Monday, October 28, 2013

Everyone is ranting or raving about the new Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, but so far I haven’t seen anything posted by people who are actually trying to use the little guy to make low-budget films (like “Scream Park”).

I ordered one on the day it was announced and I finally received it a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s my review from the standpoint of someone on a very limited budget for both hardware and time to edit the final project. I have a 4 year old son, a creaky old house to remodel, and wife who actually wants my company a few evenings each week, so I don’t have a lot of time for my “hobby.”

Here it is!

Nathan W. Fullerton

October, 2013

I was so excited about the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera that I ordered one the day it was announced. That is something I never do. I have to spend my money carefully so I wait until there are reviews, sample footage, software support, and usually at least one hardware or firmware update. But the BMPCC looked so good, so affordable, and so revolutionary that I just HAD to have one as quickly as possible.

I simply can’t afford gear that comes in over the $2000 mark, so I’m always on the lookout for hardware that will let me create a high-budget look for low-budget prices and the BMPCC seemed to exactly fit the bill. Plus it would work with all the lenses that I already have for my Panasonic GH2 (which I used to shoot the feature film “Scream Park” last year).

My hope for the BMPCC was that it would give me enough latitude that I could be a little sloppy with my lighting setups, saving me precious time on sets, and have enough good data that I could fix footage in post when every minute isn’t expensive and precious.

I was teaching a class on the day that the camera arrived, so my first opportunity to use it was in the parking lot at the end of the day.

I attached my all-purpose Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens to it and did a pan around the parking lot, going from the bright, late afternoon sky to an area deep in shadows. I exposed for the bright areas to eliminate blowout.

The first thing I noticed was that I could barely see the screen due to the brightness of the day, so I cranked up the display brightness to maximum. There was an improvement, but not much.

I tried to focus on my landing object for the pan and discovered that the dimness of the screen made it next to impossible. I turned on the focus assist and tried again… Little green lines were everywhere — it appeared that my aperture setting, f5, was giving me infinite depth of field. “Okay. I’ll buy that. It’s got a smallish sensor,” I thought.

I shot a little more footage, then had to drive my assistant back to the hotel, where I excitedly uploaded the footage…

My object of interest was blurry, despite having been filled with and surrounded by green lines indicating that it was in focus. I shot a little more footage in the hotel room and found out that, sure enough, the focus assist is a little “forgiving” about its readings. You have to be careful and find the middle ground between when they appear and disappear. My Panasonic 20mm lens (which is not officially supported, btw ) has a very long focus throw, so it was a challenge consistently finding the razor sharp spot.

I had been looking forward to using the focus assist. The GH2 uses a zoom feature which isn’t available during recording, so I was hoping that the focus assist lines would let me pull focus during a shot more easily, but, as implemented, it’s not as useful as it could have been.

Back to the pan from very bright to very dark…

It was amazing. (see it here)

When I graded the footage I was able to bring the very dark images in the shadow areas up far enough to make it look like I had exposed for that area. There was plenty of color and detail information in there and at 200ASA, there was no noise to speak of. So… Sloppy lighting would not be a problem!

That’s when I discovered the dropped frames (you can see it clearly in the footage linked above). Because of the rush, I didn’t have a chance to speed check my SD cards before shooting. All I had laying around was a 45MB/s SANDisk Extreme. Not the recommended card, but theoretically faster than the 27MB/s required by ProRes422HQ at my settings. It turns out that the card was NOT fast enough and the camera dropped about 15% of the frames. Okay, my bad for not using a fast enough card. BUT… The camera didn’t bother to tell me that it was dropping frames.

What if this had been a movie shoot and I had only one 4 hour opportunity to shoot a big star like Doug Bradley for our tiny little indie film and found out the next day that the camera had been dropping frames because of a defective memory card? This is something I need to know IMMEDIATELY so I can swap the card. My GH2 handles the situation poorly as well, it freezes. But at least I KNOW so I can fix it. Not knowing that your footage is unusable until you load it into a computer is unacceptable.

So then I tried to turn the camera back on for some tests. I pushed the button, the screen flickered, the lens made a little noise, and the camera shut off. I tried it again. Same thing. Huh. I plugged it in and tried again. This time it came on properly. The battery read 45% power. A little testing lead me to believe that the lens was drawing too much power and when the battery was weakened, it couldn’t go through it’s startup routine with it attached. Maybe that’s why the 20mm f1.7 isn’t supported?

I played around with the footage a little more and was stunned by the amount of latitude that I had and bummed by the softness of the images (due to bad focus).

I also realized that I had forgotten to set the white balance on the BMPCC, so the images were a bit on the purple side. The BMPCC has no automatic white balance, so you have to remember to do it yourself before each lighting change.

A week later, I had received a 95MB/s SD card and had another free day to get some footage in my local park. This time I could set my GH2 up right next to the BMPCC and get side-by-side footage.

While shooting I found, again, that the screen on the BMPCC is nearly impossible to see in sunlight, even with a sun shield it was too dim to clearly make out details. Its fixed position also made for some uncomfortable positions while composing. I had no idea how spoiled I was by my GH2 screen’s brightness and flexible viewing angles.

I also found the controls on the BMPCC clumsy, it took far too many clicks of tiny little buttons (all while posing oddly to see the screen) to adjust settings like ASA, white balance, and shutter angle.

At one point the BMPCC glitched out with the 20mm f1.7 attached — the lens went to fully wide open iris and refused to change until I turned the camera off and on again. Again, it’s not officially supported, but it _really_ should be! The Panasonic 20mm f1.7 is a dandy little lens that’s just perfect for this camera.

The day was very bright and even with a 4-stop neutral density filter on the camera, it was hard to keep the images from blowing out. On that topic… The minimum Shutter Angle on the BMPCC is 45° (about 1/200) which doesn’t allow the old “just use a higher shutter speed” trick for keeping the aperture open to get that shallow depth of field look. You’ll absolutely need to have neutral density filters in your bag of tricks.

The battery on the BMPCC lasted 1.5 hours in the park. My GH2 hadn’t even dropped one bar on its indicator. To its credit, the BMPCC’s battery and SD card compartment is on the bottom of the camera, but far enough away that my RC2 Quick Release Plate didn’t interfere with opening it, unlike my GH2 for which I had to grind 1/8” off one edge of the plate to allow me to swap batteries without removing it.

Looking at the footage (view it here), I was once again floored by the amazing latitude of the BMPCC — areas that were nearly black could be raised up to usable levels while maintaining detail and accurate color. And I wasn’t even using Resolve, I was just using FCPX’s built-in grading tools!

The colors on the BMPCC were consistently amazingly accurate as well. I found that all I needed to do was bump up the saturation and the shots looked great. With the GH2, I always had to tweak a little to make it match my memory of the place. I had manually set the white balance on each camera to the same value.

I tried a quick and dirty green-screen test as well. With my hastily and unevenly lit green screen, I expected the BMPCC to completely blow the GH2 away and generate a truly amazing key due to all that extra color information. In actuality, they both keyed about the same. I felt that the BMPCC more accurately represented the trouble-spots like my hair, but it wasn’t the game-changer I was hoping for. Dammit!

In the end, I found that even thought the BMPCC was clearly capturing and recording vastly more information, the final images looked pretty much the same.

In exchange for the ability to be a little more flexible with my lighting, I could have lived with the clumsy-and-not-optimized-for-shooting user interface and the short battery life, but the dim screen, “forgiving” focus assist, and unreported dropped frames together created a deal-killer for me and I sent the BMPCC back.

All-in-all, I think my filmmaking dollars would be better spent on a 3-axis gimbal...

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