Cinema Camera test pilots Den Lennie of F-Stop Academy and Hangman Studios’ James Tonkin agreed to share their thoughts on Blackmagic Design’s camera. In this part, they tackle the Resolve workflow, editing setups and power distribution…
Working with Resolve
James: As mentioned, because I regularly grade mine and other people’s footage, I always think in terms of the grade when I’m filming. I love Resolve and the power it brings to the grade, and without doubt it’s an essential part of the workflow with the Cinema Camera. The reason why Resolve and the Cinema Camera are companion products is because a RAW DNG workflow requires the source media to be processed into a editorial format, such as ProRes, so that it can be edited within any of the common NLEs. Hence as soon as you’ve shot RAW with the camera, opening Resolve is the next stage, unless you choose an alternative workflow.
Den: Working with Resolve is just stunning, but it takes a learning curve. It’s not just a straight in, plug and play, drop-over-a-look program, it’s much more powerful than that. Blackmagic Design have actually given people a quarter of a million pound piece of software that’s used for grading feature films for free, but I think there’s a danger that users will think that because it’s free it’s going to be easy. However, there’s a real education required when you move towards that Resolve workflow. If you’re going to go down the DNG route, you have to think about doing your dailies, creating that file, exporting that file in the ProRes proxy or whatever into FCP X, cut that, create your grade and then roundtrip it into the DNG format. It is complex, but it’s quite straightforward once you know how. So I think there’s going to be an education required for working with this camera in RAW. But of course, you can just shoot ProRes, and now DNX, and I think that is one of the single most powerful selling points of this camera. The sensor is incredible, so far it’s just blown us away, great dynamic range, but you can acquire your footage in your edit format and that, I think, is transformational.
Changing your editing setup
Den: [The Cinema Camera workflow] made me sell my 17″ MacBook Pro and buy a 15″ Retina Display one. I took the decision early on to get the infrastructure to support this. I bought FCP X about 18 months ago and didn’t really start using it ’til early this year, but I’ve embraced it fully, don’t even have a copy of FCP 7 anymore, and so I’ve realised to go down the Thunderbolt route – I’ve got a Thunderbolt MacBook Pro and an iMac, with the full Resolve setup on both machines – it’s very, very important that you have to get the right hardware.
You also need to think about getting some kind of grading monitor. It’s pointless shooting RAW and grading it on your computer screen, you need a 10-bit monitor. This is a cinema camera and you need to invest in having some cinema tools. I’ve probably spent five to ten grand on monitors and accessories, but it’s still a lot better than buying a RED Scarlet, for example, and I think that’s where I see it, I see this as a Scarlet replacement, giving me the images I want with a good balance between bit depth, dynamic range and the size of the image.
Shooting in 4:2:2
James: Having ProRes/DNxHD as the ‘lower’ recording format in the BMCC shows the camera’s positioning as a professional tool. Image quality has clearly been the leading factor behind the design of the camera and as an online editor and colourist for over ten years, I completely applaud seeing more cameras which offer this type of quality right the way through to post-production. I completely understand the need for compressed formats on other cameras, but after several years of working with H.264 footage from DSLRs I’d had enough and moved onto AVCHD formats, and now to this.
Den: Let’s take DSLRs as an example. If you try and grade DSLR footage, which is 4:2:0, as soon as you pull a key and try and modify a colour of a particular item it just falls apart. You get noise and it just doesn’t work, so you can’t grade that footage very far, which really limits what you can do with the footage once you get it back.
The FS100 and FS700 actually grade very well, given that they’re only an 8-bit 4:2:0 AVCHD codec – something about the AVCHD codec means it holds up much better during colour grading. Then you go to the Cinema Camera and you suddenly take a leap of about ten places, because you’ve got a RAW codec that’s 12-bit and that’s so much more data, so you can pull keys off all sorts of images, push really extreme grades, and the image holds together. Because there’s so much data there, you don’t get any noise, you don’t get the image break up that you’d see with DSLRs.
James: I have a keen eye for detail, especially when it comes to the finishing stage of a project, and as such I really see the benefits in higher bitrate codecs and colour space on a lot of the work we do. Filming live music and concerts in particular puts a huge demand on the cameras used, and the higher the bitrates the more chance of avoiding any macro blocking or image artefacts from strobe lighting and the different intensities of dynamic range which occur with concert lighting.
Den: But it’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of Alexa users, even in Hollywood, are shooting in ProRes, so we mustn’t discount how good a codec ProRes is, and has been for some time. A friend of mine is shooting the new season of Dallas, Rodney Charters, and he shoots in ProRes because of the speed. I think the only person not shooting ProRes is Roger Deakins, who just shot Skyfall, and he’s using Codex recorders. And even he shot 2K, and they just up-resed to 4k for the IMAX and he said it was perfectly okay. So what we’re doing is we’re getting access to the same codecs they’re using in Hollywood for an absolute smidgen of the price. So I think as filmmakers, if we can’t all afford the Alexas, we don’t need the Alexas. We can shoot with this camera and get something very, very comparable and work in a similar way to the Alexa workflow.
So where does the Cinema Camera belong?
James: I believe the BMCC has a natural place in high end film, commercial and music shoots. Its only limitations for me at present are a lack of higher frame rates but from an image, production and post-production workflow point of view, the camera is very well suited for professional jobs.
Den: This is something James and I were talking about last night, how we’d love to shoot another gig like Duran Duran using these cameras. I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t use it on, because so far I’m so happy with the images that have come back from all the beta testers and the workflow works, so there’s no real reason why I wouldn’t use it. John Brawley’s been shooting a series in Australia called Puberty Blues and he’s been using Alexas and REDs and this camera, so I think speaking to DPs who have been using it on big productions and been happy with it, if I’m happy with it and James is happy with it and Phil Bloom’s happy with it, and everyone else is really happy, then there’s this peer group of professionals I respect and no-one’s saying, “I think this is a bit of a problem…”, so I’d be happy taking it into any environment. I think one area where I haven’t pushed it is in really extreme low light, like in concerts, so I think I’d like to do that at some point and see how it performs there.
James: Any application of high speed cinematography is certainly something the BMCC is currently unsuited for. It is also perhaps not the strongest for very, very low lighting situations as I believe the camera performs better when exposed with more rather than less light. Lastly, the camera is intended as a professional tool. Yes, you could film family holidays with it, but the current price of SSDs, need for professional powering solutions and an advanced post workflow for RAW set it apart from lower priced ‘point and shoot’ video or DSLR cameras.
Den: I think what’s important to consider is you can’t buy one camera that will do everything. The Cinema Camera is not appropriate for every job. If you’re doing something that’s just for the web, depending on the job, I might shoot on the FS100, because the additional time in post does cost the business money, so the budget for the project needs to be there to justify the extra time in post.
James: The first consideration is picking the right choice of lenses so that you can still cover a wide focal range, i.e. choosing either a Sigma 8-16mm or Tokina 11-16mm for the wide end. The second choice is how to power the camera in combination with the type of shooting style and configuration, i.e. shoulder mount with larger IDX, Anton batteries, or handheld using smaller powering solutions from companies like Hawk-Woods. The camera’s recording formats are flexible enough for it to be used in many applications, such as sticking with ProRes/DNxHD for long form work (documentary, live events, etc.) or choosing RAW for shorter form work with a greater post budget (commercials, narrative drama/film). I believe that aside from lacking in higher frame rates, the camera is a very flexible device and will no doubt find itself on a multitude of different jobs and applications that even Blackmagic haven’t imagined yet.
Den: Make sure you budget for your accessories. You’ve got to factor in sometimes more money than the camera for accessories that mean you’re comfortable using it for long periods of time. Remember power distribution, some sort of EVF and some sort of rig, and a tripod that can handle the payload. There’s no point in having all this camera and this wonderful process if you’ve got a crappy tripod.
Choosing your accessories
Den: What I’ve found to be the most important accessory at the moment is power distribution. I’ve got a bebob cage with a V-Lock battery plate with four high-res outputs and two D-tap outputs. I’ve got that powered up and I can power an on-board monitor, I can power an EVF, I can power up a light if I want to and that’s been the most important thing so far.
James: Without doubt the most important accessory is a means to power the camera over an extended shooting period. Hawk-Woods came to my aid early on by developing a battery mount for Sony NPF batteries which allows the camera to be powered as well as recharging the internal battery at the same time. As the camera can take between a 12-30V input this makes it very flexible in terms of how you can power it, however I really like its small portable size and hence why the Hawk-Woods solutions have been ideal for me in keeping the camera size small.
The second most important accessory is then either a variable neutral density filter or matte box to help control exposure when shooting wide open on the lens. The sensor has a natural rating of 800 ASA, and hence it’s important to control exposure with filters to compensate, after all this is called a ‘cinema’ camera, and as such built-in NDs are not included.
Top tips for new users
James: New users of the camera should get out and test shoot with it to gain a good idea of its exposure latitude and how to get the best image from it. Unlike most of the cameras in its league, the Cinema Camera works best with more light than less, or exposing to the right as it’s sometimes called. Other digital camera formats differ in that if clipped, the highlights are not recoverable and as such it’s safer to under expose and pull the mids up. I’ve found that the BMCC can hold incredible amounts of information in the highlights, even when over-exposed, whereas it can get noisier quicker in the mids if under exposed. Testing and getting used to the images and the latitude you have in the grade is the best starting point for anyone picking up the camera for the first time.
Den: You have to remember how much more power you’re getting when you’re dealing with a 12-bit RAW image. You’ve got to make sure your machine is up to spec to handle Resolve, and have a decent graphics card so you can handle the extra processing involved. And get some training! Make sure that you understand. We’re putting together a specific training programme for new users because it can trip you up. There are a lot of extra steps involved in a RAW workflow, but when you do get it right it’s such an exciting and a stunning finish that you get because you have all this extra data, that it’s very much worth it.
To find out what Den and James think about the Cinema Camera and how it fits into their shooting setups, head back to part one, or click on the link below to see more stills from Den’s Cinema Camera shoot (you can also see the final video here).
About the authors
James Tonkin is a filmmaker and director of Hangman Studios, a London-based creative studio that works across commercials, documentaries, music videos and live filming for broadcast, cinema and online. The company specialises in music based projects and clients include Robbie Williams, Coldplay, Duran Duran, Björk, Konami, T-Mobile, Sony and Apple. To get in touch, visit www.hangmanstudios.com or follow @hangmanstudios on Twitter
In a 17 year career crammed with producer, director, director of photography and lighting cameraman credits on award-winning documentaries, travel programmes and music videos (starring celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Ewan McGregor to U2, Bon Jovi, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and Christina Aguilera), Den Lennie has certainly done his time behind the lens. Now he dedicates 90% of his time to sharing his expertise with the next generation of filmmakers, having started up his own training organisation, F-Stop Academy. Visit www.fstopacademy.com or follow @DenLennie on Twitter.
By Liz Sunter