At NAB this week there was a lot of buzz on the show floor about the Red camera currently in development. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Ted Schilowitz about Red. Before joining Red he was a Product Manger at AJA Video Systems and part of the team that created video capture cards for Apple’s OS X and the Io box that AJA co-developed with Apple. Ted is a recognized expert in the field of broadcast television and feature films as well as an award winning Director and Producer who has created projects for Discovery Channel, E! Entertainment, Fox, NBC, Nickelodeon, PBS, et al. I interviewed Ted as part of my research for an article I’m writing about NAB2006 for Imagine, however, it was such a fun conversation I decided to post the unabridged conversation here. Enjoy!
David Tamés: How did the concept for Red originate?
Ted Schilowitz: The founder of a company called Oakley, which is a fairly large company, a lot of people know them, they make some of the worlds finest optics in terms of sunglasses and goggles. [Oakley is a] very data centric, technologically evolved company. The founder of Oakley, a guy named Jim Jannard is the founder of Red. So Jim has, as well as running Oakley, his passion, his hobby, his love, is photography and cinematography.
His personal challenge forever [has been] to find good cameras to shoot his own stuff with. Digital stills, he owns tons of them, 35mm stills, owns lots of motion picture [cameras], 35mm and 16mm cameras, owns pretty much every HD camera that’s ever hit the market, the ones that are $100,000 the ones that are $20,000 to $30,000, the ones that are $5,000 to $10 ,000, you name it, he’s got it, a lot of times he’s got more than one of them, likes to try them, shoot them, and never was there the right tool that made him say, “this is perfect, don’t feel there are any limitations here, I don’t feel like I’m struggling with this thing.”
[Jim has] had the desire to build something for a long time, it’s been a secret project, it’s been green-lit a little less than a long time ago, we’re very quick in the curve here, but we’re showing how quickly a company can evolve and really take and capture the desire and the imagination of a bunch of other frustrated filmmakers and cinematographers out there and you put together the right tool, you design some really good industrial design, and you show people that we’re really thinking, and we’re focused on the future, and we’re focused on delivering something completely different from anything that’s out there, and you get a lot of attention, I don’t know if you’ve been watching what’s going on [here at the show.]
Tamés: Oh, it’s been the buzz on the floor since the moment I first set foot in the convention center.
Schilowitz: It’s quite amazing, we had no idea what to expect, Jim and I were here first thing, you know the first day, and we had a tent set up because we only decided to do NAB two months ago, so couldn’t build a booth, we built a tent! But it’s a nice tent, and it’s a really cool looking tent, because everything that Jim does is pretty cool looking. The show starts at 9 o’clock, you know, we peer out, and kind of 9:04 there are like four people outside, you know, it’s better than nobody, we did not know what to expect, by 9:12 it seems like a few more people have gathered, like 20 or 30 people, by 9:17 or so, there are a whole bunch of people out in the aisle, and our little tiny booth all the way back in the back, and we look at each other and go, uh-oh, we might need a bigger booth, I think we might be on to something here. [It’s been] non-stop for the last four days, huge crowds, the other booths around us don’t even know what’s going on, what could you guys possibly be doing here, that is so exciting. Well, we’re doing something exciting, and it’s genuine, and it’s not artificial, we did not set out to create a little marketing message, we set out to build a camera, and show people what we’re building.
Tamés: What is your role in the company?
Schilowitz: My official title, and this isn’t just for the business card, my official title on the project is “Leader of the Rebellion,” so I’m basically running the joint with Jim, we’re partners in crime, trying to put this together, Jim’s title is, officially, is “Madman.” Those are our corporate titles, so you can see the kind of company we’re building here.
Tamés: If you are the leader of the rebellion, then what is it that you’re rebelling against?
Schilowitz: It’s a rebellion against that frustration, it’s a rebellion against the fact that, why do I have to have so many limitations, why are other companies positioning and locking me down to formats that the minute they ship the thing, are already obsolete. I can’t get all the frame rates that I want, I can’t get the optical quality, or the kind of lens I want because I can’t afford to buy a $100,000 camera, why is that there, why are these boundaries there, are they real? Or are they artificial? And we’re experimenting with that and what we discovered pretty quickly is that most of [the limitations] are artificial, most of them are design by different types of corporate structures, and different philosophies, that don’t fit into our philosophies as mavericks, as upstarts, as rebels, as people that say, “screw it man, we’re going to do this thing,” you know, let’s just see what we can do, and people seem to be really locking in, they like that spirit!
Tamés: I’ve always wondered why cameras could not be more modular, why can’t there be an imager section, an image processing section, a storage section, that each could be updated, replaced, interchanged, individually, rather than the camera being a monolithic thing that has to be completely replaced every time technology evolves, why do I need an entirely new camera, rather than swap things out as different parts evolve, or as my needs change.
Schilowitz: Good question! Moore’s law is always in effect, regardless of whether you’re using a computer or not, if it’s got electronics… I would say [the camera industry is starting to] embrace [information technology] to a certain extent, I would say that a lot of cameras have a lot of computer guts, but they, some of them are, I’m not sure I’d go that far, I think a lot [of new] cameras are doing the right thing, don’t get me wrong here, we want to be a part of this community, the leader of the rebellion, well, yea, we’re rebelling against a lot of old fashioned thinking, but believe me, we don’t want to piss everybody off, just a little bit… We understand there are a lot of good tools out there that create a lot of good images, but there’s not the tool that Jim wanted to use, or I wanted to use, or all the people who have come to the booth in hundreds, and thousands, every single day, have wanted to use.
Tamés: So what are some of the things that cinematographers and filmmakers are looking for from your perspective?
Schilowitz: Well, first thing is we’re building a cinematography tool, so we chose to go with PL mount lenses, on a camera that’s revolutionary from a cost structure standpoint, we chose to go the cinema grade route as opposed to the electronic news gathering route, completely different philosophy, now there are two ways that that plays out, so that means that we’re building this tool and there are a lot of wonderful PL mount lenses out there in the world that you can use, they’re not cheap, we’re showing a lot of Cooke lenses in our booth, the lenses cost more than our camera, but they are, if you ask people what are the best lenses in the world, there are only a couple of choices, and Cooke is one of them. That’s one route you can go, but we’re also at the same time showing that we’re building our own lenses, so we’re not just building a camera, we’re building lenses and a camera, showing our first lens at NAB, [it’s a prototype], but it’s real, it’s got a real body, and it’s got amazing optics, as you might imagine from a guy that has been obsessed his whole life with vision and optics, and built a really healthy business out of it. You might expect that his lenses are going to be really darn good right out of the gate, and they are ground breaking in terms of price point.
Tamés: A combination of practical thinking and revolutionary design?
Schilowitz: Very much so. Our first lens is under $5,000, there will be a whole range of lenses…
Tamés: What are the specs of the first lens?
Schilowitz: The first one we’ve shown is a 300mm prime, it’s just the first one we had ready to show, there will be a zoom, and some others that we’re working on.
Tamés: What about the camera, will it have an imager the same size as a 35mm film frame?
Schilowitz: It’s actually S35, it’s technically three-perf S35, so it’s wide screen, Super 35, single CMOS, huge format, a beautiful sensor.
Tamés: Are we starting to get to the point of high enough yields of the large CMOS chips in order for Red to deliver cameras in quantity?
Schilowitz: We certainly hope so, cause we’ve got a lot of interest in this camera, we’ve got to build a lot of them, so yes, I think we’re going to be doing really well. Luckily we’re in a time frame where those [who] have come before us trying to prove some of this electronic digital cinematography, and with all due respect to all of them, cause we think what they’re doing is fantastic, but they were in provability mode, they were in science fair mode, they were in [the mode of] it does not matter what it costs, it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, don’t worry, nobody is going to buy this thing, it’s just to prove the point that you can do this, that you can evolve, maybe we’ll rent them from time to time, and they are being used successfully, you know, some cameras are being used on big motion pictures, but they are essentially exclusionary products, they’re for people [who] have enormous resources, money, and crew to deal with these beasts and how the workflow associates with them. We’re trying to change all those rules.
Tamés: In a way, it sounds to me like you’re creating the Aaton for the digital age.
Schilowitz: That’s a good example, the Aaton is a beautiful camera, Arriflex makes beautiful cameras too, and lots of wonderful things that stand the test of time, and electronic cameras, in our mind, very few of them stand the test of time.
Tamés: I used the Aaton metaphor in terms of out of the box thinking and prioritizing things like ergonomics, size, weight, and creature comforts in the design of the camera while taking into consideration what cinematographers are looking for.
Schilowitz: Absolutely, you’ve got to be thinking, you’ve got to be thinking, you know, I’ve talked to an amazing number of very high level cinematographers, a lot of them have put deposits down on the camera, [they are] very excited about what we’re doing, I won’t mention their names, I don’t want to embarrass them, but you can put together a list of….
Tamés: I saw several of them while I was in your booth.
Schilowitz: I’ve talked to thirty or forty of them this week, guys that I’m just humbled to be in the same room with, and they are excited about what we’re doing, what our little company is doing, and nothing can give me more pleasure than to deliver a product that would help these guys realize their vision.
Tamés: What do you see as Red’s role in the camera ecosystem?
Schilowitz: Red is, if you’re going to set out to change the rules, you might want to change some rules. So we’re doing it with our philosophy, our psychology, our price-point, our orientation, our technology, our body design, you name it, we’re changing something right.
Tamés: So what are some of these changes?
Schilowitz: First thing you can do is go to our web site if you were not able to get to NAB and [take a] look at what we’re doing. And things are going to change even more in the course of the year, from a development standpoint, but we’re pretty evolved and we’ve just got this bad-ass machine that is tough and rugged and it’s a real tool. It’s not a toy. It’s going to be built out of cast magnesium, this thing is just solid, this is a good example of the rest of what we’re going to do.
Tamés: It sounds like you’re also taking a iterative design approach, listening to the people who will actually be buying and using your camera along the way of the development process.
Schilowitz: Way more than that, not just listening, we’re actively asking for feedback, saying, you know what guys, we’re building this thing, we’re having a good time doing it, if you don’t think we’re going down the right track, or if you think we maybe should alter a little bit, we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback already at the show, it’s a good time to raise your hand right now, we’re in development, we can change things, we can change things for the better, we have been for the last four months, changing things for the better, we want to know, my email is very straight forward, we want to know, and there is a general email 4K at RED.COM that both Jim and I look at and we are into this, and we want to hear from you, regardless of who you are. Regardless of whether you shot the last 200 million feature or you’re a guy who’s just coming out of film school and wants to know something exciting.
Tamés: The achilles heel of digital cinema cameras seems to be where do you put all of those bits flowing off the sensors at incredible data rates. What are you doing about storage options?
Schilowitz: Storage options is an interesting story, so obviously it’s a tapeless camera, not a novel idea, which we think is good, sometimes you want to look at things that are forward thinking but you’re not inventing every single piece of the puzzle here, tapeless is a great idea, but we don’t think it’s been well formed yet, we don’t think it’s been well thought through yet, so we’re again trying to take a more logical approach to what you need to do, so this is a camera that from 2K on down, it’s not just HD, we’re going to give you 4K, 2K, 1080p, 720p, and from 2K on down the line, you’ll be able to record on-board, we’re building a drive module, called a digital magazine, that looks and feels more or less like a little FireWire drive, something you’d hook up to your PowerBook, and you’ll have all of those industry standard ports right on it, it will have a 400 and 800 FireWire, USB 2.0, maybe eSATA, whatever else comes down the line, things change every five minutes in the storage business, our goal is to have at least an hour of visually lossless, potentially Wavelet based, we’re doing a lot of codec investigation at this point in our development, visually lossless, recording on-board, and then you take that out of the camera when you’re done shooting or in the middle of shooting you put another one in and you throw it on to your NLE environment and you can start cutting, or you dump that onto something else and start cutting.
Tamés: What’s your delivery timeframe for the Red camera?
Schilowitz: We have engineering targets to ship cameras by the end of this calendar year, so I’ve kept all of my stars aligned, to make sure I hit that target. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by saying that means that’s a hard and firm ship date, because it’s not. Another point of frustration for me, personally, is watching companies announce ship dates [like] we’re shipping on this date [or] this month and then they’ll miss it, and then miss it again… and you know what guys, just give us an engineering target and say “this is what we’re working on, and we’ll do our best,” that’s all I need to hear, I don’t need to over commit to anything. You’re working on something remarkable, we understand it’s next generation, we understand it’s ambitious, you’re giving it your best shot, we appreciate it, just keep us posted. But so far we’re right on target. Sensor stuff is looking good, industrial design is looking great, electronics are right on target, we’re going to get there.
Tamés: How did you get involved with Red?
Schilowitz: The last five years of my life have been with another very forward thinking company.
Tamés: That would be AJA?
Schilowitz: Yes, they’ve done remarkable things in the desktop world, I was the product manager for everything that touched the Macintosh, so I’m the Kona guy and the Io guy, I’m still that guy (laughs).
Tamés: I’ve used the PowerMac G5 with a Kona card for online editing, it’s a great product.
Schilowitz: Thank you very much, I’m very proud of what we did there, and I’ve talked to some other press and we’ve talked about the logic of why would you want a guy like Ted on a team like Red, other than the fact, that you know, Ted, Red, is kind of a fun moniker to have, why would you want him? He’s never built a camera before, but he certainly knows a lot about them, I actually worked for one of those film camera companies twenty-something years ago, one of my first jobs in the industry, and was a director for a long time, cinematographer for a long time, before I got into the technology side for the last five years.
I was lucky enough to be with a very forward thinking company with some of the best engineers in the world, no holds barred, that took a product line that was essentially almost non-workable back when we first stated, yea, you could put a card in a Mac and you could try to do HD and SD uncompressed video but it was really troublesome, and we evolved over the course of a few years, we had some good fortune on our side because the Macs got a lot better for multimedia work of that level, the same time we did, OS X came on, and we were the first cards to be on OS X and that [was] just perfect timing for us, and we put all of our engineering resources into making something work well with OS X, and we did, and we scored big time, then we built the Io box along with Apple, and some amazing things happened, but a few years later, and in the curve of technology, this is almost a drop in the time bucket.
A few years later, our Kona cards along with the G5 and Final Cut software are used on these fairly insignificant events like the World Series, the Superbowl, the Daytona 500, the Tour de France, all these big feature films, you name it, no compromises anymore, no more “oh, it’s a Mac, and it’s a capture card, it’s risky,” these guys are putting them in mission critical environments with the largest visual audiences in the world, so we changed the landscape of an industry. And it was not easy for someone to pull me away from AJA, I still have a lot of friends there, there’s a lot of linkage points between what I’m doing in this new world and my previous world at AJA, a lot of development strategy we’re working on together, they’re excited to be a part of and help us out.
Tamés: We’re going to need 2K and 4K capture cards to ingest all of that Red footage.
Schilowitz: Yes, we’re going to need a lot of stuff, yea, and how handy is it that the last sort of official duties in my world there were to make sure that I got the 2K stuff up and running in Final Cut with our friends at Apple, and the new product manager John Thorn and they said, “you get that going and then you can go” and that’s what I did and it was a ton of fun, and it’s running in the Apple booth, it’s running in the AJA booth, and it’s running in the Red meeting room showing off how cool 2K is.
Tamés: What’s a typical day like working at Red, what’s it like to be the leader of the revolution?
Schilowitz: Right now we’re heavy into the engineering, we’re heavy into the dramatics of all that, dealing with and motivating a whole bunch of people, it’s a huge team of really, really smart people, Jim and I are pretty much doing everything together. My day is just non-stop, balls-to-the-wall, go for it, heavy duty drama, solving problems fast, no bureaucracy, that’s why we have these sort of crazy titles and this kind of no corporate structure structure, Jim and I battle it out, and things that may take a month or two to decide, “oh, we better have a meeting about having a meeting” Jim and I go into each other’s little thing and we battle it out for five minutes and go, “OK, that’s what we’re doing” and we move on. And that’s what’s exciting and that’s why you’re seeing so much evolution is such a short time. We don’t want to have a meeting about a meeting, we just want to get it done, you know, so it creates a little excitement every day, it’s a lot of fun, you have to have the right sort of spirit for it, and we both do for sure, he’s a maverick and I’m a maverick, and we’re taking our best shot, so watch and see.
Tamés: The other camera that I find interesting at the show this week is the Infinity from Grass Valley, what do you think of their approach, clearly it’s an ENG camera and Red is a cinematographer’s camera, but they seem to have some design concepts in common.
Schilowitz: Everything that people are doing that can be chopping down some trees, clearing the way for us a little bit, is wonderful. We want to be an active part of this community, we want to shake it up when we can, we want to keep an eye on everybody, and we just want to offer what we hope is a better alternative for a lot of people.