My involvement in the development of the Blackmagic Cinema camera has raised the question of just what it means to have a RAW camera to shoot with. I guess till now it wasn’t really like there was a RAW shooting video camera for the film-making masses. Really they are true pioneers for offering this kind of image making pipeline for such a crazy low cost of entry for the camera.
I guess I’ve forgotten about my own steep learning curve that came with being exposed to a RAW workflow from shooting stills.
As electronic cinematographers, we’ve become accustomed to the myriad of image processing that occurs deep in the camera before it even gets to be recorded or encoded. Maybe like me, you weren’t even aware of how much was happening under the hood. There’s noise reduction, sharpening and even different kinds of gamma curves and colour matrices that are applied often without any user control.
Shooting on film means you could choose your individual film stock with it’s own personality and then it’s own developing “processes” and even what kind of telecine of scanning you wanted to do.
You could choose to alter steps in the chemical baths that meant you could affect contrast (bleach bypass). You could choose if you wanted the Cintel look (flying spot scanner) or the Spirit look (CCD scanner with a soft light source). You could choose how much you wanted to sharpen, how to set up your image and there was always near limitless control of the image.
Shooting RAW is a bit like the electronic equivalent of shooting film because you get to choose a great deal of how the image is processed in post later instead of letting the camera make those decisions for you in a generic way when it’s being recorded.
RAW means you get a file that has barely any of the usual image processing applied to it that a lot of other cameras normally get. This is really good. And if you’re not ready to step up and learn how to deal with it properly, then you won’t be getting the most out of the camera.
I like to think of RAW images as the raw ingredients you need to cook a great meal. More processed images like the ones you get out of a 5Dmk2 are kind of like eating out where the cooking is done for you. Sometimes you can get great results, and sometimes you’re only going to get fast food. And eventually, you get to missing a home cooked meal.
You don’t really know how much image processing is happening under the hood, especially with h.264 based cameras like the Canon dSLR’s. Noise reduction, sharpening as well as their own specific curves with regard to different white balance and ISO settings. Now they can often do look great, but once you add in the data compression, it’s very hard to move the look around in the grade. Everything’s baked in.
The data rate limited codecs makes it really really hard to undo anything you’re not happy about. If you’re happy with how things look straight out of camera then fine, but if you want to push the image around then you’ll very quickly find how limiting it can be.
A RAW workflow puts this back under the auspice of the image maker themselves. You can choose and choose selectively how *cooked* your image is, or even how to cook it. You get to choose how much you’re going to season your images. You can choose which ingredients you want to use….You even get to come up with your own recipes….
All of this is done in the “kitchen” that BlackMagic supplies you, DaVinci Resolve. And it’s a very well setup kitchen indeed.
Resolve is a world class colour correction tool. As little as two years ago this was a platform that would have cost you a couple of hundred thousand dollars to own and it was exclusively the domain of high end post companies. Since BMD have taken over the reigns at DaVinci, they introduced a software only version and a version that can run on the Mac or Windows PC. And then they dropped the price to a staggering one thousand bucks.
Now they’ve made it part of the camera package when you buy a BMD camera. It’s an amazing tool and you would do well to get to know how to make the most of it.
And really, Resolve is the quite genius behind the Blackmagic cinema camera. In fact it’s their secret weapon. And this is what’s really exciting.
BMD are the company that are responsible for one of the best image processing and colour correction tools on the planet. Now they have made a camera that puts image quality first and foremost by shooting uncompressed RAW. They can design and integrate an image processing workflow from start to finish.
There’s a reason Resolve is generally chosen by most of the high end facilities. It offers YRGB, (that brightness and separate RGB) processing and it works in super high precision 32 bit float. Plus you can scale it up. You definintly need to have a properly spec’d machine, but you can simply add more GPU’s if you want it to run faster. As it is, it’s impressively fast working just off a laptop with thunderbolt drives. I can render very quickly to ProRes from CinemaDNG’s pretty close to real time. Version 9 even has more expanded editing support so in some situations, simple editing can be done within Resolve.
A RAW workflow asks a lot from those who would use it. Firstly, it pretty much demands an extra *processing* step. In the same way shooting on film meant you had to “process” the film. The same thing happens with raw workflows, and you can’t realistically use the RAW files to edit with. You have to transcode them into more edit friendly forms. There are two ways to approach this.
1. You can choose to do this step once and never return to the RAW files. In this way you’d apply either a “one light” grade, that is a simple grade that get’s you 90% of your look. You can then render or transcode to an edit friendly codec and do any final balancing in your edit suite using the NLE colour correction tools. You could even transcode a “log” version of your files and transcode to a high data rate, high bit depth codec like ProRes 4444 to ensure you retain all your colour information.
2. Or…. you can do it in a way that means you come back to the RAW files once you’ve finished editing to *re-grade* and transfer the files. So you’d do a simple one light grade in Resolve first and then transcode to a edit friendly codec. Once you’ve completed your edit, go back into Resolve to do the final grade from the original so RAW source files. This way is arguably the way to get the utmost from the images, but it introduces a two process step with Resolve.
Both workflow’s have their advantages and disadvantages.
There’s a lot to be learned from RED who also have a similar RAW workflow. The main difference here though is that RED is a compressed form of RAW they call REDcode. It’s a very good compression by the way, but nonetheless it is compressed. The upside being that they have higher resolution files.
It has literally taken YEARS for people to understand how to get the most out of REDcode. Still today, 5 years after RED, I still work on major productions with top end post houses and experienced post production supervisors that STILL haven’t gotten their heads around how to best deal with REDcode footage. I’m expecting it will be the same with this camera.
The only downside to REDcode…is you don’t know what it actually is doing under the hood. RED’s version of raw is kind of locked up and proprietary. And while they do offer stunning results, they aren’t very open about what exactly is happening. You have to use their own (free) tools to *open* a RED file. For a tool like Resolve to open a R3D file they have to use the RED supplied SDK. Only RED know what happens in the transfer of the image.
BMD think a RAW file should be able to be opened and processed by in an open and transparent way. In the same way you can open most RAW stills files in the apple preview application, let alone Photoshop, aperture or lightroom. They can be opened without needing the SDK step.
This is why BMD have chosen CinemaDNG as their raw file. CinemaDNG is a truly open RAW file format. Any other third party can write software to “open” the BMD generated files. They don’t need access to any special secret sauce. Hopefully we’ll see other tools come online very quickly to allow this. In fact, the metadata is all stored in the headers including shot info so any third party application can access the same data as Resolve can.
It’s worth also mentioning that the other chief advantage to RED / EPIC origination is that they also offer a substantial bump in resolution, plus of course the cameras offer a multitude of advantages like higher frame rates etc.
I like and use RED / EPIC cameras all the time, but it’s refreshing to see a more open approach to RAW origination. This is the BMD way. Their choice to just use vanilla SSD drives is another example. Cameras like RED / EPIC’s use the same SSD’s, but they are re-housed, made more proprietary and packaged as “certified” media. I understand the need to maintain a certain minimum standard for guaranteeing results, but the frustrating thing is that there were always supply problems getting enough media out of RED, and they seemed to be taking a healthy skim on the cost of the media that you had to get from them anyway…if you could even get them !!!
So BMD’s version of raw is more genuinely open in my view and we should see other vendors making tools that will allow CinemaDNG files to be easily integrated into conventional workflows. There are plenty of people interested in using Adobe products for example and I’d like think think Adobe will rise to the challenge here.
Raw files will mean the end user has to really think and commit to a data regime that will ensure that the files can be backed up, accessed and stored in the right manner.
CinemaDNG’s can be played in real time, but you need a very well thought out setup to do so. You need very fast storage and you need a lot of it.
Let’s read that again.
Fast storage (for working with it)….and lots of it…(for archiving)
RAID’s will certainly help speed things along if you want to copy your files quickly.
So although the camera is cheap, by the time you buy some SSD’s and a hefty amount of fast enough to be practical to use storage, you could easily spend double the cost of the camera.
That’s just something you should come to terms with if you want to shoot RAW. Let’s think of it like this. If you want to shoot raw, then think of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera as the beginning of a more signifigant investment in hardware that can keep up with the data the camera generates.
There will be many who will be tempted to simply transcode to other more compressed codecs like ProRes or even Cineform and then ditch the original RAW files… That’s not such a bad idea. The camera also very thoughtfully does ProRes 422 (HQ) and Avid DNxHD 220x which greatly decrease the storage demands compared to RAW.
The really cool thing is that you can choose RAW or Compression and it’s built right into the camera. Something that is actually unique compared to Arri Alexa and RED.
So back to the kitchen.
Resolve means you can choose what to make of your raw ingredients. You can choose your own grade, your own levels of noise reduction and just exactly how the curves look. All of this is now in your hands as the image make, and the neat thing is you can just choose to shoot ProRes or DNxHD if you don’t want to have to think about all those choices.
I should also clear something up that I mentioned in the very first post I made about the Blackmagic Cinema Camera when it was launched.
I mentioned that the white point was “baked in” on the CinemaDNG files. This was in fact the case initially, and was done really because it meant they could speed-up the development process for the imaging pipeline.
BMD have now gone back to this and revised it though so the WB point is no longer baked into the raw file.
I would argue that they would have had a hard time describing this as a raw camera with a baked in WB point, and it’s awesome to see they’ve been able to address this.
In fact, this change along with the addition of some extra WB settings for ProRes 422(HQ) / DNxHD 220x shooting is very promising because it indicates to me that BMD mean business. They may be making their first camera and there are bound to be some mistakes, but they aren’t afraid to move quickly and address the issues as they come up.
I always like going to some trouble when I’m cooking for someone and it’s always worth the extra effort to go to some trouble to make the meal something special.
RAW gives you a whole new set of choices that were previously locked up by the camera making those decisions for you, or that were only available on much higher end cameras. The price for this image freedom is more storage and effort. If you’re feeling lazy then you can still have the not-at-all shabby compressed options of ProRes 422(HQ) or DNxHD 220x.
EDIT>> Since IBC I’ve also come across another wonderful high end camera that also shoots RAW DNG’s the Aaton’s 3.5k/7k Delta Penelope. In principal, all the same RAW advantages of the RAW workflow apply to Delta.