers will be shooting raw and processing it "however they like," which will all too often mean not getting the very best images the camera was capable of capturing.
Part of the brilliance of the Panavision Genesis camera is the Panalog color space it uses. Panalog packs the substantial dynamic range of the Genesis into a 10-bit image that can be recorded to tape or disc, and dropped directly into a video post pipeline or a film DI workflow.
RED needs their own Panalog. And they almost have it, as they have created a RED Log transfer function that does a good job of safely storing the full-range raw signal in a 10-bit file. But even when using RED Log, there are still a dozen other settings that can radically affect the image. Panalog, on the other hand, is more than a predefined curve. It's a color matrix as well, and most importantly, an exposure guideline. Rather than give you a hundred ways to screw up your images, Panavision instead suggests one very reliable way to shoot with the Genesis, and only one flavor of results. Your mileage may vary and of course you can branch out from their guidelines, but the camera rolls off the truck with an exposure cheat sheet and a recommended workflow that every post house understands. This is what RED needs. This is what RED Log must become if the diverse range of Scarlet customers are to avoid shooting themselves in the feet.
Here's how Panalog works. The Genesis, like all digital cameras, records linear light energy at the sensor. That signal is then converted to Panalog, which involves both matrixing the colors (to the native white balance of the sensor, no choice) and remapping the light values to a logarithmic scale. Log, as you may remember, is where exposure changes are represented by a consistent numerical offset. This has many advantages for color correction, and has the side benefit of being perceptually uniform on most displays. Shadow detail is preserved unquantized.
In other words, it's an efficient package, and it looks nice. It throws nothing away, you can view it intuitively on a monitor, and you can drop it right into an color correction suite—set up for either video or film—and get right to work.
10-bit images have pixel values ranging from zero to 1023. Panalog maps the camera's "black" to 64 and its brightest signal to 1019.
Panavision recommends the following exposure guideline: Put 18% gray at 36% on your waveform monitor. This will create a Panalog value of 382 in a 10-bit file.
This simple recommendation, combined with the Panalog curve and the low noise floor of the Genesis's sensor, comprises the true might of the Genesis/Panalog combo.
The rest of the values shake out like this (remember that waveforms max out at 109%):
You have five solid stops both over and under 18%. You are holding up to 600% scene illumination, or just over five stops over 18% gray.
This, in my experience, is awesome. You can safely expose one way for your entire shoot, indoors and out, and never risk noisy shadows or egregiously clipped highlights. If you're in an uncontrolled setting, you can safely underexpose by a stop or so to try to hold onto a highlight. You can transfer these images straight to film, and all that highlight latitude will fill the print's ample shoulder, resulting in a film-like overexposure characteristic.
Is it as good as Kodak color negative scanned to Cineon log? No. But it's the best thing going in digital cinema.
It's good that Panalog works, but it's also good because it's not a moving target. None of this information has changed since the introduction of the Genesis in 2004. Meanwhile every single RED user out there is figuring out their own workflow. Their own ISO rating, their own exposure rules of thumb, and their own favorite RED Alert settings. And then starting over from scratch with each new firmware build. It's a digital cinema Tower of Babel.
What RED needs to do is hone RED Log into a strong and consistent enough colorimetry that we can default to it 99% of the time. RED needs to publish exposure guidelines for RED Log and build tools into the cameras (such as a false color mode) to aide us in hewing to them. If I hand someone an R3D file and ask for it to be transferred RED Log, there should be only one way to do it. Don't dispense with the infinite flexibility of RED Alert, but give us a solid default setting that faithfully represent the best of what RED's cameras have to offer.
You've built an amazing camera RED, and you're about to build two more. It's time to show us how to use them.