B&W is Back: RED EPIC Monochrome, David Fincher and Depeche Mode

DOWNTOWN Calvin Klein (featuring Rooney Mara)

David Fincher likes black-and-white. Like, a lot. After filming Justin Timberlake’s Rat Pack throwback SUIT & TIE in glorious monochrome, Fincher turned his pointed attention to direct current muse Rooney Mara (GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) who plays the faux-celebrity in CK’s Downtown fragrance 60-second spot.

While SUIT & TIE (shot by Matthew Libatique, BLACK SWAN) coasted on JT’s swagger and Fincher’s crisp stylistic precision, the DOWNTOWN perfume commercial (lovingly lensed by David Devlin) misfires as a pretentious and ponderously artsy puff piece. Featuring Runaway by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on its soundtrack, the song (released in 2009) feels awkward and contrived as Rooney Mara studiously portrays her character role of dreamy-downtown-girl-but-also-famous-celebrity in a carefully orchestrated tableau of slow-mo. Oh, how pensive!

Shot in black-and-white, Fincher once again makes express use of the new 5K RED EPIC Monochrome camera to capture the vintage 50’s cool in the DOWNTOWN commercial.

What is this new RED EPIC Monochrome camera?
The 5K EPIC Monochrome has a 14-megapixel black-and-white Mysterium-X CMOS sensor with a 5120 x 2700 pixel array that is rated at a native ISO 2000. In comparison, the color version of the RED EPIC is rated at a native ISO 800 (which basically means that the EPIC Monochrome is over one full stop faster than its ‘color cousin’). The Monochrome can capture 24fps up to 5K, and 5K frame rates up to 120 fps. Frame rates expand to 300fps in 2K mode. 

Why a dedicated B&W camera?
It’s normal for cinematographers to shoot on color—celluoid or digital—and then convert to B&W in post-production (films from THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE to WHITE RIBBON to THE ARTIST did exactly this). Unlike color negative, film stock manufacturers such as Kodak and Fuji did not plunk in enough R&D into updating the chemistry of the black-and-white film stocks. This is why the cinematographer’s options were either shooting on old generation B&W reversal film or color film negative or to capture digitally. Until now.

Why shoot in native B&W?
RED Digital Cinema seems to have heeded the call of ‘purists’ and those in commercial and fashion industry who favor grayscale over chrominance and dazzling contrast over spectrum saturation. Acquiring in native B&W makes a lot of sense from a production point-of-view. But there are also clear technical advantages.

Advantages of EPIC Monochrome over EPIC-X?
Most high-end CMOS cameras like the RED EPIC use Bayer color filters to distribute a sensor’s output to red, green and blue photosites. This reduces the practical resolution to 4K. But if you remove the color filter array of the Bayer pattern, you gain roughly another 20 percent of the true resolution of the sensor. Since there are no color filters on each of the pixels of the EPIC Monochrome, you get increased light to each pixel, and there is no debayer process, which means you get a much “sharper” image and a better tonal transfer in gradients as there is no interpolation (in other words, instead of reading four pixels [RGBG] to guess/interpolate four final color pixels, the camera is reading four unique, accurate imaging pixels to create four accurate final pixels.)

Bayer Pattern (RED EPIC Monochrome)

All CMOS sensors are monochrome. To get a color image, they have color filters over each pixel arraigned in a particular grid called a Bayer pattern.

ISO 2000 or more with the RED EPIC Monochrome?
An all-important factor in the age of low-light and/or “less lights” is sensor sensitivity. A comparison experiment done by KipperTie reveals that you can expect not just ISO 2000, but actually ISO 4000 at 5K, ISO 3200 at 4K, ISO 2000 at 3K and ISO 1280 at 2K. Add to that the increase in practical resolution of the EPIC Monochrome, and you have a seriously impressive camera in your hands.

Is an image worth a thousand words? You can see the results of the comparison between the EPIC Monochrome and EPIC-X  here. Note the increased “sharpness” and perceived resolution at the same ISO rating.

The Future is B&W
While black-and-white film manufacturing and lab processing is on the wane, interest in black-and-white cinematography is high (Alexander Payne’s new film NEBRASKA was shot in color on the Alexa Studio, then converted to b&w in post). A dedicated B&W camera such as the RED EPIC Monochrome with its increased practical resolution and expanded sensitivity of native ISO 2000 can only help the cause.

Just ask Depeche Mode.

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Video source: Calvin Klein, Warren Fu/ Bayer Pattern image: Wikipedia.

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