If you haven’t already heard, RED Digital Cinema has announced that they will be offering a paid camera upgrade (called Weapon) to all Dragon owners starting at NAB in April. While a lot of details have yet to be revealed, what we do know so far is that Weapon is a camera body upgrade – not a sensor upgrade, but it will still likely improve overall image quality in addition to adding functionality to the camera body itself.
RED has always been pretty good about offering an upgrade path to owners of their cameras. In the past, if you owned let’s say a Scarlet MX you would be able to send in your camera and upgrade it to a Scarlet Dragon without having to buy an entirely new camera. This has generally been a good thing as it meant that your investment in a RED camera would have more longevity if you chose to stick with the brand. The issue for many users though, is that the updates are coming so frequently (and at such a high cost), that it is becoming very difficult and extremely costly to keep up with the technology.
The Real Cost Of RED
If you had bought a RED Scarlet MX (the lowest cost RED camera) in the first half of last year and wanted to keep up with the new technology, you would be paying to upgrade the camera twice in less than a year. First from MX to Dragon, and then from Dragon to Weapon. When you factor in the upgrade costs (currently it’s $9500 to go from MX to Dragon) on top of the original price of the camera, not to mention the extremely expensive accessories, you potentially could have just invested in an Arri Amira. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you consider you are left with a Scarlet at the end of the day…
It’s not that RED shouldn’t be pushing their technology forward, but the way in which their upgrades are structured and priced often end up polarizing their customers. Right now, many users are upset that they will need to upgrade their MX sensors to Dragon before NAB (which is a month and a half away) in order to take advantage of a reduced upgrade price on the Weapon. If they are unable to do so, they can upgrade to Dragon later (and then upgrade to Weapon after the fact) but the cost will be much higher and the wait time to get their camera will increase substantially. Considering Weapon was only announced a few days ago, that leaves current MX users with a very short timeline to decide what to do. On top of that, the Weapon ‘announcement’ didn’t really reveal any concrete details on what users would be getting with the upgrade, which makes it even more challenging to decide what to do.
What Is Weapon?
As I stated above, all we really know so far is that Weapon will be a body upgrade – not a sensor upgrade. In other words, if you already have a Dragon you will be able to re-house it in a Weapon body, which theoretically could improve the performance of the camera while also adding some new functionality to the camera itself. The dynamic range in particular may improve as the hardware in the Epic body supposedly limited the sensor performance to some degree… So even though this is a body upgrade, the performance of the camera will certainly be improved as well.
I don’t doubt that the Weapon will be a great camera. I’m sure that performance, image quality and it’s overall feature set will offer a nice improvement over it’s predecessor – but to many that’s not enough. Personally speaking, I’ve always preferred Arri’s slow and steady business model with regards to their cameras. Yes, they cost quite a bit more money right off the bat, but they also stay relevant for longer. If you had invested in the original Arri Alexa, it would still be nearly as relevant today as it was on day one. Not to mention it’s resale value would stay relatively high. On the other hand, if you invested in the original RED camera – the ONE, it would feel quite outdated today, and you’d get a lot less for it when trying to resell it. That’s not to say the RED ONE wasn’t a great camera… In fact I think it was the best camera RED has ever made in a lot of ways. But it does go to show that the lifecycle of a RED can be shorter than an Alexa, and in the end the cost balances out.
What I Want To See From Red
Right now it feels like RED is fighting an uphill battle with Arri, attempting to compete for the extremely high end market. There’s no denying that RED is producing some really great cameras that are being used on professional productions day in and day out – but they are still the runner up for the very high end. The vast majority of Hollywood level productions (shooting digitally) are opting to go with Arri, and it seems that RED is aggressively trying to eat into their marketshare. What I would love to see them do however, is cater more to their existing market: the mid level production.
Right now RED has found a sweet spot with mid level productions and filmmakers. Productions that have a big enough budget that they don’t need to shoot on Blackmagic’s or DSLR’s but can’t quite afford an Alexa usually are benefitting most from RED. This is why so many music videos, indie films, commercials, and other mid level productions are shot with Scarlets, Epics and Dragons. Their cameras fill a void in the marketplace, and in my opinion RED should keep focusing on that market.
What I would like to see from RED is simple – better pricing. Granted, their prices have dropped over the years, but then again so have everyone else’s. I want to see an affordable all in one solution from RED (like a Scarlet but without the need for all of the accessories), and more competitive upgrade pricing. If they can keep delivering great image quality, but maintain a lower cost on their gear, then they will have me as a customer. But if it’s going to cost me just as much in the long run to buy and maintain a RED camera as it would to get an Alexa… I’m going to have to go with Arri.