When you are the cinematographer of a project, there is always a big question. On which camera are you going to shoot your movie?
Since last year the Black Magic Cinema Camera has claimed to offer great shots and an authentic cinema look for the price of a fully equipped Canon 5D. But does this really keep its promise? In an objective comparison, I chose ten shots I thought were beautiful and which offered a insight into the capabilities of the Black Magic.
1. «Texting is Dangerous» Directed by Steffan Schulz
The first movie, when I say movie I mean based on a script was shot a year ago by Steffan Schulz for One River Media, It’s a short film about a woman getting arrested for texting while driving (a very dangerous activity).
According to the director and the producer the point was to see how the Black Magic would handle a real production environment and extreme conditions. In order to test the camera the director of Photography chose to shoot in natural light, a brave decision all things considered.
Here you see the first shot of the movie. And look at this shot, it is amazing, I can tell you for sure if you have shot with a DSLR, the hood of the car would be blown out while the seats and some part of the street would be completely off. Just with that shot you can start to appreciate some specificities of the Black Magic from its 13 range of stops, to its 2.5K sensor (2423 x 1366) as well as the option of 12-bits RAW files.
2. «The One» Directed by Lukas Schuler
It’s the story of a Lisa walking into an empty gas station and meeting Jan. The film was shot with a Black Magic Pocket Camera for Media Avenue, and again it’s all about how a Black Magic can handle a narrative shoot as Franck Glencairn, the film’s cinematographer says on his blog “ … our goal was to see how it behaves in a typical narrative production environ? ment. With lights and flags and a rig and all the bells and whistles.”
The entire movie takes place at night and this opening (crane) shot allows us to appreciate the possibilities of the Black Magic. We have here a beautiful, perfectly black sky without aliasing or moiré, so deep you can actually feel the depth of the sky. Here you have an atmosphere coming through that shot. Thanks to the 13 stop dynamic range and the Super 16mm sensor the Black Magic Pocket Camera, Franck Glencairn was able to work his light and with CinemaDNG RAW, achieve some great grades in post production.
The pale colour and the light makes you feel like you have discovered the last gas station on Earth. After driving miles and miles into a dark night, you arrive at this gas station and you are pretty sure it is the last outpost of civilisation you’ll find before sunrise. That’s why I use the word « atmosphere » for this movie, will it become a horror movie? Or a human story with a message? For now you don’t know for sure, but the stage is set.
3. «Hiding Places» Directed by Philip Bloom
We have seen the possibilities of the Black Magic at night and on a production set, but how does it perform on a bright beautiful day in the City when you need to steal a shot?
The security policy of the London Eye is very strict regarding camera equipment – Philip Bloom talks about in his blog – but that’s the magic of the Black Magic Pocket. It’s so small you can hide it anywhere, no fancy and heavy equipment on your shoulder except may be a cross and you can still get a High Definition shot. So here we are on top of the London Eye, shooting with the sun in front of us but thanks to the Super 16mm sensor (1920 x 1080), we have great light on the subject but still have a beautiful view of London in the background.
I thought Philip Bloom did a wonderful job in that film because even though you can actually feel the light coming directly on the subject, it has something really smooth about this light, it envelops the subject and gives us a warm, reassuring sensation. She is floating above London, perhaps she’s being chased but at this exact moment, in this light, just for now, she’s safe.
4. «Dungeness» Directed by Philip Bloom
This is another Philip Bloom shot but this time he shot on Black Magic Cinema in ProRes HQ, and you can feel the difference between this shot and the shot on the Pocket camera due to the 35 mm, 2.5K sensor and the ProRes. The same shot without the sensor would surely have lots of faults such as aliasing on the nets or the stones, a blown out sky even chromatic aberrations on the boat.
On the emotional side I find this shot really beautiful and poetic, there’s something sad or forlorn about this shot. The rope in the foreground draws your eye to this abandoned boat, it is not on the water anymore and appears like a character. When you see this shot in the movie the boat becomes a person, not a thing as it floats on a sea of stones. The Director of Photography chose the right moment to shoot, the same shot under a bright sky and without the power of the Black Magic Camera would surely not have the same emotional impact on the audience.
5. «Meet Me in Big Sur» Directed by Andrew Julian
I have to say, I was completely astonished by this shot. So wide, so amazing and yet so much detail in the image. This kind of shot makes you realise what a beautiful place the Earth is. You can feel the harmony and peace coming through that shot, you feel like if you’ve already been there, you know that place.
The colours are really amazing. Just look at the sky, you could look at this shot for a long time and still continue to discover little details and differences in the colour grading. This shot is so amazing because of the 2.5k sensor, but the real star of the show is the 12 bit RAW (more than 68 billion colours!) and also the DaVinci Resolve 10 grading software which comes with the camera. Of course, this type of shot comes at a price but it’s not about money, it’s about data. To shoot in RAW you’re recording 1 Terabyte per two hours of footage or 7.5 Gigabytes per minute, and a 256 GB SSD will only give you about 30 minutes of footage at 24fps. Essentially, you have to be extra smart when you shoot like this.
These are the reasons why this shot looks so gorgeous. On another similar camera I’m not sure you could evoke the same feelings looking at this shot.
6. «Winter in Paris» Directed by Andrew Julian
Paris. The City of Love. When it puts on its winter coat there’s something magical about Paris. In this movie Andrew Julian offers us beautiful views of the city, but this shot catches my eye more than the others. I don’t know if it’s about the composition (very Barry Lindon) or the garden, or even the snow? The more I look at this shot the more I feel like I’m looking into a painting. These two angels facing each other, like two lovers on « Le pont des amoureux » .
Of course, as with the previous image, RAW will take up all the space on your SSD, so you could shoot it on ProRes or even DNxHD and have great footage but naturally, less options in post-production. In order to achieve this kind of colour grading you must have as much information as possible in your footage, and that’s where RAW comes into its own.
I can’t help but wonder, if another camera was used for this shot, would it have the same intensity? Would the snowflakes look the same? And the sky, where you can feel the texture of the clouds. Would that feature? I really don’t think so. Perhaps the poetry of the shot would be lost in the technical difficulty. There again is the magic of the Black Magic: now you can get great shots without the cost of a 35mm film camera.
7. «Inside» Directed by Stuart Stanton
So we’ve seen what the Black Magic Pocket Cinema can do in narrative mode and what the BMCC can do in Stealth mode, but I haven’t yet mentioned what the Black Magic Cinema Camera can do in narrative mode.
This shot is from the horror movie “Inside” directed by Stuart Stanton with Adam Haywood and Joel Frances as Director of Photography. The tagline is “A curious young photographer discovers more than she bargained for when she decides to explore off the beaten track…” At this point in the story, you start to understand that she’s going to end up in a very unpleasant place where nobody can help her and this crane shot illustrates that perfectly.
Shot on RAW and graded with DaVinci Resolve, you can see here how the Black Magic can not only renders great colours but also creates genuine atmosphere. This gives you the extra dimension of choice in grading to create atmosphere in the movie which helps the story. The quality of grading above is credit to DaVinci Resolve 10 but the hardware requirements to achieve this look are significant.
For example: DaVinci Resolve Mac (with DaVinci control panel) + Quadro 4000 + RED Rocket + DeckLink HD Extreme £21,950 + VAT
As you can see, this represents a budget.
8. «Wax» Directed by James Ballard
We’ve already seen the strength of the Black Magic in terms of its Dynamic range, Sensor and Detail but I chose this shot because I found it so amazingly beautiful. This shot is taken from the opening scene of the movie Wax, perhaps the first feature length film shot on a Black Magic.
Although the footage you see has been graded, you can still feel the power of the RAW footage from the Black Magic Cinema Camera. Most importantly, there are no aberrations or flaws in the image, no SMEAR effect and although between the man’s profile and the sun there must be a hundred stops there is still detail in his face.
Something worth mentioning is that looking on the Internet for Black Magic Cinema Camera footage will unearth a lot of test shots, landscape shots and even commercials, but to find a narrative film shot on the BMCC you have to dig a bit. This is because of the hidden costs. To shoot spectacular Landscape or Test shots you only need the camera and a set of lenses. To shoot a narrative film you need lighting, grips, a power supply, among other things.
Herein lies the downside of the Black Magic. The starting price is very attractive but as you start to fully equip the camera you see all the initial savings disappear in the accessories you need to transform such a small camera into a fully fledged Cinema camera. One standout example of this is battery life. Each battery will give you an hour and a half maximum of shooting but a full day’s work is eight hours. To cover this you’ll need several spare batteries. At five hundred pounds each.
9. «Innocence» Directed by Yosh Enatsu
It seems that currently the most common use for the Black Magic is commercials, perhaps the reason being that commercials are simpler than fiction and more interesting than test shots. There’s no script-dependent story, you only need great looking images and you can get away with far less equipment than for a narrative story.
What piqued my interest in this shot was the clouds. We often see a bright sky, or a white sky, or even a plain sky, but I think no regular camera – with the exception of a RED or Alexa – could produce such a gorgeous sky with so many shades of grey. There are literally Fifty Shades of Gray in this sky, yet we can clearly see where the character is looking. I’m convinced this was shot in natural light at sunset, so the Director of Phototgraphy Kazu Kaneto must have really pushed the ISO yet there is no noise either in the trees or in the sky.
Artistically speaking, there is something mystical about this shot. The character is looking at the sky as if searching for a higher power, as if she draws her power from the sky, like a sort of hero. She seems otherworldly, no longer human, no longer mortal. A greater destiny awaits her.
10. «Madison Cruz» Directed by Cyril Chauvin
I found this commercial interesting because they used blue screen on a real set. First they shot the woman and then the plate shot of the street, which I find gives something particular to the shot, something unreal (you should see the shot where she walks). She’s slow but the world around her is a blur of motion so she seems somehow removed from our world.
On a technical level, it was shot with a minimal crew which, for the Director of Photography Axel Morin, was part of the challenge. As all commercials are like this, he had to play with the shutter angle and time lapse value in order to obtain a blurry shot in camera and not in post production. To obtain this effect it has to capture the crowd in Time Lapse, but on a Black Magic you have a set of pre-defined value for a time lapse (25 FPS to 10 FPS but nothing in between) and you have no high speed capture mode. In this commercial they took these two weaknesses of the Black Magic and they turn it into a strength in combining them.
The director Cyril Chauvin wanted it to look like a moving picture, and I think it came off. You have the sensation of looking at a still image, yet there is movement. I found this idea really interesting because it has something new about it. In less than a minute, it presents a different take on a world. Of course in this commercial it’s the world of fashion, but you can still build a story around these women. I really would like to see more commercials like these because they’re not just commercials. To me, they’re more like art, and that’s to say not just about the product, but also about the quality of the image.
To conclude, we’ve seen a wide range of the capabilities of both the Black Magic Pocket and the Black Magic Cinema Camera. We have seen how great the Black Magic can be and also the amazing value for money it represents. To get pictures like that for £636 for the Pocket and £1268 for the 2.5K Cinema Camera is pretty amazing if you consider that a Canon 5D will set you back around £1950. However, with a 5D you are ready to shoot, whereas with a Black Magic you’re just getting started which is its down side. In order to have a full camera, you have to purchase a lot of additional equipment and that ‘s expensive.
Despite being around for almost two years, the Black Magic is a new device and kind of a UFO in the camera world. The first feature length shot on a BMCC will be out soon, and I can’t wait to see the “making of” of that film. I’m pretty sure the movie will look great, but how many challenges will they have had to overcome in order to shoot that movie?
Let’s not forget the Black Magic Cinema Camera 4K has just come out. Will it suffer the same ergonomic problems as its little sisters? I think we need more time to measure the impact the Black Magic has had on the film industry.
One thing’s for sure, as a Director of Photography in spite of the challenges you will have to face during a day’s shooting, at the end when you shoot on a Black Magic you will be amazed by its capabilities.