If you’re keen to look at the clips directly in vimeo, then click HERE
It’s a once in a lifetime chance to be involved with something as big as this. I was approached in late 2011 to be a part of something that every cinematographer dreams of…building a new camera.
I’ve known the guys and owners of Blackmagic since they started the company (and also the company before that)
BMD have always been a post company. And they’ve been incredibly successful, literally revolutionising and enabling a whole new generation of filmmakers and producers of media. Their model of really high quality and incredible low cost meant they quickly became leaders in the field. They have alway gone for uncompressed and high end for ridiculously low cost. I’d hate to be in competition with them !
I was actually at the service of my great mentor John Bowring when I bumped into them. They’d recently acquired DaVinci and adapted their model to it. As a cinematographer, it was great to see a tool I’m so familiar with, the awesome colour correction tool that DaVinci is, get a new life, thanks to BMD.
I joked with the guys that they should look at doing a camera, now that they had all the post pathways to do a RAW based camera. Just before Xmas I was summoned to the BMD offices for a special presentation. I’d have to sign the usual NDA’s. At the time, I’d actually been pestering them to do an Arri RAW recorder for the Alexa. I assumed that’s what they were going to show me.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. What they showed me totally blew me away….
BMD aren’t just a company that does post production gear anymore. They are very firmly in the business of doing production gear.
Starting with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, BMD are now a camera company.
I was handed a prototype of the camera and I saw a powerpoint presentation detailing it’s very impressive specs. The real jaw dropper was the price. It was kind of ludicrous. I didn’t know where to start. The body shape of the camera took me a while to come at. It was fairly unconventional and radical.
After a while, I started to think of it as being ultra cool, something between modernist and retro. It felt pretty good in my hands. It was certainly solid and hefty. I wondered about it’s ergonomics, but in a way, it’s simple shape and elegance are it’s strength. It could easily be pimped up if you want extra handles, mounting brackets shoulder rigs etc.
In fact, it really was a simple as a camera could be. A box, with a screen, a sensor and a lens mount. It doesn’t get more basic than that does it ?
Everything else can be added…if you want…or you can go simple and naked.
It’s worth mentioning who I think will love this camera. In a way, this is not a camera for DOP’s and working cinematographers like me. This is a camera for the masses. This is a camera for everyone that’s bought a canon 5Dmk2 or a GH2 and wanted more than what a “consumer” camera can do. This is a camera for those that can’t afford a scarlet or EPIC or a C300.
The main sticking point for these dSLR consumer cameras is their data-rate limiting bottleneck of compression.
Compression and bit depth is the natural enemy of awesomely grade-able pictures. As anyone who’s tried to grade .264 originated material knows…it’s great if you’re happy with what comes out of the camera, but as soon as you want to “do” anything with it, then you’re really screwed.
“do” anything could mean, simple or complex grading. Pulling a secondary, doing a key, or any kind of layered VFX work. It’s a compromise….big time.
So now there’s even a big market for data based external recorders that can record either the HDMI or SDI if it has it out of the camera and to try and have less compression. In fact, even BMD do one of these recorders, the Hyperdeck Shuttle.
The camera itself has a 2.5K sensor. Now I can feel a bunch of you rolling your eyes at the camera being a “mere” 2.5K. The truth is, and this has been borne out by some recent tests I did in preproduction for a film I just shot, resolution counts, but dynamic range and compression count more.
I’d done a shootout between an EPIC @ 5K and an Arri Alexa, in both RAW@2.6K and ProRes (1.9K), and none in the cinema could pick the graded ProRes from the EPIC on the first viewing. After multiple viewings, you could start to see very small differences in resolution.
Let’s not forget that the benchmark drama camera right now is the Arri Alexa. A camera which has a sensor resolution that’s about the same as this camera.
And most of the work it’s doing in my part of the work is lowly HD 1920×1080. The truth is, Alexa is a camera with a slightly oversized sensor size gives you a really nice downscale to 1920. And that’s just what this the Blackmagic camera does. It’s an oversampled 1920 and this gives still puts a lot of resolution in your hands. Just take a look at the “Bondi” clip below. Notice, even when replaying from vimeo, there’s a lot of fine detail in the sand and in the buildings in the background.
Having shot extensively with the EPIC and RED in drama and episodic TV, the 4K files are nice if you want to blow or crop a frame, but usually they don’t really make very much difference to the end result. Dynamic range counts for more than pixels for most of the work I do.
The same thing happened with the megapixel race in photographic cameras. Marketers chase numbers because consumers think it’s an easy way to compare. Just let your eyes be the judge. Yes 4K and beyond will sometimes make a difference, but rarely for a TV, broadcast or computer screen. The only time it makes a difference is on the really big screen, and even then, it’s only a slight improvement.
WORKFLOW – What is RAW ?
OK, so there are two ways to shoot with this camera. RAW, or ProRes.
Now before we go on, I want you to realise how significant this is. We’re talking about a camera that does RAW and uncompressed. For just $3000 bucks. Insane.
Having an uncompressed and RAW workflow is really amazing because it gives you back the power to finesse your images with a lot more control. You have so much more working range because a RAW workflow basically captures the images from the sensor and doesn’t really “do” anything to them. You can choose how they look. You as the user get to decide how far to push the look along.
Cameras like the 5Dmk2 or the C300 can be loaded with “logish” picture profiles, but you’re still limited by how much data there is for each frame. This camera doesn’t throw any of that information away to try and compress it into a smaller file size. It’s all there for you to use if you want it.
If you don’t want that extra step of grading and transcoding your RAW images, that’s fine too. You can “shoot to edit” by simply shooting ProRes. You can even choose a LOG or 709 version of prores. If you really want to be able to take the files straight from the camera and use them straight away, you can !
The camera produces really nice ProRes files that look pretty damn good straight out of the camera (and I promise I’ll show some soon!), without grading. In this way, the camera is definitely faster to use than a h.264 style camera, because you’re shooting native ProRes and the files can be used right away without the messy transcoding steps.
Not only that, but you can enter metadata right from the camera interface that flows though to FCPX. You can basically log in the field, and they are embedded in the camera’s files and available to FCP.
If you want really fast to work with ProRes files that retain the extra dynamic range of the camera, then you can choose to shoot LOG ProRes. You’ll get mild compression and a lot more files saved on your SSD’s. You get to still “shoot to grade” with the ProRes advantage of smaller files.
Then of course, you can choose RAW. RAW simply means you get everything the camera produces. The only thing that’s baked into this file is the white balance point. Everything else is up for grabs. There is no reducing image resolution or colour compression. You get all that information and you can choose how you want it to look with the greatest range and flexibility.
It’s a wonderful new workflow that’s actually been around for a while…it’s just few used it !
DNG. A standard developed by ADOBE for stills, and then broadened to encompass moving images as well, DNG, or CinemaDNG for the cinema version of this, is an open standard for using, storing and accessing images. Initially owned by Adobe, it’s now a freely available image standard.
When you’re shooting RAW, every frame is a DNG image file. That means you can open them in Photoshop, and presumably everything else ADOBE like After Effects.
Resolve also supports the CinemaDNG standard as well, and can easily play the DNG files from the camera. Not only that but you get the awesome power of Resolve tightly integrated with the camera. Resolve has been totally reworked to make it much simpler to use, in anticipation of less experienced users (like me !) wanting to use it to grade their new Blackmagic pictures.
So to recap, you can shoot RAW and get everything, or you can shoot Pro Res and get either a LOG image that gets you almost everything, or a REC709 that gets you pretty great looking pictures that can be used right out of the camera.
THE CAMERA MECHANICS….
First thing you’ll notice is that it’s quite heavy for it’s size. I think that’s a good thing. More mass means it easier to hand hold as it won’t jiggle around so much. Yes more weight means it’s more tiring to hold, but it certainly feels solid in the hand.
There’s no viewfinder, and instead you have a touchscreen on the back and a few buttons for accessing menus and the import functions like record.
I guess there are pro’s and cons for the touchscreen. Having used another heavily reliant touchscreen camera, the RED EPIC, it can sometimes be annoying to have to dive down through menu after menu to change a setting that you wished there was a button for. The counter of this of course is that you get a camera like the Sony FS700 that has a bazillion little buttons all over it.
I’m hoping that BMD have got the mix just right. I’ve put in my wish list to make the buttons customisable so that the user can then assign the buttons to functions they like. At the moment the “focus” button operates a peaking function on the screen, but in the future, that will probably activate auto focus. I’d like to be able to assign that button to do other things and I’m hoping the BMD guys will allow for that.
Initially it wasn’t going to have HDSDI output but thankfully that was added pretty quickly. BMD were I think, one of the first companies to release a Thunderbolt based product and the Blackmagic Cinema Camera sports one as well. Down the track you’ll be able to use the Thunderbolt connection to allow for external recording or to connect other devices like the Ultrascope.
I personally prefer a viewfinder to the LCD screen style of operating (like on the C300 where you get both) but I’m hoping it won’t be difficult to simply add a viewfinder to the camera., something that takes the SDI output or maybe even the thunderbolt connection ? Zacuto ! Hello ? Are you listening ?
Yes, I bet you can record the HD SDI output, but I can’t see why you would want to as the cameras internal RAW recording will be better than anything that the HDSDI output would have. I guess if you wanted dual recording functionality ? I’ve discussed with the BMD engineers making the colourspace of the SDI output user selectable, so you could choose a LOG or 709 image. That seems to make the most sense to me. The quick debayer that the camera does is pretty impressive, but I’m not so sure it would be worthy of recording when you look at the still frames themselves.
The camera uses bog standard SSD drives as media. The kinds of drive that are powering the latest notebook and ultra book computers. SSD’s are reliable, relatively cheap for the performance they offer and they are very readily available. As a consumer item, their costs are on a constant downward trajectory too.
All you have to do is format them using a desktop computer and you’re good to go. SSD’s might seem like expensive media, but you only have to look at the performance spec required by uncompressed RAW and you’ll realise that even the most ultrafast CF card is never going to cut it. Even the mighty Arri Alexa’s choice of Sony’s SxS cards start to offer similar specs, but they are a more proprietary format and insanely expensive per gig.
A 64GB SXS card is about US $680, and records about 27 mins in 4:4:4 pro res. A 240GB SSD drive gets you about the same recording time when recording RAW and is about half the price. Of course the record times are far greater if you’re recording to pro res as well.
Once you pop a formatted SSD drive into the camera, it reads it and you’re ready to go within 3 seconds of inserting it. In fact powering the camera up from off and being able to record, seems to be about 10 seconds. Pretty fast !
There are two ways to make the camera start recording. There’s the giant record button on the front and another second record button on the deck controls on the back below the screen. There’s a menu button for accessing all the most important camera setup info, and here you can also change camera functions like ISO, white balance and shutter angle.
You can also turn on and set functions like Zebra and the recording formats. I’m really hoping they will add timecode input and I’ve suggested that they could detect timecode on the audio input as a way of jamming the camera. Let’s hope they do that, but at the moment you can approximately set the timecode to TOD code by setting the date and time clock.
So I can talk about the camera for a long time…but how are the pictures ???
Now all of these clips are my own little tests. I have been shooting other internal engineering tests for BMD but I’m not allowed to show these yet. What I can show you are my home movies.
So while they aren’t exactly drama, they do give you a sense of what the camera can do. As soon as I’m allowed to show some more drama based scenes I will !
I was pretty keen to see how she would go in low light. I wondered out onto the main street near where I live at dusk and started shooting. I did some iris pulls as I rolled, as I was still trying to work out how to exposure the camera. Most of these clips are 320 and they look pretty nice. Again I was shooting with the Leica “R” 35 prime, mostly at F2 when it gets dark towards the end.
The camera performs really nicely in low light as you can see, even at my conservative low ISO choice. There’s plenty of dynamic range, you can see the highlights still in the sky. It also handles the mix of colour temperatures very nicely and also, some very promising lower light scenarios towards the end.
It’s not A C300 or even a 5Dmk2 in terms of low light, but I’d argue that mostly iso1600 is enough with fast lenses. In production, I’ve only gone to 3200 a couple of times that I can think of. All of this was shot using the 35mm “R”
This was another little test shoot I took the camera on. I was actually shooting some material and scouting locations for another shoot and we also had the C300 with us. I was with Director Glendyn Ivin as we tested the new canon for a series were shooting. (check out his awesome blog) We had a beautiful sunset and the waves were looking great. This was pretty high contrast material. I was loving the sun kicking off the water. Quite a few shots were done with a 45 deg shutter to get the exposure level down enough. I still didn’t have any exposure tools in the camera so I was still kind of guessing. The colours were changing pretty quickly as the sun went down. Lovely orange, then pinks and blues. The night stuff is pretty amazing. The only illumination on the subject is the glow of the C300 screen and the tally light ! There was no street lighting around.
Using the nifty and very cheap Canon 15-85 (not even L series) I got some stunning images overlooking Bondi. What amazes me about this clip is the amount of fine detail, even playing as a 264 on Vimeo. The RAW files are simply fantastic to look at, even from a very cheap consumer grade Canon lens.
So that’s all I’m allowed to show for now. There will be some more polished material soon I promise.
I think these are astounding pictures to have from a camera that’s only going to cost 3k. Not only that, but the guys at BMD are only just getting started. Already I’ve seen the camera come a very long way in a matter of months. They also have some very cool extra features in the works which basically put the fun back into filmmaking. I’m really excited by having a peak at what’s to come.
Sure it’s not an Alexa, but they are really trying to make something that’s complimentary to those larger cinema camera systems. They aren’t saying you should not be using those cameras where appropriate, but they really wanted to try and offer something that was better than the consumer level dSLR cameras that are currently out there.
I think they’ve easily given us a better alternative to the dSLR cameras out there for most shooting situations. The RAW workflow and the uncompressed recording means you’re not loosing anything.
Really, what Blackmagic have done is amazing. They’ve given us an ultra compact sexy-as-hell 2.5K RAW uncompressed camera, with world leading colour correction software for three thousand bucks.