Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K experience Part 2

In part 1 of this blog I documented the first experiences of using the Blackmagic Design Production Camera (BMPC) and how I chose the SanDisk Extreme II 240GB SSDs, a cheap battery solution and a low priced EVF monitor. So far this setup has cost £2310 for the camera, nothing for the battery system (OK about £16 if you bought it), £260 for 2 SSD cards and £400 for the Cineroid EVF-4CSS a total of £2986 (or €3577 or $4936). To this I have to add a tripod and of course suitable Canon lenses which can easily double the price.

But as a result I have a rig capable of shooting 4K pictures on a good codec (ProRes at the moment) with a global shutter (so no "jello") and I have a piece of software that would cost $995 if bought separately, more about this later. But the usability of the BMPC is always an issue and the form factor of the camera worried me because it is heavy and, I predict, easy to drop. I also needed something to attach the EVF and an external microphone. 

I had looked at a lot of cages but the cheap ones were, well cheap, and all of them were bulky and meant I couldn't fit all the kit in my brilliant Lowepro Stealth Reporter D550AW bag. My solution is from Redrock Micro with a top handle and the Ultraplate which added about £100 to the total. The Ultraplate offers just enough screw points to attach the handle, the EVF on a mini magic arm and a mic or recorder if needed.

So the whole rig looks like this.

Post Production

So I have shot the footage, got (most of) it in focus thanks to the EVF and now I need to edit it and Blackmagic Design have kindly included a copy of DaVinci Resolve 10 with a USB key in the BMPC box to help me. This is the first time I have tried to work with 4K footage and I have a pretty powerful PC to do so with i7 processor, 32 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 570 and Quadro FX580 graphics cards. Unfortunately this is far to weak to properly edit 4K footage and as I don't have a 4K monitor I can either view the footage in HD or just see the top half of the footage spread over two 1920 monitors. 

It's not brilliant but it is possible to work this way and produce great results. I work mainly with Avid Media Composer which is less than useless for 4K or Adobe After Effects which is more than good but Resolve is like neither of these and if you are going to use it properly will take fair bit of learning  - persevere it is well worth it. This is not a tutorial in Resolve so I just want to highlight some of the Eureka moments I have had so far. 

Where you store your footage for editing is really important, run the included Blackmagic Disk Speed Test on all your drives and put the material on the fastest one - you can archive to a slower drive later. A raid drive such as the G-Raid is likely to be the best, better than the fast SSD (that was a surprise). 

Unless you have a monster $1000+ GPU like the GTX690 or NVIDIA Titan you will not be able to play 4K on your timeline, you will get a screen of shash and a GPU out of memory message. Go to project settings and select 1920x1080 as your timeline resolution. 

THIS IS IMPORTANT. When you have finished editing and grading and you go to the "delivery" window and select UHD as your output you have to go back into project settings and set the timeline to UHD, if you don't your final output will be HD expanded to fit the UHD raster. Resolve is actually very good at this and it took a lot of looking to see the difference. Below is a still from a scene in Trafalgar Square and two crops with the timeline set to different resolutions. The middle picture shows the image at 400% with the timeline set to UHD and the bottom picture with it set to HD. The bottom picture shows a lot less detail.

If you look at the comparison table of Resolve lite and the full version there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference, but go about a third of the way down and you will see this section:

After the sharpening tool (like the 5D the images generally benefit from a bit of sharpening) the noise reduction tools make a huge difference particularly in areas like sky or flesh tones, be gentle with it and you will be rewarded. The BMPC is not good at shooting in low light (and I am not a fan of ProRes for this) and sometimes scenes like the one below in St Pancras Station mean lifting the dark areas considerably which can bring in really bad speckle. The noise reduction tool in Resolve is amazing at reducing this.

The format you output will always depend on where you will put it, but I have established a workflow from producing 4K time lapses where I output QuickTime Cineform versions which are indistinguishable from uncompressed files but much smaller and then use Adobe Media Encoder to produce QuickTime PhotoJPEG versions for stock companies or broadcasters since that is such a user friendly format and one that Resolve cannot output directly. 

These two blogs have been a quick summary of what I have learnt "hands-on" with this amazing camera and what I feel is the minimum requirement to shoot good footage. Hopefully it will give a bit of guidance to those still in the queue for the 4K Production Camera.

The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K experience Part 1

There has been a huge amount of debate over what the Blackmagic Production Camera (BMPC) would be like to use, and as I finally have one, here are my initial experiences of using it in the real world.


In previous blogs I got excited then bored by the long running saga of the BMPC 4K that was announced in April 2013 and eventually started shipping to real users in February 2014. I recently discovered that I was about 20th on the list of my supplier (CVP in London) even though I think I ordered it and put a deposit down within two days of the launch at NAB - this is a popular camera. On 10th March CVP let me know that my camera was in and asked whether I wanted to carry on with the purchase... less than 2 hours later I had it in my hand.

I admit that I did have last minute indecisions about buying the camera, especially as the Panasonic DMC-GH4 had just been launched and the price of the Canon C500 was falling faster than Felix Baumgartner, but the price of the BMPC 4K had also dropped and I felt it was the best solution for me to shoot good quality 4K material.

I had done the same research that many others had performed without actually having the camera and I decided that I would try to get the minimum amount of gear to make the camera work, remembering that I was not hiring the camera out or using it with a client. I already have a decent collection of suitable Canon EF-mount lenses so the only thing I had to get in theory was an SSD card.

SSD Card

There is a notorious list on the Blackmagic Design support pages which gives SSD cards that are "certified" to work with the BMPC but most of them are not available any more. The BM forum is also full of people having problems with SSDs on the Cinema Camera, dropping frames and so on and so I entered the first minefield of decision making with trepidation. 

Cutting to the chase I settled on a pair of SanDisk Extreme II 240GB [SDSSDXP-240G] drives which are not actually on the certified list. These are 7mm thick drives and I had read that even with the shim attached (which comes with the drive) it did not fit the slot in the BMPC too well. Also BM advise that the larger SSDs are faster, although the specs don't agree with this. Well I can report that I have encountered none of the issues above - the drives fit snuggly, don't rattle, but are not too tight to remove with fingers. I have cycled the two drives and after five shoots I have not seen any problems. Shooting 4K ProRes HQ (no RAW available yet) I was getting about 12 secs per GB which is about 48 minutes of footage on a disk. I quick formatted the cards to Ex-Fat each time and I feel these cards should be "certified" soon.

Battery Life

Probably the the biggest concern of many before the launch was how long the fixed battery would last and the answer is NOT BLOODY LONG! I have not timed it but it is nothing like the 2 hours stated in the specifications in real life use. I looked at and rapidly dropped the idea of professional battery packs that added about £600 to the price and looked again at the spec of the camera. 

It is very unfussy about the power source, any DC source from 11-30V is OK. I had a couple of 12V 7Ah batteries that used to power a burglar alarm (they get replaced every 2 years) that I felt would work. I cut the cable off a power supply that used to power an external hard drive and put terminals on the other end. I plugged it into the camera and up came the symbol that the camera was charging - perfect. 

If you can't recycle burglar alarm batteries, you can get the same battery on Amazon for £15.39. The centre pin of the cameras power socket is quite wide so not every plug will fit it. If the camera is on a tripod you can plug it in while using it but I tend to plug it in to the battery when it is in my bag so the camera is normally fully charged when I am ready to shoot. So far I have not run out of power.

Monitor v EVF

I predicted that the screen on the back of the BMPC was going to be more help to my wife putting lipstick on than checking the picture was in focus and so it proved. My first shoot was at sunset so there wasn't much backlight to trouble the screen, but despite using the green focus assist not one shot was in focus. I had to get an external monitor. 

I contacted James Miller, camera guru and infamous lens whacker for his opinion. He had recently been running tests on a BMPC side-by-side with a Canon 1 DC and he told me that an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was essential and preferred over a field monitor mainly because you can close off all the light with your eye.

The output on the BMPC is SDI not HDMI so the EVF had to connect to that and the main options (available in the UK) were by Zacuto, Alphatron (TVLogic) and Cineroid. CVP in London let me look at the first two on my camera and I was impressed by the sharpness of the Zacuto Z-finder EVF Pro and unimpressed by the softness of the Alphatron EVF-035W-3G (so much so that I checked out two in case one was faulty). The focus check on the Zacuto was also significantly better. However the weakness of the cheaper Zacuto was the HDMI connection (which kept cutting out) and that I needed a SDI to HDMI converter. The battery powered BM converter costs over £200 and apparently lasts 2 hours before recharging, so I was not keen on this option. 

CVP didn't have a Cineroid demo unit but the importers Octica let me try out the EVF-4RVW with the "retina" screen and the much cheaper EVF-4CSS. There was a surprising lack of difference between the two and the EVF-4CSS was almost as sharp as the Zacuto. Crucially the EVF-4CSS has SDI connections and was almost half the price of all the others. It's made of fairly cheap plastic and wouldn't survive misuse but that makes it light which is good for me and takes LP-E6 batteries from the Canon 5D's. If you are looking for a reasonable priced EVF for the BMPC I can recommend the Cineroid EVF-4CSS which appears to have been created for the BM cameras.

With the SSDs, my home-brew battery solution and an EVF, the BMPC is a nw a pretty usable camera, and I believe that this is the minimum a sole user would need to get it there. However you do need somewhere to attach the EVF and probably an external mic. You also need to do something with the material you shoot, so in part 2 I will look at an alternative to a cage and some of the issues of post production and post some examples from the shoots.