Ace cinematographer Shane Hurlburt’s recent article titled “Blackmagic Cinema Camera: The Perfect Training Ground for Cinematographers” really struck a chord. I cannot recommend it too highly. In effect he is advising that we emulate the means and methods of Super 16mm analog filmmaking in order to learn and get on top of digital moviemaking. And he is right.
I have little in common with Mr Hurlburt other than the fact that one of the first movie cameras I ran 16mm film through was an Arriflex though it was a much older, simpler camera than the one he depicts in his article. I borrowed it from the son of a Western Australian mining engineer whose dad had it in his cabinet of curiosities. I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it.
The light meter I used in those days is with me still, a poor, beaten-up old Pentax Digital Spotmeter bought by mail order from Fred Picker at Zone VI Studios Inc. in Brattleboro, Vermont. The spotmeter was modified according to the design of a Harvard astronomy professor, Dr Paul Horowitz. It is the most accurate light meter I have ever owned, especially when shooting under the many kinds of industrial lighting found in and around mining camps and deep underground. With a great light meter in your kit bag you can go anywhere and shoot anything, I discovered.
I wholeheartedly second Mr Hurlburt’s observations about the difference about the challenges of new filmmakers starting out with Canon HDSLRs:
“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.”
And screw up you will and you must – I have botched up plenty and still do, often deliberately in order to try new things, to learn and to grow. Screwing up when making movies, as with any creative endeavour, is an essential part of the learning process. Don't just assume that you will make mistakes – set out to make them deliberately and fast and celebrate them as integral to the learning process.
At the same time, learn the right way of doing things as I did when I studied the Zone System and applied it to shooting still and moving picture film in color and black-and-white. Then throw away the book on a regular basis just to see what happens. The cliché is true enough – you have to know the rules to break the rules – but it is possible to abide by the rules in much of what you do at the same time as you break them in some of it.
I am a little out of my depth right now though when it comes to the camera that Mr Hurlburt recommends in his article, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera – the BMCC. I haven’t had the pleasure of getting behind one yet, but I will soon. Meanwhile I am very much encouraged by Mr Hurlburt’s observation:
“If you are just diving into the film industry, then the BMCC gives you the latitude to fail and still succeed.”
The “latitude to fail”? Absolutely! And that needs to be there whatever stage you are at as a moviemaker. But make sure that you own, or plan to own, at least one top quality light meter, and then beg, borrow or steal a color meter until you can buy one for yourself. Above all go down to your camera store and get yourself a color chart made by Datacolor, X-Rite or DSC Labs. You won’t regret it.
Now read on for the own words of Shane Hurlburt about this crucial subject for everyone breaking into digital moviemaking. He says all this and more far better than I can.
Blackmagic Cinema Camera: The Perfect Training Ground for Cinematographers
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.
“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.
What are the similarities of 16mm film and the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC)?
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.
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.
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(cover photo credit: snap from Shane Hurlbut's blog)