Jarred Land on KOMODO 6K

Jarred Land. Photo by Brad Pitt.

Jarred Land joins Vittorio Storaro as an interviewee with boundless enthusiasm. You just have to ask a question and he can go on with a fascinating dissertation of almost unlimited length. This is a preview of the cover story and interview in the upcoming October edition of FDTimes. I have cut it down ever so slightly to fit :)

About the photo, above. During our discussions about the article, I thought an October cover would be interesting. In his interview (published below), Jarred went into detail about the similarities Medium Format cameras have to the Komodo, which obviously had a lot of influence on him and the camera. So I sent him a few photos for reference of people holding Medium Format cameras.  One of those photos was the 2013 Esquire photo of Brad Pitt cradling his Hasselblad on set. 

Unbeknownst to me, Jarred was actually sitting with Brad Pitt when I sent those reference photos over, and with their being the closest of friends, Jarred asked him to quickly grab a camera and take the cover shot.  

Jarred emailed the photo shortly after, simply saying, “How’s this? I’m no Brad Pitt…but Brad Pitt kindly shot this photo.”  

Imagine my astonishment at how these two stars turned the tables.

So, here’s the interview with Jarred Land, president and co-owner of RED Digital Cinema, about the new KOMODO camera. The cover of our October edition is coming soon.

 


Jon Fauer: It’s the beginning of October 2020, the camera hasn’t been officially released, and thousands of people already know about it.

Jarred Land: Yes, it hard to believe that the KOMODO isn’t actually official nor commercially for sale yet in production form. It is vacant from RED.com and we are just ramping up to get ready for traditional manufacturing. And yet it is a camera that everyone seems to be already shooting.

That’s mostly due to the fact that we started a private but open beta program, which I have done before, with these white-painted hand-built preproduction cameras. We do this beta run to get it out to customers and give them unfettered access . This helps get those final real-world edge cases tested as we finish up the final touches before hitting the release build of the camera and the software.

Traditionally the white camera beta program, nicknamed “Stormtrooper,” has been limited to close friends and family. But with the COVID-19 situation that we are in now, the program stretched out from a handful of cameras to hundreds and hundreds of beta customers which has been a bit insane and absolutely incredible. We actually have more KOMODOs in beta form out in customers’ hands right now than some models of production cameras that we have released in the past. The response has been pretty overwhelming.

It may seem like an odd decision to release that many “development incomplete” cameras out in the wild, especially considering how much more it costs us to build cameras like this. But, having that many pre-production cameras out shooting in real environments has accelerated our engineering process tenfold. This has allowed us to have an incredibly stable camera build at launch, more stable than any camera that has come before, and this is even before we wrap up an actual golden release build. 

This progress is purely the result of having a massive array of customers banging on the beta hardware and software on cameras that they actually own. That “own” part is important. These cameras are cameras that they actually bought and own, that they can do anything they want with, which creates a more authentic test environment and use case. 

The feedback is very honest and transparent because when something goes wrong with their camera—the camera that they paid for—they will send feedback to us without any sugar coating. Even though they know it is a beta program when they bought in, they have very high expectations that when something goes wrong, we will fix it and fix it fast. As you know, this is unlike what most companies do with loaners and test units. When you just send a free loaner camera out to somebody to test, especially existing customers, you don’t always get the most critical evaluation because of the perception of favors involved, the pleasantries that may follow, and most importantly, people not pushing too hard because they don’t want to get kicked off that special list.

For the only two people on the planet who do not know what a KOMODO is, please explain.

KOMODO is our small 6K Super35 utility camera, its a 4 inch, 2 pound cube. I’ll give Phil Holland credit for the “utility” word as I used to just call it the “BABY DRAGON” crash camera. When we started the development a number of years ago, Netflix approached us and said, “The small action cameras being used now are good for only about 20 frames before the audience gets taken out of the picture (jostled by the difference in quality). So why can’t you build a smaller RED?”

Remember, this was just around the time when we came out with the DSMC2, which is already a very small camera, all things considered. Heck, even the DSMC1, and even the RED ONE, for its time, were all incredibly small cameras. But it was a valid request to have something even smaller, and it was something that Jim and I thought about many times over the years because we both are really into shooting by ourselves without a big crew, and we both use our cameras in some pretty insane, harsh environments. And at that same time, I was heavily into building and flying drones, and no matter how small a DSMC2 was, even in Raven form, you still would need to get a very big drone to lift a DSMC2.

That request really pushed us to start thinking about how to make a smaller camera to check enough boxes. Image quality was the most important. It had to have enough resolution for most people, and more importantly, enough dynamic range, and image quality good enough to intercut with its other brothers and sisters. The dynamic range of KOMODO is 15, 16, 17 stops, depending on whom you ask and how you test it. By our own tests, we are happy to peg it at 16 stops, which is a really a breakthrough for a global shutter camera.

Global shutter?

Traditionally, a global shutter wasn’t something you would want to use in a cinema camera—there were just too many sacrifices. Most significantly, a global shutter sensor would cost you a 3 to 5 stop loss of dynamic range, compared to the same sensor with a rolling shutter. Losing that many stops made it difficult to match the exposure ranges of proper cameras to intercut footage, and you end up back to only being able to use short bursts. 

That was the challenge set forth for our sensor engineers: a global shutter sensor with high dynamic range, and remarkably they figured out how to solve it. In fact, the single most important requirement for KOMODO to be worth going forward was the global shutter, and it took us a few attempts to get there.  KOMODO started and stopped a few times along the way.

Anyway, the benefits of global shutter are when you’re shooting inside or outside of a car, on a motorbike, helicopter, or gimbal, the global shutter prevents vertical objects that are moving fast through frame from bending. 

Also, post-stabilization is so much better with a global shutter because the actual pixel geometry stays relatively the same. You still have motion blur, but you don’t have distortion on fast-moving objects. This is quite difficult to fix in post and make look good,   especially handheld shots. Sometimes you don’t always have the opportunity to use a gyro or remote head stabilizer, for example  inside cars or tight corridors. Global shutter makes image stabilization that much better. 

Also, global shutter has the benefit of capturing explosions and flashes in their entirety through the frame since the capture is the entire frame at the same time. On a rolling shutter, the capture  “rolls” through the frame and can result in split frames that are again really hard to fix in post.

So, that was the direction for this camera. That was the target. It was a hard one to make and a bit of a gamble. But, I think even today before we actually officially release it, I would mark the KOMODO already a success even if we never sold another camera.

Many filmmakers—Soderbergh, Michael Bay, the Wachowskis shooting Matrix 4, Thurber on Red Notice, and a ton of other directors and their cinematographers—have been using the camera as it was originally designed, as a crash camera and utility camera for high octane action sequences. Of course, the camera turned out to be a bit better than just that original concept—and KOMODO is also finding its way into many “A” camera positions.

Did the design change from the original concept?

Over the years of development, we just kept adding capability, making it smaller and kept making the image better and better. The sensor design improved. The color science led by the great  Graeme Natress became so good it is easily our best. We added things we didn’t think we could do, things we definitely couldn’t do when we started designing the camera. For example, we added built-in wireless monitoring of the video feed with incredibly low latency, again something hard to do with a compressed signal out to a cellphone, that the mighty Mikael Lubtchansky of Fool Control quickly designed an app around.

Something else also happened along the way. It was not from a utility perspective, but from an mechanical / emotional perspective. You hold the KOMODO a bit differently because of the form factor being a little cube. Personally, I am 12 feet tall so I shoot from the hip a lot. KOMODO has a beautiful, high resolution top screen. It’s small, but with the autofocus and focus confirmation you can actually use just this top monitor to view the image and frame your shot in a super compact setup without an external monitor. It’s just like you do when you shoot a Medium Format camera, cradling the camera in a very specific way. 

The Mamiya RZ67 is my favorite camera of all time. You can see that camera has been referenced into many of the things that we’ve done before, but never as much as the KOMODO. Just the way you hold the KOMODO, even if you do use a handle, has a certain intimacy that I always loved about shooting with Medium Format cameras, and the KOMODO shares that.  This is probably why there are a few people working on Hasselblad-like top prism finders and waist level, fold-out focusing hood attachments for the KOMODO. I just love the connection you have holding the camera like that—there’s just something about it that really excites me.

How did you come up with the name?

The name KOMODO was actually the engineering code name that came to be almost from the start. When I started talking with my team about this new camera, I just called it the “BABY DRAGON” since around that time, we were already shipping the BIG DRAGON, the DRAGON VV. Whenever we make a new sensor, we come up with a fancy name on the marketing side but the engineers also have their own undercover code name so they can talk about it internally freely without giving anything away. The test images they sent me started coming back marked as KOMODO and I was just like, “Wow. That’s the name.” It made a lot of sense, and it stuck. So I told them they needed to change their code name to something else and I stole the name KOMODO :)

Please talk about the sensor development and explain the global shutter a little more.

I guess it’s probably easier to begin by describing a rolling shutter. When you capture motion, a rolling shutter means that the image is “scanned” by the sensor, usually from top to bottom, row by row. So it’s “rolling.” When it reaches the bottom of the sensor, it then refreshes, goes to the top, and this is your rolling shutter. Which is great. We’ve used rolling shutter and everybody else uses rolling shutter because it’s so good at what it does.

The problem with a rolling shutter is when you have something moving in the frame. Between the time when the shutter captures the top row to the bottom row, you start to get a bending of objects. If you have a bunch of fence posts and you drive by them, they’ll appear to be bending. You’ll see it with helicopter blades or wheels. Anything that moves faster than your shutter speed will end up with this distortion. It is also mixed in with motion blur.

If you think about an explosion, car crash, a fight or stunt sequence, all them have fast moving action in front of the camera. As I mentioned earlier, flashes and strobes are another problem with rolling shutter, because by the time the shutter has rolled down halfway, or maybe a third of the way, the flash is already gone. So, it’s lit up only a slice of the frame, and you get a weird split frame over exposure effect. That’s one of the biggest reasons why the fashion industry finally got behind continuous lighting: strobes just wouldn’t work. They screwed up almost every motion picture camera on set that had a rolling shutter and the demand for motion finally became worth it.

The global shutter has been used in the military and scientific communities a lot because they want an accurate frame. A global shutter captures the entire, global image frame by frame. So you can capture flashes. When you’re driving down a street, all the fences and utility poles stay straight. Global shutter is literally exposing the entire sensor all at once. Global shutter is one of the older shutter technologies, but you have a reduction in exposure sensitivity and latitude because you’re exposing everything at the same time.

Our sensor engineers, who I think are some of the best on the planet, addressed that problem. We have a restriction on frame rates, which actually ended up being more about heat and power than with the actual global shutter. But the sensor team figured out early on that we still had about a two stop gap, which was okay, but not good enough. When we compared it to our other cameras at the time, we realized we had to get the look closer to them.

Remember, KOMODO was intended as a “B,” “C,” “D,” “E,” F”  camera. It had to mix with its big brothers. You’re not going to want to rate it differently. If you’re limited in dynamic range, the image is going to look dead. That defeats the whole purpose of it. So when we got to the point of being a stop to a half stop different, that’s when it was okay.

Also around that same time, Jim came out of his retirement to begin the HYDROGEN smartphone program as a separate company. Jim was excited about the phone and its screen and laid out a plan for an additional camera module, which we on the camera side eventually looked at to assist with. Even though the phone went away, it naturally gave us a few ideas about how to expand on the top pins to interact with cell phones and other devices. Traditionally on a RED camera, the top pins were just for video and power to attach your monitor directly without cables. The top pogo pins on KOMODO do a lot more. Also, we’ve reduced the lag time that you usually get with wireless video from camera to iPhone. And it’s not just iPhone—you can run KOMODO from your laptop, and we are working on an Android version as well. There are a lot of cool technologies inside that we learned from the long (for us) five-year development process and that got us up to today where we’re now entering beta and lots of people are seeing and getting to use the camera. The feedback has been pretty phenomenal.

Could you give us a virtual 360-degree walk around the camera?

Sure! On the front, you see an RF lens mount, and I’m sure we’ll talk about that a little later. Below the mount, you have a little tally LED. There’s a small, built-in forehead and chin at the front for protection and stance.

There are two small internal microphones for capturing scratch audio. With the lens off, you can see the Super35 sensor.

On the camera right side, you have an antenna for Wi-Fi and video transmission of the actual live-view image.

At the rear, there are two Canon BP series battery mounts. BP batteries are little and will run the camera for about an hour and half each, which is another crazy thing for such a small camera. With two of them, you have three hours of run time. 

In addition to the hot swappable, dual battery slots, you also have a 12-volt DC input, which also charges the attached batteries if they are attached to the camera while the camera is off. Next to that, you have an SDI connector that outputs 4K. There’s an EXT port and we have a little module that sits underneath to give you genlock, sync and timecode.

On the camera left side, we have a CFAST 2.0 slot. CFAST 2.0 is the next generation of Compact Flash cards. It’s pretty fast, low cost and durable. (Write speeds up to 490 MB/s and read speeds up to 550 MB/s, capacity from 32 GB to 1TB.)

Because of everything about this camera, we wanted to make sure that if it fell off your helicopter, fell into the water, got hit by a car or got blown up, you might still keep your data and have the shot. I can’t say who did it, but I woke up this morning to some photos of a KOMODO that was burned to the ground. If you had a $100,000 camera, plus the lens that usually goes on it, when those go down, you have a really bad day. When a KOMODO goes down—and don’t get me wrong, I still appreciate it’s still an expensive camera from a consumer standpoint—but when you have a $6,000 camera  go down, and you still got the shot, it may have been worth it. And that $6000 is actually cheaper than a lot of crash housings cost to buy. That’s what KOMODO was designed to do and it seems to be doing that very well.

I love when customers send me photos. On Matrix 4 in San Francisco, they had an intense explosion and fire one night that actually melted some signs and lamps on the street. We had some KOMODOs shooting it, and the screen melted as the camera was still rolling, and they got the shot. They felt so bad because those were super alpha, pre-beta cameras, very expensive to make. I remember Gareth Daley, who is our guy on the ground there, beeped me and said, “Hey, check out what happened to our poor camera. … Oh, and we need more cameras.” I almost did a back flip because the camera survived exactly what it was intended for.

Back to our little camera tour. On top, there is a high-res, touch screen LCD. 

Of course, it displays the menus. You also get a live view image there. When we were designing KOMODO, I thought there’s no way that a 3-inch screen was going to be usable for viewing images while actually shooting. But once you combine that screen with the phase detect autofocus that we now have for the first time with this sensor, that monitor really becomes more of a finder for framing. You get focus confirmation with the autofocus as well. It is rudimentary at this point, but it works. You know you’re in focus and when you are not.

The top finder is powerful and makes the camera much more compact without an external monitor that you’d normally bolt on to the top of this thing. It really is a tiny shooting package. Once you hold this camera and put a lens on it, the weight and size are really incredible, as are the images you get out of it. There are a lot of very excited cinematographers and filmmakers from all levels using it. Even the really, really big guys who pick up the KOMODO don’t want to go back. You might ask us, as a camera company that sells other camera models, “What are you guys doing? You’re jeopardizing all your other sales.” But that’s not what this company’s about.

If I woke up tomorrow and KOMODO was the only camera we had, I’d be fine with that. Well maybe the KOMODO and the RANGER :)

You’ve been showing me cameras with different colors.

These are all the special-order beta versions. They cost us a ton extra to make but it has been worth it. Blue is one of my favorites. There’s a yellow one, an orange one, a grey one and a Bayhem green for Michael Bay. This one I have here has a KipperTie Revolva on it. KipperTie made an ND wheel for the KOMODO and you can put different NDs in it and change between them. It gives you a PL mount too. That’s another great opportunity for having the RF mount to begin with.

I have been painting our cameras custom colors since the RED ONE, so its pretty normal for me to do. I just don’t usually sell them. Here is the orange one. And a multi colored one. That was the second custom color after Bay that I did for Lana Wachowski, director of Matrix 4. Her hair was seven different colors. We coordinated with her assistant and made every side of the camera a different color to match. That’s the camera she’s using now in Berlin. Before the COVID lockdown, that was the last set I visited when they were still in San Francisco and I actually presented her with her own custom color KOMODO camera, and she absolutely loved it.

Here is another. Can you tell how much I love doing these custom colors? And because we were locked down, our factory was closed, everybody was at home, so it seemed like a great opportunity to do again. When the COVID lockdown first started in California, it was pretty hardcore. We couldn’t do much of anything. When I wasn’t shooting, I was in my garage at home tinkering and started powder coating raw KOMODO bodies as a bit of an experiment. Powder coating is pretty awesome. It is super durable and comes in a powder form so it’s not that messy. You spray it on, it electrostatically bonds to the metal, and then you have to put it in an oven. It’s a process, but it’s super fun. I figured I would do a few custom colors of these cameras before the white ones and see if anybody wanted to buy them as fun little alpha cameras. Each color had a story; each color I made had a specific someone in mind and I ended up naming the color after them. People really responded to that, and instead of just a couple, I think we made about six or seven colors before we were far enough out of lockdown to begin the Stormtroopers where we are today. Once we build up and get past the white cameras in the next few weeks, then the factories will switch over to making normal black production cameras and the KOMODO will finally become official.

The beta versions are the white ones?

Yes. We call them Stormtroopers or “ST” for short or just “White.” Nothing new. I’ve done it with the last three or four cameras. It’s just that this time, since we’re still in lockdown and couldn’t go into production yet, this has been the biggest run of white cameras we have ever done. Stormtroopers always have been more expensive to make because they are a limited production, so they are a thousand dollars more than the regular cameras. But we’re making more and more of them as we wait for the COVID numbers to be going down. When we first started making them, it was hard to get them out since we were still closed in Irvine.  So, I did a little drive-through KOMODO curbside pickup at the studio with Clark McClanathan and Brian Henderson on a Saturday so customers could drive into our stage, pick up their cameras and drive off all safe and sound. It was pretty cool seeing some old friends and a lot of new.

But aren’t you considered an essential industry?

Yes, technically. But Orange County was shut down completely by the health department. We had full lockdown at the factory. Everybody was sent home. Man, that seems like it was ages ago; I can’t even remember now how long ago that actually was.

A few businesses eventually were allowed to open, just a little bit at a time. And yes, we could have pulled the “essential card” and kept working all the way through, but the reality was that the safety was uncertain, and frankly it didn’t seem like anybody really knew what was going on at the start of it all. So much opposing information. So we played it safe.

RED Studios is in Hollywood, a different county with different rules. Somewhere in the middle of it all, when it was looking really bad here in California, I called the mayor and donated our stages to the city for triage if they needed it like a lot of businesses were doing in NY. This was when they were bringing in Navy hospital ships because the regular hospitals were running out of beds. They never ended up needing our stages, thankfully. But anyway, the result was that we did not need to officially bend the rules because we’ve just been following the safest play, rather than the “what can we get away with” play.

Good for you.

Luckily things have gotten better with the response of most people acting smart. Our studio in Hollywood has opened and we have a good situation here with an incredibly safe environment. It is very busy. The husband of one of our staff has a health testing company. He comes to the studio every week and we pay for everybody to get tested at the studio. We installed thermal testers in the stages. They have a computer screen with a thermal camera and a normal camera. It’ll take your picture, it’ll take your temperature to see if you have a fever, and then give you a pass or no pass. We’ve retrofitted the HVAC ducts with UV blasters that cycle and sanitize the entire volume of air many times per hour. You can smell the cleaning in the air. It’s all pretty simple though. You have to be as safe as you can and play within the boundaries. Every production that comes to the studios follows the rules and so far every show that has rented our stages also have their own COVID task forces.  I know people hate hearing “this is the new normal,” but all the new protocols are so drilled into everyone every minute of every day it really is starting to feel normal.

Our industry seems to be adapting and adjusting to the pandemic and the challenges of working within it.

Yes, it really has been interesting to watch, and of course to live. The film industry is hard to keep down, and I think it’s really important for the entertainment industry to entertain during times like this. There are a lot of people in the world who turn to cinema as an escape from all the despair around us. It’s been like that pretty much forever. Which means we have a bit of a responsibility, in the safest way possible, to get up and get out (or stay in) and just keep creating, no matter how bad things seem.

Mentally and emotionally, all the horrible things that COVID brought has taken its toll on myself and almost everyone I know. But all the horrific things aside, I have been able to shoot more in the last 6 months than I probably have in the last 6 years combined, which has been a bit of a wake up call for me. I probably would have gone completely insane if it hadn’t for that. And, I am going to do my best to change things a bit so I can do more of that. Shooting more and launching the KOMODO in the middle of it all really was a great distraction for myself and a lot of people who followed along.

Something new to think about, something new to shoot, something new to test, and just generally something new to look forward to in really crappy times, KOMODO in a weird way brought our community together even tighter. I talked directly to every customer who wanted to get in the white KOMODO beta program. The stories and background and being able to talk to hundreds and hundreds of people and hear how they have dealt with this pandemic really has been something special.

From a business perspective, it’s been hard. Our company has been forced to find new efficiencies, working from home and with fewer people as we dealt with the government on personnel reductions. On top of that, we had contend with a global supply chain that quickly went sideways when the pandemic began and as factories all over the world, that we relied on in the past, including our own in California, suddenly shut down. Aaron Jones,  who is our Head of Manufacturing, against all odds, pivoted like a rock-star and found some new partners, including a pretty incredible company in Mexico with whom, as the weeks go by, we keep expanding our relationship to help on assembly and manufacturing of parts for this new camera.

Who will be the users for this new camera?

It’s funny because that answer has changed a little a long the way. I originally designed this camera to simply be an extra camera or  crash cam to augment our bigger cameras. Tuck it away inside or outside cars, mount it to helicopters, fly it on drones and quite frankly, just beat the heck out of it. So, that was and still is the primary user group.

That’s the group using it now. But because the image from the camera ended up being so good, and just so fun to shoot, there’s also another much wider group adopting it.

The KOMODO obviously is smaller, but it feels very different from a DSMC2. Even just the feeling of holding is different. So yes, there is a second group, a much bigger group than I never thought there would be, myself included, who are shooting with KOMODO as an “A” camera. Not just independent and low budget stuff, but bigger stuff where the director is also the camera operator and/or DP. That crosses so many different use-cases and the numbers push that far outside being just an edge case.

The one-man/woman band that goes out and shoots for long durations to document the world needs the long battery run time and integrated everything. Many times they can’t have seven cases of stuff and another 2 cases of lenses. As a travel camera, it’s phenomenal. For action sports, surfing, skiing, this camera is near perfect. For underwater, a bit of a dream. Lots of companies are already making splash housings and underwater housings for it. Gates has the DEEP KOMODO finished now.

(As Jarred’s webcam goes out of focus) Could you have your focus puller go a little deeper? What kind of shallow focus webcam are you using?

Sorry, I keep moving. This actually is a MONSTRO with a Sigma HS Cine Prime on it.

You need a Preston LR2 Light Ranger focus unit.

Yeah, exactly. I should be using a KOMODO with an autofocus lens. That’s exactly what I should be using because clearly I suck at pulling focus :)

Let’s talk about that. Tell us about the RF mount. I guess it will only do autofocus with RF lenses?

No. It’s actually the opposite right now. It has an RF mount, but autofocus at the moment is for EF lenses using an EF to RF adapter.

You and I have had conversations so many times over the years about lens mounts. We agree there hasn’t really been a perfect mount. Especially in cinema applications. We need something with a big enough inside diameter and a short flange depth. But then Canon came out with their RF mount. It has a lot of power, a lot of communication. It has a short flange depth of 20 mm and a 54 mm ID, so you can adapt it to everything else. That’s what got me really excited.

RED cameras always had Canon EF mounts. I’ve always been a Canon guy and shot Canon glass forever with Canon cameras. I bought the original R (with RF mount) and it was a beautiful camera. I love how much more they’ve done with the R5. The RF mount seemed like the perfect mount to use on this camera. Canon makes beautiful RF to EF adapters. One version has a control ring that you can program to do different things. Another adapter lets you put an ND filter inside.

If I made KOMODO with an EF mount, that would have added an inch to it because they’re made with the DSLR mirror in mind, with a 44 mm Flange Focal Depth. So, the RF mount made the camera smaller. You can adapt RF to PL, you can adapt to EF, and you can adapt to Leica M. And, the RF mount accepts Super35 or Full Frame and Vista Vision lenses.

Is the RF mount secure enough for cine lenses?

It’s a little wobbly, and that was my only concern. When we did the EF mount, it had a lock ring that would tighten the lens up so it wouldn’t wobble. The RF mount doesn’t have a lock ring.

Do you think you’ll do a lock ring for the mount eventually?

I was hoping that the third parties would step up and, at least for the adapters, figure it out, which they have. I think KipperTie was the first one, but now you see a bunch of different companies making mounts for KOMODO that keep the lens and the adapter from rotating. Especially for PL glass, because you usually have motors on them that have high torque, so you don’t want the lens moving while you’re focusing.

Canon makes some amazing RF mount lenses. Their 28-70 mm f/2 zoom is a phenomenal lens. I just buy everything that Canon makes. It’s weird for me to be a cheerleader for Canon. I just think that they deserve a lot of credit because they do good stuff. Sony also did a fantastic job with the a7 and the a9 series. With the R cameras and RF lenses, Canon came back fierce and I love them.

 

Are there four screws on the front of the camera to attach various mounts directly, as with DSMC2?

No. KOMODO is so small, for us to have added a removable mount would have made the external dimensions bigger. So it’s just RF mount, but then you put on RF mount adapters.

Tell us about autofocus.

Autofocus on all our other cameras has always been contrast based. Phase detect autofocus uses the pixels on the actual sensor and we have it on this camera for the first time. It is now working with the EF protocol but not yet the RF protocol. When we were developing KOMODO, most people had EF lenses and that’s what we were working on first. If you have an EF lens with motors inside, tracking, continuous or spot autofocus will work with those lenses.

We have been working on this phase detect autofocus a little more than a year. Canon, Sony and everybody else have been working on it for maybe 10 years. Ours is not rock star autofocus. I don’t want anybody to buy this camera thinking it’s an autofocus consumer camera, because it’s not. The way it focuses is a lot slower because our customers are cinema customers and filmmakers. They don’t want the crazy fast focus shifts. Its capabilities are incredible. It’s just premature to endorse the autofocus, even though lots of people are. It’s so much better than autofocus on RED cameras in the past, which were relatively unusable.

But the potential is there. Having the PDAF (Phase Detect Auto Focus) on the sensor makes it many times more accurate. We’re really excited about that, not just for traditional autofocus, but you can do some really cool cinematic stuff. Especially with Fool Control. And, when you have lenses with motors inside, you can use a wireless controller to focus the lens and get confirmation. Focus confirmation is really the most important thing to me. The process of moving the lens and the autofocus is just the gravy. You don’t want the camera to make focus decisions for you. That’s the angle we take: it is just make sure we know we’re in focus. As you saw, in this interview you’ve stopped me three times to get me back in focus.

We ship the Stormtroopers with an RF to EF adapter. You can put on any EF lens, and it’ll communicate.

Will KOMODO do autofocus with native RF lenses eventually?

Not until that protocol is turned on. That’s the irony of it. It does EF lenses first. But that’ll come. I’m sure the RF lenses will take over the Canon world.

Now we get to the philosophical, difficult questions. You and I have been longtime advocates of Full Frame, and yet here you are going full circle back to Super35.

What were you thinking and where does this ultimately take us? Are more people going to shoot Super35 now because of KOMODO. What happens next?

That’s a great question, especially coming from you because we’ve talked so much about this. Am I in focus?

Yes.

It was purely physics and power restrictions to keep KOMODO this size. The body had to be four inches. And remember, we build Super35 cameras. I don’t want to make Super35 sound like it’s horrible because we still make the HELIUM DSMC2, which is a remarkable camera. The future definitely, in my eyes, continues to be Full Frame. I congratulate all the other camera manufacturers going to Full Frame because I really think that it is a powerful imaging format, no matter how some people might say that it all looks the same, depending on the homework you do. It’s such an important separation, not just for resolution opportunities but also in image quality. 

Cell phones are getting pretty great images. Probably most DPs on the planet and a lot of photographers shoot more pictures on their phones than their actual pro cameras, if you count all the actual clicks. And they’re pretty good, so we have to push forward on the image quality. We have to do things like global shutter, for example. I’m a big believer in the concept that a larger image is better, and a bigger sensor is better. Certainly, you start to have lens limitations. You don’t want to get into a whole new world of custom lenses. But that’s why the Vista Vision format, our 40 x 20 mm format, is so great because it still fits inside that Full Frame.

So KOMODO has to be this size. For it to get a Full Frame sensor, and it’s not impossible, we would have use more power. But KOMODO, with a Full Frame sensor, would be some years in the future. I would have to assume that because our next DSMC3 camera will likely follow in the Vista Vision format.

There are hundreds of thousands of Super35 lenses out there, so rental houses and owners who have them will be very happy with KOMODO. Also, the physical size of the lenses can often be smaller.

Absolutely. Especially some of the pancake lenses out there. The lens thing is really what’s keeping S35. We sell a lot of S35 HELIUMs to customers who own hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars’ worth of S35 glass. There’s a heavy investment in S35 glass.

Speaking of things that you add on to a camera, many accessory manufacturers are already at work on things for KOMODO.

We started talking about KOMODO for a while, and I’ve been teasing it, probably a little bit too much, because I’m so excited about it. Early on, which is unusual for us, I let out the mechanical drawings and information for the accessory manufacturers so they could start designing stuff for the KOMODO, because I knew they could do it better than us.

We learned that over the years. For example, the Fool Control app comes from Mikael in France. The guy’s a rock star. So is KipperTie. Our whole third-party program proved that these guys can do a great job, so let’s help them instead of making it difficult.

I put all the mechanical drawings, information and pin-outs in the manual. We’re here to support the accessory companies. I started GDU with Matt Tremblay, our designer, because we liked making little things for our camera, and every once a while, we’re like, “Let’s make a bunch of them and sell them to our friends.” I am humbled but blown away that so many people are making KOMODO stuff, and it seems like every day there’s a new accessory maker finding some way to make this camera fit for all these edge cases that KOMODO lives in.

When a KOMODO camera comes along as a utility or additional camera, it’s going to be doing a lot of different things than shooting with a regular camera. Depending on the job, sometimes it’ll be mounted to the roof. Sometimes it’ll be buried in the ground or rigged on an arm. There are so many opportunities for accessories because someone will say, “I need to put it sideways, at a 45-degree Dutch angle on a roll bar. Who makes that bracket?” So many people have jumped on, and they’re making some great products. I can’t wait to see your roundup of those things. In the end, the customer wins, and that’s what should be most important.

Speaking of customers, did you get a lot of feedback in the design process? Take us through the design process again from the very beginning. You originally thought of it as a crash camera, and maybe at some point this self-contained camera evolved?

Actually, the original concept was more modular. Jim and I worked with Matt on the modularity. That was way before the phone. By the way, Jim and I talk every day. So, every time you make something modular, you have to add connectors and two faces, and then it turns into two millimeters on each side, and it just grows. The first major shift was to stop the modularity and just integrate it along with easy-to-find media.

Here’s an interesting back story. I use Windows laptops from Razer, a great company. I complained about their proprietary charging cable for years. “Just use a USB-C cable,” I said. Finally, one of their guys replied, “Why don’t you just use normal media in RED cameras? Why don’t you have normal batteries on your camera? Same thing.” That got me thinking: I fly to New York for something and bring my camera in the bag, and I forgot my RED mags, or I forgot my special power adapter. I can’t go to B&H because it’s after-hours, too late or whatever.

Whereas now, I can go almost anywhere and get the pieces for this camera. Those became the next design concepts: more universal components, normal camera mount, normal batteries, and normal media. That was the basis, with it all integrated. No modular monitors and modular connectors and all this other stuff because as great as that is when you have a Pelican case full of modules, and you have a crew to help you, you just want it all-in-one at some point.

The other half of the design concept had to do with G-forces. With crashes that this camera would endure, you don’t want things flying off of it. The first conceptual prototype had magnets to hold the batteries on. As a crash camera, things flying off become lethal projectiles, so we did not use magnets.

The Mamiya RZ67 and Hasselblad 503 were examples that our engineers had to shrink in size to a four-inch envelope. That size was very important dimensionally for fitting and rigging. So that was the first mechanical concept.

It’s almost like a mini, mini RED RANGER in terms of the design concept?

Absolutely. Filmmakers appreciate the RANGER because of its self-contained design. I mostly ask Matt Tremblay, whom I design our cameras with, “Okay, if we have to stop everything and only make two cameras, which cameras would we make?” The KOMODO and the RANGER are now unquestionably the answer we both agree on, because the RANGER mops up a lot of stuff that we missed over the years from an integration standpoint. And the KOMODO takes that integration to a minimal extreme. The Ranger is bigger and has a lot more horsepower, especially in its MONSTRO form. And you now have the KOMODO beside it to fill in gaps. Those two cameras together are probably the lineup that most people would be happy with if those are the only 2 cameras we made, not just from a mechanical design perspective but also from a sensor standpoint. With both, they check all the boxes and almost every use-case.

Before you started building the camera, you had to make sure you could get the sensor to perform as well as you wanted it to?

To test the KOMODO sensor, we put the KOMODO sensor inside a DSMC2 body, and kept comparing it against all the sensors that came before it, the HELIUM, the DRAGON, then the MONSTRO and the GEMINI. That was our own benchmark and it really was about getting a high enough dynamic range and an image good enough to seamlessly intercut with the others. That took a bit longer than we wanted it to, but we eventually got to a place much, much better than we thought we could.

What is the native ISO recommended now that you have shot a lot of tests?

That answer is the same as our other cameras but also a little different. We changed the REDCODE in KOMODO away from ratios like 3:1, 6:1, 7:1, 8:1 to three condensed options: MQ, HQ and LQ. When we used numbers, it was one of our highest number of  support questions, what those ratios meant in terms of quality and which ones should people use. 

We continue to change the algorithms and the bit-rates of each one with more and more testing. So it is a bit hard to guess where it will end up. Back to your question, that compression ratio does have an effect on ISO in an indirect way, the “native” or “suggested” default ISO right now, I would say, is 800. This has been the standard ISO for most of our sensors. But that suggestion may change depending on the compression level because we updated our codec a little and the lower compression reacts differently to low detail, and that does have an effect on ISO. 

On LQ setting, a high ISO setting in very underexposed situations with tons of detail, the noise is a bit more pronounced. The   same situation with an HQ setting would result in some noise that is noticeably better than normal. So, you can get the best of both worlds if you give it the bandwidth. 

Sorry, back to answering your question. I’m going to reserve judgment on that, but I’ve been shooting this camera at 800 ISO forever, and I’ve had no issues with it at that rating—so we can just sit on that number for now.

What about nighttime or really dark interiors?

Again, it’s a subjective question. Nighttime or dark interior? It’s not a GEMINI. It’s not going to see in the dark. It’s very similar to how you would shoot a HELIUM but maybe a bit better. I like to think of the KOMODO as this beautiful mashup between HELIUM and our DRAGON sensors but with a much better color science.

Another philosophical question. Is this the beginning of a new trend for shallow flange focal depth cine cameras and cine lenses?

I’m actually shocked it took this long because the days where a camera needed a long flange depth are long gone. Most of us don’t use cameras with a mirror anymore.

Medium format still cameras are even coming around to short flange depth. I have the new Hasselblad 907X (medium format front end for the CFV II 50C digital back that accepts the new Hasselblad XCD lenses with an 18.3mm FFD.) And I absolutely love it. I couldn’t imagine going backwards, even to my beloved RZ67.

I think that the only reason now to have a PL lens mount with a 52 mm Flange Focal Depth mount is because of existing lenses, not the cameras. Pretty much every camera now made by everyone has a mount that is completely changeable, or has a short flange depth to use adapters to transform the camera to be able to use almost any piece of glass. It’s much easier to go forward than backward in distance away from the sensor.  If you start with a short flange distance, you can just add an adapter to get out to that 52 mm PL mount flange focal distance. 

As soon as there are dedicated cinema lenses with shallow flange depth, which we all know are coming, then I think it’ll eventually be the default for everybody and PL will eventually go away. Since the DSMC2 cameras we sell have the option of either choosing a PL mount or a shorter mount, we know that ratio—and the ratio today compared to 10 years ago may surprise or may not surprise you :)

Your Canon 28-70mm f/2 zoom is a good example how optical designers are able to take advantage of the shallow FFD to make lenses that they haven’t done before.

Absolutely. Canon did this. And Sony did a similar thing with their GM (G Master) series. Lenses that once were f/2.8 are now f/2 and they’re the same size or smaller, often with better optical quality. Of course, then you look at Leica, and their M lenses, which have been around for a while, and they are tiny. A lot of them are really fast (f/1.4).

Even though a lot of these lenses are not truly telecentric, many can accept a little breathing to avoid big, massive lenses. Just like there is an acceptance now that smaller cameras can be just as good, if not better than bigger cameras, the same is true with glass. When we (RED) made our first lenses, we artificially made them bigger than they needed to be, way bigger. I still have a set of our first lenses with just the lens cells and they are incredibly small, almost 1/3 the size, and I use them like that from time to time and they are fantastic. As cameras get smaller, so do flange distances and the physical size of lenses.

Well, congratulations on a great camera that I expect will be very successful and thanks for a really interesting talk.

I love this little camera; so excited to talk about it, thank you for letting me go on and on and on about it :)

 

Preliminary Specs

(from this interview)

  • Super35 Sensor, 6144 x 3240 pixels  
  • Sensor size: 27.03 x 14.25 mm, 30.56 Ø 
  • Native 1.89:1 aspect ratio
  • Global Shutter, Phase Detect Autofocus
  • Suggested ISO 800
  • 6K to 40 fps
  • RF Lens Mount. 20 mm flange focal depth. 54 mm diameter. 
  • 2 slots for 7.4 V BP batteries (Canon style)
  • Preliminary approximate specs. Size 4” x 4” (10.16 x 10.16 cm).  
  • Weight 2 lb (900g).
  • 3-inch Touchscreen Display with 5 hardware buttons

Connections

  • 9-pin Extension Port:
  • 5V 500 mA Aux Power, RS, Genlock, 
  • Timecode In/Out, RS-232, General Purpose Output, etc.
  • 12G SDI 4K Output
  • 12 V DC Input (external power)
  • 3.5mm mic IN
  • 3.5 mm headphone OUT

 

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