Forever Alone: Day One

Haruka Abe as Faith in Forever Alone. She is side-lit by an LED panel and 3/4 backlit by a Dedo, while a Kinoflo Divalite illuminates the background. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Haruka Abe as Faith in Forever Alone. She is side-lit by an LED panel and 3/4 backlit by a Dedo, while a Kinoflo Divalite illuminates the background. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

When I was offered the role of DP on sci-fi short Forever Alone, I must confess that I had pause for thought. It was a student production, and the lighting package available from the university was much smaller than I’m used to. But I figured it would be a good challenge for me, to see if I could deliver a slick sci-fi look for a script set entirely at night, using only a handful of small instruments.

Creating darkness around the garage door meant making good use of the garage's random contents.
Creating darkness around the garage door meant making good use of the garage’s random contents.

The package consisted of a Dedo kit, a Kinoflo Divalite, two 12×12″ LED panels, a collapsible reflector, a single C-stand (with an arm but no knuckle) and one flag. And we quickly discovered that the Dedo kit contained only one in-tact bubble. On arriving at the house location, I checked out all the ceiling lights and, amongst the energy saver bulbs, found a single 60W tungsten globe. I immediately added that to my modest arsenal, along with my trusty £2 LED camping light which I’d brought along. Additionally, at my request, director Jordan Morris purchased a powerful LED torch for a key sequence. Dynamic practical lighting always looks good, and I thought it might help fill in any areas which our other sources couldn’t reach.

£2 LED camping light
£2 LED camping light

We were shooting on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera with three Canon primes, the slowest of which was f2.8. Regular shots would be recorded in 1080P ProRes, while VFX plates would be captured in the 2.5K CinemaDNG Raw format. I feared I would be struggling to light to f2.8 without raising the camera’s ISO above its native 800, but in fact only one scene felt underexposed.

Interactive light, the low-tech way
Interactive light, the low-tech way: a 60W bulb on a stick

This scene took place in the garage, where the lead character, Faith, uses her superhuman abilities to generate a glowing light source above her head. To create the requisite interactive light, I borrowed the pendant fitting from the ceiling of the garage, removed the fluorescent bulb, put in the 60W tungsten globe and taped it to the end of a broomstick. I had chosen Medium Blue/Green as Faith’s “special powers” colour, but this is a very dark gel. With only a 60W bulb inside, even boomed above Faith’s head, it didn’t shed quite as much light as I wanted. Hopefully these shots, recorded in Raw, can be brought up in the VFX/grading process without too much noise creeping in.

Other sources used in the garage included the two LED panels, colour-balanced to 5600K so as to show up blue on the tungsten-balanced camera. These were positioned in the rafters at either end of the space and dimmed right down, to give a hint of backlight to scenes supposedly taking place in pitch blackness.

The garage’s ceiling light, turned on by the characters of Mitchell and Charlotte when they enter, was represented by our only functioning Dedo. I chose the Dedo for its focus; I didn’t want the room awash with light, just a pool of illumination that would still have shape and mysterious shadows.

Stella Taylor and Oliver Park, as Charlotte and Mitchell, are keyed here by a Dedo in the rafters. A foreground glow is created by an LED panel. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Stella Taylor and Oliver Park, as Charlotte and Mitchell, are keyed here by a Dedo in the rafters. A foreground glow is created by an LED panel. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

For several shots I used my LED camping light as a key, believe it or not, even going so far as to rig it on a stand for certain close-ups. The distances involved were small, so it was quite effective. In one shot (not the one pictured below) I bounced it off the floor AND covered it in tough-spun diffuser, to get an ultra-sublte eyelight.

Haruka Abe as Other Faith, keyed by an LED camping light (£1.50 from a charity shop). Image courtesy of Jordan Morris
Haruka Abe as Other Faith, keyed by the LED camping light shown above. Image courtesy of Jordan Morris

Stay tuned for my report from day two of the shoot.

Forever Alone: Day One

Blackmagic Production Camera Field Report

I was recently the cinematographer on Sophie Black’s Night Owls, my second shoot with my new Blackmagic Production Camera, and the first one to be shot in 4K. I’m loving the rich, detailed and organic images it’s producing. Click on this screen grab to see it at full 4K resolution and witness the crazy amount of detail the BMPC records…

Click on this screen grab to see it at full 4K resolution and witness the crazy amount of detail the BMPC records.
Jonny McPherson in Night Owls

Images from Night Owls courtesy of Triskelle Pictures, Stella Vision and Team Chameleon. Produced by Sophia Ramcharan and Lauren Parker. Starring Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke.

It’s been documented that the Blackmagics, in common with the early Red Ones, suffer from the CMOS sensor “black sun effect”. As the name suggests, this means that if you get the sun in shot, it’s so bright that it turns black on camera.

On Night Owls I discovered that this also happens with filaments in bulbs. This is unfortunate, since the film features a lot of practicals with bare bulbs.

The coil of the filament appears black on the BMPC's CMOS sensor
The coil of the filament appears purple on the BMPC’s CMOS sensor

The issue can be fixed in post – apparently Da Vinci Resolve’s tracker feature will do it, or failing that some Quickpainting in Shake would certainly get rid of it – but a firmware update from Blackmagic Design to address the issue in-camera would be very welcome. Since they’ve already issued a firmware fix for this problem on the Pocket Cinema Camera, I’m surprised they even started shipping the Production Camera without this fix.

And while we’re on the subject of firmware updates, how about an option to display 2.35:1 guides? Surely in this day and age I shouldn’t be having to do this…

Taping off the camera screen and monitor for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio
Taping off the camera screen and monitor for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio
The HDMI convertor on the back of my shoulder rig, powered by the V-lock battery
The HDMI convertor on the back of my shoulder rig, powered by the V-lock battery

Some issues with my accessories also became apparent during the shoot. Firstly, 2 x 120GB SSDs are not enough. They last about 21 minutes each at 4K. Since we were doing a lot of long takes, we occasionally found the shoot grinding to a halt because the second card card was full and the first card hadn’t finished copying to the DIT’s laptop. Yes, crazy as it sounds, it takes about three times longer to copy the contents of the card – by USB, at least –  than it does to record onto that card in the first place.

Secondly, I’ve purchased two different SDI to HDMI convertors from eBay – this one and this one – and I’ve found them both awful. They’re really designed for use in CCTV systems. The frame rate is jerky and the colours are so wildly inaccurate that I had to switch the monitor to black and white. It looks like I’ll have to buy an SDI monitor. If I can get one with 2.35:1 overlays, that will solve another of my problems at the same time.

So all of these problems can be fixed, either by investing in a little more kit, or by firmware updates which I hope Blackmagic Design will soon issue.

Finally, a word on the aftersales service: my camera turned out to have a faulty speaker; I sent it back and a week later a brand new one arrived. That’s pretty good service in my book.

Overall, I’m very happy that I bought the camera, and so is Sophie. The images look fantastic and I’m sure Night Owls will go far.

Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke in a screen grab from Night Owls
Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke in a screen grab from Night Owls
Blackmagic Production Camera Field Report

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K: Pros and Cons

My BMPC on a Pro-Aim shoulder rig
My BMPC on a Pro-Aim shoulder rig

I recently bought a Blackmagic Production Camera, having twice found myself in the position where I was scrambling about trying to hire one at short notice. Blackmagic Design have since announced the Ursa and the Studio Camera, but for now even the Production Camera is still pretty hard to get hold of.

I haven’t yet used the camera enough to review it in any depth, but I thought this summary of its pros and cons might be useful to those out there considering their own purchase.

The BMPC has two advantages over its predecessor, the BMCC (Blackmagic Cinema Camera):

  • 4K resolution (or 3840×2160 to be precise) rather than 2.5K.
  • Global shutter rather than rolling shutter, so you don’t get any of that “jello” effect in handheld footage, quick pans, etc.

But the BMPC also has several disadvantages over its predecessor, namely:

  • Native ISO of 400, rather than 800, meaning it needs more light.
  • Twelve stops of dynamic range rather than thirteen.
  • Greater power consumption, though not as horrific as I’d been led to believe. My 6.9Ah battery goes dead about seven hours after call time.
  • ProRes is currently the only recording format. No DNxHD, no raw – though presumably that will come as a free firmware update at some point.
The screen is sharp but reflective.
The screen is sharp but reflective.

The  BMPC shares many of its predecessor’s problems:

  • Highly reflective screen that is unuseable in daylight or any well-lit space, unless you put a cloth over your head like you’re using a Box Brownie.
  • Internal battery has a very short lifespan and isn’t removeable.
  • Utterly unergonomic form factor, but that’s true of many cameras nowadays. Even supposedly ergonomic ones like the Sony F3 and the Canon C300 are in reality too heavy to handhold for any length of time.
  • Terrible audio circuits, but again that’s par for the course.
  • For monitoring, SDI and Thunderbolt outputs only, no HDMI. (Though if you’re upgrading from a DSLR, any monitor output that doesn’t shut off the camera’s own screen is a bonus.)
  • Can’t shoot highspeed.

But it also shares many of the BMCC’s strengths:

  • Excellent value for money. (The BMPC is currently £2,300 inc VAT.)
  • Lovely organic image with relatively little moiréing and a logarithmic look for the most flexibility in the grade.
  • Comes with a free copy of DaVinci Resolve.
  • No need to transcode footage before editing.
  • Although reflective, the screen is sharp and good for focusing.
  • Simple, uncluttered menus.
  • EF lens mount, so if you’re upgrading from a Canon DSLR you can keep your old lenses.
  • Uses ordinary 2.5″ solid state drives to record onto, rather than proprietary media.
One of my V-lock batteries, mounted on the back of the rig in a vain attempt to make it balance.
One of my V-lock batteries, mounted on the back of the rig in a vain attempt to make it balance.

The look of this camera’s images are definitely its greatest asset, and coupled with the affordable price tag, it’s hard to beat.

If you’re going to buy one, bear in mind that you’ll also need to buy:

  • SSDs – at least £70 each, depending on the speed and capacity you go for.
  • Docking station for the SSDs (at least £20), unless you want to open up your laptop every time you ingest footage.
  • Battery system – I paid £500 for two unbranded 6.9Ah V-lock batteries, a charger, a plate and a D-tap cable. (Thanks to Richard Roberts for his advice on this.)
  • Rig – even if you’re never going to shoot handheld, you’ll need something to keep the camera and battery together.
  • Either an electronic viewfinder, a monitor or a cloth to put over your head so you can see the built-in screen.
  • An HDMI converter (at least £25) if you don’t have access to an SDI monitor.

More on this camera coming soon.

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K: Pros and Cons

Black Magic Cinema Camera Review

Throughout September I got a crash-course introduction to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera as I used it to shoot Harriet Sams’ period action adventure web series The First Musketeer. The camera was kindly lent to us by our gaffer, Richard Roberts. Part-way through the shoot I recorded my initial thoughts on the camera in this video blog:

Here’s a summary of the key differences between the Blackmagic and a Canon DSLR.

Canon DSLR Blackmagic Cinema Camera
Rolling shutter (causes picture distortion during fast movement) Rolling shutter (though not as bad as DSLRs)
Pixels thrown away to achieve downscaling to 1080P video resolution, results in distracting moiré patterns on fabrics, bricks walls and other grid-like patterns Pixels smoothly downscaled from 2.5K to 1080P to eliminate moiré. Raw 2.5K recording also available
On-board screen shuts off when external monitor is connected On-board screen remains on when external monitor is connected
Some models have flip-out screens which can be adjusted to any viewing angle and easily converted into viewfinders with a cheap loupe attachment On-board screen is fixed and highly reflective so hard to see in all but the darkest of environments
Maximum frame rate: 60fps at 720P Maximum frame rate: 30fps at 1080P
50mm lens is equivalent to 50mm (5D) or 72mm (other models) full-frame lens 50mm lens is equivalent to 115mm full-frame lens
10-11 stops of dynamic range 13 stops of dynamic range
Recording format: highly compressed H.264, although Magic Lantern now allows for limited raw recording Recording format: uncompressed raw, ProRes or DNXHD
Battery life: about 2 hours from the 600D’s bundled battery in movie mode Battery life: about 1 hour from the non-removable internal battery
Weight: 570g (600D) Weight: 1,700g
Audio: stereo minijack input, no headphone socket Audio: dual quarter-inch jacks for input, headphone socket

Having now come to the end of the project, I stand by the key message of my video blog above: if you already own a DSLR, it’s not worth upgrading to a Blackmagic. You’d just be swapping one set of problems (rolling shutter, external monitoring difficulties, aliasing) for another (hard-to-see on-board screen, weight, large depth of field).

The BMCC rigged with a lock-it box for timecode sync with the audio recorder, on a Cinecity Pro-Aim shoulder mount
The BMCC rigged with a lock-it box for timecode sync with the audio recorder, on a Cinecity Pro-Aim shoulder mount

The depth of field was really the killer for me. Having shot on the 600D for three years I’m used to its lovely shallow depth of field. With the Blackmagic’s smaller 16mm sensor it was much harder to throw backgrounds of focus, particularly on wide shots. At times I felt like some of the material I was shooting looked a bit “TV” as a result.

The small sensor also creates new demands on your set of lenses; they all become more telephoto than they used to be. A 50mm lens used on a crop-chip DSLR like the 600D is equivalent to about an 72mm lens on a full-frame camera like the 5D Mark III or a traditional 35mm SLR. That same 50mm lens used on the Blackmagic is equivalent to 115mm! It was lucky that data wrangler Rob McKenzie was able to lend us his Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 otherwise we would not have been able to get useful wide shots in some of the more cramped locations.

As for the Blackmagic’s ability to shoot raw, it sounds great, but will you use it? I suggest the images you get in ProRes mode are good enough for anything bar a theatrical release, and are of a far more manageable data size. You still get the high dynamic range in ProRes mode (although it’s optional), and that takes a little getting used to for everyone. More than once the director asked me to make stuff moodier, more shadowy; the answer was it is shadowy, you just won’t be able to see it like that until it’s graded.

The colour saturation is also very low, again to give maximum flexibility in the grade, but it makes it very hard for the crew huddled around the monitor to get a sense of what the finished thing is going to look like. As a cinematographer I pride myself on delivering images that looked graded before they actually are, but I couldn’t do that with the Blackmagic. But maybe that’s just a different workflow I’d need to adapt to.

The biggest plus to the BMCC is the lovely organic images it produces, as a result of both the down-sampling from 2.5K and the high dynamic range. This was well suited to The First Musketeer’s period setting. However, I think next season I’ll be pushing for a Canon C300 to get back the depth of field.

I’ll leave you with a few frame grabs from The First Musketeer.

Note: I have amended this post as I originally stated, incorrectly, that the BMCC has a global shutter. The new 4K Blackmagic Production Camera does have a global shutter though.

Black Magic Cinema Camera Review