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OK…shooting footage for a review is one thing. Shooting some pretty stuff for fun is another. But shooting a proper project under severe time constraints, and in my genre of choice (documentary) is another!
This is what I decided to put the Blackmagic camera through, a mini doc shot in one day between workshops that I was teaching in Johannesburg in South Africa…although the film is not for a client – it’s a personal doc – I treated it like such, as I do with all my personal work and got it cut just 2 days after finishing the shoot.
Why the Blackmagic camera? After all, I had access to lots of cameras here. My current favourite camera, the Canon C300 (not mine as that one is at home), my favourite DSLR the 1DX (not mine as my one died here, a loaner from Canon South Africa…thanks guys!), the excellent FS700 and the 5Dmk3. The smart choice to be utterly frank would have been to take the C300. It’s proven numerous times to be a terrific documentary camera for me (Do check out my most recent doc shot on it here)
The C300 has proper audio, a terrific super 35mm sensor with magnificent image, a practical workflow with small files, and it’s small and pretty discreet. BUT, I needed to see just what the Blackmagic camera was capable of.
This was the challenge. Going to Ponte Tower in the middle of downtown Jo’Burg. A 70’s architectural monstrosity from the outside that houses an astonishing dystopian science fiction atrium. For quite some time THE place to live in the city, if you were anyone you lived in the massive 3 story penthouses with roof jacuzzis. Post democracy, it turned into something quite different. For the past 20 years it has been a centre for drug addicts and prostitutes. When I mentioned to some that I wanted to shoot a mini doc there, I was told that I was crazy, but that was from people who don’t realise that Ponte is not what it seems. Are things changing for the better there finally?
Technically here were the issues/ challenges:
1: With no permission to film there, we needed to be pretty discreet. So no big fancy rigs…the blackmagic is a camera that NEEDS a rig if you have any intention of shooting handheld…ok, so no handheld. All tripod. More my style anyway, it would also suit the piece better. The architecture is the main character in the piece and it demands to be shot classically on a tripod.
2: Wide angles…the Canon mount to sensor distance combined with the smallish size of said sensor = problematic wides.
3: Audio…quarter inch jacks are ok…no XLRs but they are balanced and we do have a headphone jack, but with no meters onscreen the idea of shooting lots of interviews in-camera was too risky. Sound should never be a compromise to your video.
4: Raw workflow…utterly ridiculous for a documentary like this to be frank. Prores HQ or avid DNxHD would have made way more sense, but I wanted to get to know cinema DNG raw and Resolve better. I knew I would also use up a lot of drive space.
5: Battery life…the internal would give me around 90 minutes. External battery solution is essential.
6: It’s dark there and this camera is not a low light camera. Fact.
So there we go, a few issues, but nothing I couldn’t work around.
1: Be subtle…easy. I spent 17 years shooting news, so I know how not to draw attention to myself. When we filmed it felt like I was in metal gear solid!
2: I bought the Sigma 8-16mm FOR this camera. With the crop of this sensor, I would get around 18.4mm equivalent field of view of a full frame camera. Wide enough. Not stupidly wide, just enough. The downside being that it is F4.5 at the wide end!
3: Using the camera purely as reference sound, I used the superb Roland R26 (my first proper use of it despite having it for 10 months!) with a Rode NTG2 (NTG3 not ideal for external recorders due to the need for phantom power which drains the batteries!). I did use the Rode stereo video mic pro for b roll sound and reference…
4: Deal with it. The raw workflow (which I will go into more later) took time but was beneficial for some shots, not all. The SSD’s I used were Kingston ones. 2x 240gb and 1x 480gb (these are recommended by Blackmagic for their camera. Not the fastest SSDs out there but a good price). I almost used up all of these…that is a lot of space. 240gb in cinema dng raw is around 30 minutes of rushes. So I didn’t shoot a lot, but documentaries always take up a fair bit of space as so much is unplanned and interviews can be long, so my two hours of rushes took up a lot of space. I normally also backup to 3 drives. I used 2 here, as I didn’t want to use up all my drives in South Africa on one project. I am shooting a film in each location, three more films to go!
5: I used the Switronix battery packs. Awkwardly mounted under the camera (ideally it goes on your rig) but it did last all of the first day…just one of them and I brought 4 with me! They cost around $295 each so not cheap, but essential. You can buy them through my B&H affiliate below which doesn’t cost you any more but helps this site tick along nicely!
6: Well low light…always a problem. The camera shoots ISO 800 in raw as its the native, so not super high…you can push it a couple of stops if needed, and with doc work I push it more than I would on a commerical for example. On this piece, noise/ grain was not a bad thing at all….it added to the gritty nature. But I did have my Samyang/ Rokinon 24mm T1.5 Cine lens with me. Perfect for the low light, not wide, more a standard lens, so great for the interviews and others shots.
This is the gear I had with me:
Tripod was a Miller Solo DS20.
RODE NTG 2 and Roland R26 for sound.
Zacuto top handle and Switronix battery pack.
Heliopan Variable ND with step up rings.
Sigma 8-16, Tokina 11-16, Rokina 24mm, Canon 50mm, Canon 24-105 (was used for time-lapse on the mk3), Canon 70-200mm F4 IS. (Thankfully the new firmware on the BMDCC now supports IS, which is essential with the rolling shutter issues of the camera)
My new Signature V-BAG, soon to be officially announced. A vacuum bag designed to hold your camera rock solid in the most awkward of places. Love this…it’s rather astonishingly handy!
So, we had nothing set up, we had an in with one of the friends of two of the filmmakers whom had brought with me over to South Africa to host the workshops. That got us through security with the gear hidden in bags. But we had no interviews, and that was going to be key – having the voices to carry the narrative and not just have a mood piece of images.
The first thing I did was actually set up the 5Dmk3 to do a timelpase out of the epic view from the 52nd floor apartment there. I shot in 5 bracket HDR so I could capture the sun and the buildings. You can see it at the end of the film, it’s the only thing not shot on the Blackmagic. No timelapse on this camera!
So Rick Joaquim and Dale Ballentine and I headed off to find our story. I rattled off as many shots as possible, quickly getting over my nervousness of hanging the Blackmagic camera over the side of the atrium to get those vertigo inducing shots. Dale managed to grab a couple of residents who were willing to talk to us on camera.
You may notice the unnatural framing of the interviews. That was a deliberate choice of course, and I like the negative aspect of them. It felt right for this…you may disagree which is fine!!
Although their accents are strong (for an Englishman) I decided not to subtitle the interviewees. If you are finding them hard to understand, I will do it…mainly time stopped me !
We also got Malcolm, a journalist who had done a piece on the place just before moving in. He is one of a handful of white residents, and having him glued the piece together. He drove the narrative forward with the history of the tower and how we got to where we are now.
The fourth character of the film and the main one was of course the tower itself! I wanted there to be enough breathing space for the shots without voices under it. I also didn’t want all the talking heads to be in vision whilst talking, so it was simply a matter of balancing it out. But I made sure I overshot a lot for the building. This was the key part of the filming, naturally. The interviews were each around 8 minutes long. One of the biggest pains was interviewing whilst operating. There is NO warning when the SSD will run out…it just stops. So you have to keep checking to see if it is still recording. Not ideal, as it distracts the interviewee and you too! You must keep that eyeline and glancing to camera constantly makes them glance to! On one bit the SSD ran out whilst talking to Malcolm. I noticed about 30 seconds after it happened. I re-asked the question. His first take was better and as I had the sound on the Roland I just used that and covered it with other shots. A good thing about the dual system sound…had I recorded the sound in-camera here, I would have lost it completely. BUT I would prefer to record in camera AND have an idea how much space I had left.
Yes, I did struggle with light. I had no additional lighting with me, but it wasn’t lights that I needed, it was faster glass. The inside of the tower is very bright near the top but go 20 stories down and the inside is dark as. I struggled with my F4.5 Sigma. It worked, but as the afternoon became evening that was it. Done. The Tokina is the next closest to that and its F2.8 performs much better, but it’s just not really wide enough for some of the shots I needed. In fact, we went back 3 days later on Wednesday (the rest of shooting was Sunday) to get those shots from down the bottom looking up and the key shot: the building from a distance. No point doing a film about Ponte and only seeing it from the inside!
So, everything was raw. Initially I had intended to shoot the interviews ProRes. It would have made way more sense, but I simply forgot, hence I used up a lot of space. The upside of raw is the flexibility it gave me, especially on those massive contrast shots. I could decide in post what to keep and what to lose. Even this camera with its excellent dynamic range could not capture the very dark pit where we filmed at the bottom AND the very bright sky right at the top. You have to choose. Below are two frame grabs. One is REC 709 the other is BMD film. You can see more info in the BMD film of course, but it’s too flat. Both of these looks are simply achieved via metadata – nothing changes in the raw. It’s in Resolve that you decide what to keep etc…you can start masking things and keeping as much of both as you can. I am not skilled enough or familiar enough with Resolve to do the fancy stuff yet. My friend Dan Moran is going to take a crack at grading this for me in Resolve. It will be great to see how different he makes it compared to my skills. It will really show what a pro colourist does!
I did do some very stopped down shots to capture detail in the sky, with the intention of keying them in…I might get Dan to do that
So my workflow was simple. No round trip. Nothing fancy. I needed to get the edit done and out so I could move onto the next film, which I start shooting on Sunday, and I couldn’t have this one still sitting around. So I did all my basic colour correction. Fixing exposure, bringing back highlights, pushing up shadows, tweaking white balances. Then I exported the whole lot, not as proxies, but as full ProRes 4:2:2 to edit with and master to. I did keep all my original file names and can easily XML back to DaVinci Resolve once Dan colour corrects my frames. That is one of the coolest features of the full Resolve rather than the lite version. You can export single frames with all the metadata which are small enough to email to your colourist. He then works on those frames, sends you the data (all the colour-correction nodes he has done) which are very small files, and you import them into Resolve, apply them to the entire clips, and VOILA…professionally graded by someone thousands of miles away, even when there is zero chance he can get the full rushes from me!
I then edited in Premiere CS6 on a ProRes timeline, making all my previews render as ProRes too, so that when I come to export I could click “use previews” and save a lot of time. Not using ProRes previews means you are using the intermediate system, which is not of high quality. If you’re using this please never click “use previews” as you will lose quality!
My grading was done within my favourite fast colouring program Colorista II. I added a touch of Looks 2 in there too.
For music, I got all but one of the tracks from the music bed. I use these guys a lot. Great tracks by real bands and pretty reasonable prices. Most of my recent reviews for cameras are chock full of their music. It makes a huge difference!
It was damn tricky finding the right tracks and getting the right balance. Ideally, I would have used more natural sound, but for some reason all the stuff I got in-camera came out really poor. No idea why. Sounds like an internal mic even though I had the Rode SVMP plugged in…need to investigate.
So all in all how did I find it? Well despite the many obstacles, I really enjoyed shooting with it and was very happy with the end results. I did notice a bit of moire here and there. Lots more than my C300, and it’s not as sharp. Not always a bad thing though. Rolling shutter issues were also quite apparent. The worst example being the lamp posts on the drive-by shot near the beginning, although most CMOS cameras would struggle with this shot too…dynamic range with the raw was of course wonderful, and it’s easy to tweak in Resolve, but it’s the rest of that program that I need to learn.
To show an example of stupidly big dynamic range here is the same shot with two exposures from the BMD tone mapped onto each other via Photomatix pro…I shot a number of shots like this…am sure in Resolve I can do something similar but more subtle…
I need a few firmware fixes on the camera to make this a more feasible camera for these types of shoots. Audio meters, space left on SSD, F-stop display, more accurate battery meter, bigger digital punch-in to check focus. Give me those, and I will be a lot happier using it! One thing I had to take off which I had just put on was my 3M anti reflective screen for iPad, which I cut to fit the screen here. It just made it too hard to see what was in focus as it softened the whole image. I removed it…I need to find a better one!
My concerns with the EF mount camera over the MFT one have been somewhat placated by this shoot. With the right glass, it works just great. As long as you get that Sigma…just need an F2.8 version. I still could do with some faster 24mm equivalent lenses, but you can’t have everything. I look forward to trying out an MFT one as soon as I possibly can…but with the addition of IS in the new firmware too, it’s a much better camera, that will get much better when those firmware niggles I mentioned earlier are addressed.
What am using for my next 3 films in South Africa? Well the 1DX is next, then a film on the FS700, then finally the one at the game park on all three. If I had brought my C300, could I have done without all these other cameras?…more or less, but no timelapse, no high speed. I have the cameras here for the workshops, so I may as well use them. Every camera has its strengths and weaknesses.
In a way, the Blackmagic turned out to be a great camera for this project. I didn’t need any slow motion at all (in docs you rarely do!) and this is the one of the most extreme dynamic range places I have ever filmed. Only an Epic with HDRx could have given me a much bigger dynamic range, and there would be no way I would have taken that camera into Ponte Tower! The joy of the £2000 raw camera!
Had I shot prores or DnxHd to be honest it would have looked very similar. I didn’t use the extra resolution and I think the 1080p looks pretty much the same. The main difference with raw and these compressed codecs is whilst shooting I would have had to nail my exposure and decide on highlights or shadows then and there rather than have the lovely flexibility to choose in post!
Well the most important thing is that I hope you enjoy the film. It’s ten minutes long, but I think it is well paced and doesn’t feel long. Enjoy!
Don’t forget you can win incredible gear or software worth thousands by donating to the prostate cancer fundraiser here or taking part in the epic film competition! Great cause….seriosuly great prizes!!!