For low budget indy filmmakers, we’re at a revolutionary crossroads. In under two years we’ve seen the birth of several affordable CinemaDNG raw cameras—allowing us to acquire digital film quality footage from cameras costing less than $3500.
Kurt Lancaster shooting a short documentary at Venice Beach, California with Digital Bolex’s D16 beta build camera. Michael Plescia on audio with Joe Rubinstein holding a reflector. (Photo by Elle Schneider.)
Below I provide an example of why it’s important to shoot in raw, as well as describing my opinion of several CinemaDNG cameras as a shooter and editor who works from a DIY filmmaking and multimedia journalism perspective (as well as a professional filmmaking educator). I’ve shot projects with all of these cameras (except the KineRAW MINI), going on location and interviewing camera and filmmakers in Los Angeles, Sweden, Melbourne, and Las Vegas. In addition, I’ve used each of the available color grading software. I’ve just completed a book for Focal Press about this topic: Cinema Raw: Shooting and Color Grading with the Ikonoskop, Digital Bolex, and Blackmagic Cinema Cameras, coming out later this spring.
Why should I shoot raw in the first place?
You don’t. If you’re happy with shooting video cameras and love the look (especially in an ENG environment), keep doing what you’re doing. If you love your DSLR and are happy with the footage, keep on shooting with it. A $600 Canon 60D puts out a better image than video cameras costing thousands more—my book, DSLR Cinema, promotes the use of DSLRs for film students and low budget indy filmmakers (far, far better than teaching or shooting on prosumer video cameras).
The Canon C100 (listed around $5000) is a great compromise camera, blending the best of the large sensor look and interchangeable lenses of a DSLR with XLR audio inputs and manual neutral density settings of a video camera. Stillmotion, one of the best video production houses in the world, works wonders with this camera (along with DSLRs). They know that a filmmaker’s best asset is their story.
However, most of the prosumer video world shoots everything compressed, including the C100. In order to make the image look good, they compress footage into an H.264 8-bit codec, resulting in thin footage. It looks good on the surface. It’s a codec that works well for DVDs and on the web (packing a lot of information in a small amount of space). You can also shoot a lot of footage on a relatively small memory card.
But the H.264 codec is for end results, not the beginning.
So if you nail the look in-camera, you’re in good shape. However, if you push or pull your footage too far in post, the image falls apart. It loses its appeal. The image feels thin. Whatever it had going for it, is gone.
Furthermore, even when you get the look right in-camera, I’ve noticed that the image I see on the back of my 5D Mark II, for example, looks really, really good. I remember shooting one particular scene, the subject looking great through my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens—the glass making the image so beautiful, and through the live view LCD screen, it did.
But every time I put footage onto my computer, something goes missing—even after decompressing the image into a ProRes file, it never recovers what that original image looked like.
At the time I didn’t know much about 8-bit compression. I didn’t know how the image was being compromised, thinned out to save space. But I lived with it, because if you got that image to look close on-camera, you were going to get a good image on the computer. And in many cases, it didn’t (and probably doesn’t) really matter—but true fact: No matter what was done to it in post, that footage never looked as good as the image coming out through the back of that live view screen. The depth of the image flattened the life out of it.
The magic of film and 12-bit uncompressed
When I filmed on a 16mm Arriflex during my NYU days in the mid 1990s, I would look through the glass and see magic. After I got the film developed, that shimming beauty of film remained. Nothing was lost. That magic shone through the film.
Not one video camera, prosumer or otherwise, quite captured the cinematic thickness of film.
Until now. That magic of filmmaking I felt when using 16mm film has returned with these CinemaDNG cameras. And that’s why I love shooting in raw. I feel like I’m shooting with film again.
To shoot raw means to thicken the color of your images, making them more dense—a lot more data provides more headroom to push and pull footage in post, to correct errors made during shooting, as well as to shape the look and feel of your film.
Treat post workflow like film
Even if you try to take your raw files, make some changes in post with color and exposure (using DaVinci Resolve, LightPost, or Camera Raw), export it as an 8-bit ProRes 422 file for your editing software, and then try to make additional changes with the 8-bit image, the image falls apart, as can be seen with this frame from a BMCC shoot in Final Cut, below:
After making initial color correction in DaVinci Resolve, I try to make further adjustments of exposure and color in Final Cut using exported ProRes files. The image begins to fall apart—losing the exposure in the highlights, as well as sharpness and skin tones. This is the limiting aspect of grading compressed images and the reason filmmakers should want to shoot (and grade) in raw.
Here’s a similar frame in Final Cut, but this time fully corrected and graded in Resolve:The grade of a BMCC shoot works when grading within Resolve.
By grading in raw, the exposure in the highlights, the sharpness of detail, and good skin tones remain protected and accurate. (If you export footage as ProRes 4444, you’ll engage far better results when making minor adjustments while grading.)
Ultimately, the magic’s beneath the raw hood, where we find good skin tones, as well as roll off of light and shadow. Details and color pop out through digital pixels, as close to film as I’ve experienced.
Thus you will want to treat raw like old school film. Shoot in raw, “develop” (correct and grade) your project from the raw files in post, then “print” (export) the files for editing. You might edit from a “work print”, exporting raw files as proxies (with XML) so you can create a rough cut edit from smaller files, before bringing back for full grading.
When I shot with the Digital Bolex D16, this really stood out to me (see below). What I saw was, finally, what I shot—it was dense. I could manipulate the image like I was in a dark room mixing chemicals—but now I was mixing temperature balance, tint, contrast, exposure, and film curves.
Which cinema raw camera should I get?
Below is a quick overview of the different low-budget raw cameras on the market, today.
Well, it was on the market, but the Swedish company is being restructured and appears to have been bought by a company in Belgium. It will likely be reproduced at a lower price point in order to remain competitive.
The first CinemaDNG camera, Ikonoskop’s A-Cam dII. Currently out of production.
This camera’s for independent filmmakers. I went to Ikonoskop in Stockholm and borrowed the camera for a couple of days and short a short documentary with it (still in post). This is the first CinemaDNG camera, and the most ergonomically pleasing. It is fun to handle and expresses gravitas. It shoots beautiful 16mm film-like images. As one filmmaker I interviewed says, it makes you feel like you’re shooting poetry when using it. Filmmaker Jon Yi (from NYU), shot this seductive film at Coney Island with the Ikonoskop:
As can be seen from this film, the Ikonoskop puts out a great image, expressing a 16mm film look. Philip Bloom, Tweeting from NAB in 2012, said, “My favourite image from a camera at the show? Probably the @ikonoskop. Lovely! [H]ope to shoot with it soon!” (http://propic.com/23N9). The only other CinemaDNG camera that I’ve experienced coming close to this look is Digital Bolex’s D16.
But other cameras engage in strong cinematic images, too.
Blackmagic Cinema Camera: ~$2,000 (expect to add another $2000 to make it field ready)
For many who were used to shooting with DSLRs, Blackmagic’s camera was a shock when they saw the sharpness of the uncompressed image.
The Cinema Camera from the Australian company, Blackmagic Design, is solid and it’s probably best for production houses doing promotional and commercial videos. For just about $2000, this seems to be the best deal—if you can overcome its quirks, including moire and rolling shutter issues typical of CMOS sensors. (Also, be sure to choose which lens mount you want: either EF or Micro 4/3.) However, realize you will need to pay thousands more to get this up to a field- or studio-ready camera. For example, the audio is worse than DSLRs (and there are no audio meters), so you will need to budget an external audio recorder. You may want some kind of cage, although I shot a short documentary without one.
It wants to be placed on a tripod with an EVF, especially when shooting outdoors day. I was able to place this on a monopod and shoot handheld in some situations.
Its advantages: It has the capability to shoot CinemaDNG raw, as well as Apple ProRes (422), and DNxHD format (for Avid). This flexibility makes this a fairly versatile camera, and with a 2.5K sensor you can do some crop work in post for full HD composition. But to get it “field” ready (external monitor, battery, SSD drives—be prepared to spend at least another $2000 not including lenses).
I shot a live performance art piece with it:
It provides a sharp look and some filmmakers are shooting some nice-looking commercial and promotional videos with this camera. It has its own character and the image coming out of the camera does not look like the other cameras profiled here. For news work, use the ProRes format to save space and postproduction time. After shooting with this camera, I have no problem using it for certain documentary work in raw mode, as well, but since I have other choices, it is unlikely that I will shoot with it, again.
Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera: ~$1000 (will need to budget at least $1200 more to make it a field camera with enough memory cards, batteries, external audio, and monopod)
Blackmagic’s Pocket Cinema Camera packs a punch in a small package, recording in “lossless” compressed CinemaDNG, as well as ProRes.
This is a solid portable camera, allowing you to shoot broadcast quality images on the run. The advantages is how it can shoot a compressed form of “lossless” raw, as well as utilize ProRes.
The disadvantage: Terrible audio and no audio meters. I couldn’t even get a clean reference audio with a Rode VideoMic Pro attached. Plan to budget an external audio. Moire issues and rolling shutter issues typical of CMOS sensors.
This camera is good for news and journalism, especially for those needing to do fast turnaround with their work using ProRes. You could shoot fiction on it if you rig it up. I would recommend shooting in ProRes mode for run and gun situations where the image isn’t essential. In cases where you want to shape a powerful image, use raw. When you do, the footage coming out of the camera is solid, as can be seen from this short scene I shot with it below (one shot is in ProRes, can you find it and see the difference?):
Some argue that ProRes is a good codec. It’s decent. It’s broadcast quality—but it is not very cinematic compared to CinemaDNG raw mode. Switching between lossless DNG raw to ProRes with the BMPC resulted in an image quality that didn’t look close to the quality of CinemaDNG and I was not able to make it look close to the raw origination while grading it in Final Cut. If you are planning to use the ProRes codec, treat it like you would when shooting with a DSLR—get it accurate in camera!The CinemaDNG lossless raw still from Magic Vegas, graded in LightPost. The image contains depth of color that can be felt when grading it. As an experiment, I shot this moment in ProRes, then color graded in Final Cut, using “match color” and adjusting some of the colors (first image). In the second, I did not use match color and graded by my eye trying to get it as close as possible to the raw original. I couldn’t get either to match and the detail and color depth is simply lost in the ProRes codec.
If you’re a journalist or documentary filmmaker and you have this camera on you, you can get shots as they arise—especially if you want to shoot low profile. But if you need quality audio, you’ll need to factor that into how you use it as a low profile camera, as well, thus making it “larger” than it really is.
Having recently shot a project with the BMPC, I’ve realized that this camera really does want a rig to help stabilize and accessorize it.
Shape makes a good cage for Blackmagic Pocket Cineam Camera for about $400: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1004681-REG/shape_bmpocage_cage_for_blackmagic_pocket.html
Be sure to get enough batteries and memory cards. It’s recommended that you purchase the Canon battery pack from Switronix ($155): http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1007270-REG/switronix_pkt_basek_pocketbase_battery_holder_with.html.
It’ll take a pair of 5D/7D/60D type batteries (which comes with it) and fully charged I was able to shoot a couple hours of footage over the course of a 6 hour day.
D16 Digital Bolex: ~$3300 (250GB SSD drive) or ~$3600 (500 GB SSD drive)
For independent filmmakers, those shooting fiction and independent feature narratives, as well as documentaries. This is an international camera, connecting Switzerland, Canada, and the United States.
Filmmaker Michael Plescia claims that this is the “real deal” in that it captures natural skin tones, engages a 16mm film look, and contain high quality audio.
The D16 is hands down one of the best digital cinema cameras in its class, today—and for the price point it’s unparalleled. Some filmmakers state that for all of the digital cinema cameras out there, this is the real deal. Philip Bloom says that it expressed, “A very filmic image, more so than the BMD Pocket Camera. It really has a proper S16mm look to it, not just a S16mm sized sensor” (http://philipbloom.net/2014/01/01/d16/).
It really has a proper S16mm look to it, not just a S16mm sized sensor. -Philip Bloom
I shot this short documentary, below, with a beta version of the camera and it was the first time I got excited about shooting since I shot on 16mm film:
I not only shot at noon, but I shot a dark skinned street performer against a blue sky. I did everything you should never do with an 8-bit DSLR or video camera. Stopping down the vintage lens to its smallest aperture just to get exposure (no ND filter on hand), I shot the ocean with sailboats in the distance, and held the sky. I shot skateboarders in their rink, moving a fast pan left with no rolling shutter or moire issues.
This camera, like others in its class, is about harnessing color depth, filmic texture, and nice skin tones. But out of all of these cameras (except, perhaps the Ikonoskop), the Digital Bolex camera really felt like I was shooting with a film camera. And rather than utilizing limited film mags, the 500GB SSD will provide around two hours of shooting (which takes about an hour to offload through the USB cable), but two fast CF cards will allow for card swapping if you’re shooting a lot of footage. If you need more than two hours of shooting time, be sure to get the Switronix external battery pack for $325: (http://www.digitalbolex.com/product/switronix-battery-pack-bundle/)
KineRAW MINI: ~$4600 (standard kit)
I have not shot with this Chinese camera, so I’m not going to make a recommendation one way or another about it. But it does contain an S35mm sensor and at a price point less than the Canon C100. The body only costs $3200, but unless you have the accessaries from the standard kit, you won’t be able to do much with it.
Can’t say much about this camera, since I’ve never used it, but the price point is right.
Filmmaker Johnnie Behiri shows what it can do in this short documentary:
5D Mark III: ~$3400 (with Magic Lantern raw)
The Mark II started the DSLR cinema revolution and it was followed up by the Mark III, which included a headphone jack and audio meters, key elements needed in any video camera.
Canon’s full frame sensor camera shoots better images than high end video cameras, and with Magic Lantern’s raw module, it’s competitive with the other CinemaDNG cameras profiled on this post.
Many DSLR filmmakers prodded Canon to make the Mark II raw—they responded with the C500 for $20,000! Magic Lantern—a loose affiliate of hackers and camera aficionados responded back, creating a firmware hack that included a raw module for the Mark III for no cost.
Does it work? Yes, but with certain limitations. You’ll need the fastest card money can buy, you’ll need to install the Magic Lantern software through a convoluted process, but it provides 14-bit raw. It has moire and rolling shutters issues typical of CMOS sensors.
The steps that will guide you through this process are located at: http://www.magiclantern.fm/forum/index.php?topic=5520.0. Once you shoot the raw files, you’ll need software to wrap them into the CinemaDNG format. RAWMagic is one such software available as an Mac’s App store (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/rawmagic/id658860973?mt=12). Then you’ll need to import footage into DaVinci Resolve, Adobe Camera Raw, or LightPost, which achieved stellar results and is the easiest one to use.
However, for this price point, you can get a Digital Bolex. So this raw update is worth it if you already own the 5D Mark III or 7D (among other Canon DSLRs). It is really not worth the price when you compare it to the CinemaDNG cameras described above. And if you’re going to pay $3400 in order to shoot raw with this camera, you’re better off getting a D16, since it’s the same price and it provides a better image and better audio.
Which camera is the best?
It depends on your budget and needs, as well as the type of project you’re shooting. With that said, these are my four reasons why I think Digital Bolex D16 is the best CinemaDNG camera in its class, with a clear understanding that these reason revolve around the needs for those who want to shoot film, not video:
- Expresses a 16mm film look.
This is the first low priced (under $5000) digital camera that engages a film look.
- Contains high quality audio.
With a pair of built in XLR inputs and the ability to record 24-bit audio is unparalleled. Audio is not an afterthought with this camera, but it actually contains good audio circuitry. Filmmakers in the fiction world are used to shooting external audio, but its nice to have the goods built in. Those shooting documentaries will find this a great relief.
- Ergonomically pleasing to handle.
I actually like the results coming out of the BMCC, but it’s not a pleasure to handle. The Bolex, like the Ikonoskop, is sexy and it wants to be handheld (or placed on a monopod), the kind of cradling that I enjoyed with my old Panasonic DVX100. It also has a pistol grip.
- Global shutter.
With this CCD, you do not have the rolling shutter issues of CMOS sensors used by the others camera profiled here (except the Ikonoskop, which also uses a similar CCD) and moire patterns is limited.
- It is DCP compliant.
If you ever want to project your film on the big screen in a movie theater, its got the goods to deliver a strong cinematic image. (A DIY deliver method is provided at No Film School: http://nofilmschool.com/2012/07/project-in-digital-theater-make-digital-cinema-package-for-cheap-with-opendcp/. You can certainly apply this to any camera, but with the D16 isn’t going to give you the issues of rolling shutter and moire patterns will be limited.
Some might argue that I’m biased, that I’m a Kickstarter backer of the D16. True. But my bias lies in shooting projects on a 16mm Arriflex during my NYU days in the mid 1990s. My bias lies in shooting several documentaries that have screened at film festivals (including the San Diego ComicCon) shot on a Panasonic DVX100, of which I paid $3700, which was marketed to engage a 24p film look, but only for those who were kidding themselves (or never really had the experience of shooting on film).
Thus my point of comparison, the baseline comparison is shooting on film, and the look and feel that it entails. The Blackmagic cameras do deliver a great looking image (far better than the C100, for example), but they don’t quite express the look and feel of 16mm film. And yes, DSLRs do deliver a certain film look and I love shooting with my Mark II, but as mentioned above, the image it delivers is thin and it doesn’t express the feel I see coming out of the Bolex.
What software should I grade with?
Adobe Camera Raw
The most complex of the postproduction software for raw, but the most powerful in how you can make subtle adjustments to your film. It comes as part of Adobe’s Photoshop, Lightroom, or After Effects. Access to this software can be received by subscribing to Adobe’s Creative Cloud: http://www.adobe.com/products/catalog/software._sl_id-contentfilter_sl_catalog_sl_software_sl_mostpopular.html.
Bolex LightPost by Pomfort
The algorithm in this software rocks. The easiest to use, LightPost works magic on your footage — and it’s not just for Bolex’s camera. I imported lossless raw footage from the BMPC and raw converted to DNG files from the 5D Mark III and achieved amazing results without doing much of a grade. What’s missing is video scopes (such as a waveform monitor). If you need to make slight adjustments to your footage after grading, then export as ProRes 4444 (you’ll be able to make minor adjustments without your image falling apart, as opposed to ProRes 422). The software sells at the Bolex site: http://www.digitalbolex.com/product/lightpost-software/
Perhaps the standard, this software is used for professional Hollywood productions. However, it is complex and not easy to learn. The professional version comes free with a purchase of a BMCC. A free download of the “lite” version, can be found at http://www.blackmagicdesign.com/products/davinciresolve. Be sure to get Captain Hook’s LUT, a plugin that makes grading the Blackmagic cameras much easier: http://www.captainhook.co.nz/blackmagic-cinema-camera-lut/.
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 filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University.