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Why I chose to shoot not one but feature films on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

A lot has been said about the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (BMPCC), both good and, well, bad. For the bad, there's an atrocious crop sensor of 3.02x (!), the Nikon batteries it uses suck and only last about 45 minutes each, the lcd screen is way too small and the matte finish makes focusing a serious pain, it has only 3 ISO options which cap out at a paltry 1600 so you're forced to light like your shooting film (and forget about low light shooting), the audio controls are a joke with the built-in microphone being absolutely worthless, if the sensor gets too hot the image gets super noisy and last, but not least, the menu and metadata input controls are really designed for a child's hands.

After reading all of that, you might be asking yourself "Why in the world would anyone want to shoot with that camera?" and frankly, you'd be right in asking that. But the answer is twofold.

First is that image. That glorious, stunningly filmic image. In any of the camera's various ProRes modes, the image looks great, for sure. But the secret is in the BMPCC's raw capabilities, which allow you to go from "that looks great" to "wow!" When paired with Blackmagic's DaVinci Resolve Lite software, you unlock the BMPCC's true potential. Images come to life, in ways you've never seen on a sub-$10,000 camera. You can manipulate everything, so you can truly make your subjects look as good as they did in your head and on set. Getting that image takes some work and I'll talk more about that in a moment, because...

Secondly, there's the cost. I should state for the record that before I had a BMPCC I was an early owner/operator of a Canon C300. I got my C300 just a few months after launch for the princely sum of $16,000 before tax, spare batteries and rail mount from Zacuto. All told I spent $21,000 on my C300 and yes, the camera was worth every penny. I made that back in client gigs in just under 4 months. But that is still an insane amount of money to pay for something that was outdated in less than 2 years time. So right before Canon dropped the price on the C300, I sold mine. I keep my gear in mint condition so I was able to get top dollar back on it.

But then I had a problem: I was a cinematographer without a camera. Like a painter without a brush or canvas, I felt incomplete. Now I know there's two camps when it comes to cameras. There's the "you should own" camp and the "you should rent" camp. I'm all for renting if you need a specific camera for a gig, but when you own a camera, you KNOW that camera, inside and out. You know it's quirks and how to make it sing. I'm definitely of the "own it" camp.

So I began doing some research on what camera to get next. As fate would have it, I was hired to do a shoot for some Kickstarter's using the Blackmagic 4K Production Camera. While I loathed the camera's super reflective screen and how fast it ate up batteries, I fell in love with the images it produced. For the first time in my career my images looked how I wanted them to look. Truly cinematic and they had that "Hollywood" feel. My excitement led me to seeking out everything I could about the Blackmagic cameras. After a LOT of debate, I decided on the BMPCC. Why that one? Well, I was about to go into pre-production on a feature that I really wanted to have that timeless, Hollywood comedy feel to it and the BMPCC has that Super 16 sensor that really lends itself to that sort of feel. The film I was booked on after that was/is a horror film, very much in the tone and style of the late 70's and early 80's horror films, so the camera had the perfect look for that too!

But back to the cost. So I spent $1,000 on the camera itself, which is nothing for a raw capable camera. Then I started kitting it out. Movcam cage and rail mount, SanDisk Extreme Pro SD cards to handle the raw, an Indie Pro Tools battery and XLR adaptor, a handful of 5D Mk ii batteries to power the IPT adaptor and a few different lens adapters to use my EF and FD lenses. All told I spent less than $2,100 on the camera and kit, combined. That's ridiculously cheap in this business. I could literally have ten BPMCC setups compared to one C300 setup!

I did some test shoots and learned the camera's quirks and limitations, as well as where it shined. I had to go back to my film school days of learning to light for film and reacquaint myself with some old friends; Arri fresnels and the like. The C300 was so insanely good at low light that I got spoiled with being able to get away with using mostly available light or a minimal light kit. I once lit an entire hog barn for a horror film using just 4 200 watt lightbulbs. But those days were over now. I had this little camera that chewed light like a dog with a bone. But what that made me do was rediscover what I loved about being a cinematographer; the ability to play with light and shadow, to lead the eye exactly where you want it to go.

It also meant my electric bill would be going up. Way up.

What kind of kit would I recommend? Start with some LED lights. They're cheap, run cool and last forever if you take care of them. If you've got the scratch, I would definitely recommend some Arri fresnels, a good gel kit, some hot hands, a flag kit and a solid investment in C-Stands, stingers and sand bags. Make no mistake about it, a good lighting kit is going to run you between $5,000-10,000 but it's worth it. There's always rentals, too, so don't feel like you have to buy all this stuff at once. I've been doing this professionally for over a decade now and it's taken just as long to acquire my lighting kit, which consists of 3x 300 watt fresnels, 3x 650 watt fresnels, 2x 1K fresnels, 4x 2K fresnels and all the other things I mentioned. I can light virtually any scene I need to now, short of a forest or some such awesomeness.

So aside from needing a pretty decent light kit, what else did I discover? Well because the camera is so small, I can fit it places where a C300, Alexa or a Red could never go. I can also get away with the fairly affordable Steadicam Pilot rig and get some amazing shots, or throw it up on a lightweight jib boom and get those incredible vistas. I have 6 lp-e6 batteries to run it and those will allow me to shoot for about 16 hours without recharging, thanks to that Indie Pro Tools adapter. But what about that crop factor?

Well it turns out that having a 3.02x crop factor is actually both easier to deal with and at the same time a bigger pain than you think. You see, once you realize that crop factor sensors are no different than various sizes of film stock, you start to view them a little differently. If you want a full 35mm film stock look, then you use a full frame sensor camera. If you want a Super 35mm film stock look, then you use a Super 35 sensor camera and so on. The BMPCC has a Super 16mm size sensor, similar in size to Super 16mm film stock, which was shot on Super 16 cameras, which used different lenses than a 35mm film camera, lenses that were made for that type of camera and film stock. Now of course you can (with a little help from an adapter or two) still use full frame lenses on your BMPCC and if you have them, why not? But you can also pick up some lenses that are designed for that sensor/mount type, including some old Super 16 camera lenses that work perfectly on the BMPCC. Like the Angenieux 15-150mm T2.8 zoom lens I picked up on eBay. It needed a back focus adjustment and I had to pick up a Wooden Camera PL mount adapter, but ooh those images! Smooth, sexy and oh so cinematic! Okay so what about the crop sensor is a pain? How about when you're trying to do a two-shot in the backseat of a car and even with a 15mm lens you still can't get nearly wide enough for much more than a 3/4 profile shot? Or when you're trying to get a nice wide shot of the inside of a restaurant or room in a house? Are you seeing a trend yet? Yes, it can suck not being able to get wide enough, but most of the time you can cheat it and pull it off. The times you can't? Well that's what a lens rental house is for. Rent a wider lens or, alternatively, rent a larger sensor camera for the days you need wider angles. You'll find that those days will be few and far between, once you start getting creative with your shots and setups.

Speaking of sensors, let's talk about the sensor heat banding issue. Does it happen? Yes. Can you fix it in post? Eh... Kind of. The easiest way to deal with it is to give the camera 15-20 minutes to cool down. I can honestly say that I only had this happen a handful of times and only on very warm summer days. Any camera can overheat and have sensor issues, so this really isn't that big of a deal.

How about the limited ISO range? Yeah, that sucks. Especially compared to C300. Just know this: 400 is fine, 800 is native and 1600 will require some serious noise removal in post because it's horrible. If you have the full version of Resolve it has some incredible noise reduction software built in, but otherwise you'll have to shop around.

What else did I discover? That filming in raw requires a LOT of memory cards and hard drives! Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely worth it, but it absolutely will break the bank for micro budget features. For both of the features I shot with the camera we needed 3x 8TB raid drives. One for the master, one for back ups and one for renders, proxies etc. and at about $600/each, that adds up fast! You're also going to need a monster of a computer if you plan on watching and editing the files natively. The new 5K iMac can handle it if it's fully loaded, but otherwise you'll need a Mac Pro or similar. Don't even try it on a laptop. You'll just burn out your graphics card and hate yourself.

So what's it like working with on set? Honestly, it's not too bad. Sure it doesn't have built in ND filters and the like, but that's what matte boxes are for. As long as you have a nice monitor to use for focusing and watching playback on, a battery adapter and an AC with small fingers for metadata input, you'll be fine. I also highly recommend getting the X-Rite Color Checker for around $70. Resolve uses this to give you instant true to life colors to begin your grading with and it makes things so much easier if there is a shot or two that you forget to change the white balance on. Things can get pretty hectic on set and if you're rushed you might forget something so simple and this little device can save you in post.

Another nice thing about the camera is that you don't need some insanely expensive tripod rig to handle the weight. A nice Manfrotto for around $500 will do just fine.

All in all you simply can't get more bang for your buck if you're shooting an indie film that has need for a Super 16 style look.

Feel free to ask any questions you may have and I'll answer them as soon as I can. We're still in production on the second film that I'm using the camera on, so it may be a few days in between but I will answer you!