Blackmagic Production Camera 4K – A Brutally Honest Review

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague and I were joking to each other that we would receive the Blackmagic Production Cameras we had ordered “any month now.” Imagine my pleasure and surprise when I received my very own BMPK, a scant six weeks after I had placed the order with B&H!

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My first impression, after testing it out, is that this is a whole lot of camera for the money. The Blackmagic Production Camera costs about $3,000. That’s $800 less than my most recent camera, the Panasonic AF 100, or $300 less than a Canon 5d Mark 3. With that said comparing the BMPK to anything else in its price range is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Or, maybe a more modern analogy would be like comparing a Swiss Army Knife to a meat cleaver. The BMPK doesn’t do a whole lot of different things, but it does one thing – shoot video – like a mofo. And, like a meat cleaver, the BMPK would be difficult to handle for those who are used to smaller, friendlier tools. This is an extremely powerful piece of equipment that, frankly, does not make it easy for you to get where you’re going. Consider the following:

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• No audio meters. You can set the input levels, but you can’t see how strong the signal is.
• No XLR inputs. Instead you get dual 1/4″ phono inputs (like guitar cables).
• No way to delete clips or format media in the camera.
• Only 3 levels of ISO: 200, 400, 800.
• Only 2 Picture Styles: “Film” or “Video” (which is almost exactly the same as film, except with more saturated color).
• No way to transfer media to a computer, without a separate SSD dock (I cannibalized an old harddrive for mine).
• An inexplicable “Black Hole Sun” issue, in which highly overexposed highlights turn into magenta tumors.
• A view finder that is almost impossible to see in bright sunlight.
• No HDMI output, only SDI.
• No indication of how much recording time you have left.
• No handles, or other feasible way to hand hand-hold the unit.
• An internal battery that drains rapidly, and external batteries that cost $300 apiece.
• Footage that needs to be color graded extensively.
• ProRes files that swallow about 5GB per minute. I didn’t even try recording in RAW.

Also, consider that the sensor on the black magic cameras is protected by a thin piece of glass, and that my particular camera (along with others, according to the support forums), arrived from the factory with several pieces of dust on the inside of that piece of glass. This means that I really can’t shoot at any aperture over f/8 without risking sensor spots. Theoretically, I could send the camera back to black magic to have it repaired, but given the back log they are doing with, I am terrified that it would be months before I got my camera back. As it is, the specs are very very tiny. It’s not okay, but it is something I can work around.

The black hole sun issue is also inexcusable. Blackmagic did patch the same problem on their less expensive Pocket Cinema Camera with a firmware update, so obviously it’s possible to fix it. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before they release updates for the BMPK firmware.

blackholesun

With all that said, I’m still glad I sold my AF-100 to get this thing. In fact, most of the general complaints about this camera remind me of a lot of the early complaints against the Canon 5D Mk II: yeah, it offered unbelievable image quality at an unprecedented price, but it didn’t allow 24p recording, it didn’t have audio monitoring, it didn’t allow for manual exposure, and so on. All those issues were solved either by the third-party Magic Lantern hacks, or with official firmware updates. There’s no way that Blackmagic won’t do something similar.

Now, any sane person might wonder why people like me are waiting weeks or months to get their hands on a product that is so challenging. The simple answer is that this camera delivers truly cinematic image quality. The BMPK delivers a step forward in capability that mirrors what the Canon 5D Mark II did in 2008. The 5D2 made it possible for the average photographer/videographer to shoot footage that looked as good as a TV show. The BMPK raises the bar to footage that looks as good as a major motion picture, for the same basic price point. This means that, effectively there is now no major barrier to entry for cinematic storytelling. For the price of a crappy used car, you can get a camera package, a computer, some lights and sound equipment, and you can make your movie. Yes, people will complain that it’s still several thousand dollars. But 10 years ago, you couldn’t even touch a camera like this for under $100,000. 10 years before that, you couldn’t even put together an editing system for less than $100,000, and you would have needed to shoot on 35mm film to approach this kind of image quality.

If you watch the ungraded vs. graded test video at the top of this post, you’ll see that I had trouble exposing my images properly. That’s partly because I wasn’t used to the monitor, and partly because I didn’t realize that I could turn on zebra bars to tell me what parts of the image were at 100% brightness. However, if you look at the graded footage, you’ll notice that it looks fantastic. There’s so much detail captured in the ProRes files that I was able to salvage almost every single shot. Now that I have a vague idea about how to operate the camera, I don’t expect to have as much trouble in future.

Vimeo squashed my file down to 720p, but here are screengrabs at full, 3160×2140 resolution. This is not really 4K, since it does not have a horizontal resolution of 4,000 pixels, but it IS four times the pixel-count of HD, which makes it Ultra HD, and hella big and impressive.

graded vs ungraded water graded vs ungraded marsh graded vs ungraded bnb

Much has been made of the accessories required to use the Blackmagic products. In my opinion, this has been somewhat overblown. While a camera such as the AF-100 includes everything in the box, meaning audio capability, monitoring its ability, input output and file control, etc., DSLRs fall short in many of these categories. In other words, the Blackmagic cameras are not a good way to get your feet wet in filmmaking or video production. However, for those who have been working with DSLR video for some time, and already have additional equipment, such as Canon lenses, external audio recorders and or field mixers, camera cages or rigs, field monitors, and so on, swapping a black magic camera out for a DSLR will not be that big of a deal.

Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t need any gear. For one thing, this camera has an EF mount, which means that it takes Canon EOS lenses. If you don’t have any Canon lenses, you’re looking at spending the price of the camera body, for just a couple of quality pieces of glass. Speaking of lenses, it’s worth noting that the production camera is not full frame it is super 35, which is roughly similar to the APS sensor in the Canon 7D. So, for example, a 20 millimeter lens on the Canon 5D2 will look like a 35 millimeter lens on the BMPK. To get a 20 millimeter equivalent on the Blackmagic, you would need a 12 millimeter lens. So, even if you have glass, you might need some new bits and pieces.

Also, I’m going to come out and say it: the 1/4″ audio inputs are a bizarre choice. Normally, the only time you see a cable with a female XLR plug at one end and a quarter inch plug at the other is when a musician is singing into a microphone that is being plugged directly into a guitar amp. And the fact that there’s no visual audio meter is certainly a cause for concern. I would not undertaken a serious project with this camera without recording the audio on an external device. The camera does have a headphone jack, so unlike most DSLR’s, it is possible to get a general confidence monitor on your sound, you just don’t have any way of telling how close you are to being either excessively loud or excessively quiet on the actual waveform being recorded.

I should mention that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the per-gigabyte cost of SSD drives is much better than SDHC cards or CF cards. A 16GB SDHC card costs about $18 (about $1.12/GB). A 16GB CF card costs about $75 (about $4.68/GB). A 256GB SSD drive cost about $223 (about $.87/GB). This means that the SSD drive actually costs slightly less per gigabyte then SDHC cards and is less than a QUARTER the price of CF media.

As always, there are plenty of people on the internet snobbishly proclaiming that, unless you’re willing to get all the high-dollar accessories, you just shouldn’t bother trying. That, in my opinion, is absolute and utter nonsense. Now, more than ever, it’s possible to do a great project with a tiny budget. The Blackmagic Production Camera definitely has some growing pains to work through, but it fulfills the promise made by the Canon 5D Mark II: that the day has come when the difference between lousy production and great production is no longer the camera, it’s the person using it. The playing field has been leveled, and the production industry will never be the same again.

Crew of One: Matteus Clement

Most of us work in creative fields because we like being creative, not because we wanted to become accountants or salespeople. Unfortunately, most of us wind up wearing those hats as well. The following is a post by Matteus Clement, an independent video pro located in Vancouver Island, Canada. Matteus has taken an innovative, flat-rate approach to budgeting his videos, and has generously agreed to share his insights, as well as a sample of one of the production agreements he and his small-business clients sign off on.

If you struggle with the “business” side of the photo/video business, you’ll find Matteus’ approach very interesting. Whether you agree or disagree with his approach and his pricing (keep in mind, his prices are in Canadian dollars), it’s terrific food for thought.

Enter Matteus:

I’ve been producing videos ever since I went overseas in 2003 with my Canon Z60 DV tape camcorder. It was only three years ago that I decided to take the plunge into my own business, Mazo Media. Since then, I have learned a lot of new video techniques because of necessity and learned a lot of business practice from mistakes.

I have found that a flat rate quote system works much better than an hourly/daily rate (at least in my region). I believe that most owners/managers find peace of mind in a fixed cost as opposed to a project that can balloon out of control.

I have included a mazo media quote template that I have used for the last three years. I have slowly added amendments after having misunderstandings with clients over what was covered and what wasn’t, as well as limits on stuff like edits. (25 revisions are not acceptable). My closing rate is about 80%. The quote is your way of setting boundaries

The biggest mistake I made in the beginning was trying to assess the value of the video, not of my time. The video market here on Vancouver Island is slim and other video production professionals keep their numbers hidden to stay at an advantage. So it was hard to try and say, “John charges $200 for this video and Susan charges $1500, so I will charge $750.”

That system doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because John is filming in his mom’s basement with a handycam and Susan has been filming for 10 years and films on a RED Scarlet. While this method will allow you to give a ballpark of you in the local industry, it doesn’t do much for quotes. The “Ah-ha!” moment for me was when I asked myself, “What do I want to be paid per hour?”

How I Made An App

screengrab5 How many times have you heard someone say – or said yourself – “I’ve got a great idea for an app …” A few months ago, I posted an interview with Dean Head, a DP who developed an app for film crews working in China. Ever since then, my own “great ideas for apps” have been nagging at me.

After talking to a couple of programmer friends, I quickly realized two things:

1) Nobody had time to help me.

2) I couldn’t afford to hire somebody.

This was disappointing, but not unexpected. In fact, it’s much the way I expect people feel when they look into video production and discover how much it costs to product a quality project.

But, I don’t give up that easily. When I was in high school and college in the mid-to-late ’90s, the internet and 3D graphics were just starting. At that time, I was a computer nerd, cutting my teeth on the GW-BASIC programming language (as a middle-schooler, I tried to program a searchable Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and moving on to PASCAL and C+. Once I discovered filmmaking in college, I turned my back on “a life spent in front of a computer in a dark room,” and – aside from learning enough HTML and CSS to do my own websites and eBooks – I abandoned programming.

But, times change. These days, video production puts me in front of a computer a lot more than it puts me on a set or location. To a great extent, the photo/video/web/programming industries have all sort of converged into a nebulous cloud of “creative work.” So, I figured, what the heck, I’ll learn to do apps myself.

FX From Red Giant Are Free (For Now)

I have been a fan of Red Giant’s third-party editing plugins for many years now. I’ve used Looks quite a bit, and Colorista II is by far my favorite color-grading app. Today, Red Giant announced that it is creating its own online community: “Universe.” Membership in Universe if free (for now), and gets you several free plugins. More importantly, Universe members will be able to contribute directly to the release and development of future products!

Here’s the Red Giant promo video.

Here’s the page where you can go to sign up. http://www.redgiant.com/store/universe

Red Giant Universe will quickly become a paid service, and the free beta won’t last long, so – impressive as it is – I’m going to delve in and figure out whether there’s enough on here to justify the not-inconsiderable licensing fees:

- Premium Monthly: $10
- Premium Yearly: $99
- Premium Lifetime: $399

Check it out, and let me know what you think!

Q&A With “Thanks, Dan!” Creators

It is a rare lawyer commercial that makes me want to commit a crime, just so that I can be represented by the lawyer in question. That was exactly the response I had when I saw this spot for Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney Daniel Muessig.

When I first saw the video, it had been updated a few hours previously, and had 400 views. Later that afternoon, it was well over 18,000. Clearly, I was not the only viewer who was impressed!. Curious about the team behind this viral video, I reached out to the man himself, Dan Muessig, Esq., who was kind enough to reply to my nosy questions.

Dan, your promo video had 400 views when I watched it earlier today. Now it’s over 18,000. What kind of response are you getting from people?
Response has been overwhelmingly positive thus far. Some people are mad but you’ll have that.

Your video has a lot of humor, but you’re making a serious point, which is that everyone should have the right to decent legal representation. Kidding aside, what’s your opinion of the current state of the criminal justice system?
The system is completely broken. Its a conveyor belt to prison. In my mind to be effective you have to have your client’s backs to the extent that you are willing to do anything within the law to help them.

Recent Work – Ginny Deerin Campaign Announcement

Benjamin Franklin famously stated that, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Only slightly less certain is the preponderance of political media that is produced for every election cycle. As with too much of our political system, money is the primary factor in determining outcome: candidates backed by wealthy donors or powerful lobbies can pay for high quality production and plenty of TV airtime. Independent candidates struggle to get enough publicity to make potential voters even vaguely aware of their existence.

However, the situation is far from hopeless. On the contrary, social media and low-cost production equipment has made it more feasible than ever for grassroots campaigns to get attention and build up steam. As an example, here is a video I recently did for Ginny Deerin, who is running for Secretary of State for South Carolina.

As you can see, the presentation is very simple, but highly effective. The location was Ginny’s living room. The scene was lit with a Genaray LED light kit. I filmed wide, medium and closeup shots of Ginny delivering her statement on a Canon 5D Mark II. In post, I cut between the different shots to add visual variety, and added photos that she provided. Finally, I added some simple text to the screen to emphasize her key points. Total crew: 2 people (myself and a hair/makeup stylist). Total production time, including editing: less than 7 hours.

The response has been outstanding. One of Ginny’s supporters told her, “If you can get enough people to watch that video, you will win.” Another simply stated, “EXCEPTIONALLY good video!!!!!!”

You don’t need a RED, a full crew, and a giant budget to help a regular person establish themselves as a viable candidate for elected office. If somebody has something powerful to say, keep the production clean and simple, and let them talk.

RIP Sarah Elizabeth Jones

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Normally, I try to keep things fairly positive on this blog. Not today. The tragic death of Sarah Jones on the set of “Midnight Rider,” represents everything I have grown to despise about the entertainment industry.

Here’s the short version of the story (which you can read here): a 27-year-old camera assistant is dead, and seven other people are injured, because the producers of the film she was working on decided it would be okay to shoot on a railroad trestle, at night, without permission.

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Behind The Screens With Twisted Media

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No, that’s not a typo in the headline. Normally, we look behind the scenes, but today we’re going to look behind the screens.

Did you ever notice that computers in movies and TV shows look WAY cooler than in real life? Now only is the hardware often impossibly sleek and futuristic, but the software is incredibly fast, powerful, and awesome-looking.

I’ve been mildly obsessed with movie and TV computer interfaces for a long time, so I was very interested to talk to Derek Frederickson, one of the principals of Twisted Media, a company that specializes in on-screen graphics.

Bob Dylan, Chrysler, And Unintended Consequences

Advertisers and celebrities really need to be careful when they get in bed together. Consider the starring role of anti-establishment hero Bob Dylan in Chrysler’s 2013 Superbowl commercial. By associating itself with the once-iconoclastic Dylan, the Chrysler corporation was trying to be seen as rebellious. Unfortunately, the reverse was equally true: by “selling out” to a completely mainstream manufacturer, Bob Dylan torpedoed a lifetime’s worth of artistic credibility.

 

Behind the Scenes of “Set Yourself Free”

If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the 13+ million people who have already seen “Set Yourself Free.” In this gorgeously filmed PSA, a cadre of nubile youngsters (of the type most often seen in Pepsi or Honda commercials) escapes the drudgery of school and sets off for a carefree day at the beach, with – ahem – unexpected results.

This video is extraordinary, both because of its outstanding production quality and the incredible viewership it has achieved in just its first week. The wizards behind the curtain of this pièce de résistance are the Australian production company of Henry & Aaron: Henry Inglis, Aaron McCann and Lauren Elliott.

Aaron, Henry and Lauren

Behind the Scenes of “Casino Law”

One of the most talked-about commercials from this year’s’ Superbowl didn’t even play nationally. It was a 2-minute epic advertising a personal injury lawyer from Savannah, GA. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

Since I’m an alumnus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, I took a personal interest in this Savannah action, and reached out to Eric Darling, president of eThree Media, the production company that brought Jamie Casino’s singular vision to life. Here’s what Eric told me.