When I was in middle school, I saved my pennies until I had enough money to buy a Gameboy. I played Tetris until I could close my eyes and see falling blocks. All the game graphics were gray/green monochrome, because that was the limitation of the technology. About 15 years later, my wife got a Gameboy Advance SP. It was billed as being backwards-compatible with original Gameboy games, so I dug out my old Tetris cartridge, and plugged it in. To my amazement, the falling blocks were in color! The programmers of that game put color data in the game code, even though they thought nobody would be able to see it.
The way I felt when I read that the Magic Lantern team had discovered a way to record RAW video from a Canon 5D Mark II reminded me of the way I felt when I saw those colored Tetris blocks. How is it possible that a five-year-old DSLR can have state-of-the-art functionality? It leaves me shaking my head in awed disbelief.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in disbelief, however. I immediately downloaded the Magic Lantern RAW module, shot some test footage, and decided to use it for a real project.
So, I did. Here’s what I learned.
The best way to assess a new tool is to use it for its intended purpose. Shooting scenic beauty shots is fine, but I knew that I’d learn a lot more about what this 5D2 RAW can and can’t do by using it for a short but full-featured production. I had been planning to do a small promo video for a friend’s tennis program anyway, and the project was a perfect fit.
In order to do a meaningful evaluation, and because I wasn’t confident in the technology, I shot enough footage in both RAW and conventional H264 formats to finish the spot, even if the RAW files didn’t work. As it turned out, only a couple of the RAW files malfunctioned, so I was able to create two complete versions of the spot. This allows for some interesting comparison.
RAW files gobble up enormous amounts of storage (about 4GB per minute, depending on resolution), so I needed a short project with simple shots. A web video promoting kids’ tennis was perfect. The kids were only available for about an hour, and I couldn’t afford to waste disk space, so I decided to shoot everything off a tripod, to maximize usable footage, and to avoid the complexity of moving camera shots. Also, I was working as a crew of one, so logistically I had to keep things minimal.
On the 5D Mk II, Magic Lantern RAW has a maximum resolution of 1880×720. It’s an interesting, super-widescreen aspect ratio, but it caused some problems in my initial tests, so I decided to shoot at the standard 720p resolution of 1280×720 instead. Magic Lantern decreases resolution by cropping the image, so the fairly severe crop factor from 1080p to 720p meant that I would only see the very center of the image. I wanted to use a wide-angle lens to give a sense of immediacy and to limit rolling shutter “jell-o,” so I decided to shoot all the action footage with the widest lens I have, a Sigma 12-24mm, and the on-camera segments by the coach with my Canon 24-70mm.
The Sigma 12-24 is not a particularly fast lens (maximum aperture f/4), and it does not accept filters, so I knew I’d be shooting at a pretty high aperture, but for sports, a more generous depth of field isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Magic Lantern RAW does not record audio, so I knew that I would have to use true dual-system sound. I normally use my Tascam DR-100 Mk II for DSLR audio anyway, but I’m used to being able to record a backup track on the camera, which makes sound sync a breeze. In this case, I would have to sync everything manually, so I would have to remember to slate each shot of on-camera audio.
I also decided not to worry about recording the ambient “nat” sound of the tennis activities. I planned on using voiceover and music throughout, and I suspected that I might be able to use some of the camera audio from the H264 files for background flavor.
With these preliminary decisions made (and a script and shot-list in hand), I was ready for the shoot.
For the most part, my prepro decisions worked well. I was hoping for a nice blue sky, but the day was overcast. This wasn’t ideal, but it diffuse the sunlight enough to minimize dark shadows, while still allowing enough directionality of light to provide for decent contrast.
I did make three mistakes:
1) I mentioned the substantial depth of field associated with shooting a 12-24mm lens at a high aperture. Well, I did take the precaution of running the 5D2’s sensor-cleaning function, but I didn’t bother to check the result on a monitor. Consequently, when I got the footage home, I found the image of a thin hair in the lower right-hand corner of all my H264 footage, along with a couple of small spots in the center of the image. Fortunately, the hair was outside the crop zone of the RAW files (there’s an upside to everything … even severe image cropping!), and there was enough motion in the shots to disguise the other sensor spots.
2) I forgot to slate two out of the three RAW shots that needed to be synced with audio. This was a major hassle, and was further complicated by the fact that the RAW files would glitch occasionally, throwing off sync. Mercifully, I only had two lines of on-camera dialog to sync, and only a few takes of each to sift through.
3) Magic Lantern RAW recording is triggered differently than conventional recording. A couple of times, I instinctively hit the record button, while RAW recording was already engaged. This corrupted the RAW files. I also had some glitches and Magic-Lantern-flavored pink noise in a couple of my H264 files, which surprised me a bit.
Overall, I was quite pleased, as only three of the 20+ RAW files I shot failed to work in post.
I won’t lie to you: post was a bear. RAW files require a three-stage conversion (RAW to DNG image sequence, DNG to TIF image sequence, TIF to ProRes) and a two-stage color grade (preliminary RAW processing, and then normal grading within editing software). This results in multiple versions of each (huge) file, and is very time-consuming. It’s also a process replete with “gotchas.”
The RAW processing stage tripped me up a bit. I’ve processed photos in RAW for years, but doing the same process for video was quite different. I used Photoshop to batch-process the DNG files, and I tried to do sort of a preliminary grade with them, while maximizing detail. This turned out to be a rather unhelpful approach. I should have either gotten the files as close as possible to the final result I was looking for, or I should have made them as clean as possible. As it was, my artificially warm color balance (I wanted a warm, summery look to the footage) caused me headaches when I started using Colorista II on the ProRes files.
The dynamic range of the RAW files is great, but by maximizing detail in the shadows and highlights, I allowed the midtones – the heart of the image – to get muddy. In retrospect, I would suggest grading for what’s important, rather than what’s most technically impressive.
I must say, I was a little disappointed in the color rendition of the RAW files versus the H264 footage. Although the RAW files had more of the “RED look,” the punchy colors of the 5D’s native format really look good by comparison, both before and after grading.
Here’s the RAW file, graded with Colorista II. I’ve brought up the saturation a bit, and adjusted the total balance to give the image some more contrast.
Here’s the H264 file, graded with Colorista II. I’ve warmed up the shot a bit, and brought up the midtones considerably. It now looks very similar to the RAW shot, but it still seems to have punchier colors somehow.
There’s also considerably more moiré in the RAW files than the H264 files. Apparently, this isn’t an issue on the 5D3 and 6D, but I sure saw it on the 5D2. Look at the coach’s shirt, in the RAW image …
The RAW image quality is very impressive, and the flexibility of RAW post-processing is awe-inducing, but it’s hard to imagine using DSLR RAW for more complex projects until the files can be integrated more seamlessly into the editing software. RED’s “R3D” files can be imported directly into Premiere, and adjusted and re-adjusted as necessary, without hogging harddrive space and wasting time. We need something similar for these Canon RAW files.
The Magic Lantern interface is clunky and a little buggy, but it’s a work in progress, so that doesn’t bother me a bit. Is 5D RAW ready for primetime? Probably not yet … But the fact that it exists at all is incredible, and it is surely a harbinger of great things to come. More to the point, these developers are giving the fruits of their labor to the rest of us for absolutely nothing in return, so they deserve our heartfelt gratitude. On behalf of all the 5D users, I say “Thank you!” to Trammel Hudson (the original Magic Lantern creator) and all the brilliant men and women who have continued his work.