This past weekend I Directed and DP’d a short film titled “Brother Sister”, which was shot on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (EF Model). This short is a precursor to my upcoming feature of the same name, and was done as a creative and technical test to explore techniques and ideas before we go to camera on the feature. It was a very interesting experience as the film had to be turned around extremely quickly, since we’re aiming to have it completed for the Sundance final deadline (Sept. 16). From conception to final master, the entire process will have taken less than 4 weeks.
Ultimately the reason that I purchased a BMCC was to use it in a narrative environment, which is really where the camera shines. Oddly enough though, up until last weekend I’ve mainly shot commercial/documentary/music video projects with it, so it was quite refreshing to use it on a project where I could really push it to it’s full potential. In this post I’ll walk through my experience with the camera from prep to wrap and highlight some of the more important discoveries I made along the way. Also, please keep an eye out for part 2 of this post, where I’ll be discussing my post workflow.
When prepping for this shoot, it became abundantly clear that I was going to need more gear and accessories for the BMCC. The first thing on the list was a rig. I have been using a DSLR rig from Jag35 that I would definitely not trust with the BMCC as it feels to flimsy, so I had to build out a rig from scratch. My first purchase was the viewfactor cage for the BMCC, which I HIGHLY recommend. The cage is extremely well built, clean looking and effective. It comes with an integrated 15mm rod clamp on the bottom which was a nice touch as I thought I would need to purchase that separately.
I ran two 24″ 15mm 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 battery of course). The battery actually worked really well as a counter weight, and while I could have used an extra couple of pounds to balance it out, I decided to use the battery to help balance things and it got the job done. On the front of the rig I added a small Arri Mattebox and another handle/clamp that could be used for shoulder mounted shots. I like building my rigs in a way where they can easily be popped off 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 crucial given the nature of the highly reflective back screen of the BMCC. I regret not buying a top handle for the BMCC (to attach to the top of the cage), but I got by well without it. I also did not use a follow focus on the rig at all – But this was because I knew I wouldn’t have a focus puller with me and would rarely (if ever) do any focus pulls.
On day 1 we mainly shot interiors. The look and feel of the film is very dark and grim, so I naturally wanted to make sure that we lit everything accordingly. Everyone always suggests that you need to “Expose to the right” with this camera, or in other words come close to blowing out the footage, and then bring it down in post. Theoretically, by doing this you get the cleanest image from the BMCC. With that said though, I decided from the first shot that I was not going to do this for the interior shots. If I followed that rule, I would have had to pump in so much more light into the scene and deal with flagging it all off, and it wasn’t worth it. I wanted to make sure that my actors felt like the environment they were in had some sort of realism to it. If we were shooting 4 or 5 times the amount of light into the scene, I’m not sure the scene would have played out the way it did. Regardless the final images were very clean. I shot at about a 2.8 most of the time and rated the camera at 400 ASA.
At lunch I dumped the footage to another drive and swapped out the battery. Both the battery and the card lasted almost exactly half a day, which was perfect. We shot on Sandisk Extreme 480gb drives and had 6 of them with us. Since we were shooting raw, each drive would hold just about an hour of footage. And because we wouldn’t shoot more than 3 cards a day, I decided to use 3 as our shooting drives and the other 3 as backups. I always prefer to back up onto solid state drives as well, so that seemed to make the most sense. Many people are worried about the cost of shooting raw on smaller scale productions. In my opinion it’s really not that bad. Hard drives are so cheap these days that for just over a hundred dollars you can get a 2 TB hard drive (or even two of them) for backups. You can buy a slow drive if you need to (to save money), and it won’t matter if it’s just a backup drive. I typically work off of my internal RAID on my computer anyways, so if I’m going to buy a backup drive I rarely will buy the fastest drive out there as they are rarely used and never worked off of.
At the end of the day we had to shoot a single shot outside of the house and it was supposed to be the middle of the day, according to the script. It was almost sunset by the time we started rolling, so I was getting worried that the camera wouldn’t have enough light to sell it as a mid-day shot, but thankfully the BMCC worked exceptionally well in relatively lower light environment. It may not be a low-light king like the fs700 or c300, but it is still very good in minimally lit situations. Better than you might think. And the raw can be pushed so far in post that it is very forgiving.
On day 2 we shot entirely outside in a desert area that was next to a man made lake. My worry going into day two was that the camera was going to over heat as it was closing in on 100 degrees toward the middle of the day. Anyone that has shot on the BMCC knows how hot those SSD’s can get as it is, so I was quite weary of shooting in those conditions. To protect the camera we would always leave it under a tent when not shooting with it, and while shooting we would set up a couple of flags around the camera to shade it from the sunlight. For the few handheld shots that we had, our PA actually needed to walk with a flag, covering the camera the entire time.
The flags ended up serving two purposes, the first of course being to block the heat from the sun, but the second was 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 on it was still giving us some really bad reflections. I desperately needed an Alphatron EVF or something similar, but we managed to get through the day with just the one addtional monitor. What saved us was the fact that this camera has so much dynamic range, that it is pretty idiot proof when it comes to exposing. As long as you aren’t hitting the zebras in any normal area (the sun doesn’t count!) than you’re fine. We really only needed the monitor as a framing guide and for that, it did the trick.
By the end of the 2nd day, we hadn’t even shot a full card and just barely ran out of the first battery. Using external power is a must with this camera, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to get a good power source. It’s tempting to get one of the cheap Ikan battery solutions or other similar alternatives, but it is not worth it. You’ll end up changing your batteries every 20 minutes and having something that doesn’t work well ergonomically with your rig. It was a pleasure to not have to think about battery life on this shoot. One thing to note though, is the BMCC will just drain the entire external battery before it drains its own. So when you see the charging symbol dissapear from the BMCC screen, that means the external is completely dead. The battery levels are only representative of the internal battery.
The BMCC really exceeded my expectations on this shoot, both in terms of reliability and raw performance. The bottom line is when you treat the BMCC like a cinema camera, it will give you cinematic results. Does it need external power, a rig, an evf and other accessories to work at it’s full potential? Absolutely it does. But so does a RED camera or an Arri Alexa. Many shooters complain that it doesn’t work right out of the box like a 5D or C300, but the truth is, it wasn’t intended to. It was intended to be used for cinematic productions that customize the camera package to suit the needs of the shoot. I feel too often, people are looking for the one perfect camera that can do it all, and if you are looking for that, this certainly isn’t the camera for you. If you need a narrative cinema camera that can rival images coming from cameras that cost 20 times more, than this is your camera. If you’re shooting man on the street ENG style documentary footage, than you’d be crazy to shoot with this camera.
Like most other BMCC shooters, my number one request is that we absolutely need to get a readout from the SSD with the amount of time left on it. Audio meters are very important too, although not so much for me as I will never record audio into the camera regardless of the meters. Regardless though, this camera really proved itself on the shoot and has earned a spot on our gear list for the feature film. I’m certain that we will shoot the feature on this camera, even though we have access to Red Epic’s and many other cameras at low cost. The truth is, the image just speaks for itself and the cost is hard to beat! On day 2, we shot only with available light and the BMCC worked beautifully even in harsh sunlight. For tips on shooting with available light, check out my blog post here.
Check out some very lightly graded screen grabs from the film, and keep an eye out soon for the trailer.
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