While we’ve not been shy about getting grabby with the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera – we got the chance to try it out at Blackmagic’s reseller briefing and held our own hands-on event in MediaCityUK in September – but we thought you’d appreciate a shooter’s eye view. Enter test pilots Den Lennie of F-Stop Academy and Hangman Studios’ James Tonkin, DPs, camera operators of the highest order, private BMCC beta members and test footage shooters extraordinaire. Who better, we thought, to talk us through how this camera fits in to the current landscape, and who its workflow might suit?
That ‘Cinema Camera’ tag might immediately make us think that the camera has a specific purpose – and our initial trial of the camera certainly backs this up. But we were interested in finding out what kind of setup users have been slotting this camera into.
James: I film a lot of music-based content, and rely on cameras which are small and portable, have stunning image quality and also a quick and versatile post workflow. The current cameras I use are the Sony FS700 and FS100, and I’ve found that the Cinema Camera sits nicely alongside these cameras. I will choose to shoot either straight to ProRes or RAW with the Cinema Camera, all depending on the job in hand, the speed going into edit and the flexibility required in post.
Den: I have a FS100, I have a Canon 5D MkII that I haven’t shot video on for probably a year, and I have a little Sony NX30 for doing tutorials and stuff when we go to trade shows. I think what’s key today is that you can’t own one camera. You need to have different cameras for different applications – the FS100 might be a perfect corporate video camera, the hyper Gamma on the FS700 camera gives you an image that’s comparable to the F3, so it’s very, very high quality. And then the Cinema Camera fits right in on top of that.
James: I equate the Cinema Camera workflow far closer to that of a RED camera, or its coined nickname of a ‘baby Alexa’, and this is simply down to the choice of making it a RAW recording camera. While it hasn’t got the resolution of RED’s cameras, it does benefit enormously by allowing users to also shoot to ProRes and DNxHD as well as RAW. Unlike the Alexa, the Cinema Camera is tiny in size and price and these two factors will mean that it will have a far greater user base.
Den: A couple of months ago James and I did a commercial with Ronaldo and we shot that on RED Scarlets. During that shoot, both of us fell in love the simplicity of that camera. You turn it on, you set your ISO, you set your shutter, you set your colour balance and you shoot. And we were both really seriously looking at buying a Scarlet each – that’s £20,000 worth of investment. Then this camera came out and, for me, it does everything that I would want a Scarlet to do, barring the 4k.
Moving on from DSLRs
A few years back, the ‘DSLR revolution’ gave enthusiasts and low budget filmmakers access to large sensor cameras that enabled them to shoot professional-looking projects on a low budget, and challenged the supremacy of high-end camera manufacturers. Given the Cinema Camera’s low price point and the fact that Blackmagic Design have traditionally focused on post-production, we wondered how James and Den thought the Cinema Camera would gel with the DSLR market.
James: Video capable DSLRs have certainly paved the way for the BMCC. [The Cinema Camera is] set to move the industry on from relying on the compressed H.264 formats that many have gotten used to with DSLR video. Den: I actually think DSLRs are going to die off very quickly in the pro world, because now all the manufacturers have caught up with large sensor cameras and you no longer have to deal with all the hassles of working with DSLR. The FS100, FS700 produce amazing results with a compressed format at 8-bit, so why would you use a DSLR anymore? It’s not necessary. Where I think the Cinema Camera is going to come in is very much for those pro DSLR users, the ones who want greater bit depth, who want to put [their footage] through multi-layered effects, want to colour grade and do post-production, and because with a 12-bit RAW option or a 10-bit ProRes, you’ve just got a lot more data to play with. And the form factor’s very similar to DSLR, so you can put it in all the environments that you’d put a DSLR in but have this greater picture quality.
James: I love the form factor and size of the Cinema Camera, as I can use it as a small handheld config with just a lens, so that it looks more like a stills camera and allows me to shoot more footage in a documentary style, without everyone assuming that I’m shooting video.
Den: I think where it’s not going to do so well or where it might get some stick, is with the real aspiring filmmakers or the hobbyists who bought a DSLR and a slider and created lots of montage. And that’s great, it’s almost like punk, there’s this wave of filmmakers calling themselves DSLR DPs, but that type of user never tends to go very far with it, they just cut it in whatever program they’re using and then throw Magic Bullet on top of it. I think they will struggle potentially with the extra workflow that’s required if you want to shoot RAW and really use that extra 12-bit.
The Micro 4/3″ Cinema Camera
At IBC, Blackmagic Design announced that they were also going to be releasing a Micro 4/3″ version of the Cinema Camera. Given that the M3/4″ fans in our office are fast becoming Cinema Camera fanboys, we wondered what the beta team thought of that model…
James: I think this is simply a very smart move by Blackmagic Design, as it opens up the choice of glass for the camera and makes it even more appealing to micro 4/3 users of cameras like the GH2 and AF100.
Den: We’ve been testing the image stabilisation on the Canon mount and I think for someone like James it makes perfect sense [to use the stabilised Canon lenses], because he does so much running around with bands and the like. I tend to do a bit more set piece stuff, so it matters less for me. But I think what the M3/4″ version does is open it up to third party lens manufacturers. You can put any piece of glass on that camera, and I know people who are shooting dramas on the Alexa and using this as a B camera, so you want to be able to match the glass.
Are Blackmagic Design ready to become a camera company?
There’s been a lot of discussion online – some of it informed, some of it comprised mostly of caps lock – about Blackmagic Design’s post background, and whether or not they’re capable of delivering a production-focused tool successfully. Apparently it’s all about listening to the end user… James: I’m so confident in BMD as a company I know they are listening to their customers and I’m certain this is only the first of many cameras we’ll see them produce.
Den: I think BMD are a very flexible company. They think big, but they don’t have any of the constraints of a corporation. While a lot of the key management have come from corporations, they’re very anti-corporation in the way they approach things, they decide they want to do something and they do it. Beta testers have been sending back piles and piles of information on improvements and things we’d like to see, and they’ve been really responsive. So we feel very privileged to be in that position.
Also, all the beta testers are unique in their own fields, so you’ve got this group of people who are guiding the manufacturer in what needs to happen to the camera, and [BMD are] going “Yeah, okay let’s do it,” and then you get a new software upgrade. I think their only challenge now is the speed at which they’re trying to pull things off. But it’s very, very exciting, and getting to know the company a bit better I’m really excited by the energy and enthusiasm that the guys there have for these tools.
Jigsaw24: They’ve gone for High Dynamic Range as their killer feature over the more fashionable shallow DOF, though…
Den: [With High Dynamic Range] you’re just able to capture more information, with information you have more choice, with more choice you can embrace whatever creative slant you decide to take in post. And I think when you work with this camera – and I have to emphasise that you have to work with this camera in conjunction with grading software – it is about capturing a decent image on location and then bringing it into the grade enhancing that. So I think it’s a more difficult camera to use, because you have to make sure you’re doing that and getting it right, but it’s a more powerful one.
James: I love a shallow DOF look for certain aspects of cinematic storytelling, however it is only one aspect and not the only visual tool filmmakers should use. Dynamic range is perhaps a far more important characteristic of film, as without this or with a limited amount of DR, then all footage just looks very video-y. I am and have always been obsessed with making digital formats look like film, as this was the format I was fortunate to first work with, albeit 16mm. Filmmaking is fundamentally an interplay of light and dark and the stories that are told within this medium, and so the dynamic range of a camera’s sensor and how it is affected by lighting is enormously important, and crucial to creating a filmic look.
Den: Actually, what’s especially good for me about the Cinema Camera is the highlight roll off. Film negative always rolled off the highlights in a very beautiful way. And this camera, I don’t know how they’ve done it, but they just seem to have a lot of extra latitude at that end of the image so it never felt like it was too electronic. And so as a result even just out of the camera, even in ProRes, [your footage] is just very filmic.
Choosing your format
James: My biggest praise for the workflow with the BMCC is that you have choices: first, film in ProRes/DNxHD video mode for an instant great image as you’re seeing it, straight off the back of the camera. Then film in ProRes/DNxHD film mode for a log image which still has an instant workflow to edit, but allows more control in the grade, and finally film in RAW DNG mode for the very best 12-bit uncompressed image quality with the most amount of flexibility of image in the grade, and also an increased 2.5K image resolution.
I have shot lots of footage in RAW and a fair amount in ProRes. There’s no doubt that the ProRes workflow is the easiest way into the edit and has been ideal for a few fast turnaround jobs we’ve done, but I really get exciting about shooting RAW now that I’ve seen the image quality and control I have of that image within Resolve. I’m fortunate to often be grading my own material, so I’m always thinking with the grade in mind when I’m filming and really pay very close attention to exposure and getting the best image from the RAW files. The first few tests I shot were overexposed in many shots, but being able to pull the exposure back and see cloud detail and highlights become recoverable was a real eye opener compared to the limited latitude from DSLR recording formats.
Den: When you bring your files in you do have to render them out if you’re working in RAW, so there is some extra time involved and I think it would depend on the project whether you went down the RAW route. But as an image-maker, I absolutely would always try and shoot RAW because I just like having that extra latitude; it’s like, I’ve got all this power and I want to use it. But as I say, it’s easy to nip down to ProRes and you’re not losing a huge amount, so I think there’s a great compromise in that.
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