Q&A: The Diamond Brothers on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera
Based in New York City, Jason and Josh Diamond, aka The Diamond Brothers, have been among the first users of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC). They've put the camera through its paces on music video and TV shoots. We got them to take time out in between jobs to fill us in on how they've been using the BMCC — including their rig of choice, lens picks, and more — and what they think of the pictures they're getting out of it. For more info on the Diamonds' BMCC projects, visit their blog.
First, let’s talk about kit. Did you order new gear specifically for the BMCC, or were you able to use equipment you already had?
Josh Diamond: We own two Red Epics, so we have a lot of secondary and support gear. Our feeling from NAB 2012 was that the BMCC would be using at least 70 percent of the same accessories. One of the two pieces we needed to get separate was the cage from Wooden Camera. They make a cage for the BMCC that surrounds the whole camera. It protects it if, god forbid, it falls. But it also gives us more mounting options. On a lot of other cages, all the mounting points are in front of the camera, which doesn’t make sense to me. Also, the battery options were limited when the camera came out. Switronix has the PB70-BMCC, a great power brick that can operate as a standard V-mount battery, but it also has a dock that allows you to plug in the 12-volt Blackmagic DC adapter.
How about lenses? How much did the camera’s reported 2.2x crop factor affect your lens choices?
Jason Diamond: We had, coincidentally, just purchased a full set of Duclos Cine-Mod Leica Rs for use with a Canon mount. We have both PL and Canon mounts for our Epics, and we prefer manual lenses — well, because they’re manual. We used those on the Blackmagic EF-mount camera. They’re not electronic, so they don’t take advantage of any of the on-board iris capabilities. On our last job, we rented the Tokina 11-16mm and used the iris functions on that. There’s no other way to control the iris on that lens. The camera now reads out F-stops in the newest firmware which is, of course, necessary. That's all full-frame glass, and for the most part with any lens they’re restricting you to, outside of a PL adapter, you’re looking at a 2.2x crop factor. Our widest Leica is a 19mm, and it looks kind of 42mm-ish. We did use the 8mm Peleng lens for one shoot and it still looked like a fisheye, but closer to 18mm. We’re really looking forward to the MFT [micro-four-thirds] BMCC, because we can get a few MFT wides to realize some actual number-to-number lensing.
We just shot a whole show for Spike TV, the Call of Duty: Black Ops II launch special, on the Blackmagic Camera, which I think is its broadcast debut. We did that with the 11-16mm Tokina and our full set of Leicas, and we didn’t feel that shorted on wides. It’s more of an esoteric thing. If you start doing the math, you say, “This is going to suck.” And then you get into the field and it’s totally fine.
The Diamonds shot material for a Call of Duty: Black Ops II Launch Special with the BMCC using Avid DNxHD Log.
When was the Call of Duty shoot?
Jason: The show aired November 12. They did a live show, and we shot/directed all the pre-taped packages they rolled in to support certain angles they wanted to report on. We also used it as a behind-the-scenes camera on a music video we directed for Danko Jones in September. We were planning on using it side-by-side with the Epic for certain shots, but we had a one-day shoot and the timeframe started getting really tight, so we had to cut that from the shoot. That was a really good idea because we got a lot of footage we can use for a BTS piece for the band, and we got a chance to bang on the camera with a little less pressure on.
This piece was shot with only available light in New Orleans with the BMCC and recorded to ProRes HQ.
And then there’s the most important question: picture quality. What format were you recording, and what did you think?
Josh: We’ve been shooting mostly ProRes. The NOLA piece on our site [embededed above] was shot with available light at night, with two Leicas, a 19mm f2.8 and a 50mm f1.4. It was lightly graded in Assimilate Scratch to push it around and see what the image would do. The SpikeTV pieces were graded in DaVinci Resolve. We were super-happy with the quality of the image, especially when trying to give it a really aggressive look. Even our colorist Juan Salvo, who’s a Resolve guy, hadn’t gotten to grade any BMCC footage before, and he was really impressed. There was no banding, the image didn’t fall apart. It was really impressive, especially for the price point.
Jason: We also shoot everything Log. We never shoot Rec. 709. There’s no reason to handicap ourselves. If we’re talking about this camera as an option to a Canon 5D or some other DSLR, there’s no reason to leave yourself with less information in the image. Now, while we were shooting for Spike TV, MTV News also wanted footage. They did their interviews during our setups and they wanted ProRes, Rec. 709, 29.97. It turned out to be super-simple. We just had two sets of SSDs, one labeled for MTV News and one for SpikeTV, and bounced between the two specs.
Was there a specific reason why MTV needed the Rec. 709?
Jason: They just didn’t have the time to deal with Log footage. For broadcast editors on a tight turnaround, Log is still an unknown. They want their ENG-style footage that they can push around. Now, there’s a lot of information in 709, but you’re bound by Blackmagic’s decisions on the gamma curve. We prefer to roll our own. The LUT they give you in Resolve to invert the Log for the BMCC is a really nice LUT, and it doesn’t look like the 709 that comes out of the camera. Also the Log is insanely flat, it’s desaturated. If you were going to throw DNx files into the Avid, you’d have to put the saturation up to almost 200 percent. For the editors’ review copies, we made SpikeTV an AVID bin of some color-corrections they could drop onto their footage. You’re not going to output it like that because it needs more creative work, but it’s totally valid.
And how easy is it to switch between profiles like that on set?
Jason: It’s insanely simple. Jump into your record settings and change the frame rate, the Log, and the recording codec, and that’s it. Now, the HD-SDI out of the camera only shows you what you’ve chosen from your ‘Record’ settings tab. If you’ve chosen Log, it sends Log out of the HD-SDI. So you can’t monitor 709 on external monitors unless you’re recording 709, which is not ideal. In the ‘Display’ tab in the camera settings, where it says film or video, meaning Log or 709, that really only refers to the display on the back of the camera. So we usually leave that set to 709 as a check, just to see the contrast and color.
Do you see that ever creating a workflow issue for you?
Jason: It’s really fast to put a quick color-correction on the footage. People like Nick Shaw at Antler Post write LUTs for Final Cut Pro. You put it on your clip and it inverts it properly. Even if you don’t, it’s just a quick curve in the master and a saturation fix and you’re looking good. Hopefully, Blackmagic will write their own AMA settings for Avid to potentially add a LUT.
What about latitude? Do you agree with the rating of 13 stops at ISO 800? And how is the noise in the shadows?
Jason: It definitely has noise, and we originally rated the camera at 400 because we wanted to see if we could stay away from noise but, actually, while working with the BMCC on the Spike TV piece we decided to rate the camera at 800, which is what the sensor is rated at. The noise is not fixed-pattern, or sensor noise. It’s a “filmic” noise. It looks more like a grain pattern than you’d expect. It has an algorithmic, organic vibe that actually makes the image … I wouldn’t say nicer, but it’s not distracting at all.
We haven’t done any tests to specifically rate the latitude. We threw it into a real-world situation and crossed our fingers. It comes down to this: If you can compose a shot, keep it in focus, and not clip the highlights or shadows, any camera is going to give you a really nice image. Given that, we were able to shoot in some pretty drastic situations. We’d be in full sunlight and have it hold some really nice transition detail from the sun to the blue sky and clouds, not just a flat white color field when the highlights clip out. I think the dynamic range is really nice, but we probably won’t take the time to rate it. Realistically, there are few situations where you will use 13 full stops. It’s going to be a safety net.
Have you seen the “sunspots” problem where you see dark spots when the camera is pointed at a very bright light source?
Jason: Yes, we did. We just did a little clone-out to fix it. They say that’s fixable via firmware, so they’re working on it.
How does the BMCC compare to the other cameras in your arsenal?
Josh: A lot of people can’t afford the Epic. And they want a similar vibe, but they don’t have the time for transcoding and a grade. The good thing about the BMCC is you can pretty much price it anywhere you want. It’s such a cheap camera, but it gives you such a great look and an easy workflow. We’re not DSLR guys. Some people like to use the 5D as a B camera, but I would choose the BMCC over the 5D any day, especially if I didn’t care about stills.
Jason: The BMCC gives you the flexibility of the DSLR, within reason, and the file structure, color management, and timecode metadata of a more expensive camera.
Josh: The other thing is audio. It has two quarter-inch balanced audio inputs, which is huge. We’ve actually been doing a lot of interviews and recording second-source audio as a back-up, but we’ve used the audio that goes back to the camera for everything. And, again, we’ve been using the Wooden Camera A-Box, which gives you an easy plug-and-play solution for balanced XLR instead of balanced quarter-inch inputs. And it has a really good built-in scratch mic, so if you’re on a two-camera shoot, you can send your master audio to one camera and use the scratch mic for syncing purposes. They sync perfectly.
And what’s the camera missing to make it a more formidable piece of gear?
Jason: One is audio metering. Right now, the camera does not do audio metering on its display screen. You can send audio out on HD-SDI, and our TV Logic 5.6-inch external monitor has an audio meter built into it, so it functions as our audio meter. It’s a workaround, but most higher-end monitors have audio meters built in. Other than that, just minor things like file naming. It would be nice to get timecode jammed into it. You can’t genlock two sensors to do 3D. That’s kind of outside-the-box stuff, but it’s still valid.
Josh: Also being able to split what you send out [between Log and rec. 709 color]. It’s making 709 in a separate path to send to the LCD display, so ostensibly it’s happening in there, anyway. But every camera has its limitations. The 5D Mark II is probably the pinnacle of workarounds, but people clearly have no issue with that camera in a larger sense.