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Preparing for the Next Wave of 4K: What's Possible with the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

It’s been a year of energetic anticipation since Blackmagic Design announced the 4K Production Camera at the 2013 NAB Show. 6/20/2014 8:00 AM Eastern
New Zealand DP Captain Hook mounts his Blackmagic Production Camera in a Redrock Micro ultraCage with an external monitor and Redrock accessories.

It’s been a year of energetic anticipation since Blackmagic Design announced the 4K Production Camera at the 2013 NAB Show. Since it began shipping in February 2014, Blackmagic engineers have already responded to feedback from beta testers and early adopters with improvements—both current and planned—to optimize the camera’s performance.

This breakthrough 4K offering shares at least two attributes with its predecessor, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera: form factor (they have the same body) and price reduction (they both received a $1,000 price cut shortly after being announced). Does the price break indicate concern on Blackmagic’s part about the camera’s acceptance in the increasingly competitive 4K camera field?

For $2,995, the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K has a Super 35 sensor (actually 21.12mm x 11.88mm) equipped with a global shutter and the ability to record Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) in 4K. Although the pre-release announcements used the present tense to describe the camera’s ability to shoot in the visually lossless compressed CinemaDNG raw format, that capability isn’t yet active. The feature will be enabled via a future firmware update.

The BMPC4K boasts a 5” touchscreen (800 x 480 resolution) that lets users monitor video, change settings and enter metadata. The camera’s built-in SSD recorder uses removable 2.5” disks that can be formatted as HFS+ (for Macs) or exFAT (Windows).

One of the first questions I asked Bob Caniglia, senior regional manager at Blackmagic Design, was why the 2.5K camera is designated the “cinema” model, while this 4K offering is the “production” camera. “This camera has a 6G-SDI output that lets you connect it to Blackmagic Design’s new Ultra HD 4K ATEM production switchers that have 6G-SDI inputs,” Caniglia explains. “Since the Production Camera 4K can also shoot Ultra HD in real time, we think this will provide a complete 4K studio workflow. That’s why we gave it the ability to connect with our UltraScope software over Thunderbolt 2 on the set. But now that we also have 4K recorders, we hope the digital cinema DPs will quickly gravitate to the Production Camera 4K.”

Blackmagic engineers did have to make some compromises to achieve that 4K recording capability. For example, the 2.5K Cinema Camera is rated to have a 13-stop dynamic range, whereas the Production Camera 4K has a 12-stop range to accommodate the light lost by its global shutter. However, those who own the earlier camera will appreciate the fact that since the 4K version has the same form factor, all the third-party peripherals that have been developed for the former will neatly fit the latter.

Does that early $1,000 price reduction raise any red flags? “We do things differently at Blackmagic Design,” Caniglia says. “If this is truly to be a camera for a production environment, we want people to be able to afford more than one. Thanks to improved manufacturing processes and economy of scale from a large number of pre-orders, the price drop was announced as the camera started to ship in February, so nobody was stuck with the higher cost.”

Kholi Hicks

Kholi Hicks (@KholiH), an independent director and DP working with Ductape Media in Santa Monica, Calif., says it was the global shutter that first attracted him to the Production Camera 4K.

Kholi Hicks used his Blackmagic Production Camera to shoot a branding video for Inogen.

“It all has to do with the way the camera renders motion,” Hicks says. “A global shutter gives the recordings a very cinematic look, almost a dreamlike feel on 24 fps takes. The rolling shutter on other cameras can affect the way moving objects look because it processes portions of the frame [at different times], but the global shutter in the Production Camera 4K captures the whole frame at once. So anything in motion looks very distinct.”

Hicks used the BMPC4K to shoot a branding video for Inogen portable oxygen concentrators. Since the spot is destined for web distribution, he was able to extract several shots from a single 4K frame. “We’re using [Apple] Final Cut Pro X, which easily accepted the Production Camera 4K’s ProRes files, and it was a breeze to move into a frame to repurpose a wide shot into a close-up,” he says. “The amount of setup time that can save is precious.”

One gripe Hicks has is that the BMPC4K, like Blackmagic’s other cameras, has no record time indicator, but he’s found an easy workaround. “Once you hit play, look at the timecode at the bottom of the display to keep track of how much you have recorded. Of course, this depends on knowing your SSD disk’s size. So with a 40 minute capacity, if the numbers hit 32, I know I have about 8 minutes of capacity left.”

The camera does not have audio meters, but Hicks is usually shooting dual system sound anyway. He has found the on-camera mic’s recording is perfectly suitable for a reference track. “This reference audio lets us sync multiple camera recordings in FCP X with just a few clicks. We use the on-camera sound to align the different 4K video channels,” he explains. “Also, that on-camera recording is clean enough to be used as a source when you need it.”

Hicks has learned to be mindful of the “black dot” issue common to many high-end digital cameras. “If the imaging sensor becomes overloaded when doing something like shooting directly into the sun, some of the pixels will get hit with a protection circuit, which results in a black dot in the center of the image.”

Marco Solorio uses a twin mount system to acquire identical footage to compare the Blackmagic 4K Production camera (left) and the Blackmagic Cinema Camera EF (right) during in-studio shooting for the BMW documentary film Ten Tenths. Photo by Justin Zetterlund.

Is there a workaround? “Sure. I just don’t shoot directly into the sun,” he says. “This has never really been an issue for us outside of when we are testing the Production Camera 4K’s capabilities. Blackmagic has already fixed this issue in the Pocket Cinema Camera with a firmware update, and I’m sure they are working on it for the 4K one as well.”

Marco Solorio

Marco Solorio, owner of OneRiver Media (@OneRiverMedia) in California’s Bay Area, was attracted to the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K for its ability to record 10-bit 4K in ProRes HQ because its 4:2:2 color sampling pays off big in color grading.

“You don’t see any compressed blocking artifacts,” Solario says. “And being 10-bit, it offers some extra latitude when dealing with color values. Of course, since the recording starts out in ProRes, there are no transcoding hassles in our [Adobe] Premiere Pro and Avid Symphony systems.”

Solario has used his BMPC4K to shoot corporate videos for VMware and a documentary series for BMW called Ten Tenths. (More details about Ten Tenths are available on Twitter, @1010film.)

 

Ten Tenths - Teaser #1 (Blackmagic 4K) from OneRiver Media on Vimeo.

In addition to appreciating the benefits of the global shutter, Solario is impressed with the quality of the video the Production Camera 4K records. “Its detail and clarity is awesome,” Solario says. “The Cinema Camera was great, but even if you shoot at 1080 with the Production Camera 4K, you get no aliasing or moiré patterns in the image. Even the trumpets on a test pattern can be seen with gobs of detail. It’s a super clean image.”

Captain Hook’s Production Camera 4K setup

As well as wishing for audio meters and a record time indicator, Solario would like to be able to format his SSD cards in the camera. “Few other cameras have this ability,” he admits, “but I’m looking forward to Blackmagic Design implementing it in their Production Camera 4K.”

Captain Hook

Over in the wilds of New Zealand, an indie DP/colorist who goes by the handle of Captain Hook (@captainh00k) for commercials and music videos has filled several online forums with his impressions of the Production Camera 4K. (By the way, he’s not named after a character from Peter Pan. It was actually his experience creating easily remembered tunes that earned him the name “Captain Hook,” and that’s about the only way he is known.)

You can see some beautiful test footage he shot of the 2014 Auckland Lantern Festival below along with another video containing clips shot with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, Pocket Cinema Camera and the Production Camera 4K.

 

Auckland Lantern Festival 2014 - BM4K from A Couple Of Night Owls on Vimeo.

 

Lizzie Marvelly - Generation Young - BM4K, Pocket Cam, and BMCC from A Couple Of Night Owls on Vimeo.

Hook has been working on his own lookup table (LUT) to tweak the 4K images. You can find his latest at www.captainhook.co.nz/blackmagic-cinema-camera-lut/.

He has some advice for those considering adopting the Production Camera 4K: read the online discussion forums. “The forums are littered with the same questions that come up over and over. Stuff like the native ISO for the 4K camera is 400, and right now 800 is almost unusable as it shows far more noise. In fact, you’re better to shoot one stop underexposed at ASA 400 in ProRes, then push it in post, versus shooting ‘on’ at ASA 800.”

From Captain Hook’s Blackmagic Production Camera 4K test footage shot at the Auckland Lantern Festival

It strikes me that in-depth analysis like this on a brand new camera is more a reflection of interest in its potential than criticism of its design. The Blackmagic Design Production Camera 4K is just entering the production market, and its story has only started to be told.

Terry Frechette, director of corporate communications at Blackmagic Design, says that Hook’s concerns about the proper ASA settings are valid. “It’s best to shoot under properly lit conditions with the Production Camera 4K,” Frechette says. “400 ASA is definitely the sweet spot for this camera.”

Firmware Updates

In early April, Kristian Lam, product manager for cameras at Blackmagic Design, posted on the Blackmagic forum to address concerns from users about firmware updates and ongoing support for released cameras. Lam said an update was coming soon that would add “compressed raw support on the Production Camera 4K, and autofocus support for EF lenses on Blackmagic Cinema Camera EF and Production Camera 4K.”

Lam continued, “What is also in this release are certain hooks that are required for audio level metering and histogram display. It won’t be visible as yet but will allow us to quickly follow up with an update to add these two tools we know you guys are asking for.”

In reference to the ability to format SSD cards directly in the camera, Lam added, “Yes, we want to do this. A large part of the work has been completed so I don’t believe this will be a big effort to implement. However, it is very unlikely that we will support deleting of clips directly in camera due to the risk of media fragmentation.”

Regarding the time remaining indicator, Lam said, “Yes, this is going to happen. It’s probably in the next update or an update after.”

About the “black sun” effect, Lam said, “This is a fundamental characteristic of CMOS sensors. Black sun correct circuitry is also not an on/off switch, and with some sensors it may result in other unwanted artifacts, so we have to be really careful about it. Another method of overcoming the black sun effect is via image processing after the image has been acquired and passed on from the sensor. This is basically running an algorithm to try and detect what looks like the black sun and just clipping the black areas. Again, this could result in false positives, and if you have a pattern in the image that is similar to the black sun, it could mistakenly be ‘corrected’ as well. As you can see, this is a tricky situation. We are not ignoring it, but working to see what is the best way to address it.”

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