The introduction of digital capture to what was once a celluloid world has had numerous, far-reaching effects on what can be creatively and technically achieved by filmmakers. Digital video, upon first use, allowed significantly cheaper, more mobile productions to be undertaken, and along with them came a distinct look, often used to achieve a certain visual aesthetic. Anthony Dod Mantle was one of the earliest DPs to embrace this, on films with directors Thomas Vinterberg (Festen) and Danny Boyle (28 Days Later…). The real lynchpin of digital capture came when George Lucas made Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 1999.
His DP, David Tattersall, shot on 35mm, but Lucas was dissatisfied with the results. The film was comprised of innumerable digital VFX shots, which had to be integrated into traditionally shot bits of film. This led to the development of High Definition, digital cameras, on which an entire film could be shot. The resultant work was Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The digital effects would be married to digitally captured performances and sets, and the result was much more visually seamless, and efficient for the production. The trickle down effect of this is the mass proliferation of digital capture, eliminating the need to carry, load, and buy film mags, and with this, digital cameras have gotten smaller, cheaper, and are enabling more filmmakers to make things on their own terms over time.
With that, we come to one of the more recently emerged players in the digital capture market, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, from video technology manufacturer Blackmagic. I only recently first heard about their system, when reading about its use by DP Slawomir Idziak, on the film which saw Natalie Portman make her feature directing and writing debut, while starring – A Tale of Love and Darkness. Idziak has a large body of work, consisting of films shot in his native Poland, and then there are the films I know him for, like David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Andrew Niccol’s remarkable debut, Gattaca (Have you seen it? If the answer is anything but yes, see it now!). Idziak is not opposed to adapting to new technologies for capturing imagery, and “believes that utilizing modern storytelling techniques in contemporary filmmaking today is essential, particularly if a DP wants to get the best possible scene coverage, in the fewest possible shots.” – (http://www.moviescopemag.com/insiderspov/shooting-natalie-portmans-directorial-debut-on-the-pocket-cinema-camera/).
Idziak discusses how, even on a film with Portman’s star-power behind it, time and money was limited. Having a nimbler camera like the BMPCC on hand allowed for Idziak to get more coverage of scenes without needing to set up another take with the ARRI Alexas used as A cam. “The compact dimensions of the Blackmagic camera allowed us to set up a shot, and position cameras within said shot that were out of sight, giving us access to unique perspectives and angles. There are also several dynamic scenes in the film where the size and weight allowed us to use the camera in a way, which would have otherwise been difficult with traditional cameras” (http://www.moviescopemag.com/insiderspov/shooting-natalie-portmans-directorial-debut-on-the-pocket-cinema-camera/).
With a camera as compact as the BMPCC, quality will no doubt be of concern. The film also features lots of color manipulation, for dreary dream scenes and other moments. Idziak and his department were pleasantly surprised to find that, when comparing Alexa-shot footage to BMPCC footage, “no one in the room could distinguish what had been shot with the Blackmagic camera, and what hadn’t” (http://www.moviescopemag.com/insiderspov/shooting-natalie-portmans-directorial-debut-on-the-pocket-cinema-camera/).
The compact nature of the BMPCC has led to its use, increasingly so, in major Hollywood productions. It isn’t the first time such technology has been used on feature films, remember those GoPro shots in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug? Who could forget them, because the quality was abysmal. This was in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s vibrant, striking imagery. The key to the BMPCC working well on larger productions is that it doesn’t cause a drop-off in image quality, allowing productions like Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur remake, Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne, and the short-lived CBS TV remake of Rush Hour to make use of it, in conjunction with the high-end capture systems they are already running.
Ultron DP Ben Davis commended the BMPCC, saying that both the quality of its captured image, and small size, allowed it to be used in ways that would endanger normal cameras, without compromising the film’s lush visuals (I view Ultron as one of the visually strongest Marvel films). “There are two large battle sequences in particular during the film, the first is at the beginning and the second features in the third act, and we very much wanted these to be shot as a war correspondent would cover news in a conflict zone. What we needed was a lightweight camera that we could then distribute around the set during the filming of battle sequences that would give us more than twelve frames of good quality HD material that we could match with our main camera package” (http://nofilmschool.com/2015/05/avengers-age-ultron-was-shot-partly-blackmagic-pocket-cinema-cameras). The camera can, in essence, be crashed along with cars, and jostled about while handheld, enabling DPs to get exciting, dynamic, and unconventional shots during action-sequence havoc. This is no doubt what the BMPCC allowed for on the Barry Ackroyd-shot Jason Bourne, as well.
The BMPCC has been used to shoot shorts, even a feature – the Sundance film from 2015, Diego Ongaro’s Bob and the Trees. The BMPCC “allow[ed] them to plunge through snowdrifts and woodlots to capture the actors in the precarious process of cutting timber” (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/bob-trees-sundance-review-764732). With further use in more and more films, and to shoot entire films, the BMPCC will no doubt continue to expand the possibilities of directors and cinematographers to achieve unique shots and sequences. With the quality of the captured image stacking up to ARRI and other systems, it’s safe to say the BMPCC will be a player in the digital capture game for a long time to come.