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First Impressions Of RED’s New 8K Helium Sensor

Last week RED announced that they would start shipping their Epic-W and Weapon cameras – both of which are fitted with the new Helium sensor. As many of you already know, Helium is an 8K Super 35mm sensor that is capable of capturing up to 75fps in full resolution on the RED Weapon.

While I haven’t yet had a chance to shoot with the new Weapon or Epic-W, I did download RED’s sample footage from their website and spent some time experimenting with it in post. At some point in the future, I might do a full review of either the Epic-W or the Weapon, but for now I wanted to leave you with my first impressions after analyzing the sample shots.

I’ve always applauded RED for their ability to push technology forward and deliver cameras that exceed the status quo in many respects. They have been a disruptive company since they first hit the scene with their RED One, and their new Helium sensor certainly furthers that legacy. There’s a lot to love about the new sensor – namely it’s handling of colors – but there also some caveats that filmmakers should be aware of when working with it.

THE SAMPLE FOOTAGE

I loaded the Helium sample shots into RED-CINEX PRO to see how they would play back on my system (a 12 core Mac Pro), and how grade-able they would be. Based on what I had heard previously, I was expecting there to be a lot of shadow detail in the footage, as well as improved color depth overall.

Ultimately I did feel that the Helium sensor offered a noticeable difference in color handling when compared to footage from RED’s previous cameras. The skin tones on both clips felt very natural, and the images were extremely flexible… Especially with the first sample clip, which looked equally great when underexposing and overexposing the image in post.

red_8k_1_underexposed red_8k_1_overexposed

Surprisingly, even after grading the clips in RED-CINEX PRO, I was able to play them back smoothly at a 1/4 or 1/8 resolution, which I wasn’t expecting since the 8K material is extremely high resolution. 8192 x 3456 to be exact.

As different as the Helium sensor is from most other digital cinema sensors, it does seem to share one common trait (at least based on this test footage) – slightly overexposed footage seems to yield the best results when graded. While both clips were extremely flexible when making color temperature/balancing adjustments, the second clip (which was shot at ISO 800), didn’t perform as well when I bumped up the ISO setting to 2000.

When I pushed the ISO on the second sample shot, it felt like the  some color information was lost, while some noise started to appear in the shadow areas. This is completely acceptable, and certainly not a knock against the sensor (as any RAW digital footage would likely behave in the same way)… But it’s simply worth pointing out that this camera, like most other digital cinema cameras, may perform best when slightly exposing to the right.

The first image below is ungraded. The second is bumped up to ISO 2000.

red_8k_2_raw

red_8k_2_iso2000

The detail present in the images is also pretty astounding. When you punch in to 100% on a 1080p monitor, you can really appreciate just how much resolution you are working with. The image below is a 1:1 crop of the original shot, exported as a PNG file.

8k_100

I found it interesting that the shot of the eye looked a bit soft when blown up to 100%. This was likely a lens issue (more than a sensor issue), as I’m not sure how many lenses exist that can truly do justice to an 8K resolution sensor. In reality, this will never matter as most people for at least the next 10 years will be watching content in 4K resolution or below. However, I’m sure in time more and more 8K-capable glass will be released that may allow this sensor to resolve even more detail.

THE WORKFLOW

While my first impressions of the footage have been very positive so far, there is one big caveat to consider – the post production workflow. Unless you own a post house, or are running an extremely beefy system with access to a massive RAID/SAN solution, you are going to find that the achilles heel of 8K footage is the data management and overall post-workflow.

I’ll re-iterate that these 8K files were surprisingly smooth to play back at a reduced resolution. That said, playing back footage with real time proxies is one thing, and rendering out footage for a final master is another.

In order to experiment with some different workflow techniques, I converted the first test clip to ProRes 4444 in full 8K resolution. The export ran very slowly, even on my Mac Pro, and it ultimately resulted in a 3.1GB file for the 6 second video clip.

You might be thinking – That doesn’t matter because I can just edit my footage natively with real time proxies… And that is true. You can certainly get away with avoiding transcoding for the majority of your post-production process. But eventually you will have to render out a master file. Whether you are mastering to HD or 8K, it’s going to take a long time to transcode that footage, and depending on what system you’re working on, there’s a chance it might be extremely difficult to export your data master.

I learned this the hard way when working with 4K RED One footage on my film Footsteps in 2011. I edited the film in Premiere Pro using the native .R3D files, and didn’t realize until the last second that I was going to have a very hard time exporting my master. It took me literally dozens of attempts to finally create my data master, and ultimately I had to export the film in small chunks in order to make it work. This was especially frustrating at the time, seeing as I was cutting it close to the submission deadline of a festival that I nearly missed because it took so long to create the file. In 2016, exporting a 4K master is a piece of cake. In 2011, it was not – at least on my system.

Now this may or may not be an issue for you, depending on what kind of system and software you’re running. But it’s certainly worth taking into account that the file sizes, and render time associated with 8K footage are going to be massive, and may cause you some serious workflow hurdles down the line. Not to mention you are going to need a huge amount of storage space, especially if you plan to create multiple back up copies of your RAW source footage.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I truly do believe the Helium sensor is a massive achievement for RED, and I very much respect the fact that they as a company continue to push the technological side of this industry forward.

For me personally, this is not a camera I would invest in (at any price), simply because the workflow at the moment is going to be cumbersome, and I have absolutely no need for 8K footage. That’s not to say that this camera isn’t going to be very valuable for certain types of productions (large scale features, green screen work, visual effects plates, etc.). However, for an independent filmmaker that needs to find the right balance between image quality and efficiency, cameras like the Arri Amira are still going to take the cake.

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

7 Comments

  • Kevin
    May 14, 2017 at 5:27 pm

    How does the color science of the helium sensor stack up to the ursa mini?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 15, 2017 at 9:28 pm

      Good question – I haven’t tested them side by side, but will try to for a future post.

      Reply
  • Andrew
    October 19, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    Thanks for sharing this review, Noam. For me, the most interesting innovation of Helium is color science. From what I have seen, this new sensor produces very filmic colors..chapeau!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      October 25, 2016 at 4:33 pm

      Agreed! Thanks for the note Andrew.

      Reply
  • Michael Hoffman
    October 18, 2016 at 3:53 am

    Great write up!

    However; I can honestly say – as someone who for 2 years shot most of their client projects in 4k RAW on a Blackmagic Prodution camera; then had the misfortune of (for a very brief time) owning an Ursa Mini 4.6k…

    The 8k RAW file sizes are nothing compared to those cams. I’m seeing great results at 10:1 raw files from shooters out there – which is about 8 gigs per minute – compared to the 16 and 19 gigs per minute I was getting on the first cams I mentioned.

    Is it more cumbersome than my Red MX cam? Sure? But if you don’t mind the slight crop factor; 6k here can be shot at higher compression rates than an Epic Dragon – as the sensor is so much cleaner to begin with – and 7:1 6k on the Dragon has always run smoothly…. even on my Macbook Pro.

    I am worried a bit about denoise times in Resolve for the 8k… but; then again – hope to have to use it much more sparingly on this camera.

    I am sold. And grabbed one – which arrives tomorrow 🙂

    And; hey – if you want it – there’s always Pro Res full sensor in 4k as well.

    Best!

    Reply
    • Liam
      October 24, 2016 at 8:43 am

      Hi Michael,

      Sorry for being off-topic, but why do you say misfortune for the Ursa mini 4.6? As far as cinema cameras go it was on my possible list…

      The helium sensor looks fantastic, but I think it will be a rental not a purchase. I hope to get a chance to work with it one day.

      Cheers

      Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      October 25, 2016 at 4:31 pm

      Good to know about ProRes full sensor 4K. I didn’t know that, and that would certainly make things a lot easier workflow-wise. Thanks for the note!

      Reply

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