• Robert Keyes

First Impression: The RED Komodo

Ah, RED. The brand of camera that people love to hate on for several good reasons and the brand of camera that some people swear by for several more good reasons: they've used one for a while, or their editor likes it, or their workflow demands it - whatever the case, RED has been divisive since they first came out with the RED One back in 2007. This is by no means a bad thing: a divisive company is always going to be talked about, which leads to a wide variety of people knowing about (and ultimately, using) your products, but it can lead to a cult-like following of the company.

This is neither here nor there though: I want to talk about their latest offering - the 6K, Global Shutter, "$6000" box of electronics that they've named the Komodo. And before we start, two things: First, the camera is a tool for a job. In my case, the Komodo was rented as an experiment to see if it could do a good job as a cinematic B roll camera. Secondly, a disclaimer: due to some sensitive subject matter, I won't be showing all that I captured with the Komodo during my 3 short days with it. I'm also not a proper camera reviewer at heart - I've reviewed many things (and actually worked for Trusted Reviews as their video guy for a while), but to me, a review is always secondary to experience. So, that's what I'm writing about: my 3 days with the RED Komodo, a couple of EF lenses and filming in Kansas.

Red Komodo on Car Roof.
Of course, we didn't exactly test in lab conditions....

One thing it's important to remember with regards to my experience: the Komodo was there as a D camera, and was used sparingly throughout the shoot, exclusively for handheld B roll. This is by no means a good test of a camera's capability, but does lead us nicely onto the first thing I was really excited about: the global shutter. And for that, we're going to have to take a quick dive into how camera shutters work.

I'm not going to wax lyrical around CMOS vs CCD sensors (that's a post for some other time), but the key difference between rolling and global shutters on cameras is in the names. A rolling shutter captures each line of pixels in the sensor in much the same way as waves roll across a beach: photosites are exposed in one wave after another, creating a kind of ripple across the sensor. This can lead to some funky artifacting - the most well known example is probably a propellor looking weird on footage. In fact, DP Review has a great article/video on it - it's worth a watch.

In contrast, a global shutter captures everything exposed to the sensor in one go - the sensor is on, then off. When it's on, that's what it's capturing. When it's off: nothing.

The upshot of this is that when you're doing handheld footage capture, you're significantly less likely to experience bending in your footage - especially useful for the VFX artists out there, but also just generally useful for people doing guerilla style on-the-street urban footage. Anyways, I'm getting slightly off track - TL:DR = Global Shutter is useful.

Global Shutter

One thing that most camera people I know deal with on a regular basis is camera shake - whether it's from just walking too fast, shooting out of a car window or trying to do some weird move that only works in your head, all of these scenarios can be helped in several ways - and the global shutter helps with this. By not having the rolling-waves effect on the image, you can more easily pull out a stabilized piece of footage in post. Is that ideal? No.

But it's very useful - especially in the B roll department of the documentary we were filming. There are some pieces that I shot that were definitely wobbly, and the edit team managed to smooth them out with no issues.

In my (admittedly short) time with the camera, I never really overcranked it to get the sport effect that I like shooting other things with (watch: a paintball thing I shot or the documentary here), I kept it mostly on 1/48 or 1/120. I don't think I played enough with the shutter to get a full impression of it, but in my time using and with feedback from the editors I work with, it's more than functional. Which, talking of the editors, let's talk about the image.

The Image

It's wonderful. If you wanted that RED look in a smaller form factor, look no further. I'm staggered at the kind of footage I can get with this small a camera. We spent almost all of the time with the Komodo attached to a Canon CN-E 50mm Prime and it does create some lovely images. I was particularly impressed with the low light side of the sensor: it seems to really shine at around the 800ISO mark, but we cranked it up to 2400 and it was still very usable. At T2, it was a smooth, warm image, with slightly greenish roll off and beautifully rendered skin tones.

T2.8 | 400ISO | No color correction

And to be honest, this is exactly what I expected it to be: the RED look is very specific. So, points there for what was already a good image, but in a smaller form factor.

Of course, this comes with a caveat: with the RED look, you also get the RED workflow. And the RED accessories.

The Caveats

Well, it overheated: twice, without warning and in the middle of a shot. There's no in body stabilization and the RF mount adapter serves a purpose, but isn't fantastic. This is not to even touch on the RF mount in general: it is a new lens standard released by Canon - and being new, there aren't too many RF lenses out there at the moment. That'll change, and make the camera more attractive in the future, but for now, it's a slight limitation.

However, the RED workflow is what I really want to talk about: from a documentary point of view, it's inefficient. First, set your compression ratio. Then your format. Then once you finish the shoot (having run as little compression as possible in order to deliver the highest quality). Then you bring it into the computer-killer that is Red Cine XPro, export a proxy version for the editors to use (and then you send that), then you send a hard drive to for the editors to swap in their proxy footage for. For cinema? That's not terrible. For quick-turn cinematic documentaries? Not ideal. Not bad, but not ideal. But this also doesn't take into account the sheer amount of extra RED accessories it takes to make the Komodo work on a set. What to run timecode to it? That's a $600 box and a $125 cable that your wonderful sound guy probably won't have. Want to build it out for handheld shooting? You'll need a handle, cage, monitor and something to compensate for the lack of internal stabilization. This is not to mention batteries or recording media.

Building out a RED is expensive - but not impossible.

Overall Impression

Bear in mind, I only spent 3 days with the Komodo and this is nothing more than a first impression write-up that I'm doing at an airport. However.

The RED Komodo is an odd camera. If you disregard the fact that it'll actually cost around $12000 to kit it out properly, then another $3000 to get a lens that you can take full advantage of, then it puts the RED firmly into the price range of the workhorse of the TV and Documentary world: the Sony FX9 or FS7.

And that is where things start to get odd for me. See, I've logged maybe 1200+ hours on the FS7 at this point and I know that camera inside and out - but what advantage does the Komodo have over it? Sure, it's got a larger sensor, the global shutter and the RED name, but with the proprietary cables, mounts, monitors, everything: all of it makes the Komodo a less attractive option.

With that said, there are advantages: the RED name in particular, as I touched on at the beginning, is well known: as a freelancer, you can charge more if you have a RED because they're seen as the stupidly high end cinema cameras that get used by big Hollywood names. The RED community is really quite open and have solved almost every problem you'll ever encounter. The image is gorgeous. RedCode is useful for colorists and editors. You'll be able to tweak every setting you could possibly imagine.

For filmmakers who work in the world of takes, marks and talent, the Komodo is a wonderful choice. But for documentary? It's got flaws that make it annoying to use. And this is the main thing it comes down to (and is my overall impression): if you have the time on set and in prep to make your camera a real part of the production equation then absolutely, the Red Komodo is a wonderful camera. But for the stuff that I do? Long takes, unpredictable weather, verite moments? It's not the right camera for that job.

With that said, you can bet that I'll be renting a Komodo in the future. But buying one? Nah.

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