A 5D Raw Adventure
It doesn’t feel that long ago that RED released their ONE camera, a camera that would change the landscape out in Hollywood, no less the filmmaking world. In 2006 when the ONE was announced at NAB, there were numerous cameras already capable of recording in digital and in RAW before the ONE. However, they had two major drawbacks. One being the need for an external recorder and second, an extraordinarily high price that would ensure that no one short of an executive position at a big studio would be able to afford it. RED had managed to penetrate into an undiscovered market of camera enthusiasts: the serious, aspiring filmmaker. With an introductory price of just about $18,000 (well equipped at around $30,000) it rattled the cages of ARRI and Sony/Panavision as it was now possible to go out and film a remarkably beautiful film at just a fraction of the cost the competitors were offering. RED challenged the status quo and changed the scene forever.
That was eight years ago. This was the time when digital cameras for the average consumers was in the shape and form of high definition video camcorders (HDV). Do you remember those? Their quality was certainly great for their time but it was in an era where consumers were looking for a convergence. Specifically, a convergence between their digital cameras and high definition video camcorders thanks in large part to the miniaturization of cell phones and their ever increasing power and capabilities. In November 2006, YouTube had just been bought out by Google for a cool $1.65 billion and it was a sign of the coming Internet video craze.
The next big revolution in the camera industry came in 2008 when the 5D Mark II was released, a Digital SLR aimed at professionals able to record 1080p video on its full frame sensor. Vincent Laforet released Reverie and that was what put Canon in a tremendous position to receive a grand following. Over the years since then, nearly all if not all digital cameras and cell phones have gained the capability of recording high definition video. The one drawback of all these cameras however has always been their method of transforming the information the camera sensor receives into the actual video file that comes out of the recording media. In order to maintain a low cost for the consumer, conventional compression has been needed to capture that information. Unfortunately, conventional compression hasn’t been good enough for serious filmmakers. By compressing the image in camera, we’ve had to deal with the “baked in” look and make sure that what we record is as close as possible to our final delivery.
And what would happen if you didn’t want the “baked in” look? Well, up until the announcement by Blackmagic Design of their Cinema Camera, you had to pay through the nose to get into the RED, Sony, ARRI, etc. offerings. With the release of the Cinema Camera, RAW image processing for video was now finally “affordable” at $3000. The gloomy skies parted, the sun shined down, and angels sang! 2012 was an amazing year for video as it said goodbye to that “baked in” look at a really affordable price. Fast forward to 2013 and shooting in RAW was all the craze. Especially in May of that year when Magic Lantern unveiled that they had managed to unlock continuous RAW recording on the 5D Mark III, Canon’s successor to their revolutionary Mark II.
You can imagine my excitement when I heard the news given how remarkable the full frame sensor of the 5D allows for amazing low light and depth of field.
But what is RAW?
RAW is just a term to represent the method the image is recorded to your camera’s storage media. In conventional methods, the image will be recorded compressed to save space and actually, also save time in post. However, you must properly choose your ISO and White Balance for that will be “baked in” to your image. You must essentially nail your exposure in camera. More professional cameras actually record in a high quality compressed codec (e.g. ProRes) and allow for a little more wiggle room in post but this is not something I recommend you bank on. My advice is always try to do everything right while you’re there, filming! For consumer grade cameras, the codec of choice has usually been either AVCHD or H.264. While this could be implemented properly (e.g. in the FS100) it usually chooses to rear its ugly head with low bitrates or inadequate sensors recording the information.
When recording in RAW you are recording an unprocessed, uncompressed image that sets the ISO and White Balance just as meta information that can be changed later in post. File sizes are much bigger and post-production will take longer but you now have much more control over the image, given of course that it was well exposed and lit. By consequence, you will need a fairly beefy computer to debayer the images in post rather than in camera. But hey, your image can now look just as good as the big guys’ in Hollywood!
Why does RAW matter to me?
The biggest reason for having RAW on a camera such as the 5D Mark III is to bypass a couple of its nagging issues (at least to me). Out of the box, the 5D records to H.264 All-I or IPB format codecs. I actually shoot in compressed IPB when I do not need to record in RAW for time and space savings sake (e.g. weddings) but I do pay a penalty. When comparing H.264 material to a RAW still, the H.264 image is less crisp/resolved and if I want to colour correct in post, I am limited in my latitude and colour bit depth to 8-bit. Let’s say I accidentally overexposed a window to white while recording, that’s too bad, that information is gone. In RAW, I would actually have a fighting chance to recover some of that lost detail. Let’s say if I want to selectively desaturate only one part of an image and not the other (or any heavy colour correction), I will have to tread very lightly given I only have 8-bits of colour depth to play with. Now remember, 8-bit is only because Canon implemented H.264 compression. Another camera (Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera) can record in ProRes, a 10-bit colour depth compression, and gives you much more nimble control in colour correction. In RAW however, I have 14-bit colour depth to play with. A smile from ear to ear. Also in RAW, I gain the full 11 stops of latitude (given I record at its native ISO) the 5D’s sensor allows. While shooting in the H.264 compressed format, it drops by at least 1-3 stops of latitude depending on shooting conditions.
My initial thoughts
I won’t go into the installation details here but if you are interested, please follow the excellent guide by Dave Dugdale here: YouTube . He always has some awesome tutorials, reviews, and opinions so check him out.
After getting our Komputerbay 64GB 1000x CF cards, I quickly ran outdoors to test out the newly unlocked camera. I also brought with me my trusty Isco Ultra Star 2x anamorphic lens to try out what I would imagine would be a killer combo. And it did not disappoint! The cards ran continuously at 1920 by 1080 at 23.976 FPS and the images were sublime.
Harkening back to what I said earlier about the file sizes being enormous, they really are. Every frame comes in at 4.1MB after running through RAWMagic on OSX. I was perhaps outdoors for no longer than 40 minutes and I managed to record over 40GBs of data! The advantage of running through RAWMagic was it could create CinemaDNG files as opposed to just DNGs and thus would allow me to use Resolve 10 to quickly grade and render out. For colouring, I used the excellent M31 LUT from VisionColor and their OSIRIS suite. Exporting took no time at all and I cut in Premiere. After a couple days I looked at the footage again and I noticed some weird pixelation in the fine details of the image (e.g. headlights in the distance). I decided to try another RAW workflow by opening the DNG sequence in After Effects, using ACR to colour correct, exporting it as TIFFs, and then grading in premiere. This workflow is not as fast but it appeared to get rid of the pixelated details that I had seen.
My next test was to see how it handled skin tones (dark complexion) and I also wanted to try out a new workflow. My mother was gracious enough to allow me to film her reliving one of her favourite songs during a low winter’s sunset indoors. This time, instead of using Resolve I concentrated solely on Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). I used Adobe Bridge to bulk colour correct the DNGs using ACR. And wow! The results were great, the only problem was that I had to export again using After Effects to ProRes 4444 (used 16bpc) and it nearly took 4 hours whereas in Resolve, I’m sure it probably would have only taken 20 minutes. But when I finally reached Premiere, it didn’t matter, every frames’ colour was simply impressive!
I am actually way more comfortable grading my footage through ACR at the moment than in Resolve and it’s a shame as Resolve is just so quick to export my footage. I’d like to spend time one day to create a custom LUT to match some of my favourite ACR looks I achieved.
But as with all things 3rd party, buyer beware. Yes, Magic Lantern has managed to do the unthinkable and enable RAW video for *free* on a camera that was never meant to. Yes, this opens the eyes of many people new to video to the realm of RAW. Yes, it gives anyone a fighting chance in getting their video noticed in a world where they’re becoming more and more ubiquitous. A thousand yes’ can be quickly silenced however when you come back to your computer and you see the shot you thought was OK is actually corrupted with a few bad frames or hot/dead pixels. Magic Lantern and unlocking RAW has opened the door to many things but it has not gained my confidence in bringing the camera with me to a paid shoot. There are just too many variables and risks associated with that. This is not to say it is buggy, it actually worked nearly flawlessly for me. But that’s just it, nearly. Even on our own creatives I’d make sure to have a DIT around to make sure everything works flawlessly.
Shooting in RAW isn’t right for all occasions. For me, I will only film raw when two things align: (1) A reasonable deadline to finish the film and (2), an appropriate subject matter to film. There is no way I’ll be using RAW in its current state to film at a wedding for example. But I will consider it for our next short film!
- 14-bit RAW for Video
- Much Much Much Better Image
- Higher Dynamic Range
- Can help fix some errors while filming
- Easier to become creative in the colour grading
- No native editing, must process on a beefy computer
- Much bigger file sizes
- Need to spend more money for media and storage solutions
- New skills required to work with RAW (from acquisition to colouring)
So these are just my initial thoughts on thew new capabilities of the 5D but we’re looking soon to put it through its real paces as we film our next short film. I’ll be sure to make another write up going through my experience.
Please e-mail me or leave a comment if you have any questions and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!