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Blackmagic Cinema Camera: The Perfect Training Ground for Cinematographers

BlackMagic Cinema Camera
 
Looking back to the beginning of my career as a cinematographer, what was my training ground? I started shooting music videos and that was on Super 16mm film. Back then, music videos ruled. I shot for all the big bands of the grunge era in the early 1990s – Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots and Live to name a few.
 

Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness 1995

Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness 1995

Nirvana – In Utero 1993

Nirvana – In Utero 1993

Stone Temple Pilots – Core – 1992

Stone Temple Pilots – Core – 1992

LIVE – Throwing Copper 1994

LIVE – Throwing Copper 1994

 
I took Super 16mm to the breaking point every day. Kevin Kerslake was a director I worked with and I have to say he shaped me as an artist. He is one ballsy shooter! Kevin was a director/cameraman and I was his lighting designer. He pushed me to do things I would never have thought of, which quickly morphed into me being his DP, with Kevin operating and directing. His instincts as an operator were impeccable and his ideas were always innovative, which made collaborating so much fun. He challenged me to come up with unique ways to tell his stories with light.

“Experimentation and Finding Yourself as an Artist”

One thing that I always stress is to challenge yourself, move out of what is comfortable, and step into an area where you can fail. This is counter intuitive in our culture. We are taught to succeed at all costs. I have built my career on the opposite. You do not know where the cliff is until you jump off of it. My friend Jayne calls it “edge walking.”

Here are a few music videos I shot on 16mm film. The approach was insane and I was not sure if it would turn out, but I went for it. My exposures were all over the place. At some times, it was 13 stops over exposed. Yes, so the whole latitude of film I was just doing in the over exposure, which means a nuclear image. I think it looks so unique and cool. The locations were massive and we only had pennies, so coming up with lighting that could fill a place the size of basketball arena was a daunting task.
 


 
I am not going to go into how I did these videos. I need to get back to the message I started.

What are the similarities of 16mm film and the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC)?

image011_sm
 
1. The BMCC has a sensor size close to Super 16mm film.
How does this relate? When you are starting out, you cannot bring in a top team of technicians. You are all learning together. That is what is so powerful about this BIG IDEA I have here. You are learning together, which means the focus puller might not be the best, maybe a 2nd AC who is looking to move up or someone who knows a lot about cameras but has never pulled focus before. So having the smaller sensor size gives him or her a better chance to get your creation in focus. A helpful tool in understanding where your Depth of Field will be is using the PCAM App on your iPhone or Android. You can read up on it here. This baby is a great tool. For example, if your subject is standing five feet away from camera on the Canon C500 that has a S35 sensor, on a 50mm lens at f2.8, your focus puller will have 3.8 inches to keep that subject in focus. On the BMCC with its near S16 sensor, on a 25mm lens at f2.8 (remember you have a crop factor compared to S35 so the 25mm on the BMCC will be close to a 50mm on a C500) your focus puller will have 11.5″ to keep your subject in focus. Here are some pictures from the PCAM App to make it visual for you.
 

Camera: Canon C500, S35 Sensor, 50mm lens at f2.8

Camera: Canon C500, S35 Sensor, 50mm lens at f2.8

Blackmagic Cinema Camera, S16 Sensor, f2.8

Blackmagic Cinema Camera, S16 Sensor, f2.8

 
I look back to all the Canon 5D videos that hit the internet after people saw the power of that camera and it was one mushy out of focus video after the next . The actual size of the BMCC is 15.81mm x 8.88mm – 18.1mm Diagonal. The Super 16mm film I was shooting on was 7.41mm x 12.52mm – 14.54mm Diagonal. How do these sensor sizes compare on a chart? The Blackmagic Cinema Camera’s sensor is just a bit bigger than Standard 16mm.

I shot on one of these babies back in the day! An Arriflex SR3.

I shot on one of these babies back in the day! An Arriflex SR3.

And this one too! A Canon Scoopic 16 MS

And this one too! A Canon Scoopic 16 MS

 
Your Gaffer might have been a Best Boy or just an Electric, or a good friend who wanted to break into the business. This is crew building and I built mine the same way. Tim Carr, who was my friend from my small hometown of Aurora, New York, was doing numbers for a construction firm in San Diego. He asked me what I did for a job. When I told him I was a key grip at the time, he said he would love to get out of this accounting deal and work in Hollywood. This is a guy who graduated at the top of the class, was a Rhodes Scholar and graduated from the London School of Economics. One word describes this guy, BRILLIANT! I brought him into my music video team and he really loved gripping. He insisted on living in his car outside of my house for over a year. This is the determination that is required to get in this business and you have to hear this loud and clear. Putting in your time should never come easily. If it does, then you are absolutely on the wrong path. PERIOD! He now is one of the most sought after Key Grips in the business, owns ten Grip trucks and travels all over the world. Inspire a team and they will follow.

2. What is the latitude of 16mm film stock?

image021_sm
 
The team at Blackmagic Design is an intelligent group of engineers. WHY? Well, they delivered a camera that matches the latitude of 16mm film stock. 13 stops. Perfect. For all of you starting out on the Canon 5D and having 9.5 stops to deal with, you cannot screw up. You have to really understand what you are doing. Act of Valor looked the way it did because of my 20 years of exposing experience.
 
Act of Valor
 
If you are just diving into the film industry, then the BMCC gives you the latitude to fail and still succeed. WOW! Is that possible? Yes. My first job as a gaffer was working on a Barbie commercial. We did day exteriors in the morning, and then moved into the stage. I never changed my light meter from 100 ASA to 500 ASA when we changed film stocks (Film Speed – ASA to ISO ). So I over exposed the film by 2 stops. If this was a Canon 5D, the footage would be unusable. With film, I had the extra latitude to save it. However, I had to tell the DP that all my meter readings were wrong. He had to go to the director and tell him, which then lead to the agency producer, and we had to go back and shoot all the scenes over again. We incurred overtime that I was responsible for out of my paycheck. I did not lose the DP or the Director as a client because Mattel called back and said the footage that was over exposed was so much more spectacular than the normal. It was exactly what they wanted to push the Barbie brand to the next level. WHOA! Dodged that bullet.

3. It teaches you to read a light meter and understand light and ratios.
It is essential to use a light meter to understand your lighting values with this camera. If you want to be a cinematographer, you need to know how to read a light meter, a spot meter and a color meter.
 
Sekonic light meter

Sekonic Color Meter

Sekonic Spotmeter and Light Meter combo
 
All right, we have established that you have a camera that has a sensor size very close to a 16mm sensor. You have the same latitude of 16mm film stock. Now, we need to address how to light with this camera.

The lighting ratios and light placement are the building blocks of understanding cinematography. Placing one light in the right place starts your journey of creation. Understanding the ratios of fill light, key light and your back light is next. I have found that this camera relates very closely to how I used to expose 16mm film, which was to overexpose a 1/2 stop across the board. It seems to give this camera more BIT depth. Always overexpose the BMCC 1/2 stop to get the most out of this camera. Here is how this overexposure will relate to your light meter readings and when you dial in the camera before you roll.

Key Light:
On your Key Light, if your light meter is reading a 4.0 f-stop, then I would expose at a 2.8 and a half. I open up that 1/2 stop.

Back Light:
On back light, I would under expose the back light 1 stop or 1 stop and 1/2 if my model has blonde hair. For darker hair, I have brought it up to the stop that you set on the camera. All of this is a general guide and you have to apply this to the environment you are shooting in to make it feel real.

Fill Light:
For fill level, that is a subjective area. If you are shooting a comedy, I would suggest only -2 stops. If you are doing a drama, -3 to -4 stops and thriller/horror -4 to -5 stops. This is just my preference and very subjective. You must also take into account the location, script, mood and tone.

When you go to choose the recording format for this camera, always stick with RAW 2.5K. Utilizing that 12-Bit Uncompressed file format will get you right on track with how I exposed 16mm film when I started out. If you shoot in any of the compressed flavors of Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD, everything that I am teaching you will not relate. The compression of those formats takes away all of the beauty the BMCC has to offer! Get yourself a few more SSD drives when recording RAW, as this will take up a lot more hard drive space. Blackmagic has a list of approved drives for the BMCC.

We have talked about lighting on the Hurlblog before. Read through some of these previous posts to help understand where to place your lights:
http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/2013/04/training-your-eye/
http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/2010/11/lighting-an-inside-look-into-the-rat-pack/
http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/2013/01/testing-your-cameras-latitude/
http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/2014/05/need-for-speed-lighting-breakdowns/

Don’t Rely on the Monitor:
I cannot stress this enough to start your journey in becoming a cinematographer. Learn light ratios and eventually, you will not need a light meter. After my seventh film, I could light to eye, whether I was shooting 50 ASA on day exteriors or 500 ASA at night. My light meter was on my belt, but I rarely went to it, and there was no monitor to look at that would tell you that you were all good, no waveforms, no false color, just your eye and your GOD given talent. Like film, with the BMCC you cannot learn to light by looking at a flat profile out of the camera. It does not allow you to see your lighting values and ratios. You must know what your meter readings are of your key, back and fill. I have yet to see a LUT placed against the BMCC that gives you a true representation of how you are trying to light your image.

4. The ISO of the BMCC is very close to the ASA of 16mm film.
Understanding how to light requires you to actually use lighting and not use the high ISO of the camera to be able to shoot in available light. This is a disservice not only to your career, but to you as an artist.

The BMCC isn’t like the Sony A7s, where you can crank the ISO up to 50,000 ISO to shoot in nearly pitch black. The BMCC forces you to learn to light with its restrictive ISOs, just like I would have done with Super 16mm film, at a maximum of 640 ASA. With 13 stops of Dynamic Range, you are again learning where you can create and experiment. Remember what I said about the Canon 5D only having 9.5 stops of Dynamic Range? It’s a huge difference. In 16mm film, there are 5 stops in the underexposure and 8 stops in the overexposure. In the BMCC, there are roughly 7 stops in the underexposure and 6 stops in the overexposure. This is what I have seen in my tests for Need for Speed.

If you look at this, the training ground is complete. You have the right sensor size for success. You have the right latitude for you to take risks, to push you out of your comfort zone, for you to fail and succeed at the same time. You have your light meter, a spot meter and a color meter, which you will learn to use and succeed along with having an ISO that comes close to matching the ASA of 16mm film and the perfect place to build your foundation for success.

Now it is time for you to get out there and shoot; fail to succeed. Jump!

Have you signed up for Shane’s Inner Circle yet? Would love to see you on the inside –
http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/inner-circle-splash-page/
 
 
Buy the Blackmagic Cinema Camera at B&H
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Author: Shane

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30 Comments

  1. Hi Shane,

    Thanks for this helpful and informative post. Why no mention of the Blackmagic Pocket? I use the BMCC and Pocket and find the images very similar in dynamic range and pixel texture…the latter of which the Pocket even seems to have more of, what with its slightly smaller sensor. If emulating s16 is the goal, wouldn’t the Pocket be slightly more desirable? If you disagree, please educate!

    Thanks again, fantastic blog!

    Dan

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  2. Great article shane, I really enjoyed reading it. One of the main things that is discouraging me from purchasing a BMCC, is the sensor size won’t work well with my lens choices, and I really cannot afford to invest in a whole new set of lenses. I would really love to learn everything you’ve mentioned in this post though!

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  3. Bravo. Invaluable. For years we saved the Switar primes from the Bolex days for the ‘time when someone would make a camera these babies would work on..’ It’s now. So we shot a feature in RAW on BMCC last month (BESETMENT)wanted to share what we learned.

    The 26mm f1.1 did not come off (one of) the pockets (yep, it fills a 2k DCI container Like A Boss in RAW), the BMCC MFT w/ Distagon & Switar rolled 10TB of RAW w/o a glitch. Shane, your original posts on ND IR and set-up were priceless. It really translated to our film. I want to buy you a burger and a beer because this is hands down the best info on the wire. Shooting RAW on v1.9 4k now and it rocks.

    Man if you ever need a BTS/EPK crew we are THERE! You are the freaking man. Mad respect.

    CG DP

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  4. nice but.. the BMCC is the most irritating camera to shoot with…

    Post a Reply
    • For you? Obviously.
      For SHANE, myself anothers…it’s a cinch.
      You study, do tests…get better.

      IT’S CALLED…LEARNING THE CRAFT, THE TRADE BY DOING THE WORK

      Post a Reply
  5. This has been a really interesting read, as I have ‘gone through the training ground’ on the 5d and various other canon DSLRs over the past three years, and now recently invested in the BMCC and found it a real learning curve when using it!

    I’ve realised how lazy I have become with my lighting. When I first started, I would light each shot as perfectly as I could with what equipment I had, but nowadays it’s very odd if I use any lighting at all. That will hopefully chance as I use the BMCC more and more.

    The greatest thing I have found when using the black magic however, has been the fact that everything now seems to be in focus!! No soft shots anymore, hallelujah!

    But yes, this has been an interesting read Shane. I watched need for speed for the first time on Monday – amazed by the filmmaking behind it. I was glued to the BTS. You did a great job man.

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  6. Hi Shane,

    Thank you for writing this article, I am a student in Studio Television Production at Emerson College and I definitely appreciate the advice you offered on lighting.

    Something that was highlighted in the article that I would like to know more about is your opinion of the difference between skill that is built and inborn talent.

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  7. I entirely understand the very logical points you’ve presented, and respect what you say and your accomplishments without condition.

    The issue is that the deployment of Blackmagic cameras under the current corporate leadership has been a nightmare on so very many levels. Quality control, broken promises on every level (spanning delivery dates to what’s printed on the box to promised firmware updates), and inconsistent (and even nonexistent) customer support. Blackmagic cameras have proven to be consistent in only one regard — that each unit is a gamble.

    In theory, I love the concept of Blackmagic cameras. In function, I’ve learned to appreciate just how reliable those low dynamic range Japanese cameras are — to appreciate what I’ve taken for granted all these years. In other words, I’d rather be out in the field with Panasonic or Sony whatever and expose properly than be out in any field with a Blackmagic whatever that may or may not have fixed pattern noise, nonexistent audio, debris on the sensor sealed behind glass (BMPCC), noise/grain that varies between units of the same models, connections that are notorious for either not working or breaking, black sun spots, and battery life that is either minimal or barely functional.

    And — I write the above with a heavy heart — because the truth is that competition is the only thing that forces the Japanese to innovate — and I absolutely love the idea of competition creating better and more affordable cameras for all of us.

    Until Blackmagic is able to actually deliver a camera that does what it claims on the box (and, it might be nice if they delivered it when they claimed it would be available) — I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone take the crapshoot on any camera from Blackmagic. Heck, there was a guy in Scotland who had to return EIGHT defective Pocket cameras. Has anyone had to return eight low dynamic range and/or unimaginative Japanese cameras to Sony or Panasonic?

    As a side note — it’s August — has anyone taken delivery of an “Ursa” that was promised in July?

    Post a Reply
    • FPN is not a problem with the BMCC. I, and many many others have been shooting with the BMCC for well over a year and have had none of the woes that you have described because I work around issues, or realise the restictions of the cameras. I’ve never had a Black Sun issue, never noticed grain variation, The internal battery is a godsend for hot swapping battery solutions, the 1.8 firmware updated sound issues but no-one who’s shooting anything half serious shoots sound in-camera anyway. Your gripes mostly relate to a camera the article is not referring to. If you listen to all the horror stories online you’d never do anything. I love all three of my Blackmagic cameras, they work hard on a daily basis. Nothing comes close to them even at three times the price or more IMO. The image on the BMCC is beautiful and worth more than a few frustrations.

      Post a Reply
  8. Aaaaahh I see, so the BMCC/BMPCC sensor curves are positioned LOWER than that of film/celluloid. That’s how they’re both 13 stops, albeit seen slightly differently. Gotcha.

    I’ve seen some GORGEOUS gems in glass for Super 16/16mm in Cosmicar and a host of other manufacturers. If you went back in time at 88mph to shoot “Act Of Valor” all over again, and the choice was say– Fuji Super 16 film stock, what would be some of your glass choices. Or more so- what was some of your favorite glass on Super 16 back in the day?

    *Sorry Shane, you know how I love to pick your brain ;-) I’m a nerd.

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  9. What really clicked with me is the simplicity of shooting with the BMCC. I don’t have to deal with a bunch of settings in camera. Raw takes that control out of your camera and forces you to control light in front of the sensor. It reminds me a lot of shooting film stills. When shooting film, your ASA is your ASA. That’s it. If you want to maintain the motion blur of a 180 degree shutter, you’re shutter speed is locked too. All you have left is aperture, NDs, lighting, flagging, etc. This style of shooting keeps me out of the camera settings and focused on what is in front of the camera: light and motion.

    I never want to shoot on anything other than raw. It frees me up to think in terms of light instead of in terms of camera settings.

    Great article. I also shoot with a Metabones Speedbooster, but it’s not for everyone. Wide open is a little soft, but I find that I’m willing sacrifice a little sharpness for light when I need the extra stop. The new raw sharpness controls in Davinci Resolve 11 really help reduce that softness.

    Thanks, Shane!

    Post a Reply
    • Resolve IS a great tool indeed for RAW processing. Also good to know on the Speedbooster notion as well. Been toying w/ the idea of using it, but I like to torture myself w/ wide open 1.4-2.8 iris photography often. No bueno for me, I guess :-/

      Post a Reply
      • You’ll never know until you test it out. I’ve found from my controlled tests that I’m fine shooting wide open if I needed the extra stop at night and I the subject is a face. Broad daylight on a wide shot, I’ll bump it down a stop. Incredibly useful tool for me.

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  10. Awesome Article Shane !!! Thanks !!!

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks so much Matheus, glad you like the article.

      Post a Reply
  11. I’ve been following your articles on the BMCC for over a year now and I find them fascinating. I bought one last May and this information has saved my butt.
    My question is in regards to the use of a light meter.
    My education of cinematography is still in its infancy. So, do you have any recommended resources on learning how to use a light meter?

    Post a Reply
  12. Every post is very informative, educational and inspired. Big thanks man from fan from #Cambodia.

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks so much for the kinds words, we’re so happy to hear that posts like these are helping further your filmmaking career!

      Post a Reply
  13. Thanks for this blog, I’m signing up tomorrow for the inner circle!

    What about the Blackmagic Pocket camera?

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  14. Thank you for such an excellent and detailed review. Once you start using these types of cameras like a 16mm/35mm film cameras, the footage acquired is be worth it. It takes quite a bit of re-education for those of us hardwired from shooting video to get used to utilizing film techniques we learned in school but never put into practice. It’s great to have new challenges. It’s cool to see you shot a video for one of my favorite 1990′s bands, Helmet.

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  15. The BMCC and BMPCC produce potentially amazing image quality. But they are very basic camera’s, like racing cars without suspension, windshield or safety belts. In the right hands they deliver. To get a really cinematic image you really need very good grading skills. You can download this free LUT as a starting point for grading: http://hanshijmering.com/downloads/bmcc_luts/

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  16. First off, I didn’t realize you shot the music videos of my youth! That’s awesome! I loved Helmet back in the day, and that was one of my favorite videos! One of my bandmates back in highschool had to make a music video for school for some reason, and we basically copied that video (in my parents’ garage, not in a cool old warehouse).

    I picked up a Pocket Cinema camera when it was half off, and I’m still getting the hang of it and more playing around with it than using it for any actual work, but so far I’m really loving it (despite the ridiculous battery life). Having the flexibility and dynamic range of raw video is a huge breath of fresh air after working primarily with Canon DSLR’s for the past 5-6 years.

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    • Thanks Jim! I loved working on those music videos back in the day, so creative, so inventive, it’s really where I cut my teeth and found my creative style! All of those “nuclear” looks where I over-exposed highlights as the light bounced around those warehouses, just awesome! I loved it!

      Post a Reply
  17. Great article. I always meter when shooting digital. Part of me feels cool doing it, but the other non-narcissistic side of me does it to keep things consistent ;-) Just shot my first piece with the BMCC and the image going to the monitor was so flat, it was impossible to gauge any light levels. This article caught my eye because I had the same opinion while on set – it felt like I was shooting film. You have to trust your ratios.

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    • You’ve got it Connor. This is exactly what I was trying to convey to everyone. Look at this baby as if you are shooting film and trust your meter!

      Post a Reply
  18. Today Blackmagic updated the firmware on the camera giving it a histogram, audio meters, a time-remaining indicator for the SSD and a number of new shutter and color temp choices. Very good upgrades that improve the camera.

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  19. Shane- thank you for this. So to sum up section where you are talking about setting exposure on the camera and the lights- you are setting the camera exposure for the key light – overexposing by 1/2 stop as you said- and then adjusting the fill and back lights based on what type of project it is? Do you have lights on dimmers or do you achieve the under exposing of the fill and back lights through flagging and diffusion? Are you measuring the lights themselves directly or the light from them that is hitting the subject? You may have covered that but just clarifying. Thanks in advance!

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