Shooting Narrative With The Blackmagic Cinema Camera
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Last weekend I directed and DP made a short film called "Brother Sister", which was shot with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (EF model). This short film is a forerunner of my upcoming feature of the same name and was done as a creative and technical test to explore techniques and ideas before we deal with the feature. It was a very interesting experience as the film had to be made extremely quickly as we intend to finish it for Sundance's final deadline (September 16). The entire process from conception to the final master took less than 4 weeks.

Ultimately, the reason I bought a BMCC was because it was used in a narrative environment where the camera really lights up. Strangely, until the last weekend I mainly shot commercials / documentaries / music video projects with it. So it was very refreshing to use it for a project where I could really make full use of it. In this post I will explain my experience with the camera from preparation to wrapping and highlight some of the most important discoveries I have made along the way. Also pay attention to part 2 of this post, in which I explain my post workflow.

Prep

As I was preparing for this shoot, I realized that I would need more equipment and supplies for the BMCC. The first thing on the list was a rig. I used a Jag35 DSLR rig that I would definitely not trust the BMCC because it feels too weak, so I had to build a rig from scratch. My first purchase was the Viewfactor Cage for the BMCC, which I highly recommend. The cage is very well built, looks clean and is effective. It comes with an integrated 15mm bar clamp on the bottom, which was a nice touch as I thought I would have to buy this separately.

I drove two 24-inch, 15-mm rods through the base of the cage and started building the rest from there. The next thing I added to the rig was a Zacuto shoulder pad, followed by an IDX battery plate (and of course a battery). The battery actually worked very well as a counterweight, and although I could have made up a few pounds more, I decided to use the battery to keep my balance and it did the job. On the front of the rig, I added a small Arri matte box and another handle / bracket that can be used for shoulder-mounted shots. I like building my rigs so that they can be easily removed from the tripod and used on your shoulder with minimal effort and delays.

The only other addition to the rig was a TVLogic HD-SDI monitor, which was critical given the type of BMCC's highly reflective rear screen. I'm sorry I didn't buy an upper handle for the BMCC (to attach it to the top of the cage), but I did well without it. I didn't use any follow focus on the rig at all – but that was because I knew that I wouldn't have a focus puller with me and would rarely (if ever) do focus pulls.

blackmagic rig cage noamkroll.com

production

On the first day we mainly shot interiors. The appearance of the film is very dark and dark, so of course I wanted to make sure that we light everything up appropriately. Everyone always suggests that you have to "expose to the right" with this camera, or in other words, almost blow out the footage and then bring it down in the mail. In theory, this way you get the cleanest picture of the BMCC. With that said, I decided from the first shot that I wouldn't do this for the interior shots. If I had followed this rule I should have pumped so much more light into the scene and made sure to turn everything off and it wasn't worth it. I wanted to make sure that my actors felt that the environment they were in was realistic. If we had shot 4 or 5 times the amount of light into the scene, the scene would not have been played the way it did. Regardless, the final images were very clean. I shot about 2.8 most of the time and rated the camera 400 ASA.

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blackmagic camera behind the scenes of noamkroll.com

At lunch I threw the footage onto another drive and replaced the battery. Both the battery and the card lasted almost exactly half a day, which was perfect. We shot 480GB drives on Sandisk Extreme and had 6 of them. Since we were shooting raw, each trip would only contain about an hour of footage. And because we would not be shooting more than 3 cards a day, I decided to use 3 as a shoot and the other 3 as backups. I always prefer to back up to solid-state drives, so that seemed to make the most sense. Many people are concerned about the cost of raw shots in smaller productions. In my opinion, it's really not that bad. Hard drives are so cheap nowadays that you can buy a 2TB hard drive (or even two) for backups for just over a hundred dollars. You can buy a slow drive when you need it (to save money), and it doesn't matter if it's just a backup drive. I usually work with my internal RAID on my computer anyway. So when I buy a backup drive, I rarely buy the fastest drive because it is rarely used and never works.

At the end of the day, we had to take a single shot outside the house and, according to the script, it should be the middle of the day. It was almost sunset when we started rolling, so I was worried that the camera wouldn't have enough light to sell it for a midday shot, but luckily the BMCC worked exceptionally well in low-light environments. It may not be a king in low light conditions like the fs700 or c300, but it is still very good in situations with minimal lighting. Better than you think. And the raw can be pushed so far into the mail that it is very forgiving.

On the second day we filmed outside in a desert area that was next to an artificial lake. My worry on the second day was that the camera would overheat as it was approaching 100 degrees toward mid-day. Everyone who has shot on the BMCC knows how hot these SSDs can get, so I was pretty tired of shooting under these conditions. To protect the camera, we always left it under a tent when we weren't taking pictures, and during shooting we put a couple of flags around the camera to protect it from sunlight. For the few hand shots we had, our PA actually had to walk with a flag and cover the camera all the time.

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The flags ultimately served two purposes, the first of course being to protect the heat from the sun, the second to help with screen reflections. As most of us already know, the screen on the back of the BMCC is pretty useless in bright sunlight, so you really need an EVF. Even our TVLogic monitor with a long sun hood still gave us some really bad reflections. I desperately needed an Alphatron EVF or something like that, but we managed to get through the day with just one additional monitor. What saved us was the fact that this camera has so much dynamics that it's pretty foolproof when it comes to exposure. As long as you don't hit the zebras in a normal area (the sun doesn't count!), You're fine. We really only needed the monitor as a frame aid and that's why he did the trick.

By the end of the second day, we hadn't even shot a full card and had barely the first battery left. Using external power is a must with this camera, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to get a good power source. It's tempting to buy one of the cheap Ikan battery solutions or similar alternatives, but it's not worth it. In the end, change the batteries every 20 minutes and have something that doesn't work well ergonomically with your rig. It was a pleasure not to have to think about the battery life during this shoot. It should be noted, however, that the BMCC only discharges the entire external battery before it discharges its own. So if you see the charging icon disappear on the BMCC screen, it means that the external icon is completely dead. The battery levels are only representative of the internal battery.

Summary

The BMCC really exceeded my expectations for this shoot in terms of reliability and performance. If you treat the BMCC like a cinema camera, the bottom line is that you get cinematic results. Does it need an external power supply, a rig, an EVF and other accessories to reach its full potential? Absolutely. But also a RED camera or an Arri Alexa. Many shooters complain that it doesn't immediately work like a 5D or C300, but the truth is that it wasn't intended. It should be used for film productions where the camera package is adapted to the requirements of the shoot. I feel that too often people are looking for a perfect camera that can do everything, and if you are looking for it, this is certainly not the right camera for you. If you need a narrative cinema camera that can keep up with images from cameras that cost 20 times more, this is your camera. If you're shooting ENG style documentaries on the street, you're crazy to shoot with this camera.

As with most other BMCC shooters, my first request is that we absolutely need to get an indication of the time remaining from the SSD. Audio meters are also very important, although they are not so important to me because I will never record audio into the camera regardless of the meters. Regardless, this camera has really proven itself during filming and has earned a place on our equipment list for the feature film. I am sure that we will start using this camera, although we can access Red Epic and many other cameras at low cost. The truth is, the picture only speaks for itself and the cost is hard to beat! On the second day we only shot with the available light and the BMCC worked wonderfully even in strong sunlight. You can find tips on taking pictures with available light in my blog post here.

Check out some very lightly graded screenshots from the film and keep an eye out for the trailer soon.

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Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

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