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Camera Class: First Field Reports from the Blackmagic Cinema Camera

11/20/2012 6:36 AM Eastern

I can remember the buzz of excitement when news flashed through the NAB Show newsroom that Blackmagic Design had announced a digital cinema camera. Long known for producing excellent signal processing, conversion and measuring equipment, the aggressive video company from Australia had hidden its secret so well that when the 2.5K (2432 x 1366) camera with built-in SSD recorder was unveiled at its press conference in the Las Vegas Convention Center, the international media and NAB Show visitors didn’t know what to think.

OneRiver Media’s Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera in a "Compact Rig" configuration. Parts include View Factor Studios cage, SmallHD DP6 monitor, Letus Direct top handle, ARRI MMB-1 mattebox, Shape hand grips, Redrock Micro V2 follow focus, and Sachtler Video 25 II tripod.

“Our product line touches on a lot of different technologies,” says Bob Caniglia, senior regional manager of eastern North America for Blackmagic Design, “but when we acquired DaVinci Systems and their Resolve color grading software, we found it necessary to deal with every camera format and codec that hit the market. So we decided to establish our own workflow that did not have to create special sauce for each new camera, and we set out to build our own acquisition device.”

The term “acquisition device” is apt for the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC), since it is designed to record footage in native formats including 12-bit CinemaDNG raw, Apple’s ProRes 422 (HQ) and Avid’s DNxHD at 220 Mb/s. Then it can offload its material over a Thunderbolt connection at up to 10 Gb/s for instant editing that is facilitated by including metadata directly from the camera.

Many of the camera’s features come from previously existing Blackmagic Design products. “We’ve got lots of experience with the 5-inch capacitive touchscreen monitors the camera employs and have been making both portable and studio SSD recorders for some time,” Caniglia says. “So this camera sort of rounds out the workflow circle for us.”

Priced at $2,995, Blackmagic has bundled the camera with software packages including Resolve and UltraScope, which total more than the cost of the camera itself.

“The company philosophy is all about enabling the masses,” Caniglia says. “We want to be able to get as many products to as many people as possible.”

The camera announced at the 2012 NAB Show was outfitted with an EF mount, which accommodates Canon and Zeiss mount lenses. At IBC the company announced a Passive Micro Four Thirds (MFT) model for lenses with manual iris and focus capabilities. Other lens formats, like PL or Nikon, can be used with third-party adapters.

Despite a backlog of enthusiastic orders, delivery dates had to be pushed back as problems cropped up with the optics that cover the 2.5K sensor. Still, as cameras have finally reached the hands of digital cinematographers, everyone has been eager to find out if the Blackmagic Cinema Camera can live up to its promise.

Jacob Rosenberg, Bandito Brothers

Shane Hurlbut shoots with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera for Bandito Bros.

Jacob Rosenberg, director and chief technical officer at Bandito Brothers, a full-service production company in Culver City, Calif., has had the EF model of the camera for just over two months and calls it “awesome.” “It is great that a hardware vendor who is in the video space and understands the needs of video professionals is putting their efforts into creating a device like this,” he begins. “For example, Blackmagic Design is aware of the color science that goes into using video formats like CinemaDNG raw files to get what we need out of them.”

The camera has been used on the Bandito Brothers lot for tests on the new DreamWorks film Need for Speed and a public installation video art project for Yogi Proctor. “It gives you great latitude at 2.5K for an HD deliverable, giving us extra headroom for enhancements like stabilization,” Rosenberg notes.

Most of their previous experience at Bandito Brothers has been with DSLR cameras, but Rosenberg finds the Blackmagic camera a relief. “The fact that you can do greenscreen work and end up with a perfectly keyable image [with a tool] in the form factor of a DSLR is a huge step forward,” he says. “It lets us get amazingly visceral shots but still have the resolution needed to project onto the big screen.”

Marco Solorio, OneRiver Media
Marco Solorio, owner of OneRiver Media, a production and postproduction facility in the San Francisco Bay area, admits that he obtained his Blackmagic Cinema Camera before the public release. He has already shot several tests with it that are available on Vimeo. Perhaps the most interesting test for us camera geeks is a comparison between 12-bit raw footage and 8-bit alternatives, which is available here.

Marco Solorio (at left) uses the Blackmagic Cinema Camera on the set of “Texting Is Dangerous.” Photo by Paul Schaffner

Blackmagic Design has given the BMCC a 13-stop dynamic range, which helps in both bright and dark shooting environments. Solorio finds that the camera has very solid low-light capabilities and says you can boost its sensitivity all the way up to 1600 ASA. He adds that he appreciates that Blackmagic Design uses the “ASA” cinema terminology instead of the more video-related ISO, and that the shutter opening is measured in degrees instead of fractions of seconds.

“This camera has a 15.81mm x 8.88mm sensor that is sized between Super 16mm film and Micro Four Thirds,” he says, “and some have expressed concerns over its potentially limited depth of field. But we’ve found that using a fast lens, like f/1.2, and stepping back so you can zoom in a bit can put backgrounds out of focus the way most modern shooters expect.”

However, he has found that the camera’s internal lithium-ion polymer battery is best used as a backup. Since it can’t be removed and lasts only about an hour, he relies on external V-Lock brick batteries to power the camera, external monitors and microphones.

“Since 85 percent of the time we use the camera in some sort of rigged-mount configuration like the cages from View Factor Studios and an ARRI mattebox, this is no big problem,” Solorio says. “Or if I want to shoot incognito in public areas, I’ll strip a lot of that stuff off. That’s another benefit of the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera’s small form factor.”

You can see a cute short film Solorio shot with the camera called “Texting Is Dangerous” below.


Josh and Jason Diamond
The Diamond Brothers, Josh and Jason, reached out to Blackmagic Design and actually got their camera last August. They ran it through its paces, shooting a test video in New Orleans using only available light and 19mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4 Leica R series primes with Canon mounts. You can see the video at thediamondbros.com/blog/.

Josh Diamond. Photo by David Stripinis

One of the close-ups of a man’s face in the video, seen at 1:40, was illuminated just with the light from an iPhone screen.

The Diamonds recently had a client whose budget couldn’t support one of the higher resolution, and higher cost, cameras they have in their arsenal, so they suggested the Blackmagic Cinema Camera as an alternative.

“Our client saved a considerable amount just in not having to pay for transcoding costs, since the Blackmagic Design camera comes with Resolve software and shoots native files that can be directly loaded into an NLE,” Josh Diamond says. “You just transfer the material onto the editing drive and start cutting.”

Josh appreciates the camera’s audio capabilities. “It has a great onboard mic that is very appropriate for scratch recording, and the body features two 1.4” balanced audio inputs,” he says. “We use the Wooden Camera A-Box to adapt balanced XLR connectors that the pro audio guys expect. We still did second source recording, but for most purposes our main camera audio has been sufficient for everything except emergencies.”

Josh tells us the camera only records time of day timecode, however, so if you are planning on a multicamera shoot, be prepared to sync the cameras with clappers.

“We are very impressed with Blackmagic Design’s camera, especially at this price point,” Josh Diamond says. “It’s a really smart move for a really smart company to make.”