My weekend with the BlackMagic Cinema Camera 4K: Impressions / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

BlackMagic Cinema Camera 4K

For the last three weeks, I have been spending pretty much every waking hour (and most of my sleeping ones) involved in the production of two thesis films, one of which has wrapped principal photography, and the other of which has only just begun. The content of the films doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this (one is my own film, and I’ll probably be discussing that further down the line), but I wanted to talk a little bit about the experience I’ve had shooting, specifically this past weekend when I filmed with a BlackMagic Cinema Camera 4K. Over three days, I spent between 20 and 30 hours with the camera, so I feel like I have a decent grasp of what it is, at least enough to have some general thoughts about its successes and failings. So I’m going to talk about them. And I’m probably going to make it sound like I’m way more knowledgeable about this than I actually am. Especially in this first part. Also, still kind of sleep deprived, so this will probably ramble a bit more than usual... Hopefully it makes sense to the people who are actually going out of the way looking for something like this. It's almost like a review, except totally not in depth about the things people would be looking for in an actual review.

Anyways.

First up, the good: the 4K ProRes footage that comes out of a BMCC is spectacular. My own film was shot using a DSLR (550D) and an EX-1 for action sequences, and while I am a fan of the way DSLR footage looks, it couldn’t possibly compare. I haven’t shot using the 1080p ProRes mode as a point of direct comparison, but I’m sure that is also a whole lot better than what I’m using. (It’s also probably less good than the RAW footage that Magic Lantern has pulled out of the 5D Mark III, but that’s another thing entirely.) Even in camera, especially when using Film dynamic range (as opposed to “Video,” which keeps more of the colors and requires less grading after the fact, I guess, but I don’t really see why anyone would want to use it), it looks so good.

Which it better, considering how enormous the files are. I was told that 4K ProRes files (there’s no RAW recording, which is completely ridiculous, especially considering the lower end camera shoots 2.5K in RAW, but that’s another thing entirely) were about a gig a minute, which at the time seemed impressive, but actually mathing that out is less than 17MB/s and is actually about what my DSLR’s SD card maxes out at (and is slightly less than the speed of shooting 540p RAW on a DSLR and is more like double what my DSLR generally shoots at). But in reality the files run over 5 GB a minute (a 1 minute 48 second take was approximately 10.56 GB, which is somewhere around 100 MB/s, which is similar in size to the 1080p RAW files that come out of a 5D Mk III while having four times the resolution (not necessarily worth the tradeoff, depends on how much you care about 4K recording)), which means hard drive space comes at a premium. My entire film is about 120GB, which translates to probably 3 hours of footage plus audio. In the first morning of shooting on a BMCC, we had broken 200 GB. That is only surprising to someone used to working with such (relatively) small footage as what comes out of a DSLR when its bitrate has been jacked up to 1.3X the regular thing. People working with RAW footage used to that kind of stuff would probably even scoff at those numbers (the Canon C500 apparently shoots RAW at more than 5 times that size), but that sort of size requires a pretty significant amount of storage space (especially when you want backups of backups), and even though hard drives are rapidly dropping price, fast and large ones are still a not-insignificant cost.

But let’s stop pretending to sound smart. Let’s talk about the things that aren’t so much fun.

The BMCC 4K gets hot. And when I mean hot, I mean sincerely worry for its safety while in use. When shooting on a DSLR, I am willing to shoot handheld either using a shoulder rig or just as the camera, depending on the scenario. The BlackMagic doesn’t really allow for the latter scenario; it’s just too hot. A lot of this seems to come from the absolutely ridiculous placement of the fan: It’s on the bottom of the camera. AKA, the air is flowing directly into the tripod plate/rig that’s beneath it. Does that make sense to you? It shouldn’t. Honestly, I’m not sure where the best place to put those fans would be (either out the top or the front, I would think, each of which has its own problems), but out the one place that is pretty much guaranteed to always be at least partially blocked? That’s ridiculous.

And it became a specific problem for us because we were shooting on Crucial M500 SSDs, which work perfectly fine while recording and don’t seem to drop any frames (which is apparently supposed to be the worry), but have a particularly obnoxious problem that seems to be a combination of overheating and incorrect spacing. We have a spacer on the cards, but there’s still an uncomfortable amount of wiggle room, and I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not. Either way, after the camera has been on for… five minutes, it gets horrifically hot and switching the camera off and on again (or even shifting to playback mode) would change the “Ready” note to “No SSD,” something that could only be fixed by turning it on and off again a few times or switching to the other, less hot SSD.

(When we shoot this weekend, we’ll be using different SSDs that are on the approved list, probably the same ones Adorama pack into their BMCC 4K rentals. Hopefully that will fix the issue. If it does, I’ll probably update this with a note.)

So this is an irritation for sure, but it became more of a problem during the filming of a particularly complicated tracking shot which required us to use an old crane that blocked access to the SSD slot and required a couple of minutes to dismount (plus the time to fanangle it into functioning). When we were already pulling a 12-hour shooting day, we didn’t really have that extra time, so we were forced to leave it on until the shot was done. (By the end, we probably could have cooked eggs on that camera.)

It was interesting in a way, because we couldn’t review footage, so we were forced to do some extra takes because we weren’t going to be able to use that complicated setup again, and if I missed some sort of detail, that would have been a problem. (We ended up doing 18 takes of that shot. The record of takes for my own film is approximately 50, done for one minute-ish long shot over two days, 20 tries the first and 30 the second.) Also, the internal battery lasts about 25 minutes (not a joke), so external batteries are actually a necessity, which is another one of those costs that you don’t necessarily think about, especially coming from a DSLR where you just need a few spare internals (although battery grips come heavily recommended, because with them you can access your batteries while on a tripod, which is a time-saver all its own).

[Update: Using different SSD cards on a more recent shoot, I didn't have any problems, which made using the camera a whole lot more pleasant. Certainly didn't fix all of my issues with it, but it helped.]

Ergonomically, the BMCC is kind of bizarre. If you hold it in two hands, your thumbs land on two buttons, the Iris button on the left and Focus button on the right. The Iris button is a part of the EF-mount, where non-Cine lenses with apertures that have to be changed in-camera do that. Pressing it once opens it wide, and then pressed the previous and next buttons below the screen allow you to stop it up or down. (We shot using the 24-105L F/4 for one shot because we needed a cheap zoom.) But using Cine lenses (we primarily shot using a Rokinon 24mm T1.5 (the BMCC’s crop factor gives it an equivalent FOV of closer to 36)) it’s completely irrelevant, so I’m not entirely sure why it’s so prominently placed. The “Focus” button enables peaking, which is much more useful but only really works when there’s good contrast.

It’s also rather heavy and just generally awkward to hold. It would also benefit greatly from a flip out screen. It’s nice how big the screen is, but when the camera is particularly angled, it’s not helpful. Fortunately, we were able to hook it up to a monitor via SDI-out (make sure that if you don’t have a 4K monitor it’s outputting SDI in HD), so we could put it in positions where we couldn’t see the screen (like up against a wall) and still compose shots properly.

Generally speaking, though, it’s a dead-simple camera to use. There are painfully few options (e.g. there only three available ISOs, only two of which (200 and 400) are really usable) and there’s just not much to navigate. The in-camera audio is as bad as you would expect, but you shouldn’t be using it for anything other than sync anyway (although I’m always surprised at how not-terrible in-camera audio in my DSLR is, for most of my purposes). If you are looking for a feature and don’t find it within two minutes, the camera probably doesn’t have it. The only thing that’s really “hidden” is the metadata screen, which can be pulled up by tapping on the touch screen. I brought it up accidentally several times before realizing what it was (I didn’t read the manual). It’s a cool feature, actually, and probably one I’ll use more on future shoots. Also, I realized after the fact that we shot at 24 fps instead of 23.98, so that’s something to be aware of (both are available options).

All things considered, the BMCC 4K is a $3000 camera (that quickly becomes a whole lot more expensive, factoring in SSDs, external batteries, rigs, and whatnot) that shoots damn fine 4K not-RAW images. For that reason alone, it’s worth seriously considering. But it’s got a lot of… quirks, some of which make it kind of hellish to use. But if you want gorgeous 4K on the cheap, it’s probably your best option right now.

But it's a space that's constantly changing (on Monday, BlackMagic announced the URSA, which is twice the price but fixes a whole lot of the BMCC's shortcomings, and I have yet to try out Panasonic's GH4), so that may not be true for much longer.