A Candid Review of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera

The video below was a Poptent Finalist for the Airheads Bites Campaign. It was concepted, shot, and edited in the span of 48 hours using the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, DaVinci Resolve, Adobe Premiere, Cinegrain, and Protools. This was a perfect chance to test out a brand new camera that I’d never used and see how it held up in a real world production.

Director: Casey Shelton

Director of Photography: Nicholas Matthews

Producers: Dave Schellenberger, Casey Shelton, Nicholas Matthews

Starring: Dave Schellenberger, Aaron Blake Elliot

Sound Design: Aaren Neely

Location Audio/PA: Ryan Tudor

PA: Leyla Elliot

The Backstory & Execution (skip this if all you care about is my review of the camera):

This was a whirlwind project where Casey, Dave, and I met on a Wednesday night, realized we all had a free weekend, and decided to collaborate. Casey settled on a Poptent competition with a deadline of Sunday night. By the time we could meet again to discuss concepts for the commercial it was 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. We would have less than 48 hours to script, cast, secure locations, shoot, edit, grade, mix, and post a 15 and 30 second spot. In my mind this was a crazy experiment with a group of extremely fun and talented people.

Our initial concept was much bigger, involved green screen, and a much more fleshed out story. After two hours of searching at 6 different stores for Airheads Bites, we finally found them and purchased 40 bags of the candies. Between gear prep, setup, casting, securing props, finding green screen materials for our initial idea, getting caught in an hour long traffic jam, and all that…we found ourselves trying make a location work (both lighting and art design) that just wasn’t right for the piece. Too top it all off, the location was an hour away from our base camp.  It was 10:00 p.m., when the small troupe of us re-gathered and decided whether we should call it or keep going. We all agreed—keep going with the experiment. We paid and sent home a hired actor and called up a good friend and asked if he wanted to be involved in a crazy experiment.
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While we unloaded equipment, set up lights, and the camera, etc, Casey, Dave, and Aaron re-wrote our initial concept for the new space we were in and for the amount of time we had left to shoot. The lighting was simple and sterile to match the office environment with the overhead fluorescencts doing most the work, two desk lamp practicals to add something to accent the desk and kinos punched through 4x4s of 216 to fill in the actors and create a stronger backlight. The Blackmagic Cinema package we were working with was a very bare bones package without external battery power, with 1x 120 GB SSD, and no rigging.

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Under Casey’s direction, the two actors improvised a hilarious routine that fleshed out further and further with each take. I found it hard to hold in laughter at their charismatic tom-foolery (yes I just used that word) and out-laughing of one another. After shooting, we sent everyone home while I transferred, synced, and transcoded the footage. Once this was complete (hours later), Casey and I edited the two spots. As I began grading the footage, we brought a terrific sound designer onboard to finish off the piece, before finally submitting the video an hour before it was due.

This experiment was certainly not an ideal shooting environment with plenty of prep, but it served as a perfect real-world environment to test the BMCC.

What I loved about the Blackmagic Cinema Camera?

I’ll admit when I first saw images from the BMCC and heard the specs, I was highly intrigued–2.5k, 13 stops of dynamic range, unbelievable sharpness and RAW—all at the perfect price tag! As images slowly trickled out, I was hooked and very interested in purchasing, but I refuse to pre-order a camera sight unseen (and thankfully I wasn’t stuck on a year-long waiting list). I reasoned that here was an afforable camera that could take over any DSLR job I shoot and can work well as a B-camera on higher-end shoots.  While I won’t say I still don’t feel this way about the camera, I have not purchased one.

What I loved about the Blackmagic was everything they sold about it from the beginning.  It is terrifically sharp with it’s 2.5k resolution.  It holds enormous amounts of detail in the highlights and shadows.  It nearly stands up to cameras that are 10x the price.  It is RAW and therefore incredibly malleable.  You can take this footage places you’d never dream of taking DSLR footage.  It’s gorgeous and filmic.  I do like that it’s so overwhelmingly simple.  It feels solidly built and has a number of helpful mounting points.  I like the focus magnification, which can be used mid-record to double check critical focus.

In the end of the day what is the Blackmagic?  It is a great sensor stuffed into an aluminum box with a record button. It’s nothing fancy–but it delivers gorgeous images.  As I mentioned Blackmagic hit all the major marketing specs–great dynamic range, great resolution, great codec.  Seemingly, this is a camera that can deliver gorgeous images for the price of a dslr, but what’s the catch?

The catch if you could call it one is that this is a less expensive camera that requires expensive accessories and an extensive post-production workflow to work. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can just buy the body, 1 SSD, and use the internal battery. Much like the DSLRs, you need $5,000 – $10,000 to fully kit this camera out. In the end of the day, this may be perfect for your needs, but you’re buying into a roughly M4/3rds system if you purchase the BMCC EF or M4/3rds (is this ever going to be released?). Furthermore, these cameras feel like prototypes with poor ergonmics and limited on-board tools.

Ultimately, it’s everything I thought it should be for the price; a very capable camera with a gorgeous image and lots of quirks. It’s just another tool in the tool kit.

Potential shortcomings of the camera?

Every shortcoming I’m going to mention is the result of this camera being built to hit a specific price point. Blackmagic decided that they wanted a $2500 camera and chose resolution, dynamic range, and RAW over ergonomics, slow-motion, sensor size, etc. Pointing out these limitations just makes you aware of what you have to be prepared to deal with when choosing this particular system.

Sensor size. The crop factor is bloody annoying…you have to specifically buy lenses for this camera and system that you will likely not use on other cameras. There is a very limited wide angle selection currently for EF mount if you’re someone that likes using S35 18mm – 32mm equivalents as your primary selection. As they’ve not yet released the M4/3rds mount version (as far as I’m aware), you’re stuck to a frustrating wide angle solution. I personally don’t want to buy great M4/3rds lenses as they’re not interchangable with the S35 cameras I’m more likely to rent and use. As I only had a 17 – 35 mm I never quite got the shot I wanted for our wide angle. Admittedly, this isn’t the camera’s fault per se, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re coming from a full frame sensor or S35 sensor.

Difficulty of stealing shots vs. DSLR. This is a major unaddressed limitation of this camera and can be chalked up to the fact that it was designed as a cinema camera. This camera looks weird; pull it out and take it to a city street and people will notice you’re shooting with it. Blackmagic’s marketing has been so good that you may even encounter some fanboyism wherever you head. 🙂 Alternatively, with a DSLR you can hide under the radar and it’s assumed you’re taking photos.

Data-centric.If you shoot raw, expect a lot of data. A lot. It’s 7 gigabytes a minute. That’s going to require an expensive number of hard drives to properly transfer, protect, and backup. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that this won’t have an impact on that indie feature you’re going to shoot with this camera–this will cost you in time and money.  But that’s the trade off of their fantastically malleable image.

Color-correction is essential.This is not a shoot and edit image. This is the price for RAW or log flexibility. You have to color correct and that requires a computer system capable of running the full version Da Vinci Resolve (one of the major selling points of the BMCC). Don’t expect that just because the camera isn’t expensive that your post-production system can be. A bad grade will destroy well-photographed images and all the work the DP and crew put into developing the shot. On the flip side, just because something is raw, doesn’t mean it can salvage poorly exposed or poorly lit images. Furthermore, what’s the point of shooting with a raw camera if you’re not going to tap into it’s ability to capture maximum information? Why not shoot with another camera that better meets your needs?

Slow turn-around. The fact that the camera is data-centric and requires color correction means that your post workflow is a more extensive process. Same day delivery is very difficult without a lot of prior planning. I had to copy, backup, and transcode big files. I imagine this will get faster as technology progresses, but for now, you have to calculate that time into your schedule. Mid the wee hours of the morning, we were sitting around waiting on our 1 SSD to dump 120 GB to a RAIDed drive.

Few in-camera tools. While you can preview a REC 709 look on the back of the camera, you cannot send that out to your external monitoring system. This requires you to disply ugly log for clients or to find a monitoring solution that can display a LUT. Additionally, there are limited exposure tools in camera–only zebras for IRE 70 – 100? I’d prefer a waveform or false color (I know you can connect thunderbolt to a computer and see all these helpful tools….but who’s going to do that?). Furthermore, you cannot internally re-format SSD drives or delete clips, which means you won’t overwrite data you’ve previously shot, but it also means you have to have a computer handy to clear your drives.

Reliability. I don’t like trusting my time, my story, or my production to a camera system that I don’t trust, and right now I have doubts about SSDs which are not custom designed for the wear and tear of set. They get hot in this camera, and there are stories of them bricking. This is the unfortunate side effect of Blackmagic trying to make an open-source camera. Because of Blackmagic’s terrific marketing, they’re in a catch 22, because these cameras can’t live up to the buzz and Blackmagic can’t seem to live up to delivering products on time, which has seriously undermined my interest in their camera products.

Ergonmics. Ergonomics are horrible; trying to shoot run n’ gun out of the box has similar problems as many of the other major players (RED!). One of the reasons the C300 is so popular is you can actually take the camera as is with a lens and run out and shoot, while gauging exposure, focus, and not worrying about rolling shutter. Pick this camera up and you can shoot handheld, but good luck running around with it. All the ports and cable connections are on the wrong side of the camera and will stick in the operator’s face.

No viewfinder and a reflective screen. Good luck shooting in the sun.

Touch screen. I like dedicated buttons. They make you faster as a shooter, since you don’t have to dig through menus and can use muscle memory to locate essential actions.

Power. To some degree the 90 minute internal battery doesn’t bother me, since every other camera requires external battery power. But it’s something that has to be factored in, and given the build style of the camera there is no quick, compatible solution for powering the camera. It would be great to have both the option of powering the camera through Anton Bauer batteries and through a small battery that fits inside the camera much like a DSLR when you need that low-profile setup.

Audio. No XLRs or in-camera metering means you’re stuck with another solution.

Rolling shutter and studder. While it’s no worse than other cameras at this price point, it’s something to be aware of if you’re planning to shoot handheld. It’s not great.

Moire. Not terrible, but not great.  Worse than I expected for sure.

No Slowmotion. 60 fps would be great, but hey, it’s a $2500 camera.

When would I use this over a 5D Mark III?

If I want to shoot in low-light, need the full sensor size look, need to steal shots, or have a quick turn-around, then I’d go with the 5D Mark III. If I have the time for a proper color correction, a lens kit designed for this sensor, and lowlight won’t be an issue, I’m going to choose the BMCC every time. I’m not into 3rd party hacks just yet and would rather trust my production to a reliable image-capture device built for shooting RAW.

This is one of the reasons I feel this camera will fit well onto full fledged productions as a B or C camera over DSLRs. A full fledged production already has an established workflow to deal with high amounts of data, they already have the accessories rented, and this camera captures an image that will intercut well with the ALEXA or RED, unlike DSLR.

I’ve jokingly told friends, “If you want a camera with a gorgeous image, but where everything else about the camera is awkward, this is the camera for you.” I never ended up buying a camera system and have been content renting the appropriate tool for each project.

After all that, I’d love to shoot on this camera again and think it’s one of the best sub $10,000 options out there.

A Final Note.

Guess what? It’s just a $%@# camera! 5 years from now you’ll feel the same things about the BMCC, that people feel today about the XL2 or the HVX200. In the end of the day, I’d rather shoot something that touches people on an Iphone than sloppy filmmaking on the Alexa.

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