Sunday, April 27, 2014

Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K on Morganville:The Series

Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to work as the DP on Morganville: The Series. It's destined to be a web series based on the international bestselling young adult fantasy/horror books by Rachel Caine and directed by Blake Calhoun. Morganville is the town where vampires coexist with humans. Blake is the force behind some groundbreaking web series like PINK:THE SERIES, EXPOSED for The, and CONTINUUM. I've been Blake's DP on all those web series as well as movies like KILLING DOWN and SPLIT MILK. One of the great things about working with Blake is his ability to muster up production value at a very low price point. He gravitates toward cameras, devices, and techniques that yield good quality. And he likes to apply new tools at the right moment to give his work production value when most needed.

Here are some highlights from the shoot. Actor Ben Easter is an early victim.

This was my second, and most comprehensive experience with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera in 2.5K mode. BMCC users know this camera has a native ISO of 800 using a four-thirds sensor, capable of shooting RAW. Blake arranged for a set of Compact Primes, 15-135mm. Because the camera has quite a bit of crop factor, we found ourselves using the 15mm for all master shots and rarely went above 50mm. I think we used the 85mm twice. This can be rather limiting when your 15mm is cropped more like a 30mm. He did have a 9mm we used, but the fish-eye look of it was useful only twice.

Blake also had access to the new Blackmagic 4K camera with 35mm sensor. But it does not yet shoot in RAW mode, only ProRes and the native ISO is 400. Thus this was used very limitedly. The ProRes just does not look nearly as good as the RAW, and the 400 ISO did not help me with the low light interiors we were in. Bumping up the ISO yielded more noise than we could accept and increasing the light levels were not allows a good idea for matching to the 2.5K camera.

I found with BMCC RAW I would be edging exposure slightly under all the time and lighting between T2.8 and T4 to maximize shallow depth. Switching to the 4K camera mean't losing a stop and at T2.8 with a T2.9 lens, like the 15mm CP.2, I was already wide open. Boosting the light up often would change the look of the scene and the ProRes was not as forgiving as the RAW when underexposing.

Obviously, these photos are not from the camera but were from my iPhone. I wish I had a few frame grabs to show the quality of the BMCC RAW images.

On the last day of the shoot, Blake wanted an aerial of the university campus and employed a drone with his Blackmagic Cinema Pocket camera on-board using a Movi attached gimble. But as it turned out, the pocket camera was actually too light for the drone on the first two passes and during prep for the third pass the drone had an issue that prevented the next flight. We were lucky the drone operator, DP David Blood, had brought a smaller drone that had a GoPro 3+ mounted on a smaller gimble system, and that saved the day for the aerial shot.

Twice in the two week project we used a handheld Movi, something I had wanted to try since reading about it a year ago. This is where the 4K camera came into play, because we wanted the 15mm to look 15mm.

I found the Movi to be quite easy to use and how useful the device could be on certain projects. But certainly one must have an experienced Movi tech on the shoot to fine tune the balancing of the camera on the system. And really athletic moves would take some practice. Most importantly, Movi is limited on the kinds of cameras that work well on it. I don't know that you could put much more than a bare bones C300, maybe a C500 on it before you've reached a weight limit. The configuration we used did not have any weight support other than my arm strength. With the 4K camera setup with 15mm lens, I found I could easily handle the camera at least for a limited time period. The steadiness of the system is fantastic.

But CP lens easily flare, even from very soft source light, and french flagging or eyebrow are unlikely on a Movi. Thus considering the direction of light forced some compromises, or at least some angle considerations. Lenses that flare less would be a future choice while using a Movi.

So what was my final impression of the BMCC? This camera really shines in RAW! We were lucky enough that our DIT tech, Sean, was an accomplished Resolve color grader and could show us how the RAW was responding along the way. I was really amazed at the latitude and image quality this inexpensive camera could produce. Are there short-comings of the system? Certainly. It still lacks a quality EVF. There is an LCD screen on the back, but that is where the external battery was so viewing it was nearly impossible. The addition of an on-board 6" monitor was a must-have item for me and the AC, Ben Tubb, but difficult out in daylight exteriors. Using a Zacuto is just so limiting on judgment for focus and exposure.

In fact, I'm noticing a real lack of quality EVFs on many of the recently announced cameras like the AJA Cion and Blackmagic Ursa. C300 and C500 only have a so-so LCD flip out screens and a poorly placed, low quality rear access EVF, right where external recorders go!  And those cameras cost thousands more. I can't figure out why manufacturers are ignoring this extremely important feature of a camera. I need to put my eye to a high quality eyepiece like the Alexa, Sony F5, and F55 offer. And I'm not seeing a quality offering from third party manufacturers either. 

All in all, we had a fantastic shoot with the very talented cast and crew, led by Blake and the quality people he surrounds himself with! I think great results can be achieved with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera in RAW, but I wouldn't spend the money on the 4K camera until it has RAW and an ISO of 800. Built-in ND would be nice too.

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