A working cinematographer puts Blackmagic’s Cinema Camera through its paces, finding it a superb deal for less than $2,000.
In the last five years or so, nothing has changed the capturing of motion picture images more than the introduction of HDSLR cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II, the Canon 7D and the Panasonic GH1. In this time, what excited me most as a cinematographer was the possibility of getting high-definition video from such a small camera with the lens quality of 35mm film. I first experimented with the Canon 5D about a month after it was released in September of 2008. It soon became the workhorse of many lower budget productions and I shot two features with the camera. Now Blackmagic Design, a company primarily known for making breakout boxes and the post-production color correction software DaVinci Resolve, has introduced a new line of cameras specifically targeted at the indie filmmaker. The first camera the company has released is the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (or BMCC for short), which began shipping late 2012.
What Blackmagic has delivered with this camera is a relatively small, 3.75lb box that can record 2.5K images (2,232 x 1,366 pixels) with a 15.81mm x 8.8mm size sensor. The camera records straight to removable 2.5” Solid State Drives (SSD), which come in either 240GB or 480GB versions (larger capacities are sure to materialize soon.) It comes in two flavors of lens mounts: either EF (aka a Canon lens mount) or MFT (aka Micro Four Thirds mount). The camera I had access to was the EF version. It’s immediately apparent how easy the BMCC is to use and set up. Everything is driven through a 5” LCD, touch-screen display on the rear of the camera body. The menus are simple and intuitive to use, making it the quickest camera to set up that I personally have ever worked with. What this process involves is adjusting frame rate (it can shoot at either 23.98p, 24p, 25p, 29.97p, or 30p), color temperature, and shooting resolution.
The resolution is where the camera stands out—especially considering the BMCC’s wallet-friendly price tag of $1,995. The camera can be configured to shoot in either Apple ProRes 422 or DNxHD, at 1920×1080, or in astonishing 2.5K 12bit RAW. It is this latter resolution that is really incredible, giving 13 stops of latitude to play with in post-production. What this means is an image where skies and windows no longer blow out and shadows have a detail and depth uncommon in most video systems.
All this detail and range comes with a price, however: storage space. One minute of RAW footage is going to take up roughly 7GB of space—so budget for hard drives accordingly. Those 240GB SSD quickly start to look rather small. Also, managing all that RAW footage workflow-wise can take some getting used to, so a test run of how to deal with it would be helpful. There is no way to ingest or media manage your footage through the camera (you can’t delete clips in-camera), and everything must be done via a third-party reader. I recommend using a thunderbolt connection for speed reasons (240GB or 480GB can take a while to copy using USB.)
Now, all these technical specs are well and good, but I wanted to know how the BMCC would work in the real world, shooting under different conditions. After all, any camera is just a tool for making images. You always want to make sure it’s the best tool for the job at hand. I am prepping a feature called Indiscretion for director John Stewart Muller which calls for a distinct 1980s look, harkening back to the thrillers of Brian De Palma and Adrian Lyne. Was the BMCC right for this?
I took the camera for a test run. We set up a scene with high-contrast lighting and extreme color lighting effects: intense reds, blues and greens (see above picture). We also used a fair amount of filtration (using ProMist filters and Schneider Classic Soft filters) to see if we could soften the image in a pleasingly retro way. Lastly, we did a fair amount of shooting outdoors to get an idea of how the camera could handle daylight exteriors.
The crop factor of the BMCC sensor took some getting used to. I’ve been accustomed to using full frame 35mm sensors (or the 5D’s almost VistaVision sized sensor) and the camera’s smaller sensor required much wider lenses to achieve medium and long shots. One should be aware, therefore, that a 12mm to 14mm lens will soon become your wide angle of choice for this particular camera.
After a day of shooting, we took everything over to Light Iron Digital in Los Angeles, where we spent time with colorist Ian Vertovec on Quantel’s Pablo color correction system. The results were impressive in terms of latitude: There were indeed 12 to 13 stops of latitude in the image when rated at 800 ASA (we found when pushing it to 1200ASA the image becomes a bit noisy.) We found that the 12-bit color depth allowed us to really saturate the image with rich reds and greens without polluting it.
After these tests, I felt confident moving forward with the BMCC to shoot a short film called “Missing You” for co-directors Anne Gregory and Nick Ross. Because of budget, time and the majority of on-location work, shooting RAW was not the most practical solution for this project, so we shot the majority of the movie in the Apple ProRes 422 format—a format we found retained a surprising amount of information when we compared it to RAW. (Below is a still from “Missing You.”)
What the tests revealed, too, were a few areas of need. It should be noted that Blackmagic intended the Cinema Camera to be accessorized, not completely production-ready out of the box, so it requires a few external support items to make it work. Much like a HDSLR, the camera calls for some sort of third-party support, in a similar manner to what Redrock or Zacuto have produced over the years. Also important to note: An external battery solution is needed to make the BMCC work while un-tethered to AC power. The camera claims 90 minutes of shooting time with its internal battery, but I found that time closer to 60 minutes outside in the full heat of the day. Battery and charger supplier Switronic has an excellent solution to this, and the battery they provided ended up only needing to be switched out once during an eight-hour day. One last issue is the rear view screen. This works fairly well indoors, but getting an external monitor with a hood or EVF (electronic viewfinder) is recommended if shooting outside at all.
However, the properly-outfitted BMCC works amazingly well, and shines particularly brightly when post-production begins. Once you start coloring your footage with DaVinci Resolve (now available in Lite via free download – and it comes free with the BMCC) you can really see the richness the camera delivers. I can’t think of another camera in its price range that achieves such results. With “Missing You,” we shot in a variety of locations and situations with minimal support, and the BMCC handled all of these conditions beautifully. The RAW recording ability was especially helpful when shooting outside in full sunlight, but for the most part shooting in Apple ProRes delivered a very pleasing image.
So is this the camera for you? It depends, of course, on the type of work you want to produce. For its price point, though, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera delivers an undeniably powerful package, allowing you to capture RAW images with ease. MM
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