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Q&A: Marco Solorio on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera

Marco Solorio is the owner of OneRiver Media in Walnut Creek, CA. As an early user of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC), he's employed it on a number of projects, shooting ProRes most of the time but switching to raw recording when the subject matter suggests (and budgets allow) a more cinematic approach to the imagery. We asked him to talk about how the BMCC performs on a shoot, what kind of kit he uses with it, and how Blackmagic is responding to user feedback with its first firmware updates. For more info, visit the OneRiver website.
 
StudioDaily: Let's talk about how you prepared for receiving the camera. Did you order new gear for it or were you able to use gear you already had?
 
Marco Solorio: I was pretty much able to go right out and shoot with the existing gear I had used for DSLR and ENG shooting. Since I got the camera, I have bought things specifically for it. But, in a nutshell, I was able to use all of my DSLR gear. And that’s a big market for this camera.
 
How about lenses? How much did the reported 2.3x crop factor affect your lens choices?
 
Prior to the BMCC, I hadn’t ever had a lens as wide as an 8mm. On production shots, the widest I’ll go on a full-frame camera is about 24mm, so I knew, getting the BMC, I’d have to get something extremely wide. I was doing some calculation and guesswork and creating some theories, and I got a couple of lenses, slapped them on, and got some interesting surprises. In the long run, when all is said and done, I can get just as wide with the Cinema Camera as I can with the 5D. With the Cinema Camera, I’d say the widest, most pleasing lens I’ve used so far is the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom. If you really need to get as wide as you can without fisheye or barrel distortion, I’d say it’s the widest and straightest lens at that extreme width. It’s a little slow, but there’s also the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, which is a faster lens. 
 
There are obviously options out there. People say, “Oh, you can’t shoot wide, blah blah blah.” No. We had Super 16 cameras and 1/3-inch sensors back in the day, and everyone was able to shoot wide just fine on those cameras.
 
What have you shot with it?
 
The majority of what we do is corporate projects, commercial work, and a lot of VFX — medical and stuff like that. One the corporate scene, it’s worked out great. Shooting ProRes for corporate? You’re getting quality far above HDSLR with that 10-bit ProRes HQ format, and you don’t have to deal with the stupid transcoding. You get the file on your computer and you’re editing. A lot of NLEs can import DSLR footage just fine as H.264 files, but on bigger projects, even they start to choke a little bit. With ProRes, it’s really nice. And we’ve been using raw for more cinematic projects. It’s definitely a longer workflow. But if you’ve got the time, the budget, and the space, it’s just awesome.
 
What are you actually using to cut the footage?
 
After the death of Final Cut Pro 7, we actually went to Avid, and went from Media Composer to Symphony. But we ended up having problems with crashes and errors in Symphony, so we switched from that to Adobe Premiere Pro, and we’ve had pretty good success. There are still things we’d like to see updated, but that’s our main NLE right now. For pretty much any workflow using raw with CinemaDNG, you will need to create a proxy, whether it’s ProRes or whatever. You edit with that and conform on the tail end using DaVinci Resolve or whatever color-correction tool you have.
 
It’s too bad you can’t edit CinemaDNG directly in Premiere Pro.
 
There was a way to use CinemaDNG in [Adobe] CS6 using a CS5.5 DNG reader, but it's only 8-bit and kind of clunky, but it’s like any high-end format. You pretty much have to convert with a proxy to edit with it. [Adobe says real-time playback of CinemaDNG in Premiere Pro is especially challenging, which explains why it was not incorporated in the latest version —Ed.]
 
What else is in your pipeline?
 
We’ve been using Resolve. It’s actually quite fast. It reads the CinemaDNG files faster than Adobe’s raw reader. There are advantages to the Adobe raw architecture, but Resolve is really nice when you’re first getting that CinemaDNG footage in, and you want to quickly go through the footage and convert proxies to edit as ProRes files. Resolve is really good on the front end.
 

Solorio made a widely viewed video comparing the BMCC to the Canon 5D Mark III.

 
And then there’s the important consideration of picture quality. What did you think?
 
It depends on how you shoot it and light it and expose it. But because you can manipulate the image so well and so far, you’re able to pull an image out that supersedes, in my opinion, any 8-bit acquisition format from an 8-bit camera. To me, the main glory of this camera really is the 12-bit raw image. That alone make the camera appealing, especially for the independent film crowd but also anyone who wants to get that cinematic look. Any other raw camera out there is going to cost seven times more. And the BMCC gives you a lot of freedom when manipulating those images. The range you get out of it is, well, it’s pretty insane.
 
Do you grade all your footage in Resolve?
 
We either do it in Resolve, or in Adobe After Effects or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. The Adobe raw reader, whether it’s in Lightroom or After Effects, allows you to pull in the raw image data differently from Resolve. For some people, that might be more appealing, especially if they’re used to that workflow already. If you’ve used a DSLR with raw photos and the raw reader with that, it’s pretty much the same interface. If somebody’s been using Resolve, or another system like Color, for a long time, they might want to stick with that. But the slower Adobe workflow might pull a little more data out of the image.
 
What about latitude? Do you agree with the rating of 13 stops at ISO 800?
 
Yes, I pretty much stay at 800 ASA. Going back to the crop sensor size, there were some concerns early on about the low-light sensitivity not being as good as a full-frame sensor. Obviously the full-frame sensor will gather more light, but the BMCC is 12-bit raw, so you are able to pull highlights and shadow details out much more freely. The sensor itself may not have the low-light sensitivity of a 5D Mark III, but you can still get really good results. So far, I haven’t had any serious issues with low-light sensitivity if I’m shooting raw. And then, even though the 5D may be more sensitive, it’s still 8-bit, so the highlights may still blow up. With 12-bit dynamic range, those highlights are much cleaner. So there’s a kind of give and take. Do you want a sensor with more native light sensitivity in 8-bit compressed space, or do you want to really take advantage of the dynamic range in 12-bit space to massage light sensitivity in post?
 
I’m told that when there is noise in the image, it is actually fairly pleasing to the eye. Do you find that to be the case?
 
I would agree with that. And if you’re shooting raw, you want to have your zebras on your camera set at 100 percent to keep your highlights from clipping over 100 percent. When you do that, the image may look overexposed in both the camera’s on-screen display and also your video village display, but I’ve found that if it’s just under that 100 percent zebra peak, when you bring it all back down in post, your noise level comes back down. I wouldn’t do that in all scenarios, but there are some situations where you can take advantage of the dynamic range to ensure your shadows are the least noisy you can make them. And even though there is noise there, it is a nice noise, as opposed to the low-quality noise you see in lower-end cameras.
 
How was it in terms of ergonomics?
 
Well, I wish the cable outputs were on the right-hand side of the camera instead of the left-hand side, so the cables aren’t fanning out to your face. To help alleviate that, I make sure all of my connectors are right-angle connectors. It’s not too bad, but it would have been nice to reverse that design.
 
The touch screen is a little reflective, especially in sunlight. I tend to have the camera rigged with an external monitor anyway, but you need to be aware of that when you’re relying on the touch screen. And you can double-tap the screen to get a 1:1 zoom-in for focus, but if you miss the double-tap and it only registers a single-tap, the metadata screen comes up. That’s not a horrible thing, but sometimes it captures you off guard and you have to back out of the menu. 
 
I’d say those are the only ergonomic quibbles I have. I do have a couple of cages, and the one I like best is the View Factor Contineo BMCC cage. It’s very form-fitting around the body of the camera. I use that as my base, and from there I add the rods, follow-focus, matte box and top handle. And it pretty much stays on — I never take it off. Even if I strip down to use the camera in crowd shots, I’ll still have that cage on it, just because it’s easy to throw side handles on it if I need to.
 

Here's part two of Solorio's camera comparison, titled The Impact of 12-bit Raw.

It sounds like Blackmagic Design has just updated the firmware. Can you elaborate on that?
 
Yeah, we've been testing version 1.2 beta for the last few weeks, and it's been very solid. Since we're under NDA with Blackmagic Design, we couldn't say anything about it. In fact, I was using it in production in secret and my crew had no idea I was using beta firmware in the camera. Blackmagic recently gave me the greenlight to freely talk about the firmware, so here's what they added: Electronically controlled EF-mount lenses now have their aperture values on the display readout. This was much needed. Now we know exactly what F-stop setting our electronically controlled lenses are operating at. Time-lapse functionality has been added as well, and that works in the 2.5K CinemaDNG format. The exFAT format is now available, which means Windows users can mount the camera's SSDs on their computers without additional software. The overlay options on the HD-SDI output are improved so you can have action/safety guides on, camera readout display on, both on, or both off — actually, this was a direct personal request of mine to the dev team actually. File-naming of the CinemaDNG files (when working in RAW format) is improved so they reflect the name of the directory they're contained in. The RP188 protocol has been improved over the HD-SDI output for better timecode integration. My Canon 35mm f/1.4L now works with this update (it hadn't prior to version 1.2). Despite the delays Blackmagic has had getting these cameras shipped, the development team has been continually hard at work adding new features to the camera, and we've been excited to test those features prior to public release. There is no word yet on the release date of version 1.2, as it's still in beta form.
 
What else needs to be fixed to make it a better option?
 
Based on the current v1.2 firmware? We still need to see total running time or remaining run time on the camera. There’s no way, right now, to know how much footage you’ve shot. You can look at timecode, but all we really need is a percentage display showing how full the drive is. And we do need audio meters on the camera. There’s no way to tell, in-camera, what your audio levels are. Going in, I have a Sound Devices Mix Pre-D [field mixer] and I can use that for the meters. Also, I’ve got a TV Logic screen that has meters on its display, so by taking SDI out of the camera and into the monitor it will give me the meters I need right now.
 
At least you have usable audio on the camera, compared to a DSLR.
 
It has balanced TRS inputs. Some people say, “Well, it doesn’t have XLR,” but a quarter-inch balanced TRS input is basically the same thing. But they have a little bit of work to do on audio gain. Right now, to get the best audio quality out of the camera, you have to set the input at about 25 percent. You need some audio gain input to help bring that level up. The guys at JuicedLink made a really good video about testing the BMCC audio inputs. On the bigger productions, we always use dual-system sound anyway, but there are obviously times, using the camera on a small, run-and-gun-style thing, where you need optimal audio without a second guy running the sound separately.
 
How does it compare to your other cameras?
 
On my DSLR-style shoots, it’s definitely replacing them. The image quality is so much better, so much more detailed, with so much more dynamic range, even just in ProRes mode. For run-and-gun, ENG-style shooting, I would probably still use ENG-style cameras. We still have the Sony EX-1, and I’m not getting rid of those any time soon. But for any cinematic-style shooting, we’re definitely using the BMC. We have different types of corporate productions. Some are pretty quick, but some of them give us a lot of creative freedom along with the budget to make them really nice, and that’s where the BMCC excels. The client really likes the look of the end product.
 

4 Comments

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  • Ted

    I’m still gonna buy a 5D3….no time for a new cam with crazy crop…what happens if you’re in a small room and can’t move the camera back for a wide shot???? out of luck….

    • Fents

      You could just order the Micro Four Thirds model so it’s a little easier to plan your lenses. And on that note, why not just use wide lenses?

  • bob

    its called …Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

  • Anthony

    Hi Marco
    Loved the review. The background music was a little high. It was competing with your voice.