A Dangerous Method – Against deleting footage in camera

Lately there has been a quite heated discussion over at the Blackmagic Forum concering the decision by Blackmagic Design not to implement the feature of deleting footage on the SD card in-camera. Blackmagic Design share this attitude with professional digital camera companies such as Red Digital Cinema Camera Company and Arri. Some argue against this decision, referring to consumer and prosumer cameras and DSLR’s which offers deletion of clips and the recycling of flash memory card space, while others defend Blackmagic Design. I belong to the latter choir which defends the wise decision made by Blackmagic Design. Those who are against any features that allow in-camera deletion of footage are often well established in the film industry. They argue that this simply is bad practice as you never can decide on location (under all of the heavy pressure and stress that this entails) which footage is “bad” and which is “good”. One is often surprised that what was considered to be a bad take after first review often is one of the better (if not the best) take of a particular scene. Let me quote the Australian Cinematographer John Brawley, who has some very good advice to share from his rich well of experience (edited, typo corrected and expanded / explained by me):

Funny how this so called “feature” exists on consumer equipment but it doesn’t really exist on many high end cameras. It’s not just the technical. There’s a built in way to stop an accidental erasure if you don’t have the ability to do it in the first place. That’s the more important issue in my view. On set is never when you should be making those choices. Never ever. Even accidental rolls can bring you some joy.

It’s just bad practice. Most professionals DO NOT want this. It’s those that haven’t worked in workflows that have to be bullet proof that think this is a good idea. Having the choice is like giving the guy at the missile silo the ability to launch without authorisation. You just don’t want that choice on set. Editorial changes everything. What’s wrong on set, becomes the right take in post, count on it.

And the best reason to argue for this potentially destructive feature is to save some heartache on an accidental long roll? And by extension, more bad practice by not having enough media with you? (Also another good reason to only ever have one card loaded in the two slots unless you need to interleave.)

S[tandard] O[perating] P[rocedure] for me on set is that I often roll WAY before the A[ssistant] D[irector] calls turnover [i.e. signals both the camera and sound departments to start rolling] and my assistant doesn’t cut the camera till my eye comes off the viewfinder, which is usually a lot longer after cut is called.

These shots that I steal ALWAYS make the edit. They’re not asked for, they’re mined, sifted and stolen. Half the time there’s a blurry out of focus light stand or the actor’s doing something not continuity for the scene. Logically they’re wrong. But like i said…all fair in the edit suite. These “tone” shots always get used. After a while the “good” actors start to notice I’m doing it and also don’t cut when the call is made ☺

I started doing it when I notice that in the countdown to turnover being called, checks etc, (it’s the acting version on your marks…get set) the actors drop into character. You can see it happening as they still themselves or mentally prepare. They’re usually very focussed and intent. Same after cut…it usually takes a while for the actor to re-emerge from the take. It’s all gold. It’s totally wrong technically for lot’s of reasons, and half the time there’s no sound cause you’re #blackops when you’re doing it but it’s always gold.

In my build up to shooting, my stolen pre-roll, I often look for a shot to transition from, so some kind of detail the actor is unconsciously doing to trade the shot into the rehearsed and pre-set frame. This is really effective with details like reading text messages or detail you’d otherwise be forced to cut to an insert the shot into. This is a way of building an edit into your coverage and saving a cut in.

As to technicalities, I draw the parallel to media speeds not being the full story to a media actually be able to work as advertised. It’s just not as simple as what works on paper. When talking about what’s theoretically possible not adding up to what’s actually possible you only have to look at supported media vs unsupported media. Cards that should have enough overhead and speed can’t seem to do the job as other cards with the same specs. Or when you only use the file deletion from your card instead of formatting. Try that for a few cycles and see what happens.

And yeah. It’s still just bad practice no matter if it’s technically possible or not. It’s bad practice because you shouldn’t be deciding in the field what should and should not be deleted. That’s what editors decide. Not cinematographers. I wouldn’t presume to know what takes are good and bad when it’s so easy to keep them all.

Shooting RAW may be liked to shooting emulsion film and the flat log-like image coming from the sensor without any processing is often compared to a “digital negative”. Adobe even calls its open RAW format “Digital Negative” or DNG, which in cinema is referred to as CinemaDNG (the format that I am using in my Backmagic Pocket Cinema Camera). This means that each frame of a shot i represented by its own digital photograph; RAW footage consists of a long string of individual still images, 24 in number for each second. And as traditional emulsion film cameras cannot offer any deletion on the exposed film roll and going back and re-take a shot, nor should proper digital cinema cameras. I stand firm in my opinion that since the introduction of RAW and Digital Film (as opposed to Digital Video), one should treat the flash memory cards as standard emulsion rolls of film. RAW behaves as film in many respects, such as responding to classic light metering (I use my analogue Sekonic with CinemaDNG), so it is only fair to treat it as film.

tilta-rig
The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with a professional TILTA rig recording RAW to SDXC flash memory cards

Some, such as Jeff Cable who are being a lot more knowledgeable than me about the technical stuff concerning this issue, argue that deleting in camera and re-recording on deleted space strains the flash memory cards, as it may scramble the File Allocation Table (or FAT Table). According to them, the reasons behind this is that cameras are not good at relocating and managing memory data in such a way, as the file systems aren’t robust enough to sustain multiple on-set deletions, partly because of storage capaciry and partly of system overhead. An example of this is when the camera accidently loose power which may damage the files. In the early years of Blackmagic Design cameras, they neither could delete clips nor format SD cards in-camera. Nowadays Blackmagic Design offers in-camera formatting (which is a great and optimal feature) while still prohibiting deletion. I have never really reflected on or missed the lack of in-camera deletion of clips; it’s really not a issue for me. Based on reviews, I intially beleived this to be a quirk of BMD’s but now I understand that this is a conscious choice based on professionalism. Blackmagic Design cameras are Cinema Cameras after all.

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