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12 Things to Think About Before Committing to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera for Your Film

04.4.13 @ 8:00AM Tags : , , , ,


When news of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera dropped, I got that warm, giddy feeling. Everything I need in a camera and nothing I don’t! A few months of research later, I decided: this will be the camera I will shoot my feature film with. The quality of images this camera produces is superb. I love the dynamic range, the sharpness, the texture, and the richness in the blacks. I feel closer to shooting on film than I ever have. However, when it comes to peace of mind on set, it can leave a lot to be desired. There’s plenty of praises to sing, but I want to talk about some of the issues I’ve had with it, hidden expenses, and quirks to be aware of that are pertinent to the independent filmmaker. Click through for a list I’ve compiled after shooting two indie features with it, along with some comments from Dan May, the president of Blackmagic Design.

While my directorial debut, Menthol, is still in the early editing stages, here is a teaser from the feature I shot with Josh Beck directing, called Ever. Many of these shots are ungraded, but this gives you a sense of what we were able to do with the camera on a very low budget:

Without further ado, the list:

1. Dropped Frames / SSDs


Currently BMD’s suggested list of SSDs is proving to be a bit of a minefield. Shooting my film with Crucial M4 512s — in which it was my goal to incorporate a lot of long takes — dropped frames were a drag. They happen randomly and frequently, even in ProRes. The only upside to this is that you know when it’s happening; the camera’s REC display blinks when a drop frame is detected. To minimize dropped frames, it’s recommended to format your SSDs (HFS+) after each use, which can only be done when docked to your computer. In terms of SSDs, the general consensus is to go for the Sandisk Extreme 480GB, though they are not immune to dropped frames either.

It seems that the severity of the dropped frame can vary as well, sometimes the image skips, and other times it’s barely noticeable and it just sends your audio out of sync. The end of the world? Certainly not, but annoying enough for me to urge you to choose your SSD media wisely, and check in with the community about various manufacturers’ SSD performance before buying. Here’s an example of audio drift from a dropped frame (NSFW audio):

The SSD bay itself is also very delicate and I don’t think it will hold up to long-term rugged professional use. I recommend extreme delicacy when slotting SSDs in and out of the camera. Also be aware that there is no clip management inside the camera, this means no deleting clips in-camera. From Dan:

Different SSD manufacturers do things different in terms of media, they actually have their own compression built in to save space. The Crucials were really one of the big “gotchas” that we experienced, as we tested them a lot and they were working great and then a new firmware came along and it was like, okay, these don’t work anymore.

The hidden cost? If you buy the correct media the first time around, you’ll be okay.

2. Touchscreen

I’ve shot with 4 different Blackmagic cameras so far, and each LCD screen seems to have its different quirks, dead pixels being the constant, so potentially expect to see some. However, the real problem with the BMC screen is that it’s completely unusable in daylight or in any situation where light is hitting the screen, and the included sun shade is not a solution by any means. A 5″ monitor hood like the Hoodman HRT5 is a must at the very minimum if you can’t afford an SDI EVF like the Alphatron or an HDMI to SDI converter. In regards to cheap SDI converters like this one, beware — it won’t always successfully carry your signal.

In the current firmware (1.2) the ‘Video’ display mode (REC 709) only works on the camera’s LCD, so when  using an external monitor your only option is to view the ‘Log’ signal. Also on external monitors, Zebras and Peaking functions disappear while recording. The touchscreen menu is also the only place to access the camera’s options and cannot be sent out via SDI.

The hidden cost? Expect to purchase a sunshade at the very least, and unless you own an external monitor already, one of those too. Or you can DIY something, like I did in a pinch with my camera bag’s velcro dividers and the almighty gaff tape: 

3. Data Rates

I’ll be the first to admit it: I can’t afford to shoot RAW for anything long-form like a feature. On my film, we shot for 20 days and my ProRes footage totaling ~5TB, or ~60 hours, multiplied x3 for redundancy (it’s all about redundancy); that’s ~15TB of data, and all we had room in the budget for. The RAW data rates otherwise are just too intense. This is championed as a narrative camera, but it seems unaffordable to shoot a feature film in RAW at the sub-$100k level. I suspect a lot of indie filmmakers will make great use of the ProRes and rarely utilize RAW.

4. Internal Audio

No internal audio metering (yet). Seems like a basic camera feature, but is nowhere to be found. No phantom power. While on paper the audio preamps in the camera are of good quality, they still aren’t working as intended. She’s quirky: if the camera feels like the signal is going to overload, then it switches itself from MIC to LINE which, when using a PreAmp like the JuicedLink riggy, which can cause lost audio. Balanced TRS inputs instead of XLR is a minor headache, although if you’re from the DSLR world you’ll be used to this. Dual-system sound can’t be beat, and until Blackmagic sorts out their internal audio issues, I wouldn’t feed anything to the camera other than a scratch track. More from Dan:

There’s one or two audio things that we’re trying to work on, but I can’t definitely say that we have an answer for that yet. I don’t think that there are VU meters coming soon. We’re working on fixes for the camera, and we’re working on getting to NAB, and there’s a bunch of stuff post-NAB, but to say that VU meters are coming soon wouldn’t be accurate. We understand why people want VU meters on the touchscreen itself, but there are ways around it, such as using an external monitor.

More info on the BMCC’s audio quirks from JuicedLink.

5. 24 vs 23.976

Final Cut Pro 7 editors: be careful! This camera has the option of shooting in true 24fps. Not 24p (23.976/23.98) but true 24. Final Cut Pro has some quirks when it comes to editing on a true integer sequence such as 24fps, the biggest issue being audio drift. You’ll notice if you bring in your 48.000khz audio that it will drift. The solution for this in small applications is to speed up or slow down your audio by .01% (so either by changing your audio clip speed to 99.90% or 100.10%, depending on which version of the problem you’re compensating for). Premiere doesn’t have this problem, and is another reason I’m happy I made the switch. I shot some stuff on true 24 on accident, assuming it was 23.98 — my mistake, yes, but a headache nonetheless. So just make sure to shoot on 23.98 unless you really mean true 24. As to why it’s there, it’s for shooting alongside film:

We were trying to find a the cross between the DSLR and the film world, so we just wanted to cover as many bases as possible.

6. Infinity Focus / Iris Control

Reports of issues with infinity focus on various lenses is cause for concern as well. I planned to shoot a majority of my film on the Tokina 11-16, a popular choice for covering the wide lengths on the Blackmagic’s intense crop factor. After reading people having problems with infinity focus on the EF version of the lens, I decided to rent the Nikon version and use a G adapter with manual iris control, as the F-mount version doesn’t seem to have the problem. Blackmagic has addressed this issue and is fixing cameras that show this problem.

In terms of iris control, a lot of lenses (even EF) simply aren’t supported. I’ve always championed the use of manual lenses — I personally need to be able to control exposure with something physical, with my hands. With this camera, you just don’t know if you’ll be able to control aperture with your lens until you try it.

There is no official list of lenses that we certify, obviously there are user reports and a lot of internal discussion about what works and what doesn’t. I don’t want to comment if there’s going to be an official list because I don’t think we’ve decided at this time.

The hidden cost? Depending on what lenses you use, it might not be a problem. Look for user generated lists on what works and what doesn’t.

7. Crop Factor

While it’s worth mentioning that the crop factor is workable and shouldn’t be a huge detractor for many, it’s pretty different from what I’m used to in S35. In general I don’t like what it does to my focal lengths, and I’ve found myself using zoom lenses more to compensate for this. The general rule of thumb is obvious: it’s harder on the wide end and easier on the telephoto end.

The hidden cost? At roughly 2.3x (from full frame, 1.6 from S35) it’s an awkward crop factor, which means it might require additional lenses, depending on what lenses you currently own and what focal lengths you need to cover.

8. Moire

Those from the DSLR world will be used to this, as the moire from the BMCC’s sensor can be just as bad. Perhaps Mosaic Engineering or another company will design some kind of VAF (Video Aliasing Filter) for the camera, but nothing has hit the market yet. Is it a huge problem? Not if you’re used to it and know how to look for it, but definitely worth knowing about. Will BMD develop anything to solve this? Don’t hold out for it:

There’s so many great third-party manufacturers out there it’s hard to see us spending a lot of time and energy doing that kind of stuff, unless there’s a huge gap. We’re a $3,000 camera, and what we deliver is a whole lot of camera. The only time we make an accessory is when a third party really falls down on the job, then we will go out and make it.

9. Power

One of my favorite things about the camera is actually the ~1.5 hours you get out of the internal battery. It’s very useful if you need to be covert when ‘stealing’ locations. You can strip it down, pop it off your rig and it makes it easy to get shots on a public bus or a supermarket. This is something that DSLR users will find familiar in terms of form factor. However, be aware that you absolutely need an external battery system for normal all-day shooting, like a V-Mount or Gold-Mount (Anton Bauer) system. They aren’t cheap, and as always, you get what you pay for. The hidden cost? Expect to pay around $500 at the very minimum for a working V-mount system. Many professional battery systems, like the IDX Indura can take an even larger bite out of your wallet. I’m glad using this camera pushed me to start working with an external battery system though — I won’t ever go back.

Also, be aware that the barrel size on the power connector is 2.5mm, slightly larger than the standard 2.1mm power pins that you find on your DSLR. You’ll need something like this D-Tap cable to provide power to your camera.

10. Sunspot

Pointing the camera in the direction of the sun causes a photosite overload — it transforms bright sources, like the sun, into a large black dot. For most situations, it’s not a problem, but in the case where you have a client who needs “beautiful sunflares, blah blah blah” it’s going to cause you problems. All CMOS sensors are capable of overloading like this, as did the RED ONE in an early firmware. DaVinci Resolve’s ‘recover highlight’ function should fix this for those who need to in post. (Note: this doesn’t seem to be present on all units.)

This is going to be addressed in the future firmware update that is in the works, which will definitely be post-NAB.

11. Framerates

No frame rates above 30fps. No brainer, no big deal. This is a narrative camera, but just be aware of it. It’s amazing the surprise I hear when I tell people this. So if you plan on doing a re-make of Paranoid Park, you’ll have to pick a different camera. A lot of clients ask for slow motion, so if your primary accounts are music videos or short / experimental films, it could be a drawback.

12. Auto Sleep Mode / Camera Death

I had one camera die on me in the middle of shooting. While scrubbing through playback, the camera shut off and wouldn’t turn back on. Blackmagic support replaced the camera for me, but our production had to rent one for 5 days while it was being shipped, and it was a miracle that I even knew someone with a camera body to rent at the time. I’m now basically PTSD when looking at playback, I always think it’s gonna kill the camera, and try to avoid playback in-camera as a general rule. Very stressful. BMD’s support team diagnosed the problem as a glitch with its auto-sleep mode, that apparently activates when the batteries are low, and they said it must’ve gotten stuck in this mode. However, I was fully charged when it happened, so it’s still a mystery to us — and mysteries are scary.

I have never heard of that before. I had a really early beta camera that had a weird experience kind of in that area — the battery died, won’t revive — but that was in March of last year. The thing should be well grounded, it shouldn’t get electrical shocks, but that sounds like a freak accident, I have not heard of a camera just falling asleep with full batteries.

So the mystery remains, but is to be expected with a company blazing a new path, and the Blackmagic Support team are very helpful and responsive to your needs. More from Dan May about their journey making the camera:

Certainly we are not the first person to go out and say we’re just going to make a camera out of another guy’s system? It’s a complicated process, the fact that we were able to actually get the camera out the door in a reasonable amount of time, granted we had lots of challenges, but a lot of the problems that you mentioned, some of them have been addressed by firmware updates or will be addressed by firmware updates, or have workarounds out there that are reasonable.

The hard part is: how much time do we want to spend developing the ‘silver bullet’ product, and can that be an affordable product that people will buy? If we kept the camera a secret for another 2 years and put all these features in it, all of a sudden it’s a $10,000 camera and it’s 2 years late. That is part of the process of being a manufacturer, it’s just about trying to develop the best product as possible and get it into the hands of as many people as possible.

When asked about this year’s NAB:

Unless we invent time travel I don’t think we can top the shock and awe of last year, but I think it’ll be another great NAB, so look out for it, it should be pretty exciting.

Remember, any camera is just a tool, and you should be aware of what the tool is providing for you that you really need. Do you need a RAW workflow? Do you need the dynamic range? Above all, shoot with what works for you. A lot about filmmaking is learning the tools so we can forget them. By now it’s a cliché, but it’s true. To be able to transcend the tools is so important, because when you’re shooting, you want to be solving creative problems, not technical ones.

So if you have a 7D/5D and are looking for an upgrade to the BMCC, keep in mind that the camera presents a whole new set of quirks. Blackmagic Design has never made a camera before, and it comes with all the bumps and bruises you could expect from a bleeding edge piece of technology. Most importantly, it should not be looked at as a simple upgrade from a DSLR. It’s a camera that delivers features at its price-point that is defying what the market offered even 6 months ago, but it’s not for everyone, and you can’t just jump in without a lot of consideration.

Sometimes you just can’t know something until you’ve spent some time with it and learned how to optimize it for your use. Now that I know a lot more about how to handle it by keeping this list in mind, I feel more comfortable going out and shooting with it. As with any camera system: test, test, and test some more!

Special thanks to Dan May of Blackmagic Design for speaking with me on these points.

How many of you are planning on shooting films with this camera? Do any other BMCC users out there have anything to add or amend to my list? Share in the comments below.

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