DSLR Cinema, Cinema Raw, and Cinematic Journalism

by Kurt Lancaster

Digital Bolex D16 review with a Celebration of Clay’s Life

With the sudden passing of my mother’s beloved husband, Clay Bennett, I had to grapple with feelings of grief as I traveled from Flagstaff, Arizona to Dexter, Maine for a family gathering.

I just received my Kickstarter backed Digital Bolex D16 a few days before. Do I bring it or leave it behind? l did not want to be intrusive, but at the same time I thought there might be some moments I could shoot and cut together as a gift of memories for my mother. It would be a personal project, an attempt to capture a 16mm home movie style and at the same time to engage in an observational style of documentary, a model for my students. I’m currently teaching a documentary class utilizing observational cinema techniques at NAU.

One of the arguments put forward in Observational Cinema by Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz is the need to make a connection and build intimacy with your subject through your camera—making the camera an extension of your heart, soul, and mind. By using this camera in such an intimate setting in handheld mode, I discovered that D16 is a powerful documentary camera—my favorite camera I’ve shot on to date.

Below is the film I created and an official review of the camera based on some of the features I noticed when shooting with the camera. (Email me for password.) I had previously tested the beta build of the camera at Venice Beach, California in September 2013 (see http://www.digitalbolex.com/guest-post-kurt-lancaster/.

Traveling light
I decided to bring it, but leave behind the tripod, monopod, and slider. I wanted to carry everything onto the plane—one camera backpack (which included my MacBook Pro, iPad, and a book) and one duffel for clothing. I would shoot it handheld with the pistol grip (which has a trigger for recording). I also decided to use the SmallHD DP4-EVF monitor (using the cold shoe mount attached to the side mount of the monitor and the camera–providing a video camera side monitor setup). I also brought a Canon TV-16 13mm, f/1.5 c-mount lens (borrowed from a colleague who has a 16mm Bell and Howell camera), a c-mount to Canon EOS adapter for my Zeiss Contax 25mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4 lens (with a Fotodiox Contax to EOS adapter ring).

Audio
One of the beauties of the D16 revolves around two XLR inputs–with 24-bit, 48k audio. I hooked up my Sennheiser ME 62/K6 omnidirectional microphone attached to the top shoe mount of the camera with a shockmount. One of the issues of using DaVinci Resolve or Adobe Camera Raw, audio is not embedded in the video files. With the D16, audio .aif files are recorded into each sequence of shots of the CinemaDNG folders. The Pomfort/Bolex LightPost software syncs them on export. And it works (I recorded at 23.97fps; when I did 24fps with the Ikonoskop, the audio did not sync well in FinalCut).

In conclusion, the audio is stellar. I know professional filmmakers record sound separately, but for documentary work, it’s nice to have strong audio amps and 24-bit audio onboard the camera—and this is one of the features that blows the doors off most of the CinemaDNG camera competition, among other high end video cameras, as well. However, the audio meters on the Bolex is slow to respond (seems laggy visually), but there are two adjustment knobs for levels and it works. The camera includes a minijack headphone input (as well as a minijack audio input for those who want to hook up a Rode VideoMic Pro, which I did not test).

Cradle style handheld
The camera is heavy, but in a good way — easy to move and control without any shakiness of light cameras. I had no problem shooting over a period of a couple of hours. Back when I shot several documentaries on my Panasonic DVX100, I shot handheld a lot, and I’m able to do so with my Canon 5D Mark II (see blog post, Run and Gun DSLR Work at Occupy Wall Street). I was able to cradle the Panasonic. The 5D, I held out in front of me, which got tiring after a few minutes.

With the Bolex, I can cradle it, again, my right hand on the removable trigger handle, holding most of the weight, with my left hand on the lens for focusing and aperture adjustment. At the same time, I dispersed some of the weight and maintained another point of body contact for steadiness by resting the bottom of the SmallHD monitor on my left forearm. Really nice. The pistol grip allows you to pull the trigger to record and it stops recording when you let go of the trigger (there’s a record button on top of the camera, as well). The trigger allows you to be judicious with what you decide to shoot with, a key point when shooting raw — treat it like a film magazine and you won’t be trying to shoot everything in site and run out of space before you know it. I would like to see a wide flat edge on the trigger, because right now it’s a bit thin and your finger does tend to get sore after shooting for a while.

Monitor
If I were to knick-pick one thing about what I don’t like about the camera, it’s the monitor. The onboard monitor for the D16 is functional for menu items, but it’s simply not good for shooting, especially if you have the camera too high and you can’t even see it. In either case, the monitor is not high resolution and is really too small to shoot with any kind of clarity. If Digital Bolex designs another camera model (which I hope they do), I would love to see a side mount swing out high definition monitor!

I ended up using the SmallHD DP4-EVF monitor without the eyepiece mount (I was shooting mainly indoors). This monitor has three ¼” screw holes, so you can mount with an adapter on either side or bottom. By side-mounting it on the Bolex side cold shoe mount, and by adjusting the adapter, I was able to mimic a swing out side-mount LCD screen. This is one of the features that makes the camera really work for me (but you’ll need to budget $600 for the monitor). The SmallHD is powered by two Canon 5D/7D type batteries for longer life.

Image
What can I say? The analog CCD along with Bolex’s internal design creates a 16mm film look. It’s like shooting on film, but with all of the advantages of digital. Other than the Ikonoskop, there’s no other digital cinema camera at this price point that engages such magic. No moire or rolling shutter issues detected.

Still-from-Clay-Celebration

A still from “A Celebration of Clay’s Life.” The D16 engages a nice 16mm film look.

However, just because you’re shooting raw doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expose properly. With some angles, I couldn’t help but get clipped highlights through the windows facing the afternoon sun. If I expose for the outdoors, then I would need to bring in lights to expose properly (in some shots I did want the silhouette effect). Therefore, some background shots are clipped in order to get proper exposure on the subject. The image will fall apart in post (turning clipped highlights pink if you go too far). I can do better fine tuning in Adobe Camera Raw, than with LightPost, but it’s still not going to save your clipped values. If you’re not sure, then be sure to get a light meter.

Battery life
I shot over a period of a couple of  hours (recording about 70-80 minutes of footage) and the battery went to about 40 percent. For longer shoots (especially on an all day gig, be sure to budget in the Switronix external battery for $325). If you’re handholding, then you’ll want this hooked on your belt or shoulder bag, but if you’re on a monopod or tripod, you can attach it to the bottom of the camera, and the battery includes a ¼” screw hole for a plate.

Raw processing
When shooting in 12-bit CinemaDNG raw, it feels like I’m shooting on film. It’s a pleasure to see and feel the “thickness” of the image coming through the SmallHD monitor. And when grading the image, it’s a pleasure to shape the grade with thick files after spending years grading thin 8-bit files (DSLRs and video cameras). It’s like I’m processing film, as well, but digitally.

I would find it difficult to go back to grading 8-bit images. When dumping footage from the camera, use the USB 3.0 cable and be sure you have a USB 3.0 hard drive (such as the G-Drive Mini). I have the 500GB SSD drive model of the camera and can shoot about two hours worth of footage on it in HD mode, ad about 90 minutes in 2K mode.  Plan accordingly, since you will need to dump footage if you shoot more than the drive’s allotment.

For my shoot, it took a while to copy the files to a FireWire 800 drive, so by having two USB 3.0 ports on a MackBook Pro, you can reserve one for the camera and one for the hard drive (I only had one USB 3.0 cable with me, so I had to rely on the FireWire 800 cable—much slower than USB 3.0). I would like to see future models of Bolex cameras to also have a Thunderbolt port.

I did try to import the files through the Copy room of LightPost, but my hard drive ejected for some reason and I decided to drag and drop directly from the SSD drive of the D16 to a folder on the G-Drive. Once I had imported the files, I went to the Organize room of LightPost and created a folder and ingested the files from there (it does not make copies, but sets up your files and references them to that folder).

Moving to the Color room, I went through the clips I wanted to use and did a simple grade (mainly adjusting the exposure, but also making some tungsten/daylight color adjustments). The calibrated camera brings in the images and it looks natural.

However, you’ll want power. The new Mac Pros would be great for processing raw files. I edited this short on a MacBook Pro, quadcore i7 processors, 16GB ram, 2GB of video ram, as well as an internal SSD drive. This isn’t for light computer work, since raw needs heavy lifting. Unfortunately, LightPost is Mac only for now, so you’ll need to use Resolve or Camera Raw to grade (which doesn’t give you audio sync capabilities), so be sure to use a clapper board for your shots if you’re not planning to use LightPost.

Export as ProRes 4444
After adjusting exposure, I went to the Export room and selected ProRes 4444. If I choose anything less than that, then I’m unable to make any minor changes to color or exposure while editing (I could do proxies and send them back, but that requires extra steps and who wants the extra work?).

I’ve discovered whether shooting with Blackmagic Design cameras, Bolex, and other cameras, when exporting to ProRes 422 (or originating in ProRes 422 with Blackmagic), even in HQ mode, it doesn’t give me much room to grade. It quickly falls apart. You must get the image as close as possible in-camera before shooting just like you would with an 8-bit H.264 file. But with ProRes 4444,  there’s a lot more latitude to tweak your images (you just need more hard drive space).

With that solution in hand, I’m able to do a quick turnaround with CinemaDNG raw files using LightPost. In Final Cut, I quickly edited the film, adjusted audio levels (with audio already synced with LightPost’s audio sync feature), and used the waveform monitor to make final adjustments to exposure and color.

This was a simple process and did not require much more work than working with a DSLR or Canon C100 footage. You just need to plan for the additional step of getting your files into the color grading software, doing your correction and grade, then exporting. In either case, the color grading step in LightPost is where the magic of using 12-bit raw occurs — it’s where you really discover the thickness of the image as if you were using a type of film stock, so if that doesn’t excite you, you’re using the wrong camera!

Pros

  • 16mm film look in a digital format (12-bit CinemaDNG raw)
  • 24 bit audio with professional XLR inputs
  • Automatic audio sync of onboard audio in LightPost
  • Solid weight for smooth handheld work and the ability to “cradle” the camera
  • Portability and the ability to travel light
  • Pistol grip for easy on-off recording (trigger edge could be wider)
  • LightPost is an easy to use and painless grading software
  • Decent onboard battery life (get the Switronix external battery for all day shoots)
  • Great price point for the quality of the image and quality of audio

Cons

  • Weak LCD monitor (need to budget in an external monitor)
  • You’ll need a fast computer for raw processing—not for old technology

Conclusion
For about the price of a 5D Mark III, you can purchase a D16 Digital Bolex with a 500GB SSD drive, a 16mm cinema camera. For independent filmmakers, serious film students and film hobbyists, as well as documentarians and news shooters filming evergreen pieces (where your turnaround time isn’t on the quick pace of breaking news deadline), this is the camera to get.

For me, this is one of the best documentary cameras on the market and I would be excited to shoot promo and fiction projects with this camera, as well. It is a worthwhile investment.

Kurt_Lancaster1_small Kurt Lancaster is the author of DSLR Cinema and Cinema Raw: Shooting and Color Grading with the Ikonoskop, Digital Bolex, and Blackmagic Cinema Cameras, coming out from Focal Press in Spring 2014. He teaches digital filmmaking and documentary at Northern Arizona University. He received his PhD from NYU.

 

 

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