B&W Strikes Again: U2 Music Video, RED EPIC Monochrome and Mark Romanek

U2 Invisible (music video shot on RED Epic Monochrome)

Bono in mono? Apparently so! Irish rock legend (and sellouts?) U2 have a new song called INVISIBLE. And they got the mighty Mark Romanek to direct it. In black and white. On seven, yes, seven RED Epic Monochrome cameras! (I had written earlier about Romanek’s return to music videos after a 10-year sabbatical with JayZ’s PICASSO BABY, shot by Jody Lee Lipes. In keeping with Romanek’s growing obsession with multi-cam or—if you want to get all philosophical—capturing the ephemeral nature of an artist’s performance, no less than eight cameras were utilized on that project!).

So what’s special about INVISIBLE? Well, a couple of things. For starters, Philippe Le Sourd is the man responsible for the beautiful cinematography in this music video; an important fact that seems to have been lost in the ebb and flow of the Mark Romanek lovefest (don’t worry, I’m a fan!). Many months ago on CineBlog, I had discussed Le Sourd and his collaboration with Wong Kar-wai on GRANDMASTERS, for which he deservedly received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Will he win? Whatever the outcome, it is a surety that more mainstream directors will be pinning for this talented French cinematographer, who rose up the ranks up from Darius Khondji’s camera assistant in the 90s to director of photographer with his breakout film A GOOD YEAR directed by a guy called Ridley Scott…

Philippe Le Sourd (cinematographer)

Philippe Le Sourd (cinematographer) on the set of Wong Kar-wai’s GRANDMASTERS

The second thing you ought to know about INVISIBLE is how it was made. Philippe Le Sourd and Mark Romanek used seven RED Epic Monochrome cameras to capture U2’s concert performance in pristine black and white and do justice to Marshmallow Laser Feast/ Prettybird’s light concept. Image wise, the Monochrome’s low-light capability and higher *practical* resolution did the rest. Eh? I will now explain the confounding details to you eager tech-heads!

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 then post-convert. 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 digital 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). Wish I had the RED EPIC Monochrome on the fashion film I shot recently—could have used it, but a cinematographer makes best of what he has!

A dedicated B&W camera such as the RED EPIC Monochrome with its increased practical resolution and expanded sensitivity of native ISO 2000 is the answer to many DPs and directors’ desire for the silky, organic black-and-white look of 35mm film. And with the 6K RED Dragon Monochrome coming out soon, the game just got crazier…

Update—And Whaddya Know!
Soon after publication, Mark Romanek himself tweeted about this article! Ha.

Mark Romanek on Adnan X. Khan

Mark Romanek personally endorses my article.

Follow me on twitter.
To work with me or say hello, click.
Adnan X. Khan is a cinematographer based in Dubai.
Video source: U2/ Le Sourd image: Sophie Caretta/ Bayer Pattern image: Wikipedia.

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