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Fluid Motion Theater & Film
23 West 73rd Street #502A
New York, NY 10023


April 11, 2008

First Person: Ruben O'Malley and the full awesomeness of the RED

We took a few minutes to chat with (ok ok, we made him write this all out for us!) Ruben O'Malley, MIDAS' SON's brilliant and talented cinematographer, on what it was like shooting with the RED camera. Here's what he had to say...

When I first approached the film Midas' Son, it seemed to be a project that was about the quiet space between people and the things they want to, but have been unable to say. From that, I got to thinking that it should have a clean look, one where style did not distract, but rather allowed the performance to find root in solid ground. So a "flashy" look, for example, something super saturated, cross processed, or even black and white, might be inappropriate. I knew we had to shoot in video, which seems to be where things are going, so I had a few of the "cleanest" video cameras in mind. The 1080 cameras, or the data cameras seemed a good way to do, I mentioned the most popular of these and as an after thought, I suggested the RED. I am approaching a feature with many of the same parameters, so I knew I'd be beta testing for that. I had heard of some reliability issues with the RED, but I also knew the software was becoming better every day. So when the producers came back with the fact that the RED was the only camera that would work for them, I was excited and a little scared.

I spent a day testing it, found that interiors were a whole new thing, that exteriors were just amazingly nice. Couldn't get the footage on to my computer in a meaningful way, and according to the RED blog, it was because my computer was over a year old, so not really up to specs. Poop. It seems the camera is way beyond my dual intel mac, I thought I was cool, but not cool enough.

On set the camera was a hit, everyone wanted to see something amazing to make the hype worthwhile, and they did. The camera looks great, we spent an hour or so trying to get a monitor hooked up, before we found out you could only have either the viewfinder or a monitor, which is a little weird on a jib. I think this has been fixed with a new version of the software, but it begs the question why they put it out when they did if they could solve it. That's emblematic of a few other things on the camera, wierd things that must make sense to an engineer, because they are totally bizarre to a camera person. Strange promises made, like the ASA, which is really just an sop to keep to DP amused, it actually records at 1200 ASA, whatever you tell it, or the white balance, which again is just "metadata", so it really just controls what we see in the monitor, promises made with no intention of following through. I got the feeling that "fix it in post" was built into the DNA of the camera. Which is a little unsettling to people that like to get it right the first time.

All of that aside, we often find ourselves growing in new ways to achieve a great image. And new gear is part of the fun. Our rental house (HD Cinema) was pretty supportive and I felt as if they were happy to take the ride with us. Jeff visited set and gave us all the help we could ask for during production. I should mention that CSC was also super helpful in providing lenses and lights for the project. We worked with Variable Primes, which look awesome and solve a lot of problems on set. They have a lovely bloom, and none of the contrast and color weaknesses I associate with zooms. The VP lenses, while heavy, and a little awkward, really do deliver. Our ACs, Jenny Scarlata, Pierre Tissot, and Matt Klammer built up their guns putting them on and off the camera. The camera looked great outside and in daylight interiors, when I did a tungsten interior, I ended up switching to daylight units to make it work. In fact the camera looked it's best in few interiors that I did just with available sun through a window.

I don't think the camera is a viable doc camera, but I think that it almost looks better with available day light. Something about the broad contrast range that the chip provides, a big improvement on any traditional video camera, and also part of the disheartening "fix it in post" thinking.

In my prep with Annetta it became clear the camera should traverse a line between stillness in the house (so that the space between people can reside in the frame as well) and motion when he is alone. Further, we got the feeling that he should be sinking in frame, as if he were going underwater, especially on his way to meet his dad, the swim coach. Luckily I had a friend with a Jimmy Jib who was kind enough to donate his time. Having Josh Litle on set was delightful, he is not only an amazing jib operator, but a great DP and director in his own right. He brings a lot to the party, he gave us that "sinking feeling" perfectly and added a lot of very interesting graphic options to the editor, he was able to make the movie's transitions do emotional work for the characters in a visual way. There is no substitute for having skilled collaborators.

Even thought the camera loves available light, our gaffer (Jac Chiers) still had his work cut out for him. We had a few small HMI's and an Aurasoft to drive around the pool and the house, not to mention a stack of shiny boards to swing around wildly in the slightest breeze. The shinys gave a great punch that pretty routinely overpowered the camera's chip, luckily I had Dan Wallenstein (our Key) to take the edge off it. We found ourselves gelling windows a lot more than we had budgeted for, but ultimately I think it was worth it since the work looked really nice on the monitor, and this camera, more than most, demands that we protect our highlight detail.

It's been a month now, and I think we will soon have something to look at in post, I'm very excited to see the full awesomeness of 4k on a screen bigger than my hand. I haven't seen the footage since we shot it and I'm really looking forward to it.

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