Second Coming – Resurrecting Celluloid into RAW

Even though I lost my motivation for making my own movies in late 2006, soon enough my wife somehow was cought by that same restless and reckless spirit. With my wholehearted support she enrolled to filmschool a couple of years later making several shorts in the process. She started to do some screenwriting and inherited my old script entitled Force Majeure. She made some suggestions for changes in that story but never made any actual rewrites; she felt that the characters needed some more development. I encouraged her ambitions and was quite happy to see that someone in the household had taken over the filmmaker’s cape after me. I also saw (and still see) a great talent in her as a filmmaker, probably even greater than myself, in particular when it comes to writing, story telling and directing actors. Me, I enrolled to a basic course in psychotherapy and eventually found a career in that field, which I am quite happy with even to this day. My love for the movies never withered though and sometimes in my imaginations I found myself in the director’s seat, just for the sheer fun of it. I still could hear myself saying “If I had made that movie myself, I would have….” I also felt an innate resistance to selling off my old film equipment, in particular my Russian Super 8 and 16 mm film cameras, which were sitting on the shelf collecting dust.

A blast from the past
A blast from the past

I don’t exactly know why I left my original dream ten years ago. Perhaps it was because I realised that I had to support my family materially and making movies was to risky an affair to pursue as a professional career. Perhaps I simply wanted to escape my then current work situation, which I eventually did without the help of filmmaking. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to compromise my ambition to shoot on celluloid film and found DV and HDV crappy, and high end digital cinema cameras shooting in RAW (such as the RED One camera) to expensive and unsuited for true guerilla filmmaking, but that the 16 mm film format was to expensive and to complicated for persuing my guerilla ambitions. Perhaps it was a combination of all three; it’s probably no chance that the expiration of my motivation coincided with the actual death of the Super 8 and 16 mm cinefilm formats. I remember that I had to fight for the right to film ten years ago, when almost everybody was mocking me for not turning into digital video. But for the last couple of years I have come to realise that the dichotomy between shooting digital and shooting film no longer holds water when it comes to the cost/quality ratio. Following a collaboration between my wife and our common filmmaking friend Jonas, he made me realise that cheap digital no longer equals HDV; he opened my eyes to the DSLR revolution. True guerilla filmmaking was possible that actually look good enough!

canon-eos-750
The Canon EOS 750D DSLR and Samyang T1.5 24mm lens in full rig

Last year Jonas bought himself a Canon EOS 750 D which records film in high definition and MPG4 format with a H.264 compression. We shot a improvised short for the fun of it and watched the result on our digital projector, and the image looked really good, not at all what I had become used to watching my wife’s shorts made during her film school years shot on HDV. Jonas soon bought a rig for his camera and started to prepare a couple of films together with my wife, the short A Veil and the featurette Ghost in Room 299; I stood on the sidelines and watched it unfold gradually although I expressed my interest for a more serious participation, such as B-camera; my old passion for cinematography started to stirr inside of me. I was still pivoting towards shooting film and operating film cameras rather than directing movies. Jonas encouraged me to bring out my old 16 mm cameras from storage, which found a permanent place in our living room; the Kinor 16SX-2M stared at me from the corner of the room. I even checked with ol’ Olex Kalynychenko to see if he was still in business – he is. I also told myself that I must finally learn to handle that old Sekonic L-398 light meter of mine to be worthy of labelling myself as a cinematographer. Although I did take a short course in still photography ten years ago, as a preparation for my cinematographic projects, doing light measurement never was part of it.

black-box
The raised Black Box at Herkimer Studios

Me and my wife both knew that we sooner or later needed our own film camera. Still, that final push over to my resurrection as a filmmaker was wanting. Although Jonas had left his Canon EOS at our apartment, encouraging us to experiment with it, I never took up the camera. For all the quality of the final look on screen coming from that camera, it still looked as (and is) a fragile plastic stills camera posing to be a cinema camera. It felt dauntingly complex and all of its functions to get around to filming with it was all discouraging to just grab it and film. And to be honest, H.264 doesn’t look like film; it looks like good video. What finally pushed me over into filmmaking was agreeing to serve as a driver and picking up all of the production gear for the shooting of A Veil, part Jonas’ and part lent from one of his old filmmaking friends, to rig it all at my parents-in-law’s warehouse doubling as filmstudio – which we dubbed “Herkimer Studios”. We raised a “black box” and rigged all of the lightings, the rails for the dolly, etc. I really enjoyed it all immensly! My spirit was stirred – my soul quickened. While my wife, daughter and Jonas were shooting scenes during that weekend, back home with my kids I started to google on DSLR cameras…. and only after a few minutes found something completely different: The Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera!

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera or BMPCC
Raw Power: The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera or BMPCC

Imagine a true cinema camera disguised as a small pocket camera built into a magnesium alloy chassis and Micro Four Thirds (MFT or M4/3) mount with the following impressive features: Full HD 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution on a Super 16 (12.48mm x 7.02mm) sized sCMOS sensor, shooting Adobe’s CinemaDNG RAW (losslessly compressed with zero loss of detail but only mild compression, about 35% file size reduction for very blurry / underexposed / overexposed images ranging to around 25% file size reduction for well focused, well exposed, detailed images) with 13 stops of dynamic range and 12 bit 4:4:4 colour space (or compressed Apple’s ProRes 422 HQ with 12 stops of dynamic range and 10 bit 4:2:2 colour space) on 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97 or 30 fps straight into SD flash cards! I didn’t know that this was possible… for a recommened price of $995. But thankfully, it isn’t too good to be true. Shure, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (or BMPCC for short) had its direct predecessors: The Swedish Ikonoskop A-Cam dII (which had a higher price tag and has been discontinued since 2013) or the retrostyle Digital Bolex D16, which is something of a hipster’s wet dream (with at least three times as large pricetag as the BMPCC and discontinued since june 2016), both shooting 1080p on the CinemaDNG RAW format on CCD sensors about the size of Super 16. What is really beautiful with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, as well as with the Ikonoskop and Digital Bolex, is that they are made to fit with a range of professional Super 16 prime and zoom lenses, which disregards the cropping factor (which is set to 2.88x for 35 mm lenses).

digital-bolex-and-ikonoskop
The Raw predecessors: The Digital Bolex D16 and Ikonoskop A-Cam dII

But surely, for that small price tag, there ought to be certain draw backs? Yes, there are. Initial reports and reviewers agreed upon how fast the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera ate up battery power (~20 min) and digested 64 Gb SDXC cards (~15 min) when shooting RAW; lots of spare batteries and multiple SD cards are recommended. The LCD screen sports standard (800 x 480) resolution and is almost impossible to use in direct sun light. The screen lacks a touch screen function and the use of buttons to navigate though the menus are supposed to be cumbersome. The Micro HDMI port (for external monitors and recorders) easily brake from wear. The camera records in two channels but the on board microphone is really bad exhibiting distortion. Early cameras reported a lack of audio level indicators (vu meters), no tracking of remaining record time, no possibility to erase footage or format SD cards in camera, as well as exhibiting some image artefacts, such as gridding, large halos (orbing) and black spots in strong light sources, but within a year or so firmware upgrades remedied all of these drawbacks; video histograms and audio meters were added, the black hole sun disappeared and orbing was mitigated. Rolling Shutter Distortion is an issue with the BMPCC, however this is supposedly compareble with most DSLR’s. Early cameras exhibited motion blur when set to a 180 degrees shutter angle (yes, as any traditional film camera it adjusts exposure according to angles not speeds) and 25 fps, but firmware updates remedied this defect. White balance settings were originally limited to six different levels (3200-7500K) but these have been tripled with intervals ranging from 2500K up to 8000K. (Hold this in mind when watching the following series of reviews.)

Regarding the supposed Rolling Shutter Distortion phenomenon that has been reported by a few reviewers, looking at the following two clips of regular steadicam or stabilizer work, this doesn’t seem to be a big issue at least not as seen from the footage below. To be honest, I don’t notice it at all. I doubt if Rolling Shutter is a bigger issue with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera compared to the majority of good DSLR cameras. Of course, this phenomenon may be provoked if the camera is shaken in a unnormal violent fashion (which is seen in a few of the clips above). It is like provoking the RBE or “rainbow” effect with DLP projectors; if you shake your head violently in front of the screen, you are bound to see these flashes. However, with normal viewing you won’t see any RBE with a good digital projector. The same thing may be said concerning Rolling Shutter Distortion; if you handle the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera in a normal way as you would with a regular film camera (which suffers from motion blur and strobing in fast pans) you probably won’t notice any Rolling Shutter Distortion. Take special notice of the last clip below which presents more fast, violent and jerky steadycam handling (with the camera attached to a handheld stabilizer), putting the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera to the test, which it handles gallantly. (The two following clips also shows the low light capability of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which is quite ok.)

The 2.88x crop factor is still a big issue with many reviewers. And with it (combined with the small S16 sensor) the depth of field, which reportable is quite large. The small sensor also reported a supposed bad low light capability, however others compare its ability with those of most DSLR’s. But this camera should be treated as a regular film camera, which needs good lightning in a controlled environment. So most of these drawbacks are easily overcomed if these things are considered and you don’t mix up the BMPCC with a regular DSRL. For starters, external batteries are possible to connect to the camera through a cable. There are view finders (such as the Zacuto Z-finder and Kinotehnik) to be attached to the back of the camera which attaches to the screen, making it possible to watch during all kinds of outdoors shootings. And of course, the Micro HDMI port makes it possible to connect the camera to an external monitor. It’s possible to connect a external microphone which enhances the sound quality, especially when looped through a pre-amp; headphones may also be attached to listen to the audio levels. Cages, such as the Camtree Hunt and Came-TV, easily secures the cables to protect the connections as well as provides attachements to external monitors, mics, batteries, etc. The crop factor is 2.88x when using 35 mm lenses. With Four Third and Micro Four Third lenses (which are adapted to a smaller sensor) the crop factor is actually 1.3x and the Metabones Speedbooster, made specifically for the BMPCC as an Nikon-F adapter, drops the 2.88x crop factor down to 1.75x (almost equivalent of Super 35). 16 mm lenses drop the crop factor to 0x; actually Super 16 lenses are recommended as regular 16 mm lenses may viginette below F= 60 mm.

What is crystal clear from watching all of these reviews is that the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is not actually a “pocket camera” in any real sense of the word but rather a true professional cinema camera disguised as such. Although the price is low it is only attached to the chassis of the camera; no lens is attached to it. Thus, what we get out of the box is a camera body, which is an advanced and well protected carrier of the small sCMOS (the small “s” signifies “scientific”) sensor. (Note that Blackmagic Design is somewhat secretive concerning the actual model of the sensor but there is a consensus in the Blackmagic community that the one used in the BMPCC is the Fairchild Imaging CIS1910; this particular sensor is said to combine the best of both worlds between analogue CCD (high dynamic range and light sensitivity) and digital CMOS technology (low noise and high frame rate) into one and the same sensor.) The chassis/sensor carrier is also a Micro Four Thirds mount adapted for professional lenses optimised for the Super 16 format. A range of adapters are available that may connect the chassis to a large range of lenses from most manufacturers, including cheaper DSLR and vintage SLR lenses. Spare batteries or external power and the use of a cage, rig (with 15 mm rods) for focus pulling, matte box, monitor, preamp for sound and external microphone – necessary to get out the most of the camera – raises the price to an amount which exceeds the original $995 barrier at least twice as much. (I recommend looking through these 7 things you need to know before considering this camera.) The image that the BMPCC creates in RAW is flat straight out of the camera (in ProRes captured in a flat film log); its image may be compared to a digital negative which requires grading and colour correction in postproduction. But the final result of the image is stunning, emulating the look of film which may deceive the audience into beliveing that it is watching footage shot on Super 16 or Super 35 even. Look for yourself if you don’t believe me.

The images coming out from the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and the subsequent grading of the footage creates a quite diverse impression, depending on white balance, ISO setting, shutter angle and grading LUT’s, however almost always a very filmic image. Some of it is reminecent of old Technicolor, some look as if it was 35 mm from the 1990’s. Some of it looks like Super 16 stock. Skin tones are warm and alive, colour vivid and vibrant. The dymanic range carves out details in the shadows and highlights alike. Looking at this footage I was convinced that this was the camera for me – I wanted back into the filmmaking business for sure. It seems that I have finally found a camera that combines the best of both digital and film worlds, that provides me with a Super 16 image without the need for expensive film stock, development and telecine. I even prefer the image coming from a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera to that of the 4K+ RED cameras, such as the Epic. I’m not the only cinematographer in the past that have revolted against the digital clinical look coming from the RED, the Sony CineAlta, Arri Alexa, et al. Especially the unforgiving reality that 4K presents of a human face. Celluloid film is both sharp and soft at the same time, explained by the unique character of each frame and the haphazardness of grain structure, where details pop in and out of frame during a single second. Thus, shooting HD 1080p or 2K is optimal at it simulates that sharp softness of 35 and 16 mm film stock. Even the “noise” coming from the BMPCC when shooting in low light and high ISO/ASA looks like film grain rather than digial pixelation. Compare the footage between the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and the RED Epic.

Although the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera lacks some resolution detail compared to the RED Epic, it actually presents more details in the shadows and in the sky highlights; the image coming from the 1080p BMPCC appears to have greater contrast and dynamic range compared to the 5K RED Epic. Resolution isn’t everyting, or not even the most important feature to produce good filmic image quality. Supposedly, the BMPCC shares this quality (in contrast to the RED) with the 1080p Ikonoskop A-Cam dII and the 2K Digital Bolex D16. All of these cinema cameras (including the RED) present a flat “digital negative” image which is brought to life in a the computer and the grading software. Thankfully, Blackmagic Design offers a free version of their hightly acclaimed DaVinci Resolve 12.5 software, which is excellent for grading and good enough for editing. The freeware version is called “Lite” and the purchase version ($995) “studio”; the difference mainly lies in the ability to hook up workstations across continents, a 4K limit, no stereoscopic film and no noise reduction. What’s more is that Blackmagic Design also offers a free version of the compositing and special effects software Fusion 8, which otherwise has a price tag that ranges from $995 to $44.495, the difference being again limited to networking and steroscopic effects, etc. Before Blackmagic Design took over DaVinci and Fusion (which both have been in the industry for decades) these programs had ridiculous price tags exclusive to the big movie industry. Thanks to Blackmagic Design, independent filmmakers can use professional software on par with what the big guys are used to playing with in Hollywood. It is an understatement to say that Blackmagic Design is God’s gift to the guerilla filmmaker. I beleive that I have become a fan boy.

The tutorials give pretty good suggestions concerning the pofessional capabilities of Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 12.5. Obviously, buying a dedicated cinema camera which shoots RAW (such as the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera) requires a powerful computer to handle the DaVinci Resolve workflow. We knew that my wife’s quite efficient laptop wasn’t good for editing, grading and rendering in the CinemaDNG RAW format. Jonas had already hinted that only desktop computers were good enough for cinema postproduction as they required extensive cooling. Immediately after deciding on which camera to buy (the BMPCC) I turned my attention to computer hardware and started to do extensive research on the matter. I knew that I wanted to work with a Blackmagic Design workflow, i.e. DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. Blackmagic Design gave me some pointers to follow through. Initially, some misdirections on certain fora suggested that a good editing computor was the equivalent of a good gaming computer. I thought that I could get away with a computer for the same price as the camera. Talking to a local computer technician that notion was banished from my mind permanently; a editing and rendition computer requires a lot more than a normal gaming computer. Suddenly the stakes were raised to between 15.000 to 20.000 SEK ($1.700-2.300). The price tag was raised because of the use of a mother board dedicated for editing workstations; based on Blackmagic Design recommendations and that from others i decided on the Asus X99-A.

postproduction-computer
My final configuration for the Post Production Workstation

Based upon all of my research on- and off-line, I finally decided on my hardware configuration for my post production workstation. Simultaneously with ordering my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera through the Swedish authorized online reseller Mediateknik AB I turned to the Swedish webshop Inet for assistance, where you may gather your own customised computer and have it assembled by professionals. The technicians at Inet agreed with my suggestions, according to the following: The Intel Core i7 5820K 3.3 GHz 15MB CPU with a Noctua NH-U12S CPU cooler, based around the ASUS X99-A/USB 3.1 motherboard with the ASUS GeForce GTX 1060 3GB Dual OC GPU, to which I have attached a pair of 8GB Corsair DDR4 2133MHz CL13 Vengeance memory modules with a total of 16GB of internal memory, a Samsung 750-Series EVO 500GB SSD, and a Seagate Desktop 2TB 7200rpm 64MB HDD, powered by the EVGA Supernova G2 750W power supply unit, everything enclosed inside the Antec GX500 chassis to which I have further attached a ASUS internal BW-16D1HT Blu-Ray/DVD burner (for long term storage and distribution) as well as a Icy Box IB-865 Multi Card Reader USB 3.0 (for importing contents on the SDXC cards into the HDD and SDD). The whole is operated by Windows 10 Pro for optimal performance; it will do good I believe for 2K workflows as a mid-end workstation for a total cost of 17.860 SEK ($2.070). So you see, buying a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera requires as budget of at least four or perhaps five times the price tag for the camera itself. Luckily, I have inheritet some glass from my Russian cameras which has reduced the total cost for me, a subject that I will return to in a coming post.

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3 thoughts on “Second Coming – Resurrecting Celluloid into RAW

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