‘Painting with Light’ by John Alton

61kMuhKWfjLPainting with Light is a book I first heard about when Hollywood DP Shane Hurlbut recommended it on his excellent blog. Browsing the shop at the BFI Southbank recently I came across a copy, liked what I saw… and went home and ordered it on line. Them’s the breaks.

John Alton was something of a rebel. In an era when most DPs used complex lighting set-ups hung from the studio grid, Alton lit from the floor, using fewer sources, and was consequently faster. This made him unpopular with his peers. A strained, in-out relationship with the American Society of Cinematographers didn’t help. He sometimes clashed with other heads of department too, notably designers, who didn’t like the way his lighting made their work look. But directors and producers loved him because he worked quickly.

When Painting with Light was published in 1949, Alton was emerging as a key cinematographer of the film noir genre. Today he is remembered as one of the masters of noir. His utterly black shadows, backlit fog and slatted keylights defined the visuals of films like The T-Men (1947, dur. Anthony Mann) and The Big Combo (1955, dir. Joseph H. Lewis).

A classic bit of Alton's noir lighting from The Big Combo
A classic bit of Alton’s noir lighting from The Big Combo

However, noir lighting – or “Mystery Lighting” as Alton terms it – occupies only one chapter of Painting with Light. Two preceding chapters cover the basics of Hollywood filmmaking and introduce lighting equipment, most of which is now obsolete. Subsequent chapters cover “Special Illumination” – predominantly weather effects and vehicle interiors, “The Hollywood Close-up” – looking at key angles and introducing a clock system not dissimilar to the one I once blogged about – and “Outdoor Photography”.

The book then diverges from filmmaking, offering advice to novice photographers taking holiday snaps or equipping a portrait studio. Chapter nine, “Visual Music”, explores lighting and composition in terms of a musical allegory, each shot contributing to the symphony of the movie. Chapter twelve is the strangest, urging women to be aware of how their faces are lit as they go about their lives so that they can ensure they are always seen to their best advantage. All cinematographers know that beauty is as much about lighting as it is about bone structure and make-up, but I can’t see that idea ever catching on outside of the industry. Brief chapters on film processing, suggested improvements to cinemas, and the human eye as a camera, round out this mixed bag. A foreword, a lengthy but interesting biography and a filmography introduce the current edition.

Demonstrating the use of a clothes light
Demonstrating the use of a clothes light

While many of the ideas and principles put forward by Alton are still relevant today, some of it serves more as a historical record of cinematography in the mid-twentieth century. Curiously propounding the system he apparently rebelled against (I wonder how different the book might have been had he written it at the end of his noir period), Alton paints a picture of a time in which cinematography was much more complex and artificial. Whereas today we talk of the three-point lighting system of key, fill and backlight, Alton speaks of an eight light system, adding:

  • eyelight – to give a sparkle in the eye
  • kicker – a three-quarter backlight to define the jaw
  • clotheslight – a cross-light to bring out the texture of the costumes
  • filler – not to be confused with fill, the filler is purely to cure vertical shadows from a high keylight
  • background light

While the modern cinematographer is aware of all of the above and tries to incorporate them, he or she tries to make lamps pull double- or triple-duty and would almost never use eight lamps to light a single close-up. Alton also advocates abandoning all of your wide-shot lighting and starting again from scratch for the close-up, to beautify your star; today’s audiences would not accept the mis-match of such radically re-lit close-ups. He talks of flag and grip equipment which could never work with today’s dynamic blocking and camera movement, like a “chin scrim” designed to cast a very specific shadow on the collar of a white dinner jacket to stop it blowing out.

Alton explains his clock system and its effect on an orange
Alton explains his clock system and its effect on an orange

But some sections still have undeniable value today. Alton looks at different types of faces and how to light each to their best advantage, how to light a dinner table or a campfire scene, and how to light for different times of day. He maintains that movie lighting should always mimic what natural light does in real life – hard to believe, but this was quite a radical concept in 1949. Examples and diagrams are used throughout to illustrate his techniques.

For me the most interesting part was his insight into depth in cinematography. Many DPs, myself included, feel that a shot looks best when the foreground is dark, the midground is correctly exposed and the background is bright. Alton offers the following explanation of this phenomenon:

At night when we look into an illuminated room from the dark outside, we can see inside but cannot be seen ourselves. A similar situation exists in the motion picture theatre during a performance. We sit in the dark looking at a light screen; this gives a definite feeling of depth. In order to continue this depth on the screen, the progression from dark to light must be followed up. The spot which should appear to be the most distant should be the lightest, and vice versa…

I have no doubt that there are more useful tomes on the market for a student of contemporary cinematography, but if you like a bit of history along with useful tips you’ll find Painting with Light a good read. Like a time capsule, reading Alton’s book today reveals which bits of the past were transient fads and which were timeless universal truths. The importance of depth, the tricks of lighting for different faces, the textural power of cross-lighting, the drama of back-lighting… There are plenty of timeless truths here, and in learning them from Alton you’ll be following in the footsteps of many great cinematographers.

Unsurprisingly from the master of noir, Alton's chapter on mystery lighting emphasises the importance of shadows.
As you would expect from the master of noir, Alton’s chapter on mystery lighting emphasizes the importance of shadows.
‘Painting with Light’ by John Alton

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

“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri

On the advice of my friend and mentor Carl Schoenfeld, I’ve just read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. Penned in 1946, it’s a manual for playwrights, but it drills to the core of what’s important in drama, and as such is just as useful a read for a screenwriter or filmmaker.

The book is divided into four sections: premise, character, conflict and general.

What Egri calls premise I would call theme, though he soundly argues that calling it premise forces you to think of it as almost a pared-down logline, which may make you more inclined to treat it with the appropriate importance. He suggests that a premise should have three parts, indicating the dominant trait of the lead character, the conflict and the ending. Examples he gives include “honesty defeats duplicity”, “bragging leads to humiliation” and “poverty encourages crime”. Reverse-engineering a few recent movies along these lines might give us “instinct trumps conformity” (The Heat), “love transcends human flesh” (Transcendence) or “the powerful triumph over the weak” (Captain Philips). Egri emphasises that the premise must be the very DNA of the script, informing every line and every action.

We have all heard people saying that characters in a film must be three-dimensional, but have you ever wondered what those three dimensions are? Egri’s answer is: physiology (physical appearance, health, heredity), sociology (class, job, religion, home life, etc.) and psychology (morals, ambition, temperament, IQ, abilities and so on).

The premise acts as a goal to your characters, especially your lead, and powers their development – Sandra Bullock’s loosening up in The Heat, for example. Egri reminds us that character development must be a smooth process, so a character who goes from anger to love must pass through many intermediate stages such as irritation, ambivalence, interest and affection. Missing out these transitions, Egri warns, will result in melodrama.

“A weak character,” says Egri, “is one who, for any reason, cannot make a decision to act.” He goes on to explain that, in theory, any character can be strong if you choose the right “point of attack”, in other words if you write about a period in their life when they HAVE made a decision to act, when they are ready for conflict.

Lajos Egri
Lajos Egri

To generate rising conflict, Egri asserts the need for “a clear-cut premise and unity of opposites, with three-dimensional characters.” He defines a unity of opposites as a scenario in which the protagonist and antagonist want precisely the opposite things. This can apply not only to the overall thrust of the story, but to individual scenes within it too. Egri urges the reader not to fall into the trap of “static” conflict, where characters argue back and forth without escalating the situation.

Being aimed at playwrights, the book considers dialogue as the only means of revealing plot, character and conflict, but in a film conflict could be literal (as in an action film) or expressed through some other non-verbal means.

Overall, Egri’s breakdown of a script’s essential elements provides me a with useful template with which to begin interpreting a screenplay. Many people have produced books attempting to distill the essence of good writing, and it is largely a matter of taste which one you find most useful. Personally, I found The Art of Dramatic Writing clear, concise and refreshing, and I’m sure I’ll refer to it frequently.

“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri

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

Borderlines 2014 Review

Hereford’s Borderlines Film Festival draws to a close for another year, and once again I’m going to temporarily turn film critic and say a few words about the screenings I caught.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her
Joaquin Phoenix in Her


Spike Jonze’s latest film puts a sci-fi twist on the romantic genre to produce a love story in which one half of the couple exists only as a voiceover. Joaquin Phoenix plays the improbably-named Theodore Twombly, a soon-to-be divorcé who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The big surprise here for me was the humour. Numerous comedy moments were derived from the application of relationship tropes to the unusual man-machine pairing. But in a near-future world which feels incredibly close to the present day, with our tablet and smart phone obsessions, our online dating, our social media – human relationships bridged (or barricaded?) at every turn by technology – the premise of Her felt entirely plausible, perhaps even inevitable. The film has emotional resonance too,  played out as it is in intimate close-ups with very genuine performances. And I must tip my hat to costume designer Casey Storm who, faced with the classic sci-fi challenge of how to make futuristic fashion seem believable, decided perversely that in the future, young people would dress like the elderly do today, trousers halfway up to their armpits and all – brilliant!

Robert Redford in All is Lost
Robert Redford in All is Lost

All is Lost

In this almost dialogue-free feature from director J.C. Chandor, Robert Redford plays a solo sailor who battles to survive after his small yacht is damaged in the Indian Ocean by a collision and a storm. All is Lost has a lot in common with Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant Gravity: both are extremely immersive tales of a single person alone against the elements (or lack thereof). At the end of both films you feel as if you have lived through those experiences yourself. And just as Gravity has been criticised by physicists and astronauts for alleged inaccuracies, so All is Lost was ripped to shreds in the post-screening Q&A by the many sailors in attendance, despite most of them apparently appreciating its entertainment value. Both films also tackled the big themes of life and death, both employing womb-like imagery in the process, Gravity’s with Sandra Bullock floating foetally in an airlock, and All is Lost’s with Redford curled up in the amniotic coccoon of his life raft. Where the films differ is in pace, however. Whereas Gravity was tense and action-packed throughout, All is Lost has more meditative sequences, during which I often found myself day-dreaming. But in a strange way, that made the experience all the more realistic, as the events continued to unfold in what felt like (but wasn’t at all) real time and I picked them up a little further on. So not a film I would watch over and over again, but definitely worth seeing once for the experience.

Computer Chess

Patrick Riester in Computer Chess
Patrick Riester in Computer Chess

If the characters from The Big Bang Theory made a film, this is the film they would make. Nothing could be nerdier than this eighties-set tale of the rivalries in a computer chess tournament, shot in 4:3 B&W on a genuine period video camera. As if to establish once and for all that there will be nothing slick about this film, an early tracking shot ends with the camera jolting as the dolly comes off the rails. The relationship with technology is a deliberately blurred one throughout the film, with the style crossing over into “found footage” territory at times, constantly reminding us of the clunky electronic medium we’re experiencing it through, while the narrative has computers displaying flashes of humanity – and vice versa. There is a vague story arc about one character rebelling against the nerdy restraint of it all, but the overall effect is of watching a time capsule, albeit a forged one. Computer Chess is an oddity, certainly, but one punctuated by some great comedic moments and saturated in nostalgia for those of us who once dabbled in the dark art of eight-bit programming.

Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman
Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes directs himself and the up-and-coming Felicity Jones (Georgina Sherrington’s erstwhile Worst Witch co-star) in this biopic about Charles Dickens’ affair with young actress Nelly Ternan. Adapted from Claire Tomalin’s biography, the script is written by Abi Morgan, creator of the brilliant BBC 2 drama The Hour. Slow and subtle throughout much of its running time, The Invisible Woman holds the attention with a compelling performance from Jones, and beautifully understated cinematography. DP Rob Hardy consistently short-sides his subjects, giving the impression that they are all looking out towards something they can’t quite reach. Restraint is the keyword here, and while Fiennes has spoken of the conscious efforts he made to show that there were real flesh-and-blood people beneath the period’s restrictive costumes, the restrictions of society weigh heavily throughout. Just like much of Victorian literature, the film hints obliquely at scandal and impropriety without ever making it explicit. Unfortunately the result is that you come away from the film unsure as to why Dickens’ marriage wasn’t working, why he pushed his wife aside so cruelly, and what Ternan’s real feelings were for him; did she love him, or was she merely star-struck? The Invisible Woman is very watchable, then, but not satisfying.

John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray in The Monuments Men
John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray in The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men

George Clooney directs, co-writes and stars in this faintly Dad’s Army-esque true story of a team of clapped-out soldiers tasked with recovering great works of art stolen by the Nazis. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, talented character actor Bob Balaban, Downton Abbey resident Hugh Bonneville and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin make up the rest of the team, aided by a resistance spy played by Cate Blanchett. The challenge for Clooney was to make us care about the Monument Men’s mission to save paintings and statues, when men are dying every day for their countries. He achieves this by making us care for the characters – all curators and art historians – and thus share their love for art. Where many Hollywood scripts would have shoe-horned conflict into the team’s relationships, this film avoids such crassness, allowing the characters to all respect each other, but nonetheless banter humourously throughout. A joyous score by Alexandre Desplat is the icing on the cake of this amusing and uplifting film, which ended my Borderlines 2014 experience on a real high.

Borderlines 2014 Review

A Director Prepares

9781408100035I’ve just finished reading the classic thesping manual An Actor Prepares, by Konstantin Stanislavski. Don’t worry, I’m not planning a career switch to the other side of the camera, just endeavouring to become a better director by deepening my understanding of acting.

Despite being 80 years old and translated from Russian, the book is surprisingly accessible. It takes the form of a fictional diary in which an eager drama student, Kostya – whom Stanislavski apparently based on his younger self – records his lessons with teacher and director Tortsov, representing the author’s older, wiser self.

The first instalment of a trilogy which continues with Building a Character and Creating a Role, An Actor Prepares outlines the mental processes which Stanislavski believed are required in order to stimulate the subconcious inspiration from which all truly great acting springs. As such, the book focuses on work that would be done by an actor on their own, before beginning their relationship with a director.

In fact, Tortsov/Stanislavski goes so far as to suggest that directors can often interfere with an actor’s preparation by trying to impose their own themes and motivations on them. “An actor must find the main theme for himself,” he says. “He must not be forcibly fed on other people’s ideas, conceptions, emotion memories or feelings. His own appetite must be tempted. The director’s job is to get the actor to ask and look for the details that will put life into his part.”

Elsewhere in the book, there is a great tip regarding objectives (read: motivation). “You should not try to express the meaning of your objectives in terms of a noun… The objective must always be a verb.” The author suggests that powerful objectives often start with “I wish…” It seems to me that if a scene is going off-track, sitting down with the actor and formulating a suitable objective beginning with “I wish” might be a constructive way to get back to the heart of the narrative and characterisation.

Perhaps one of the best-known elements of Stanislavski’s system is the “magic if”. The theory is that by asking “if” questions, maybe as basic as, “What if I was in the same situation as my character?” a performer – or indeed a director – can very quickly get to the truth of a role, a scene, or a script. By probing scenarios that don’t even occur in the script, for example, “What would my character have done if  such-and-such an event happened?” we can start to build a more nuanced character.

Stanislavski also stresses the importance of the “super-objective”, the over-arching motivation which drives the character through the piece, and “counteraction”, forces working against the super-objective, which are often embodied by the antagonist or villain. This is a good reminder for directors and writers not to lose sight of what the hero is ultimately trying to achieve, and to derive the maximum dramatic conflict from the hero’s clash with the people and obstacles in their way.

Aside from these nuggets of wisdom, the principle thing I’ve come away with is an increased understanding of and respect for the craft of acting. It must require an extraordinary level of mental discipline to control your every thought and action – or rather, to immerse yourself in the character to such a degree that your every thought and action naturally become those of the character – while simultaneously hitting your marks, finding your light, delivering the lines put in your mouth by someone else, remembering your continuity, executing the director’s notes, and ignoring all the crew and equipment in your face.

Which I knew already, of course, but reading An Actor Prepares very much brought it home to me.

A Director Prepares

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

Borderlines 2013

Borderlines Film Festival draws to a close this weekend. The UK’s largest rural film festival, centred around The Courtyard here in Hereford, is an event I have a long-standing association with. At the inaugural festival in 2003 I had a little stall selling VHS copies of The Beacon and displaying a few pieces of early concept art for an ambitious fantasy action movie called Soul Searcher. Two years later Soul Searcher premiered at Borderlines with great success. (Read my blog entry in which I total up the Ego Puff Points I acquired that weekend.)

Kes (1969. dir. Ken Loach) - photographed by Chris Menges
Kes (1969. dir. Ken Loach) – photographed by Chris Menges

Aside from a screening of Stop/Eject’s trailer, my involvement in this year’s festival was purely spectatorial. And although I normally avoid reviewing films on this site, I’m going to make an exception and say a few words about each of the events and screenings I’ve seen at Borderlines 2013. I should point out that Borderlines isn’t a film festival in the normal sense of the term; rather than inviting submissions of unreleased work, the organisers choose the best films released in the last twelve months along with some classics.

Chris Menges in Conversation

Chris is the Herefordshire-born director of photography behind Kes, The Reader, Notes on a Scandal, The Killing Fields and many others. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t seen a single one of his films, but I was still keen to attend to further my understanding of the art of cinematography. In this respect I was slightly disappointed, as time constraints and a quite understandable desire not to bore what was largely a lay audience meant that there was little opportunity for Chris to get into the nitty-gritty of his approach to lighting. That being said, there were one or two useful gems and I came away with a general impression of an extremely modest man with a profound respect for the fragility of natural light and a gentle touch in moulding it.

Sightseers (2012, dir. Ben Wheatley)
Sightseers (2012, dir. Ben Wheatley)


Directed by Ben Wheatley (The Kill List) and starring Alice Lowe (Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place), Sightseers is a black comedy about a woman who escapes her overbearing mother to go on a caravanning holiday with her closet pscyhopath of a boyfriend (Steve Oram). The boyfriend promptly begins murdering people at the slightest provocation (e.g. littering) and Lowe soon joins in in an attempt to impress him. While not the kind of film I’d normally choose to see, I’d heard good things about it and, sure enough, it was great fun. Lowe and Oram, who also wrote the script, give brilliantly judged comic performances in a film which soundly lampoons the stereotypical British holiday (rain, crap caravans, even crapper tourist attractions). Heartily recommended.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir. David O. Russell)
Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir. David O. Russell)

Silver Linings Playbook

Winning Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence at the Academy Awards and Best Adapted Screenplay for David O. Russell (who also directs) at the Baftas, Silver Linings Playbook has certainly been much talked about in recent weeks. I was surprised to find the film is really just a formulaic romantic comedy, albeit one that starts off in darker territory than most. Bradley Cooper plays a manic depressive just out of a psychiatric hospital who strikes up a relationship with Lawrence’s recently widowed character after she tells him she can get a letter to his estranged wife. In return, Cooper must learn to dance so he can partner with Lawrence in an upcoming contest. Silver Linings Playbook is solidly acted by both the leads and the great supporting cast, which includes Chris Tucker and Robert de Niro. It’s also consistently funny throughout, but like many romcoms it sheds its unique elements as it enter its third act – forgetting the mental health issues of its lead characters – in order to play out the same old clichés. This is particularly disappointing from such a lauded film, but depsite this flaw I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)


Although not a particular fan of Hitchcock, I was keen to see Blackmail – one of the portly auteur’s silent films – because it was a unique opportunity to see a movie with live musical accompaniment. This came courtesy of Stephen Horne, a master of the art – so much so that he somehow played the flute and the piano simultaneously at a couple of points. What staggered me was the revelation that there was no score; the music was entirely improvised. As for the film itself, it had been digitally remastered to such a high quality that I sometimes forgot that I was watching a movie over 80 years old – often only the captioned dialogue, under-cranked gaits and occasional clunky pacing gave it away. The cinematography was beautiful, with some typically inventive camera moves from Hitchcock and a lot of charming humour which held the attention despite a very slight plot (detective’s girlfriend commits murder in self-defence and tries to escape the law). All in all, this screening was an enriching experience and it was very gratifying to see the accompanist’s amazing art kept alive and kicking.

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman

A Liar's Autobiography (2012, dir. Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett)
A Liar’s Autobiography (2012, dir. Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett)

Best known as the dead one from Monty Python, Graham Chapman succumbed to cancer in 1989, but not before writing his autobiography and recording it as an audiobook. That recording forms the spine of this film, as Chapman narrates his (alleged) life story from beyond the grave while fourteen different animation houses provide the visuals. While not a Monty Python film, there are many common traits – surreality, silliness, rudeness and the vocal talents of messrs. Jones, Gilliam, Palin and Cleese (but not Idle). In a non sequitur worthy of Monty Python, Cameron Diaz cameos as the voice of Sigmund Freud. And like much of the Pythons’ work, A Liar’s Autobiography is never quite as funny as you hoped it would be. This fact, coupled with a highly episodic narrative, meant the film was just starting to outstay its welcome when it wrapped up and ended. Nevertheless, it’s a delightfully creative film and one which seems a fitting tribute to a man who was not the messiah, but was definitely a very naughty boy.

Men Can't Make Beds (dir. David Jones)
Men Can’t Make Beds (2013, dir. David Jones)

Herefordshire Media Network

The network presented five pieces by its members: four short films and the trailer for Stop/Eject. The first short was Injured Birds, a gentle tale of an 11-year-old boy’s search for adventures in a rural town during the summer holidays. This was the second time I’d seen it, and I again enjoyed its charm, warmth and humour. Two short films directed by Rachel Lambert for The Rural Media Company were screened, both made on a participatory basis with people living in sheltered housing. Getting Close was a low-key drama highlighting some of the issues faced by the participants, while A Letter Every Day took the form of an oral history in which an elderly lady recounted her brief marriage to a man who was tragically killed in the second world war. This latter was an engaging story and cleverly illustrated with tableaux of miniature figurines found by the camera amongst the ornaments of the lady’s living room. But the highlight of the evening for me was Men Can’t Make Beds, a live action slapstick comedy in the vein of Tex Avery cartoons. Directed by David Jones of Wind-up World Films, the film made great use of a delightfully rubber-faced lead actor (Lawrence Russell) and exaggerated music and sound design to produce five minutes of wonderful silliness.

Side by Side (dir. Christopher Kenneally)
Side by Side (2012, dir. Christopher Kenneally)

Side by Side

Keanu Reeves produces and interviews for this documentary about the transition from photochemical to digital technology, not just in capturing motion picture images but in editing them, manipulating them for visual effects, exhibiting them and archiving them. Views are canvassed from some of the biggest names in the business: George Lucas, who drove much of the change, James Cameron, a staunch supporter of digital 3D filmmaking, Christopher Nolan, one of the few directors still shooting on film and physically cutting his negative, and many others. Sadly, the film doesn’t let any of these filmmakers go into great depth, instead giving a history of the last twenty years’ technical upheavals, with which most viewers (if they’re interested enough to see Side by Side in the first place) will already be familiar. So while containing a few telling nuggets (such as several DPs bemoaning the lack of mystique and power they now wield when everyone can see the images they’re capturing immediately on set), this documentary overall has the feel of a slightly overlong DVD bonus feature.

Thanks to the team at Borderlines for a great festival.

Borderlines 2013

Proaim Shoulder Rig Review: Ten Months On

Last July when I bought my Canon 600D (Rebel T3i) DSLR I also invested in a Proaim shoulder rig from Cine City. I reviewed the rig on this site soon afterwards, based mainly on playing about with it at home, but although I mentioned briefly how it fared during the Field Trip shoot last August I’ve never got around to giving a proper verdict on how this rig performs in a shoot scenario. Until now.

First and foremost, the rig is designed to give you the kind of smooth(ish) handheld shots you would get from a shoulder-mounted camera – broadcast/ENG, 16mm or whatever. While it certainly does that, all the weight of your DSLR is on the front of the rig, so it very quickly becomes difficult to hold up. You need to add a counterweight to the back – mine being a backpack which I can fill with whatever heavy stuff is to hand, loosely fastening the waist strap to prevent it swinging around. I’ve yet to make any serious use of this set-up, so I’ll have to get back to you on how it works out in the field.

The Proaim shoulder rig with top handle
The Proaim shoulder rig with top handle

Aside from the shoulder pad, the Proaim rig comprises several other elements which can be fitted onto the core rail system as required. These are:

  • a two-stage matte box and sunshade
  • follow focus
  • hand grips
  • a top handle (an optional extra I went for) with microphone mount

Prior to Stop/Eject, I generally fitted everything bar the follow focus whenever I used the camera. (Sadly most jobs I do lack the budget for a focus puller, and I don’t find the follow focus useful when pulling by eye.) To be perfectly honest, I did this mainly to make the camera look bigger and more impressive – particularly important on corporate jobs!

Shooting for Astute Graphics
Shooting for Astute Graphics. Photo: Nicholas van der Walle

On Stop/Eject there was no time to have unnecessary accessories getting in our way, so I fitted only the follow focus, adding the matte box and sunshades very occasionally to flag a bit of backlight or use a graduated ND filter. Whenever I had to pick the camera up while still on the tripod, I regretted not fitting the top handle, but I never found time to put it on.

So the follow focus was the main part of the rig to get used. And I’m afraid the verdict here is not good. I knew before I bought the rig that many reviewers had complained about the gears having a little play in them. But I also knew that better quality follow focus units were out of my price range, and that some reviewers reported being able to reduce or remove the play by tightening a screw.

Focus pulling
On Stop/Eject, Rick Goldsmith operates camera while Colin Smith pulls focus. Photo: Paul Bednall

Well, no amount of screw tightening has done the job; there is still play. You can turn the focus knob about a millimetre before the focus ring of the lens starts to rotate. Shooting at f1.8 on my 20mm Sigma lens for a big wide – such as the master shot of the basement – that single millimetre can represent 20 metres of focal distance. Result? I had to pull the focus on that master shot by eye.

Col got skilled enough by the end of the shoot to compensate for this play, but it still caused us problems from time to time. I believe Cine City have now released a version two of their follow focus, so perhaps this is an improvement.

I have to say that the most effective parts of the rig are the matte box and sunshades. Aside from looking impressive, the ease with which you can flag off stray light is brilliant – no more gaffer-taping bits of cardboard to your camera.

But I was surprised to find on Stop/Eject that I was often bypassing the rig altogether and slapping the camera straight on the tripod.

You’ve got to do whatever’s going to get the job done right. I’d definitely advise having this rig in your arsenal, assuming you can’t afford one of the better quality options. With a decent counterweight it will massively improve your handheld shots, and the rest of the bits will come in handy too – just don’t expect to use all of them all of the time.

Filming Stop/Eject with a minimal rig
Filming Stop/Eject with a minimal rig. Photo: Paul Bednall
Proaim Shoulder Rig Review: Ten Months On

Proaim shoulder rig from Cine City: review

Sorry, I know I promised this several posts back, but here at last is my review of the Proaim shoulder rig I recently purchased for my Canon 600D. It’s available in several different configurations, but I went for “Kit 3 + cage” which cost a little under £700 all told.

The Proaim shoulder rig with top handle

The main reason I wanted it was to address one of DSLRs’ key flaws for video work: the handling. They’re small – meaning shaky shots – and not designed for using in the kind of positions a moving image camera operator needs. By bracing the camera against your body, a shoulder rig steadies the shot. Of course it will never eliminate the movement of the human body completely, but rather than a shake it will give you more of a sway which viewers will subconciously recognise from handheld TV and film and associate with big, expensive cameras (which all sit on your shoulder, of course).

One of the two 4x4" filter trays partially raised out

But with Proaim’s “Kit 3 + cage” you get more than just a shoulder mount. You get a complete rail system which you can reconfigure to your heart’s content, a matte box, follow focus and a top handle. While researching the system online, I found many people complaining about the build quality – many of whom had never used one, it must be said. Obviously it’s not as robust as its more expensive counterparts, but it all seems solid enough to me. It takes a bit of getting used to, as many of the parts bump into each other if you try to configure them in certain ways, but this is a small price to pay for the flexibility of the rig overall.

Let’s look at the rig in more detail from front to back. The matte box contains two filter trays which can be rotated (but not separately, unfortunately) and is equipped with side and top flags. The trays take standard 4×4″ filters, which are pricey, so I currently have a cheap Cokin-compatible graduated ND sellotaped into one of my trays!

The follow focus

The follow focus is perhaps the most useful part of the set-up. Various different gears are provided which slip onto your lenses’ focus rings and mesh with the gears in the follow focus unit itself. When you turn (or, more to the point, your focus puller turns) the knob on the side, it therefore drives the focus ring – or indeed the zoom ring, if you wish to configure it that way. You also have the option of connecting a crank or a whip (flexible shaft) to the knob (oh dear, it’s all getting a bit Carry On), the idea being that whatever strange position the camera is in and whatever moves it has to do, your camera assistant can still hit their focus marks without getting in the way. And I can confirm that this system works just fine even if you’re using lenses whose focus rings move back and forth as they’re turned.

Coming to the camera mount itself, there is the usual quick-release plate that screws into your DSLR’s tripod thread. On the 600D, this covers a small portion of the battery cover – just enough to prevent it opening. As per this review‘s advice, I filed out a recess in the quick-release plate and the battery cover now opens. On the bottom of the rig is another screw thread so you can attach your tripod’s quick-release plate and easily put the whole thing onto sticks.

The battery compartment now opens

I’ve attached the top handle just behind the camera, to stop it getting in the way of the follow focus. Two extra railing tubes are provided (not pictured) and can be mounted either at the side or on the top, and a basic suspension mount for a shotgun mic is also supplied (again, not pictured).

At the back is the shoulder pad, which isn’t the most luxurious but seems comfortable enough, and a bracing arm folds down to put some of the weight against your stomach and side. However, this doesn’t stop the rig from being very front-heavy and tiring to hold up for more than a few minutes at a time. In a later post I’ll explain how I overcame this problem.

The Proaim shoulder rig viewed from the rear

All in all, I really like this rig and look forward to doing my first proper shoots with it next week. The value for money is excellent, and it completely transforms my little stills camera into a proper, workhorse video camera.

Proaim shoulder rig from Cine City: review