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Blackmagic Cinema Camera: The Perfect Training Ground for Cinematographers

  • August 6, 2014
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Blackmagic Cinema Camera: The Perfect Training Ground for Cinematographers

16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Looking back to the beginning of my career as a cinematographer, what was my training ground? I started shooting music videos and that was on Super 16mm film. Back then, music videos ruled. I shot for all the big bands of the grunge era in the early 1990s – Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots and Live to name a few.

Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness 1995
Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness 1995

Nirvana – In Utero 1993
Nirvana – In Utero 1993

Stone Temple Pilots – Core – 1992
Stone Temple Pilots – Core – 1992

LIVE – Throwing Copper 1994
LIVE – Throwing Copper 1994

I took Super 16mm to the breaking point every day. Kevin Kerslake was a director I worked with and I have to say he shaped me as an artist. He is one ballsy shooter! Kevin was a director/cameraman and I was his lighting designer. He pushed me to do things I would never have thought of, which quickly morphed into me being his DP, with Kevin operating and directing. His instincts as an operator were impeccable and his ideas were always innovative, which made collaborating so much fun. He challenged me to come up with unique ways to tell his stories with light.

“Experimentation and Finding Yourself as an Artist”

One thing that I always stress is to challenge yourself, move out of what is comfortable, and step into an area where you can fail. This is counter intuitive in our culture. We are taught to succeed at all costs. I have built my career on the opposite. You do not know where the cliff is until you jump off of it. My friend Jayne calls it “edge walking.”

Here are a few music videos I shot on 16mm film. The approach was insane and I was not sure if it would turn out, but I went for it. My exposures were all over the place. At some times, it was 13 stops over exposed. Yes, so the whole latitude of film I was just doing in the over exposure, which means a nuclear image. I think it looks so unique and cool. The locations were massive and we only had pennies, so coming up with lighting that could fill a place the size of basketball arena was a daunting task.

I am not going to go into how I did these videos. I need to get back to the message I started.

What are the similarities of 16mm film and the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC)?

16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

1. The BMCC has a sensor size close to Super 16mm film.
How does this relate? When you are starting out, you cannot bring in a top team of technicians. You are all learning together. That is what is so powerful about this BIG IDEA I have here. You are learning together, which means the focus puller might not be the best, maybe a 2nd AC who is looking to move up or someone who knows a lot about cameras but has never pulled focus before. So having the smaller sensor size gives him or her a better chance to get your creation in focus. A helpful tool in understanding where your Depth of Field will be is using the PCAM App on your iPhone or Android. You can read up on it here. This baby is a great tool. For example, if your subject is standing five feet away from camera on the Canon C500 that has a S35 sensor, on a 50mm lens at f2.8, your focus puller will have 3.8 inches to keep that subject in focus. On the BMCC with its near S16 sensor, on a 25mm lens at f2.8 (remember you have a crop factor compared to S35 so the 25mm on the BMCC will be close to a 50mm on a C500) your focus puller will have 11.5″ to keep your subject in focus. Here are some pictures from the PCAM App to make it visual for you.

16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights
Camera: Canon C500, S35 Sensor, 50mm lens at f2.8
16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights
Blackmagic Cinema Camera, S16 Sensor, f2.8

I look back to all the Canon 5D videos that hit the internet after people saw the power of that camera and it was one mushy out of focus video after the next . The actual size of the BMCC is 15.81mm x 8.88mm – 18.1mm Diagonal. The Super 16mm film I was shooting on was 7.41mm x 12.52mm – 14.54mm Diagonal. How do these sensor sizes compare on a chart? The Blackmagic Cinema Camera’s sensor is just a bit bigger than Standard 16mm.

16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights
I shot on one of these babies back in the day! An Arriflex SR3.
16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights
And this one too! A Canon Scoopic 16 MS

Your Gaffer might have been a Best Boy or just an Electric, or a good friend who wanted to break into the business. This is crew building and I built mine the same way. Tim Carr, who was my friend from my small hometown of Aurora, New York, was doing numbers for a construction firm in San Diego. He asked me what I did for a job. When I told him I was a key grip at the time, he said he would love to get out of this accounting deal and work in Hollywood. This is a guy who graduated at the top of the class, was a Rhodes Scholar and graduated from the London School of Economics. One word describes this guy, BRILLIANT! I brought him into my music video team and he really loved gripping. He insisted on living in his car outside of my house for over a year. This is the determination that is required to get in this business and you have to hear this loud and clear. Putting in your time should never come easily. If it does, then you are absolutely on the wrong path. PERIOD! He now is one of the most sought after Key Grips in the business, owns ten Grip trucks and travels all over the world. Inspire a team and they will follow.

2. What is the latitude of 16mm film stock?

16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

The team at Blackmagic Design is an intelligent group of engineers. WHY? Well, they delivered a camera that matches the latitude of 16mm film stock. 13 stops. Perfect. For all of you starting out on the Canon 5D and having 9.5 stops to deal with, you cannot screw up. You have to really understand what you are doing. Act of Valor looked the way it did because of my 20 years of exposing experience.

16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

If you are just diving into the film industry, then the BMCC gives you the latitude to fail and still succeed. WOW! Is that possible? Yes. My first job as a gaffer was working on a Barbie commercial. We did day exteriors in the morning, and then moved into the stage. I never changed my light meter from 100 ASA to 500 ASA when we changed film stocks (Film Speed – ASA to ISO ). So I over exposed the film by 2 stops. If this was a Canon 5D, the footage would be unusable. With film, I had the extra latitude to save it. However, I had to tell the DP that all my meter readings were wrong. He had to go to the director and tell him, which then lead to the agency producer, and we had to go back and shoot all the scenes over again. We incurred overtime that I was responsible for out of my paycheck. I did not lose the DP or the Director as a client because Mattel called back and said the footage that was over exposed was so much more spectacular than the normal. It was exactly what they wanted to push the Barbie brand to the next level. WHOA! Dodged that bullet.

3. It teaches you to read a light meter and understand light and ratios.
It is essential to use a light meter to understand your lighting values with this camera. If you want to be a cinematographer, you need to know how to read a light meter, a spot meter and a color meter.

16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

16mm film Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Sekonic Spotmeter and Light Meter combo

All right, we have established that you have a camera that has a sensor size very close to a 16mm sensor. You have the same latitude of 16mm film stock. Now, we need to address how to light with this camera.

The lighting ratios and light placement are the building blocks of understanding cinematography. Placing one light in the right place starts your journey of creation. Understanding the ratios of fill light, key light and your back light is next. I have found that this camera relates very closely to how I used to expose 16mm film, which was to overexpose a 1/2 stop across the board. It seems to give this camera more BIT depth. Always overexpose the BMCC 1/2 stop to get the most out of this camera. Here is how this overexposure will relate to your light meter readings and when you dial in the camera before you roll.

Key Light:
On your Key Light, if your light meter is reading a 4.0 f-stop, then I would expose at a 2.8 and a half. I open up that 1/2 stop.

Back Light:
On back light, I would under expose the back light 1 stop or 1 stop and 1/2 if my model has blonde hair. For darker hair, I have brought it up to the stop that you set on the camera. All of this is a general guide and you have to apply this to the environment you are shooting in to make it feel real.

Fill Light:
For fill level, that is a subjective area. If you are shooting a comedy, I would suggest only -2 stops. If you are doing a drama, -3 to -4 stops and thriller/horror -4 to -5 stops. This is just my preference and very subjective. You must also take into account the location, script, mood and tone.

When you go to choose the recording format for this camera, always stick with RAW 2.5K. Utilizing that 12-Bit Uncompressed file format will get you right on track with how I exposed 16mm film when I started out. If you shoot in any of the compressed flavors of Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD, everything that I am teaching you will not relate. The compression of those formats takes away all of the beauty the BMCC has to offer! Get yourself a few more SSD drives when recording RAW, as this will take up a lot more hard drive space. Blackmagic has a list of approved drives for the BMCC.

We have talked about lighting on the Hurlblog before. Read through some of these previous posts to help understand where to place your lights:


Don’t Rely on the Monitor:
I cannot stress this enough to start your journey in becoming a cinematographer. Learn light ratios and eventually, you will not need a light meter. After my seventh film, I could light to eye, whether I was shooting 50 ASA on day exteriors or 500 ASA at night. My light meter was on my belt, but I rarely went to it, and there was no monitor to look at that would tell you that you were all good, no waveforms, no false color, just your eye and your GOD given talent. Like film, with the BMCC you cannot learn to light by looking at a flat profile out of the camera. It does not allow you to see your lighting values and ratios. You must know what your meter readings are of your key, back and fill. I have yet to see a LUT placed against the BMCC that gives you a true representation of how you are trying to light your image.

4. The ISO of the BMCC is very close to the ASA of 16mm film.
Understanding how to light requires you to actually use lighting and not use the high ISO of the camera to be able to shoot in available light. This is a disservice not only to your career, but to you as an artist.

The BMCC isn’t like the Sony A7s, where you can crank the ISO up to 50,000 ISO to shoot in nearly pitch black. The BMCC forces you to learn to light with its restrictive ISOs, just like I would have done with Super 16mm film, at a maximum of 640 ASA. With 13 stops of Dynamic Range, you are again learning where you can create and experiment. Remember what I said about the Canon 5D only having 9.5 stops of Dynamic Range? It’s a huge difference. In 16mm film, there are 5 stops in the underexposure and 8 stops in the overexposure. In the BMCC, there are roughly 7 stops in the underexposure and 6 stops in the overexposure. This is what I have seen in my tests for Need for Speed.

If you look at this, the training ground is complete. You have the right sensor size for success. You have the right latitude for you to take risks, to push you out of your comfort zone, for you to fail and succeed at the same time. You have your light meter, a spot meter and a color meter, which you will learn to use and succeed along with having an ISO that comes close to matching the ASA of 16mm film and the perfect place to build your foundation for success.

Now it is time for you to get out there and shoot; fail to succeed. Jump!

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