Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Introduction to the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera: Part I

As of the start of fall semester 2014, I have two kits that I equip students with for recording interviews in the field - the Panasonic GH3 and the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (BMPCC). Both are capable of producing professional grade results and are children of the "DSLR Revolution" that began, more or less, in 2008. They both use the micro four-thirds lens mount. They both have inadequate built-in audio controls. Yet this is pretty much where the similarities end. Each camera has advantages and disadvantages, and these differences I liken to those between a driving a Ferrari and an Audi sedan. Both are a lot of fun to use, capable, and powerful, but one has more capabilities, while the other is a little less of a hassle. The BMPCC is the Ferrari, very powerful and sometimes a hassle.

Fig.1: The BMPCC is relatively small. Not much bigger than one of those outsized Samsung phones, but a lot heavier. Depicted here without lens attached. 
When Blackmagic Design introduced the BMPCC in the spring of last year, it sent the camera geek blogosphere into high orbit. It boasted features that were previously unthinkable at the $995 (body only) price point. How I would have loved to have had one in 2010! But with its strong feature set come some drawbacks. Still, the BMPCC remains a competitive camera in a technology sector that continues to change rapidly, particularly in the new area of "4K" resolution Ultra HD. When it was on sale for $499 this summer, I wish I had been able to order a half dozen of them. As you will see, however, the body is just the first expense for the system. Would this be the best camera for a beginning documentarian to buy? That really depends on how you use it, but probably not. Yet it does have some great features worth considering and might be an option if you are willing to put up with its frustrations.

An Overview: More than you want or, perhaps, need to know.

I'm going to go into details of the camera that are good to know and answer why it functions the way it does. But if you aren't comfortable with all of these details, that's ok. It takes time to learn, and certainly you will not need to remember all of this to make a great looking film. 

The Sensor:
For those of you who are new to the technology behind digital cameras, the camera's sensor is what we find at the heart of the beast. The sensor is the modern equivalent to film in the days of chemical photography. In 2008, Canon introduced its 5D Mark 2 camera, which was the first serious professional stills camera to add high-definition video recording to its features list. It unleashed a revolution by democratizing high-end filmmaking. The 5DMk2 used a 24x36mm sensor - the same size as 35mm film's image area - and what has been for some time now established and called a "Full Frame" sensor because lenses designed for a 35mm film camera will cover the same image circle. Any smaller of a sensor creates what is called a crop factor, which I will explain below. There are many advantages to a full frame sensor, low-light sensitivity and the ability to render a pleasing shallow depth of field being the most conspicuous. (Depth of Field, or DoF, is complex. We'll cover the simple version later.)

The BMPCC is built around a very capable nearly "Super 16" sized sensor, a sensor just a little bit smaller than the standard Micro Four-Thirds (M43) one found in cameras like the Panasonic GH3/GH4, Olympus OM, etc. This sensor size translates roughly to the size of 16mm film used in old cinematic motion picture cameras, but not exactly. One of the big advantages of the smaller M43 sensor/mount/system is that the equipment itself is smaller and lighter. When you lug gear around, you will come to appreciate this. But there are some things to keep in mind. Perhaps the biggest is the role played by crop factor. Roughly put, the crop factor of a M43 sensor like the one on the GH3 will double the effective focal length of a similarly rated lens on a full frame sensor. For instance, a 25mm lens would be considered a wide angle lens on a full frame, but on M43 it is equivalent to a 50mm standard lens because the image circle has been cropped. On the BMPCC, it is 110%, or 55mm. Here is a great crop factor / focal length calculator specifically for the BMPCC. The bottom line is that you need to think of your lens focal lengths in terms of the size of your sensor.

Without question, intangible aesthetic considerations aside the modern digital sensor in almost every respect outperforms film. (This, coming from a guy who still shoots film because he likes the "look.") This is because a digital sensor is capable of recording so much more image information. In fact, the sensor captures a lot of information that you do not actually see unless you process the image in a computer. The sensor's ability to record a wide range of information is known as latitude and dynamic range. Not all sensors and their cameras are created equal in this regard. The BMPCC and GH3 are both considered excellent in terms of dynamic range, but the BMPCC is the much more capable of the two for a variety of reasons, among them the recording codecs and bitrates that it uses. Part II will discuss these options in more detail, but the biggest strength of the BMPCC is its ability to record a beautiful "filmic" image that can be "pushed around" in the computer to look even better. 

The Micro Four-Thirds (M43) Lens Mount:
Many people consider the M43 lens mount one of this camera's big advantages, and I would have to agree. M43 has a short flange distance - that is, the distance between the lens mount opening and the sensor is short. This means that with an adaptor, you can put almost any lens on a mirrorless mount. This is relevant because motion picture filming is essentially ALL manual focus. There is about 70 years worth of vintage glass out there, some of it really nice, some of it fairly inexpensive (and lenses are the most enduring investment you will make.) You can adapt most of this optics library to the M43 mount. This is very cool and not done enough by people who are just getting into shooting motion picture. That being said, modern lenses are very good, often capable of resolving more detail than the majority of old lenses. Modern lenses, at least the ones most worth owning, are very, very expensive. So that is to say you might find a comparative bargain in an older lens made in the 1980s that has some nice, character delivering glass.

Getting to know the buttons and ports on the camera.

Fig. 2: The top of the BMPCC
1) This is the lens release button, to be used when you want to put a different lens on the camera. NOTE: be careful when you change a lens on a mirrorless camera. THERE IS NOTHING between the sensor and the elements, be they dust, smoke, cat hair, rain, etc. Never leave the camera sitting around without the lens or the body cap on it. (Shown here with the body cap.) Don't take off the lens and replace the body cap in the bag. Only take lens off when you need a lens change!
2) The aforementioned body cap.
3) The RECORD button.
4) Navigation buttons to play through your videos. You probably won't use these very much. At least I seldom review footage on the camera.

Fig 3. The side ports.
1) This is the side view of the lens release button.
2) LANC remote. You won't use this because the studio does not own a LANC remote!
3) Headphone jack. You can monitor audio from the camera. This will be what the camera is recording from the line-in coming from the Zoom H6. It is an option, and gives you the benefit of knowing what the audio track on your video file will sound like. Unfortunately, I find that the BMPCC picks up a hum in its audio that just isn't there on the Zoom's line out. I'm not sure where this comes from or why, but I think it is actually a result of the poor quality on the BMPCC's headphone jack as I don't hear the hum on the actual videorecording when I bring it into the computer. To be safe you can synchronize your audio recording from the Zoom with the video from the BMPCC in Final Cut. Fortunately this is relatively easy to do.
4) Microphone jack. You will run the cable from the line-out on the Zoom H6 to this port.
5) Micro HDMI port. You probably won't be dragging a monitor to the field for your interview, but if you did, you could hook it up using this port. Smaller even than a Mini HDMI.
6) Power port. You can charge the battery in the BMPCC by plugging it in OR you can run off of AC power by plugging it in. You can also charge spare batteries on a separate battery charger. The BMPCC eats batteries like there is no tomorrow, so it is good to have options. One fully charged battery will make it through a 45 minute interview if you do not turn the camera on and off a lot. Indeed, short battery life is one of this camera's main drawbacks.

Fig 4. The back
1.) The LCD Screen. Unlike the GH3, this is not a touch-screen. I wish often that it were.
2.) The Menu button where you go to change settings or to get out of the menu tree
3.) The Power button.
4.) Navigation buttons. Up down usually selects an item while side-to-side changes the setting, confirmed with OK. While not in the menus, the side-to-side buttons also control the iris or aperture of the lens (unless it is a manual lens on an adaptor.) Double-punching the "OK" button will also engage a zoomed in focus screen. This is sort of an awkward control.
5.) Iris button. Pushing this will set an "auto iris" setting on the camera. This is useful when you are in a hurry to get a proper exposure for your shot. But chances are you aren't going to be using this for your interview because you will have more time to make adjustments that are otherwise buried in the menus.
6.) Focus button: When you use an "active mount" lens - i.e., one like the Panasonic lenses that the camera can control electronically, hitting the button will cause the camera to slowly pull an auto-focus. This can be useful in advance of a shot or when you can't see the screen very well. Double punching the button will create "focus peaking," which is where a bright green edge appears around what is in focus.

Fig 5. The bottom
1) SD card slot. Note that the BMPCC fills SD cards very quickly and requires the very fastest ones available to work.
2) Battery. The BMPCC has a smallish battery that doesn't last very long.
Also, I didn't label it, but in this photo you will see the USB port of the camera, hidden under the bottom door.

Preparing the SD Card for Use with the BMPCC

As I mentioned, the BMPCC requires very fast SD cards to use all of its features. While these features may not be something you use, I wanted to equip students with the ability to do so. Therefore in the kit you will find TWO 64GB Sandisk Extreme Pro SD cards. At 95MB/s they were the fastest SD cards on the market (there are now 220MB/s cards now). Don't lose them - they are expensive!

One of the quirks of the BMPCC is that as of the current firmware version, there is no way to format or erase the SD cards with the camera itself. This is one of the camera's big downsides, in my view, making it much less "user friendly" for students. You have to format the card with your Mac or PC. I do not use a PC, so these instructions are only for the Mac, or you can watch this handy video that shows you the exact same process.

1) Place your SD card into either the Mac's card reader or plug the BMPCC into the computer via the USB port. My suggestion is to use the card reader!
2) Find the Disk Utility Program in your Mac's "applications" folder.
3) Find the card and highlight it.
4) Click on the "Erase" tab in the window
5) Format it using the "ExFAT" format and hit "Erase."
6) It will ask you "if you are sure." If you are, hit "Erase."

The card is empty and ready to use in the BMPCC.

With this overview of the camera in mind, and with the battery charged and the SD Card formatted, you are ready to start rigging up the BMPCC for an interview. 

Whether you are using the GH3 or the BMPCC, you will have access to the same 3 lenses. They each have plusses and minuses (this phrase is getting old, I know!) 

Fig 6. Our lens choices.  BMPCC with Leica/Panasonic 25/1.4 mounted (left) Pentax Super Takumar, circa 1964, 55/1.8 on M42toM43 adaptor (center) Panasonic Lumix 12-35/2.8 OIS Zoom mounted on the Panasonic GH3 (right).
For interviews, I prefer a lens with a more "portrait" focal length. In full frame equivalency, this means something longer - anywhere from 50 to 135mm. On the BMPCC, this means from 25 to 60 or so. The longer the focal length, the greater the perceived depth of field is. (We will discuss DoF in our "framing your subject" blog post.) I really like the Leica/Panasonic 25/1.4 for interviews. It is a very fast lens (meaning it has a wide aperture, and many DoF options) but it is also extremely sharp. You can also use the old M42 Super Takumar for an awesome vintage look - and more than double the focal length. Lastly, we have the Panasonic/Lumix 12-35/2.8 zoom lens. This is a very capable quality, expensive, and more importantly, image stabilized lens. The nice thing about a zoom is that you can adjust your framing with the lens itself. It is a little slower of a lens at f2.8, but still fast for a zoom. Where this lens shines most, however, is for shooting hand-held B-roll because of its amazingly good image stabilization system, which takes a surprising amount of shake out of your footage. Image stabilization offers no value when filming an interview with a tripod, however. 

For the sake of this blog post, we'll use the Leica 25/1.4 for our setup. 

Attaching support system: 

Unless you are going to hand-hold your camera (which is an option, but the subject of another post) you will need to attach it to a tripod. Moreover,  you are going to have to attach a bunch of cables and other gear. Let's look at how we will do that. 

Fig. 7: I am a fan of the Zacuto Mini DSLR Baseplate rig.

The Mini DSLR Baseplate is made by Zacuto, a company that produces all sorts of cinematic accessories used by Hollywood types. What this does is supply a platform for attaching all of the different stuff you will need to set up your interview rig. Most cinematic cameras use this modular form so the user can customize based on their needs.

1) This baseplate screws into the bottom of the BMPCC. You will need a screwdriver to attach and remove it. The plate will be generally attached to the camera, however, even though it makes accessing the camera's bottom door somewhat more difficult.
2) The baseplate attaches to the rig itself through the round opening on the plate (located in the upper RH corner of #1). It makes it super easy to attach and detach the camera from the tripod while being extremely secure. We <3 professional tools!

Fig. 8: Here the baseplate has been attached. Note the little dip in the plate that lines up with the bottom door. This helps you to open it with the plate attached.
Fig. 9: And mounted to the unit for display purposes. Note the added rod poking out sideways. I've customized this rig with some extra parts to accommodate the audio recording gear. Note also that this already has the tripod baseplate attached to the bottom of the DSLR rig.
Fig. 10: Attaching the Zoom H6
The rigging allows you to attach the Zoom H6 so that it is conveniently located for the camera/audio operator. Consult the post on the H6 for all of its ports and functions. 

1) Small rigging device allows hot shoe mount and gimbal mount / 1/4-20 attachment for bottom of Zoom. This isn't an ideal arrangement, but it is what I have at the moment. Still working on a more secure and simple attachment system. 
2) Line out cable exiting the Zoom.
3) Line out to the microphone jack on the BMPCC

Fig. 11: All hooked up with the Shape follow focus added to the rig's front rails. Note that I am monitoring audio here from the BMPCC. It might be better to do so from the Zoom H6.

In Part II of this post, we will discuss how to make sure your BMPCC is set up to film the interview. We will also discuss the recording of the interview as well as ingesting the footage and audio into Final Cut Pro X and color correcting the video in Filmconvert. 

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