A LITTLE BLACKMAGIC

01_25_2016_8_15_56_en-GB_Imagine_Cam2

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema ready for action

When DSLR’s first came out, we fell in love with them. The images they were capable of capturing blew us away, however, as impressed as we were with DSLR cinematography, we have found certain limitations working with the 8 bit H.264 compressed format.

As much as we believe that limitations can lead to greater creativity, the relatively thin images DSLR’s capture can make for a frustrating and painstaking process when it comes to grading and manipulating the images in post (as we like to do). It is so easy for the image to start to break apart with intensive grading. Now, we like to really push our images as part of our visual style, so it’s been a big issue for us.

We’ve been looking for new cameras to work with for a while now. Everyone is talking about 4k cameras these days, but for us, it’s not so much about how many pixels the camera captures, it’s more about the quality of those pixels, the image depth, the dynamic range (the amount of detail in the shadow and highlight areas of an image), the durability of the image during the grading process – the colour science, that’s what we’re looking at.

Our first choice was the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (which shoots 2.5 K). It looked impressive, from what we had seen of it. The camera first caught our eye back in 2012.

But then, we heard they had released something called the “Pocket Cinema Camera”, we didn’t take it too seriously at first, but we were intrigued by it.

9903004795_a1d1883355_o

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is tiny compared to the big boys like the Red Cameras

We started to read some good things about it from professional cinematographers who had used the camera. It was a B camera on the recent blockbuster Avengers – Age of Ultron and  Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper because of it’s ability to shoot footage that can match that taken with Alexas. We saw some footage from this camera and it certainly had a very cinematic feel and in the right hands, it looked absolutely stunning.

Yes it was small, in fact it looked tiny compared to other cameras, yet the footage we were seeing from this thing was far closer to traditional film than any DSLR footage we have seen, due to the 13 stops of dynamic range it captures (which is the same as film) and with a choice of shooting in either 220Mbs 10 bit ProRes or 12 bit RAW (lossless CinemaDNG files). The images are made for heavy duty grading.

We’ve been wanting to get into RAW cinematography for a while, but even though the wiz kids at Magic Lantern have given our Canon DSLR the ability to shoot in RAW thanks to their firmware hack, it is still buggy and very unreliable  – we know it works great on the Cannon 5D MK III, but our Rebel T2i couldn’t handle it. So RAW was a big draw for us.

Indeed, this is not a camera for those who just wish to shoot and edit. It’s more like working with old fashioned photography where the images (both the RAW and the ProRes) have to be processed first. For us, this is a good thing.

DSLR took low budget filmmakers a step closer to the traditional art of cinematography by demanding certain technical and artistic skill sets when capturing images, now this is yet another step closer.

test 14.00_00_19_05.Still014

Test footage from the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with the Samyang 16mm Cine Lens

We’ll go into our work flow with RAW video in another blog, but we really recommend Capture One Pro from Phase One for working with the RAW files straight from the camera. It’s a lovely piece of software to use that really brings out the beauty of the images and, for us, it’s a great starting point for the serious grading work in Adobe After Effects. It’s really just a matter of a little research though as to which software solution you use (there are loads of great online tutorials and articles on it).

Below is a before and after image from test footage we took with the camera. The image straight from the camera has a very filmic quality but lacks colour and depth, it has no personality. The information is all there, it just needs to be brought out in the grading process. For narrative film-makers this gives us a lot of creative control in how far we push or manipulate the colours in a scene and allows us to really express our individual visual styles.

Yes, working with RAW is at this moment in time, a bit of a long winded process (we currently use four different software to preview, format, grade and then edit the RAW footage) but then, this is still a very new format. The results, however, are well worth it.

Below are more stills from graded RAW footage we shot with the BMPCC – click on the images to see full size.

Having said that, the 4.2.2 10 Bit ProRes footage also holds up well to heavy grading and looks amazing, and the workflow couldn’t be easier, you just drag and drop the captured footage into your work folder and you’re good to work with it in your favorite grading/editing software.

thomas-prores2

An interview filmed on the BMPCC using the Prores codec.

Now, as we mentioned the BMPCC is a small camera, but to use it as a professional film camera you are going to need to add accessories, quite a few actually, and suddenly it’s not quite such a small camera. This is a good thing though, you can scale up or scale down the camera as you need.

This is something to bear in mind too when considering the cost – the camera itself costs between £700-£800, but you’re looking at probably spending another £1000 on all the accessories you’re going to need.

handrig

The Pocket Cinema Camera (with viewfinder attached)

2views

The not so Pocket Cinema Camera (with monitor attached)

The first thing we noticed, when trying out the camera, apart from the impressive dynamic range it captured, was how fast the internal battery ran out – due to the heavy amount of processing going on inside the tiny body, remember this camera is capturing at 220Mbs, the much lauded Canon C300 doesn’t even come close to that at 50Mbs.

We got about 30 mins before the battery was drained. The batteries are cheap, but having to swap batteries every half an hour on set would be a huge nuisance and become very annoying, very fast.

Doing a bit of research we found that it was possible to use 12 volt CCTV batteries, so long as you had the right power connector.  This would give us about 4 hours of power. We bought one for about £30 and it worked perfectly. Until that is, we had to recharge it. The battery didn’t seem to hold it’s charge. We bought a second and had the same problem.

twoshots

The Pocket powered by a 12 v battery

So we opted instead for a “NPF-Series Battery Plate for BMPCC” which allows us to use Sony NPF batteries. We get between 3-5 hrs of life out of each battery.

2

A Sony NPF series battery powering the Pocket Cinema Camera. The monitor is also powered by a Sony NPF battery.

We’d also recommend getting a cage to both protect your camera and add functionality – it allows you to attach various accessories such as monitor, microphones etc. We went for one that also had a top handle (handy for carrying around on location) and 15mm rods. Cost was about £130.

01_25_2016_8_20_17_en-GB_Imagine_Cam

A good cage is essential not only for protecting the camera but for adding accessories

The other urgent thing that needs addressing is the sound, the audio the BMPCC records is pretty terrible, so do not rely on this for sound!

We always record sound on an external recorder anyway (as all professional film-makers do) but we purchased a Zoom H1 recorder and mounted it on top of the camera to serve in place of an onboard mic (the Zoom records to an internal Micro SDHC card). Cost was £90 and two 32gb Micro SDHC card’s at £32 each.

The great thing about the BMPCC is that it’s an MFT mount which means it offers a wide choice of native and adaptable lenses, we got a lens adapter to fit our existing Canon FD mount lenses.

Now, another thing to bear in mind with the BMPCC is the crop factor. The BMPCC uses a Super 16mm 2.88x crop sensor. This means that a full frame 50mm lens would be 144 mm on the BMPCC. This was a bit of a concern for us, until we discovered the Metabones SpeedBooster and other “Focal Reducers”. The SpeedBosster makes the lens wider, reducing the crop factor from 2.88x to 1.75x and increases the aperture of a lens by 1 2/3 stops. The SpeedBooster is a bit pricey at about £500 but, as we said, there are other focal adapters now coming out that are more affordable. We read good things about the Roxsen Focal Reducer which you can pick up for just under £100.

Another essential when capturing shots where either the camera or the subject moves within the frame, is a Follow Focus which not only make focusing easier when the camera is rigged up, but they allow you to mark different focus points so you know exactly how far to turn the barrel to keep the subject in focus. We purchased a CamSmart Follow Focus Finder for about £250 and have been really impressed with both the build quality and how smooth the action is – it’s a pleasure to use.

01_25_2016_8_19_58_en-GB_Imagine_Cam

The CamSmart Follow Focus Finder has a nice build and very smooth action.

Just like DSLR’s, the LCD screen at the back of the camera can be hard to see outside in bright daylight too, so you’re going to need to get a viewfinder. These range in prices, but stay clear of ones that are really cheap. We picked up a Kamerar QV-1 2.5x LCD View Finder on on Ebay for about £65, it does the job.

A cheaper alternative is to get a “hood” which fixes over the LCD screen. We picked up one made by Hoodman for about £25 because we can see these being a more convenient solution to the viewfinder at times, and because it literally folds flat and can fit in your pocket, there’s no reason to find yourself stuck out in the field squinting at a monitor.

hood

The LCD hood from Hoodman is very handy when shooting in bright light

Speaking of the LCD screen at the back of the Pocket Camera, although it’s adequate for checking composition and lighting, we found it wasn’t that great for checking focus and we were relying more on the excellent “focus assist” option the camera allows, where green lines appear around parts of the image that are in focus. It’s not that the LCD screen is terrible, it’s just not that great. So we recommend a good external monitor too. After a bit of research we found a good affordable option were the Feelworld monitors. With batteries and arm attachment (to fix it to the camera rig) it came to about £150.

The price is pretty remarkable for a 1280 x 800 resolution monitor with advanced features such as peaking filer. The design is nice and slim too and we’re pretty happy with it so far.

monitor2

The Feelworld FW759 monitor in action

focus

The peaking filter is a great feature for focusing.

Here is a great video on calibrating the FW759.

If you’re shooting outside in bright sunshine, you’ll also need a Vari ND filter which will allow you to have greater control over the exposure of your shot. We use the vari ND filter from Light Craft Workshop.

When shooting RAW, you’re going to need a lot of fast memory cards and hard drives for storage.

We purchased several SanDisk Extreme PRO 64GB SD, Class 10 (95MB/s) at about £35 each. These have held up well in our tests and are probably the best option for RAW.

To sum up, the Pocket Cinema is a remarkable camera, even more so considering it’s price point. But, don’t let the very affordable price mislead you in any way, this is a professional tool aimed squarely at film and video professionals, and will not give you great looking footage straight out of the camera. However, if you know what you are doing when it comes to grading, the footage you get from this thing will blow most cameras that cost 10 times as much, clear out of the water.

Of course, being a dedicated movie camera, the Pocket Cinema Camera also does not take print quality still images, another thing about DSLR cameras that we loved, and proved incredibly useful. Plus the Magic Lantern hack on the DSLR gives you the ability to also record in HDR mode (where you record multiple exposures of the same shot simultaneously) for more freedom in difficult lighting situations. So our trusty DSLR camera will still have a place on our sets, and, besides, DSLR cameras are still great for shooting movies, it’s just that they don’t have the same dynamic range, and when it comes to getting creative with colour, this is what really counts.

Check out some test footage we shot with the pocket in RAW mode.

Below is footage shot using the HQ Prores 4.2.2 compression.

Advertisements