With companies like Atomos, Convergent Design and Sound Devices releasing hybrid video recording/monitoring devices, it was just a matter of time until Blackmagic Design joined the fray. After all, Blackmagic was one of the first to offer inexpensive cameras that could capture higher-quality codecs.
Of all the announcements at last year’s NAB Show, Blackmagic’s Video Assist was one of the most talked-about new products—along with URSA Mini, also from Blackmagic. Video Assist is a hybrid device: in addition to functioning as a 1920 x 1080 monitor, it lets shooters capture high-quality edit-ready files. It’s a 5-inch full HD touchscreen monitor with a built-in ProRes and DNxHD recorder. At just $495 (MSRP), Video Assist seems to be an ideal accessory for DSLR filmmakers.
Blackmagic recently loaned me a Video Assist review unit that I tried out on a Canon EOS 70D and Canon XC10.
When I connected Video Assist via HDMI to my 70D, the first thing I noticed was that the camera wasn’t delivering a full signal. The monitor on my camera automatically disengaged and I was receiving a “windowed” image on the Video Assist’s display. My first guess was that Video Assist needs a clean HDMI out from your camera to work, and Blackmagic recently confirmed this speculation. Luckily, the majority of new DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer a clean HDMI output, including the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Nikon D750 and Sony a7S II. Before buying a Video Assist, make sure your camera offers clean HDMI out.
Video Assist can record 10-bit 4:2:2 files, supporting Apple ProRes 422 HQ, 422, LT and Proxy, as well as Avid DNxHD codecs. Unlike many recorders on the market, Video Assist records to SD cards, which are significantly cheaper than either SSD or CFast 2.0 media. (Blackmagic’s Pocket Cinema Camera also lets you capture ProRes files to SD cards.)
I loaded a 64 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC (Class 10), with a max write speed of 90 MB/s. The unit works best with SDXC UHS-1 and SDHC UHS-1 cards, though it also supports DS, HS, SDR12, SDR25, DDR50, SDR50 and SDR104 SD cards for lower resolutions. Visit Blackmagic’s site for a list of SD cards recommended for use with Video Assist (www.blackmagicdesign.com/support).
The one big negative of the Video Assist as a recorder is its inability to capture 4K, which is due to the data rate restrictions of SD cards. Most new cameras are capturing onboard 4K, albeit with weaker codecs like H.264 or H.265. With the XC10, I was capturing QFHD XF-AVC Intra, so I would have a hard time choosing between 4K compressed files or full HD ProRes files to work with in post. Even if your final delivery is 1920 x 1080, there are pros and cons to each side and an extensive debate about which is better.
In its marketing materials, Blackmagic suggests the best of both worlds for shooters with more advanced 4K/Ultra HD cameras, who can record HD to Video Assist while the camera simultaneously records 4K raw. The sets of files will have matched timecode.
For testing, I captured ProRes HQ files at full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution. If you’re shooting with a DSLR like the EOS 5D Mark III or Nikon D750, the internal recording format is H.264; at 1080 resolution, the average bit rate for ALL-I (intraframe) capture is roughly 91 Mb/s. The average bit rate of ProRes HQ or Avid DNxHD is approximately 220 Mb/s. In terms of choosing a ProRes codec, I could never really tell the difference between ProRes 422 and HQ, so if storage is an issue, I would go with ProRes 422 or LT. Although you may not see a difference on your monitor, 10-bit ProRes files are going to help you in post due to greater codec efficiency.
Video Assist is able to provide an “upgrade” to aging broadcast gear, such as a shoulder-mount HDCAM or P2 camcorder. When Video Assist is connected via SDI, these cameras can record 10-bit quality to edit-ready ProRes and DNxHD files, thus extending their usable life. Another benefit is that Video Assist sidesteps the use of these cameras’ expensive proprietary recording media (HDCAM tapes, P2 cards, XDCAM discs).
The Video Assist is a no-frills but solid 5-inch 1920 x 1080 display that will give you more range than your typical DSLR’s 3-inch fixed monitor. I mounted the Video Assist with an adjustable ball head mount to the camera’s hotshoe so I was able to adjust the angle of view to any position, unlike a fixed monitor on a DSLR. Video Assist offers six mounting points, with three 1/4-inch holes on the top and bottom of the unit. If you are working with a tiny camera like Blackmagic’s Micro Cinema Camera, you may want to mount Video Assist underneath it for better balance.
With just a power button and no knobs or joysticks, the Video Assist is controlled by touchscreen. By swiping the display with your finger, you can change settings, monitor audio and video levels, change frame rates and more. You can also view a histogram and timecode.
When I tested the monitor, it was lacking peaking and zebras—two features that are important for critical focus and making sure your highlights don’t clip. Since Nikon and Canon DSLRs don’t offer these features either, it would have been great to have them on Video Assist. Since my time with Video Assist, Blackmagic engineers released a software update (v1.1) that adds focus peaking, zebra for setting iris, central zoom to aid focus, timecode over HDMI, improved battery information and general performance and stability updates.
One cool feature that I wasn’t able to test is the loop-through output, which lets you monitor live video or recorded footage on a larger HD broadcast display or HDMI projector. With this, your Video Assist can function like a playback VTR so crew members can view previous shots.
All in all, if you’re a 5D Mark III or D750 owner capturing full HD, the Video Assist is a must-have accessory, especially at its low price.
Product: Blackmagic Video Assist
Pros: Good quality 5-inch LCD (1920 x 1080) monitor. Can record 10-bit 4:2:2 files, supporting Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD. Uses affordable SD cards. Can work with older camcorders that contain an SDI output.
Cons: Lack of 4K capture due to data restrictions. Monitor lacks peaking and zebras for achieving proper focus and exposure.
Bottom Line: Easy to use. An ideal accessory for DSLR owners (Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Nikon D750, etc.) whose cameras are limited to full HD.