This article was originally published in IF Magazine #145 (Feb – March 2012). The third series of Offspring is currently screening on Ten.
The RED EPIC has quickly gained a stronghold among big-budget 3D feature films: highly-anticipated features such Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer among them.
But the appeal of the camera’s small size, 3D capabilities and increased resolution has not been limited to the big end of town. Popular local drama Offspring is the first local TV series to add an EPIC to its RED-dominated camera lineup.
Cinematographer John Brawley says the camera size – which is less than half that of the RED MX – and its ability to shoot at 300 frames per second was part of the appeal.
“Offspring has a kind of chaotic style in terms of its coverage approach and that just gives us more options to embrace – whether that means running and jumping into the back of a car or getting into a cupboard to get a kind of more unusual shot – we’re always looking for ways to do things a bit differently,” he says.
The third season of the show, which follows the travails of obstetrician Nina Proudman (Asher Keddie), is employing four RED MXs (split between first and second unit) and one RED EPIC, as well as a Panasonic AF100 for some scenes. The first season was largely shot with the RED ONE and the second with the RED MX (as well as a Panasonic GH1 for hard-to-get-to shots or intimate scenes).
VA Hire (Melbourne), which supplies Offspring with cameras and support, says the EPIC has presented some challenges, such as limited power outputs and lack of playback ability.
“Clearly one of the great advantages of using digital rather than film is not having to wait for film dailies, so it’s bewildering to me that a company such as RED hasn’t offered that basic requirement in the first EPIC models,” manager Richard Jones says.
The workaround requires simultaneously recording on an external deck, which can then be watched back on a separate monitor. The relatively stable 1.7.10 firmware (which is also being used to film The Great Gatsby and The Hobbit trilogy) was still being widely used by early-December. EPIC build 2, version 2.0.5, introduces playback.
There is also an issue particular to TV. Older HD equipment can only handle 1080PsF signals (where each frame is split into two fields and transmitted as such) rather than the pure 1080P output produced by the EPIC.
A nanoFlash recorder/player is being used to capture the EPIC’s signal before it is sent to the Cam-wave transmitters on the set of Offspring.
“We’ve used this solution to bypass the EPIC’s lack of PsF output (and also the lack of playback by recording simultaneously on the nano’s CF cards) for the IDX Cam-waves and everything communicates correctly,” VA Hire’s Jones says.
Inspiration Studios’ Cail Young says the picture quality produced for television by the EPIC is similar to the MX.
“For the most part, people are surprised there’s not more of a difference,” he says. “When you’re talking about television anyway, if you’re only seeing it on a 50-inch screen at high-def, there’s not really much of a difference because you’re still downscaling immensely.”
Many post-production houses also remain wary of RED although the low-cost RED ROCKET card allows playback, decoding, and debayering of 4K R3D files in full resolution at real time speeds. “It is a hard sell to the post house,” Young says.
In just over a year, the rival ARRI ALEXA has established itself as the new TV frontrunner. Cinematographers cite the camera’s picture quality, ease of use (and ARRI name) as reasons for its popularity.
While Inspiration Studios is not promoting its two EPICs for hire just yet, its ALEXAs have already been used to shoot the second series of ABC comedy Laid, as well as upcoming comedy Woodley.
VA Hire owns nine ALEXAs and is considering buying more given the strong demand.
“We find that it’s all our clients want to shoot on due to its inherent simplicity and exceptional image quality from its 3.5K sensor, regardless of the availability of cameras boasting higher resolution on the market – they’re always working,” Jones says.
Its cameras have been used on TV movies such as Beaconsfield, Dripping in Chocolate and TV series including Brothers in Arms and Tricky Business.
There are more than 65 ALEXAs in Australia already, and other TV productions to shoot with the cameras include Terra Nova, The Slap, Lowdown (which switched from RED MX after its first series) and the two Jack Irish telemovies.
Its popularity has also extended into feature film and TV commercials. Cameraquip managing director Malcolm Richards says its five ALEXAs have been hired regularly as TV commercial clients have shifted from film and RED.
“In this current situation, I’d say 99 per cent are shooting on ALEXA,” he says of the Brisbane and Melbourne TVC markets. “Film has really taken a beating in this past year.”
John Brawley on the set of Offspring with the RED EPIC. Photo by Giovanni Lovisetto.