One DP’s Perspective
RED Epic For Sale?
By James Mathers, Cinematographer and President of DCS
That’s right, after being a very early adopter and loyal customer of the RED Digital Cinema Company, I’m seriously considering selling my personally owned Epic Camera. Although there were the occasional hiccups with the cameras, and growing pains at the company, I had a good run with RED. In the course of seven years since I first received RED One serial number 30, I have completed principal photography on six features, two series, 2nd unit on another four network series, and also did additional and 2nd Unit photography on several features, even one major feature that was otherwise acquired on Film.
This was all in addition to the countless documentary, commercial, and corporate assignments, even some where the RED really wasn’t the best choice to shoot on, but for which I chose to make it work. For example, the last time I used the Epic it was for a corporate shoot with very quick turnaround where the client wanted to walk away with HD ProRes 4:4:4 by the end of wrap. A number of fine cameras could have accomplished this, but I needed to hire at my expense a RED Rocket accelerated on-set transcoding solution and a DIT/Colorist in order to stay competitive and keep the job. It ended up looking great, and everyone was happy, but as a businessman, I need to be aware of how these accommodations impact my bottom line.
I don’t usually push the RED cameras, and if a client wants to shoot with a different brand, I’m all for it, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Instead, for better or worse, I have become branded as a “RED Guy”, and when new people come calling they are already thinking about shooting RED. I suppose my connection to this camera in the minds of some Producers helped me to get a few small jobs, but I know for sure it has also knocked me out of contention for at least one network series. In that case, a Producer friend put me up for what turned out to be a very successful and long running show. He only told me later that the studio was dead set against using RED cameras, and assuming I would push for it, knocked me out of contention. I only wish they would have checked with me first, because I would have happily shot on whatever cameras they liked. I never wanted to be tied to any one type of capture medium, and still don’t.
This whole notion of hiring a Cinematographer based on the camera they might have access to or the idea that a Producer will have chosen a camera or format before they even hire a DP is so wrong, but that is a separate rant for another essay. Right now I just want to give my perspective as an Owner/Operator of one of the more popular Digital Cinema cameras, and why I am pondering if I should put it up for sale.
Although a lot of people may have assumed otherwise, RED, much to my chagrin, has never been a supporter of DCS, or done me any personal favors. Even my status as such an early adopter doesn’t count for much; I pay list price and wait in line like everyone else. I did have many friends and long time DCS members who worked for the company. I’ve known people like Ted Schilowitz, Stuart English, and Deanan DaSilva, way before there was a company called RED. They’ve all since moved on, but to be clear, that is not why I’m thinking about migrating away from RED camera ownership. It is rather all about my personal situation and general business economics.
RED Epic Owners were all led to believe at last year’s NAB that the upgrade for their cameras to the new Dragon sensor was eminent. In our streaming coverage from the RED booth, (still available to view on the DCS site), we were shown a whole clean-room assembly line which we were told was busy installing and doing QC on the new sensors. Well, I don’t know what to attribute the delay to, but I’m still in line waiting for mine to be installed. In fact, one of my Co-owned Epics has been parked at RED for several months. It had been experiencing issues that would require a very costly board swap, but one that would be done anyway as part of the Dragon update. Since it is a model “M”, the first generation of Epic, and the upgrade was ordered during NAB last year, we assumed it would be high on the list and decided to wait….Still waiting.
Who knows when my later generation Epic X, (the one I’m thinking about selling), will be called up for upgrade. I’ve been trying to keep the necessary funds on hand for a year now, roughly $25K for the upgrade when you add up the cost of the sensor, the new higher speed Mini SSD package, and new RED Rocket-X that I would need to have the most current technology. I would then be ready to shoot 6K except that many of my large assortment of high-end cinema lenses don’t cover the larger sensor area. Any wonder I’m having second thoughts?
It is also that I want to be free to work with different formats, and even different areas of the Entertainment Industry without worry that my RED camera package is just sitting in my equipment lockup losing value. I’ve resisted making it a rental camera, never knowing how it was last used, or if it had been exposed to some hidden damage on a previous outing, such as salt water. Without proper personnel to check the gear in and out, it’s hard for one Cinematographer to keep any certain type of gear busy enough to amortize the investment, and if you can’t get a good return on your equipment ownership, you should think twice about keeping that investment.
When I first got started owning motion picture cameras, it was 35mm, back in the day when there was really only one brand of camera suitable for feature film production, and that was Arriflex. Sure, Panavision was a major player, but only for rental, and I had decided to buy. Being an Owner/Operator of a high-end sync sound 35mm camera package was a niche market back then, and of the few other DPs who owned such cameras, most specialized in commercials rather than Indie Features, which is where my interests lay. At that time, these cameras cost more than my house, but I somehow managed to put together the financing to buy a couple of used ARRIs.
Having this package was certainly no guarantee of work, and there was still a major hurdle to overcome. With the cost of raw stock, processing, and printing at stake, no Producer in their right mind was going to take a chance to hire an inexperienced DP to shoot their movie. And even if you could find someone to take a chance on you, there was no way to get the all important Completion Bond company to sign off on a newbie. I got around this one by taking the ennoble job of helping to finish movies that had been taken over by the bonding company. It wasn’t glorious work trying to make sense of someone else’s unfinished mess, but it gave me a lot of practical experience, (sometimes of what not to do), which would have been hard to come by any other way. It also had the added bonus that when I was ready to shoot my first feature, I was a known quantity to these bonding companies.
That was the 1980’s, but oh how things have changed, and RED had a significant impact on that change. Today the cost of entry to own gear capable of shooting a movie has dropped drastically which has allowed many thousands of proud new camera owners to enter the market. Since there is no better way to learn than by doing, I can see why an aspiring Cinematographer would invest in a camera. Especially now that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a capable camera or invest much in stock. It’s pretty easy these days to just go out and shoot, and shoot, and shoot. You might even score a few shots that could be sold as Stock Footage. Better yet, offer your services to other emerging Filmmakers and get some narrative projects under your belt.
While these kind of no-budget productions are not the kind I aspire to shoot, the truth is that with so many cameras out there, and so many folks willing to give them away, it starts to make it hard for someone like me to get a fair rental price for their gear. Higher level productions where a Cinematographer’s decisions are honored by giving him or her the desired tool set are getting to be few and far between. For the many more motion picture projects that fall below that threshold, there is just too much competition. I love to shoot movies, but I bought my gear as an investment, and I’m not about to give it away just for the privilege of serving as someone’s DP.
There are so many great choices of Digital Cinema cameras today, and some are better suited to various applications. I look forward to being hired for my filmmaking abilities, then collaboratively with the other creatives, coming up with the best camera for the project. This rat race to own the latest and greatest is getting tiring, and not making as much economic sense as it used to. So, perhaps it’s time to put the RED Epic up for sale, and when I need one, I can rent. If you’re looking to buy one, let’s talk.
All comments are welcome; (and if you want to make me an offer…). As usual, please write or leave a comment on our DCS Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/DigitalCinemaSociety