One day in 2005, video-software engineer and entrepreneur Ted Schilowitz's cell phone rang. "Ted? It's me, Jim," said the caller. "Let's do it."
"Uh ... do what?" Schilowitz recognized the caller as Jim Jannard, the man who had founded sunglasses powerhouse Oakley and sold it for billions, and who had consulted with Schilowitz a few months before about a project that had led to a dead end.
"That thing we talked about. The camera. Remember?"
Yes, he remembered. Jannard, a camera nut, had persuaded him to look into what it would take to build a digital video camera whose output would look as good as film--and be much smaller and cheaper than a film camera to boot. Such a camera would represent an enormous leap beyond existing digital video cameras, whose relatively murky images limited their use by Hollywood pros.
Schilowitz, an expert in the workings of video technology, had investigated, and he had come back to Jannard with the bad news: Though every element of this hypothetical camera, from the body to the software, would be tough to develop, the sensor--the light-sensitive chip that replaces film in capturing an image--was a doozy. No existing image sensor on earth could match movie film. It would have to be designed from scratch, the sort of leading-edge-technology project that a multibillion-dollar electronics company like Sony turns an entire lab loose on for a couple of years. It would multiply the already substantial cost of building the camera by a factor of 100.
Jannard had taken the news soberly at the time and thanked Schilowitz for checking it out. That was the last he had heard from Jannard, until this call. Now, Jannard wanted to move ahead with the absurdly ambitious project.
Schilowitz could only blurt: "Are you serious?"
Three years later, Schilowitz arrived at the set of the television show ER carrying a small, blocky camera and a tripod. ER's producers were considering switching from film to digital, and they were trying out various digital cinema cameras on the set to see if any delivered the clarity and rich color of film.
When Schilowitz explained he was there to have his camera tested, the crew asked him where his team was. It's just me, he replied. Where was the rest of his equipment? This is all I've got, he explained. Skeptically eyeing the shoebox-size device--pro cameras are generally about the size of small motorcycle engines--they went ahead with a test. Afterward, the team screened the results and made a decision on the spot. Every remaining episode of ER was filmed with the oddball camera from Red Digital Cinema.
So was the latest Spider-Man movie. It's what Peter Jackson used for his new Hobbit trilogy. James Cameron and Steven Soderbergh are Red converts, too. If you go to the movies, you've probably seen a Red camera at work. A good number of top-line directors and cinematographers, along with hundreds of independent filmmakers, have come to embrace Jannard and Schilowitz's cameras, citing the extraordinary resolution and low costs. Red, a privately held company with some 500 employees, claims to have sold well over 10,000 cameras.
As Red's many fans see it, Jannard's journey is a classic tale of an entrepreneur building a better mousetrap. In this Hollywood version, Jannard is a nimble, daring Zorro carving R's (for Red) in the backsides of the big, complacent camera companies, shaking up the industry for the good of the people.
But--spoiler alert--there's an alternate ending playing in some locations. Others in Hollywood grumble that the Red camera isn't quite what it's made out to be, and they see Jannard as a hype-happy braggart and obnoxious self-promoter. Some go so far as to say that Jannard and his nifty camera are degrading the art of moviemaking.
More than 100 recent movies have been filmed with Red cameras, including The Great Gatsby, The Hobbit trilogy, and The Great and Powerful Oz.
What the Red story really illustrates is that playing the innovative rebel can be a two-edged sword--especially in a close-knit industry. Red invested millions of dollars and countless hours developing its high-resolution technology--and in persuading Hollywood to make the switch to digital. Now that filmmakers have finally started to come around, other competitors have emerged, and they are closing the resolution gap and winning on more traditional selling points. Whether Red will be able to hold on to its position as the hot upstart is now an open question. Red may well be finding itself stalling in the market, a victim of its focus on a single high-tech innovation, as well of Jannard's in-your-face marketing style.
Virtually all of still photography switched over to digital years ago with hardly anyone looking back, and now most of us even record home video on chips rather than on tape. No wonder: The advantages of digital media are overwhelming. You can record and store vast amounts of footage. The creative process becomes far more powerful with digital files that can be instantly reviewed and easily edited. And media producers and distributors often see their inventory and distribution costs shrink when they start dealing with bits instead of paper, tape, and plastic.
So it might seem surprising that film has continued to hang on in Hollywood. Only in the past few years have a large percentage of films been shot digitally, and shooting on celluloid is still alive and well. Many directors, including Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, have championed film over digital.
One reason digital cinematic cameras have been slow to conquer Hollywood is that film is a tough act to follow. A traditional movie camera actually takes still photographs at a nonstop rush of 24 shots per second. Film handles the rapid shooting easily, and with brilliant clarity and color. But capturing 24 frames per second is taxing for a digital imaging chip, because a single image can represent a lot of data. To compensate, many video cameras use small image chips and narrow lenses, which don't gather enough light to produce a rich image. Plus, they can't provide depth-of-field effects--the aesthetically appealing and narratively useful blurring of the foreground and background deemed essential to good filmmaking. That's why back in 2005, when Jannard was looking into it, few feature films were made with digital cameras.
To get that cinematic look, Jannard needed to create an imaging chip that was as big as a chunk of 35 mm film and could handle a vast torrent of data from the same fat lenses that make movies beautiful. Still cameras had been using big image chips for years, but the best of them could spit out only 10 shots per second.
There are plenty of brilliant, hard-driving engineering types in the electronics and photography worlds who would have seemed well suited for spearheading the project. Jannard probably wouldn't have been high on anyone's list. In the 1970s, when Jannard was in his 20s, he was a biker who sold motorcycle parts out of his car. He founded Oakley in 1975, and eventually created motorcycle goggles that caught on for their cool look, optical clarity, and toughness. Next came ski goggles that really caught on, and finally sunglasses, which is when Oakley's growth became stratospheric. The company went public in 1995 and was sold to the Italian company Luxottica in 2007 for $2.1 billion.
Along the way, Jannard picked up a reputation for being driven and eccentric. He generally avoids speaking to the press, myself included. He wore a black trench coat and orange shoes to an Oakley annual meeting and once gave a public speech sporting a gas mask. A skull-and-crossbones flag flew over Oakley's massive, almost militarized-looking headquarters outside of Los Angeles. He bought several islands and reportedly has four private jets. Forbes puts his worth at $2.8 billion.
"Part of Jim's brilliance is to get everyone's feet as close to the fire as possible. He wanted to make the goals so hard that people would say, 'It isn't going to happen.' "
Of course, having a boatload of money happens to be helpful if one intends to push the limits of imaging chip technology. And Jannard had something else going in his favor: He is passionate about photography. Jannard, who has a collection of more than 1,000 cameras, personally shot most of the photos and videos used in Oakley's wide-ranging marketing efforts. The man knows cameras.
Plus, he is a major technology geek. At Oakley, Jannard had thrown himself into the creative engineering process, enlisting technologies such as liquid laser prototyping and electron-beam gun-vapor deposition in his quest to make state-of-the-art sunglasses. His business card listed his title as Mad Scientist. In planning to reinvent the movie camera, Jannard wasn't out of his element. He was right in the middle of it. Schilowitz was Red's first employee, but soon some 200 employees were working on the project, including physicists and mathematicians.
Almost immediately, Jannard started talking up the concept on online cinematography forums. His new camera would blow away anything anyone had ever seen in movie imaging, he told the world, with resolution off the charts, and it would go for $17,500. Jannard said he would have a prototype at the 2006 National Association of Broadcasters show. The camera would be available soon after that, he added, and Red would be taking preorders at the show from anyone willing to leave a $1,000 deposit.
The film world was soon buzzing over the imminent introduction of a true cinema-quality digital video camera, not to mention one that would go for maybe a 15th the cost of a traditional camera. At NAB, crowds gathered at the Red tent, where they found a cool-looking camera and a list of outrageously impressive specs. Some 500 people left checks at the show, and later, online deposits bumped the advance buyers into the thousands.
Red was off to a fast start, at least in terms of marketing. There was just one little problem: The Red camera--in spite of all the bragging and all the deposits--didn't actually exist. The camera displayed at NAB was just an aluminum shell. At the time, Red didn't have so much as a prototype of an image chip, and it hadn't gotten far on dozens of other major technical hurdles it faced. "We had publicly launched without a sensor, without a clear concept," says Schilowitz. "Some days we were sure it wasn't going to work. We were done. We were ready to pack up."
It wasn't until four months after Red started taking deposits that the team finally developed a prototype of the image chip. To quell the growing chorus of skepticism about whether Red could make good on its promises, the company started showing a few brief scenes shot with the chip. That helped, but the camera remained missing in action, as the delivery date kept slipping. "We were becoming a laughingstock," recalls Schilowitz.
Red's marketing has largely consisted of Jannard's online rants on public forums.
But he insists that facing that mounting pressure to deliver was Jannard's plan. "Part of Jim's brilliance is to get everyone's feet as close to the fire as possible," Schilowitz says. "He wanted to make the goals so hard that people would say, 'It isn't going to happen.' We knew we didn't have a product yet, but we had a story."
It was a story that intrigued Peter Jackson, one of the hottest directors in the world following the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson's assistant called Schilowitz in early 2007 to say his boss would like to try out the camera the next time he was in L.A. Jannard learned early on in his Oakley days that if he could get stars to use his product, the rest of the world would follow. He knew an endorsement from Jackson would break things open for Red. As soon as the Red team had two crude--but functioning--devices, Jannard flew to New Zealand to let Jackson test them.
Jackson pulled together a World War I movie set, complete with a large cast, military vehicles, aircraft, and explosives. Though the Red prototype didn't even have an On switch--it had to be hardwired to batteries--Jackson strapped it into helicopters for flying shots, whipped it around on booms, and jammed it into trenches. A month later, Jackson delivered a 12-minute mini movie to Jannard that was the talk of NAB 2007, with block-long lines forming to get into Red's tent to see it. Red was for real! Peter Jackson was a fan!
The camera, Red One, didn't become available until about eight months after the first estimated delivery date. The price--$30,000 or more for a model configured with everything needed for shooting--was nearly twice the originally stated cost. And most prebuyers still had to wait until well into 2008 for their cameras. Overpromising on delivery date and pricing became standard operating procedure for Red. The pattern would be repeated on the next two major models, the higher-end Epic and the lower-cost Scarlet. The Scarlet was announced as a $3,000 model at NAB 2008, but it didn't get into buyers' hands until the end of 2011, and at a price of about $10,000.
Jackson ended up buying 50 Red cameras to film The Hobbit and shared his enthusiasm with Steven Soderbergh, who was looking for cameras small and tough enough to survive the Spanish jungles in which he would be shooting the two Che films. Soderbergh ended up buying three Reds.
But not everyone in Hollywood has been so easily won over. Unlike Jackson and Soderbergh, many major filmmakers were nervous about being on the bleeding edge. Some still questioned whether Red's images were as terrific as the company claimed. In general, the Red camera's imagery is considered to be somewhat cold and hard-edged--in essence, trading away some of the aesthetics of imagery for unflinching detail. That can work in the Red's favor if a director wants an edgy, harsher look, as appears to have been the case for Soderbergh's recent anxiety-soaked Side Effects or Robert Zemeckis's hard-hitting Flight--both filmed with Red cameras.
But some bemoan Red's undercutting of traditional film warmth and richness, or the "romantic" qualities of the imaging. Both cinematographer Steven Poster, who is president of the International Cinematographer's Guild, and acclaimed director Werner Herzog have said they regretted their decisions to film with Red cameras.
Jannard figured the best way to combat some of the resistance to Red would be to put a camera in people's hands so they could try it out for themselves while surrounded by Red support. Unfortunately, Red was based in Irvine, which, though only 50 miles from Hollywood, was like being on another planet. So, in 2011, Jannard bought Ren-Mar Studios, the storied film home at various times of Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, and Lucille Ball. Now dubbed Red Studios, the space is an L.A.-based showcase for the Red camera. Directors and cinematographers who film there don't have to use Red cameras--but they get a lot of handholding (and preferential rates) if they do.
Schilowitz gave me a tour of the studios, pointing to where scenes from Spider-Man had been filmed. At one point, I spotted a hulking troop carrier parked by one building. Filming a military picture? "No," Schilowitz replied, "that's Jim's car. I heard he might be here today, but no one's sure."
As Jannard has pushed Hollywood to digitize, he himself has become a mostly digital presence. Schilowitz does a fair amount of public evangelizing, but otherwise, Red's marketing has largely consisted of Jannard's online rants on public forums. Jannard's posts tend to lurch from unabashed self-congratulation to dubious product claims to open disdain for competitors and even some customers. Jannard, unlike his cameras, has no filter.
And Red's competitors haven't been asleep at the wheel.
For the first few years after the Red One's introduction, its only real competition in high-end digital movie work was the Panavision Genesis--a much lower-resolution camera, but one that has been praised for its overall filmlike feel. In 2010, Arri, maker of some of Hollywood's most celebrated film cameras for nearly a century, released a formidable digital competitor, the Alexa. Though it, too, fails to match the Red in resolution and is twice as expensive, it has quickly become the top digital choice of high-end filmmakers because of the filmlike, warm brilliance of its images. Among the many Alexa-shot movies acclaimed for their stunning looks are Skyfall and Life of Pi--both Oscar nominated for cinematography this year.
With Red failing to deliver on its original promise of a camera affordable to serious amateurs and tiny-budget filmmakers, the lower end has been firmly held by Canon's top digital still cameras, which can record high-def video. Incredibly, some major scenes of both The Avengers and Iron Man 2 were shot on one of these cameras, some of which go for as little as a few thousand dollars. In 2011, Canon launched the C300, a digital cinematic camera that, while still not as high-resolution as the Red, is considered by some in Hollywood to be a better camera.
In digital camera "shootouts," in which experts judge the relative quality of similar scenes shot with different unidentified cameras, Red has not fared well. In one closely watched blind shootout last year that was judged by a group of prominent industry figures, including Francis Ford Coppola, a Red camera (and other professional models) ranked behind a $900 video camera. Jannard has disparaged these comparisons, claiming the setups are designed to eliminate Red's higher-resolution advantage. He loudly arranged to run his own shootout but then abruptly canceled it as the date approached. "We just aren't up for the grief," he explained online. "We have better things to do."
In just the past year, ultrahigh-def digital projectors have been finding their ways into movie theaters at a fast clip. Which means that Red's higher resolution may finally become more meaningful. Unfortunately for Red, the change is coming just as most of its competitors are stepping up to the higher resolution. Now that there's a good reason to go ultrahigh-res, you don't need to go with Red to do it. Canon's new C500 and Sony's new F55 both match Red's sharpness. Arri and Panavision are expected to eventually introduce new models that do the same.
Red claims it will stay ahead of the industry by upping the resolution of its cameras even further. Jannard began boasting in 2012 that he would have a higher-res camera out by the end of that year. He didn't, of course, and as of presstime it still wasn't out, though the company has released some impressive photos it says were taken with a new beyond-ultra-def chip it has developed. But does the world need a camera with resolution that exceeds that of human eyesight, theater projectors, and TV sets?
Jannard wants to help take care of the projector shortfall by making his own. Red plans to introduce its own extremely high-res projectors enlisting lasers and other leading-edge technology, perhaps this year. Schilowitz showed me a reel of trailers on a prototype projector in Red Studios's luxurious in-house theater. The clips--all shot on Red cameras, of course--were certainly stunning in their detail, though to be fair, I was sitting in the front row. Those who sit farther back in the theater may not notice much difference. In any case, it's far too soon to say whether Red can mount a viable challenge to established projector manufacturers.
Red has plenty of devoted fans and seems to have solidified its position as a real player in movie cameras. But with competitors catching up in resolution and racking up more industry kudos for cinematography, it seems unlikely that going higher-res--even if Red can eventually sell the projectors to support it--will allow Red to make further dramatic inroads into Hollywood. Red may have to fight hard just to hold on to the share it has.
On the other hand, Jannard has already twice caught the world by surprise. Anyone who counts him out now is asking for a big R to be slashed into the seat of his pants.
Jim Jannard can be an elusive figure, but he isn't shy about expressing his opinions online. Here are a few of the comments Jannard has left on message boards.
"I don't understand Canon. I don't like the C300. ... What was Canon thinking?"
"Can you make OK images with a [lower-resolution] camera? Sure. Should you be embarrassed? Yes."
In response to customers complaining about Red's slipping delivery dates:
"Our job is not to meet your deadline or wish list. It is to complete the job at hand as well as we can as quickly as possible ... 'Things can change' has been included in all our statements."
"If people want to correctly point out our flaws as a company, they will only be joining my previous admissions. We have no idea what we are doing. We are always late."