Android Dreams – The Magic Cinema ViewFinder

A Director’s Viewfinder is a useful tool for framing a shot in preparation of a scene, without the need of bringing the camera with you, especially if it is a heavy piece, or a smaller size camera rigged up with a cage, rods, follow-focus, mattebox, external batteries, external monitor, etc., or when there is only one camera present on the shooting location, that needs being prepared by the cinematographer, as well as when doing location scouting during pre production, etc. The classical director’s viewfinder is basically a small zoom lens attached to an eye-piece, which enables the director to see exactly what the camera would capture on its frame. Some models have a lens mount, such as the professional PL mount, onto which real cinema lenses are able to be attached. It’s easy to see how this little gadged may become the director’s best friend on a shoot. However, for the guerilla filmmaker, this accessory is a luxury that can often be better spent on other more pressing production matters. And as I use the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera as my A-camera, which is a lightweight piece of technical wonder, in fact the smallest dedicated professional cinema camera that exists, I cannot justify such an investment which I would prefer to place on a new lens for the camera. That is, until now.

David Cronenberg vielding a Director's Viewfinder
David Cronenberg vielding a Director’s Viewfinder

My current Bible, The Filmmaker’s Handbook (Ascher & Pincus), hints at that there exists downloadable applications for smartphones that may transform your phone into a director’s viewfinder. Owning a Android smartphone myself, I immediately went over to the Google Play Store on my smartphone and found a application for free developed for Blackmagic Design cameras. How neat! There is this Russian guy, Romanicon Medvid, who has developed a free Android application called Magic Cinema ViewFinder, originally developed for the range of Blackmagic Cinema Cameras but nowadays expands to various different brands, such as RED and Arri cinema cameras, as well as Canon, Nikon, Sony and Lumix DSLR cameras, and the Magic Light Master light meter adapted for Blackmagic and Canon cameras, etc. Comparing the free Magic Cinema ViewFinder with the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder application originally developed for iPhones (the version actually referred to by Steven Ascher), which currently costs 320 SEK ($47) when downloaded to Adroid smartphones, the free Blackmagic version is a steal and more true to the guerilla spirit. There s a premium and universal version of the Magic ViewFinder, called Magic Universal ViewFinder, that currently may be purchased for the modest sum of 42 SEK ($4), which some extra features and no ads, but I haven’t bought it yet and probably never will, so this review will only address the features attached to the free version especially developed for Blackmagic Design.

The Director's Viewfinder and the photo function
(Left) The Director’s Viewfinder and (right) the photo function

The interface is quite easy and intuitive, locked to the 16:9 mode of the smartphone. The main part of the viewfinder consists of the actual framed image (taken by the smartphone camera). On the right side there is a large zoom wheel or knob which controls the focal length; one simply pushes it with the thumb to alter the focal length setting. On the upper bar there is some important information presented such as spirit levels or orientation measured in degrees according to the angle of roll and tilt (with 0° being level), the angle of image width (based on the current setting of the focal length), the chosen frame guide, chosen LUT, as well as camera model. On the bottom bar there is a marker for the current focal length setting as well as a camera icon. Pressing the camera icon the smartphone camera takes a picture of the image as seen in the viewfinder, which has all of the important settings visible on the photograph, which may be found in the Gallery – date and time of photograph taken, orientation, camera model, focal length and frame guide. This photographic feature comes handy as a reference tool, especially when scouting locations. Although the freeware version has an ad function built into it, it is minimalised and only visible in the lower left hand corner of the window (and is not visible in the photograph).

(Left) Select White Balance mode (Right) Depth of Field calculator
(Left) Select White Balance mode and (right) Depth of Field calculator

The actual viewfinder frame image also hosts information and buttons, such as LUT activation, White Balance (WB), Autofocus (AF) enabling and disabling (very handy), exposure lock and unlock, and a symbol with a flash which can be pressed in three stages (flash symbol, crossed over flash symbol and a flash symbol with a small capital “A”) which seems to govern the aperture of the ViewFinder. These feautures are activated or deactivated with a simple press on each symbol. There is also a button for Depht of Field (DOF) which enables a menu with all necessary calculated information based on the current focal length setting concerning the zone of depth of field, with an Iris knob to the left and a Focus knob to the right, critical Focus, Far limit, Near limit, as well as measurment of Depth; the DOF calculator feature motivates a downloading of the Magic Cinema ViewFinder in its own right as a great aid in determining the hyperfocal distance. Pressing the WB button takes you to a Select WB mode scroll bar which promts you to select between auto (2000-9000K), incandescent (2500-2600K), fluorescent (2700K), warm-fluorescent (3000K), daylight (5000-6000K), cloudy-daylight (6500K), twilight (2000-3000K) and shade (7000-9000K). (Note: The temperature levels in Kelvin are my own interpretations; the Magic Cinema ViewFinder doesn’t specify any exact K-levels.)

 (Left) Select Camera and (right) Select Optical Adapter

(Left) Select Camera and (right) Select Optical Adapter

Pressing the menu bar on the upper far right corner of the screen, at the Blackmagic Cinema Camera MFT mount image, you may access the different main features of the Magic Cinema ViewFinder with a scroll bar through the following subdirectories: Camera, Optical adapter, Anamorphic index, Frame guides, LUTs, Calibrate device, About this app, and Other apps. The last two are pretty straightforward and Calibrate device takes you through a easy guide manually calibrating the exact horizontal angle of view of the mobile camera, if you won’t trust the default setting requested by the app from the smartphone. Entering the Select Camera scroll bar you may choose between the following Blackmagic Design cameras: BMCC (Blackmagic Cinema Camera), BMPC 4K (Blackmagic Production Camera 4K), BM Micro Cinema (Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera or BMMCC), BM Pocket (Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera or BMPCC), BM URSA 4.6K / URSA Mini (4.6K), and BM URSA (4K); I of course select the BM Pocket. Next, going to the Select optical adapter scroll bar, you may choose between No adapter or x0.72. The x0.72 is probably a reference to a speed booster and its magnification, however the Metabones Speed Boster is the only one developed specifically for the Blackmagic Cameras (for Nikon-G/F and Canon EF to Micro-4/3) but specifies a magnification of x0.64 for the BMCC and x0.58 for the BMPCC. As I currently don’t have any access to a speed booster I cannot verify if the crop factor of the Magic Cinema ViewFinder is correct, however luckily enough the No adapter setting almost exactly match the crop factor of my Zenit Meteor 5-1 lens which I am currently using with my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.

(Left) Select Anamorphic Index and (right) the resulting 3. :1 image of the 2.0x anamorphic form factor
(Left) Select Anamorphic Index and (right) the resulting 3.55:1 image of the 2.0x anamorphic form factor

Pressing the Select Anamorphic Index submenu of the Magic Cinema ViewFinder scroll bar takes you to yet another scroll bar which lets you choose between either No anamorphic lenses (Spheric) or 2.0. The 2.0 digit is the anamorphic index or multiplier of how wide the anamorphic lens extends the image sidewise, 0.2x being the industry standard. However, this means that the camera has to be set for 4:3 to create the standard aspect ratio of 2.35:1; setting the camera for 16:9 would yield a 3.55:1 aspect ratio, which is a bit extreme and beyond the industry standard. Luckily, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (as well as all of the other Blackmagic Design cameras) have the ability to shoot in a cropped 4:3 factor; the camera even recommends setting it for 4:3 to be able to frame the anamorphic picture correctly. There is a range of Russian LOMO anamorphic lenses which are quite cheap and could make this feature of the Magic Cinema ViewFinder live up to its expectations, however as I don’t own one yet I have set my Director’s Viewfinder to No anamorphic lenses as I currently use a spheric zoom lens. Pressing the 2.0 index crops the 16:9 image of the viewfinder into 3.55:1 (see previous photograph); to be able to see the correct 2.35:1 image you have to activate the 4:3 aspect ratio frame guide to be able to frame the image correctly, however creating a windowboxed image in the process.

(Left) Select Aspect Ratio in the menu and (right) orange bars will appear for correct framing
(Left) Select Aspect Ratio in the menu and (right) orange bars appearing for correct framing (2.40:1 as seen)

Pressing Frame guides on the Magic Cinema ViewFinder scroll bar opens up the Select Aspect Ratio sub-scroll bar giving you the choice between No frame guides, HDTV (16:9), 4:3 and 2.40:1. This is a bit narrow on choices; I would at least had 1.85:1 which is the US industry standard, but unlocking premium features on the Magic Universal ViewFinder provides you with that, as well as the European standard 1.66:1 and more. Selecting the aspect ratio (either 4:3 or 16:9) also affects how you would frame your shot using the 2.0x anamorphic index (see above). The actual frame guide is marked by a orange bar or frame around the image, changing its size (making it smaller) starting with 16:9, so that you may use your camera and lens setup; all Blackmagic Design cameras shoot 16:9 as their native aspect ratio (and it’s nice to see that the ViewFinder uses the same designation for 16:9 as the Blackmagic Design cameras, i.e. “HDTV”). Choosing between No frame guides and HDTV makes no big difference, only that the orange outline of the 16:9 aspect ratio is enabled or disabled; the orange frame coincides with the actual image. Pressing 4:3 crops the image to the sides (although the image is still fully visable in 16:9) marking a narrower image or a pillarbox frame. Pressing 2.40:1 crops the 16:9 image with a letterbox frame in the same manner.

(Left) The Select LUT menu and (right) the Black White
(Left) The Select LUT menu and (right) the Black / White Contrast

Pressing LUTs on the Magic Cinema ViewFinder scroll bar opens up the Select LUT sub-scroll bar, giving you a wide range of different preset colour saturation settings, up to 10 different LUTs (LUT = “Look Up Table”). These are BMD Film emulation, Black / White Contrast, 2 strip, Candle Light, M31, Osiris Jugo, Osiris KDX, Osiris Prismo, Teal & Orange with Contrast, and Daluts Armchair. I use the Blackmagic Design Film emulation as my standard reference LUT, as that gives the most natural and balanced colour saturation to the image. Black / White Contrast give a normal black & white image (see previous photograph), whereas the 2 strip provides as odd pinkish red hue to the image. Candle Light is quite similar to BMD Film emulation but with a bit warmer and somewhat washed out tint. M31 gives a yellowish orange hue to the entire image. Osiris Jugo gives a slightly brownish khaki, Osiris KDX a yellowish khaki, and Osiris Prismo a slightly orange khaki tint to the picture. Teal & Orange with Contrast has a greenish hue, whereas Daluts Armchair presents a washed out, overexposed and grainy image. The LUT feature may be deactivated and reactivated by pressing the LUT symbol on the image. It’s actually hard to see the actual saturation and tint of the image sometimes because of the mobile camera which varies its exposure and thus fluctuates its colours as well, but the BMD Film emulation is uncontested in its ability to create a natural and undistorted image colorwise. In comparison, the standard image of the mobile camera (with LUT deactivated) is quite similar to BMD Film emulation but somewhat more desaturated.

Wide Angle & Long Focal Length
(Left) Wide Angle and (right) Long Focal Length

As the mobile camera has its obvious limitations when it comes to zooming and digital “focal lenght” the Magic Cinema ViewFinder has to crop the actual visible image area outside of certain zoom intervals to compensate for very wide angles and extremely long telephoto distances. It handles the mobile camera image without any cropping withing the 11-42mm focal lenght range. Outside of the maximum range, from focal lenghts 43 mm to 300 mm, it creates a black windowbox with the visable image framed by the orange border, the actual visable area within the aspect ratio frame guide chosen by the operator. Outside of the minimum range, from focal lengths 10 mm to 7 mm, it crops the visible image area with a grey windowbox and always in the 16:9 aspect ratio and the chosen frame guide always seen full size relative to the combined grey area and visible image; one has to imagine the rest of the image as it would have been seen in the actual camera viewfinder where the grey windobox area is seen. On the longest focal lenghts one almost has to use a optical image magnifier, such as a magnifying glass, to se the picture clearly. This is of course not optimal but nevertheless a necessary and therefore acceptable compromise made by the app because of the limits of the mobile camera. Regardless, the freeware version of the Magic Cinema ViewFinder is a versatile and quite entertaining piece of android software that comes very handy for the prospecting guerilla and independent filmmaker, always within reach wherever he or she goes. I haven’t used it in the field yet (and will probably return with some feedback from some real field conditions) but have played around with it a lot just for the fun of it, and based on that I truly reccomend it!

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