Q'n'A with John Brawley
RAWComms, Blackmagicuser.net, 13th January 2013.
After Blackmagic Design announced the Cinema Camera, one name has quickly become synonymous with it. John Brawley.
An award winning Director of Photography, John has worked all over the world with various broadcasting companies (BBC, HBO, Discovery to name some), has developed a TV commercial portfolio with some of the world’s largest brands and has created various music videos and documentaries. This New York born Antipodean has established himself as one of the leading talents in the industry, who has a hands-on dynamic and creative style.
His first feature ‘Lake Mungo’, utilised over 40 different cameras. The 2010 black comedy ‘The Perfect Host’ had a unique way to control the light on what was an external residential location where they had to wrap each day early because of a 10pm curfew, resulting in night-time scenes being shot in the daytime.
John's work is now regularly featured on the Australian TV circuit. His recent work can be found on the Network Ten drama ‘Puberty Blues’ which along with Foxtel drama series ‘Tangle’ were both recently 2 of the four shows nominated for an AACTA (Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts) award for best TV drama.
John was involved in the development of the Cinema Camera as an independent advisor, bringing his experience as a film maker to the project. He also gave the world the first real images from the Cinema Camera itself. When he released the DNG frames from Afterglow, we all quickly realised we were looking at something special.
DNG's for Afterglow are still available for download:
You can still find John testing the camera online via his blog or posting the latest video via Social networks.
John has also agreed to answer some questions for us here at BlackmagicUser.net
BU: What made you want to get into film making?
JB: I've always been fascinated by image making. I took my first photo when I was about 5 with my mum’s camera. I managed to cut her in half perfectly and I've been trying to improve ever since. In high school I wanted to be a photographer. At lunchtime I wasn't in the yard, I was in the darkroom processing film or printing images. I started an undergraduate media degree at Uni where I was introduced to 16mm film. One exercise was to shoot a film from the perspective of a child in a playground. I'd gotten on the swings and gone down the slide with my Arri 16ST. When we screened the film in the cinema I fell in love with not only seeing the images I'd shot on the screen, but with how I could affect an audience. I could actually position the audience subjectively as if they were a child. I loved that I could feel and sway with the audiences reaction as the scenes played out. It was tangible. I loved that connection and from then on I was hooked. I left the degree without finishing it and started working in the lighting department on a TV series called Funky Squad. It was my first paid job. That was in about 1993.
BU: Who are your film making hero's of the past and present?
JB: My absolute hero is the late John Bowring ACS. I started working at Lemac, a rental company he owned and within 2 years I was his full time camera assistant. He'd forgotten more than most people know about cameras and filmmaking and for 3 years I basically lived with him and learned everything I know. He travelled a lot within Australia and overseas and because Lemac was a sales company as well, I also got a lot of exposure to post production from behind the scenes. They sold a lot of telecine gear and we also shot a lot of film. I especially loved his very unconventional approaches, unstoppable energy and love for making images and his on-set manner and professionalism. He taught me that there's a lot more to being a DP than lighting and operating a camera.
I also love most cinema. Even the most crass commercial stuff generally exists for a reason. Perhaps I'm not that discriminating, but I would happily go from Lars Von Trier to Brian DePalma. I love Carlos Reygadas along with Tony Scott. I think cinema is such a wonderful language I like hearing it spoken in all accents.
BU: In terms of Cinematography, if there was any one film you would have loved to have been involved in, which would it be and why?
JB: New World. I was lucky enough to work in LA with a sound recordist who worked on it and he told me a great story of Terrence Malick turning up on the first day of production and telling Emmanuel Lubezki to pull up all the electrical wiring he'd had built into the village set in pre production because they were "only" going to use available light. I love this because every film is a challenge and I think we need to be pushed into a corner and it's when we fight our way out, that interesting things happen. Imagine turning all your plans for a film on their head on day 1 and being forced to trust your instincts and make it work. He did say that Malick indulged his need for electricity only once when they were doing a fireside scene...
It reminds me that simple is often best.
BU: You are probably the most experienced person using the camera in regular shoots. How has it been holding up?
JB: The camera is great. I'm now on my third TV drama series using the camera regularly. I first started using it on Puberty Blues alongside the Alexa. I just recently wrapped a new series called ‘Underbelly Squizzy’ and I had an EF and m4/3 BMCC sitting alongside three EPIC cameras. There were several scenes where we had all 5 cameras going and we used the BMCC a lot during Underbelly.
Right now I'm back on the 4th series of a show I started called ‘Offspring’. We have 4 EPIC bodies and the EF and m4/3 camera and it's tending to get used for more specialised rig shots and in car shooting at the moment. In between I also did a short for a feature film anthology of Tim Winton shorts called Defender. Even though I could have shot with EPIC or Alexa, for the first time I chose the BMCC as my primary camera (though we did have an EPIC for some of the high-speed work). Defender is a cinema finish too so I'm looking forward to seeing how the camera stacks up on the big screen when it premieres in June at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival).
I've been on the beach, in the Sun, the surf, the rain and in hot cars. The camera so far has taken a beating and hasn't let me down. I have three cameras at the moment and they all have a few battle scars. The only thing I've managed to break so far is the rubber cover for the HDSDI connector. I think the Blackmagic guys were disappointed recently when they visited me on set to see even that little breakage but I think they've done very well making a robust little camera. I like the battle scars myself.
BU: How are you finding the skin tones and colours of the Blackmagic?
JB: The more I use this camera the more I love the skin tones and colour reproduction of the camera. It's BMDs secret weapon. I still get amazed at the kinds of looks I can get from the camera and it hasn't really let me down yet. I really think that this is the BMCC secret weapon. Whilst RAW and uncompressed is impressive, all that really matters is how the pictures LOOK. And I am loving the look and small size of the camera. It's the main reason I, along with the director, chose to use it for Defender, even when I had the option of more expensive cameras.
BU: What is the biggest limitation you are running into with it?
JB: I've had two bad experiences with SSDs now. I guess there's a down side to using low cost consumer drives as cheap as they are. One SSD was just bad out of the box and the other failed after shooting and I lost footage that couldn’t be recovered. I guess it's not a limitation as such, but just something to be careful about. Make sure you road test your disks first and make sure you use a format rather than erase every 10 or so cycles. I do find the ability to ONLY output flat FILM looks on the HDSDI when shooting DNG a bit difficult too because the directors want to see more of a "finished" looking image, but there are ways around that.
BU: Have you been shooting mostly in RAW or ProRes and what has motivated that choice?
JB: Probably equally both. I've even shot DNG and ProRes on the same disk. Usually I shoot DNG if I can and the production can support those data rates and storage. Right now the show I'm doing baulked at the data rates so we're shooting ProRes. The main cameras are EPIC but I've been shooting with 3 and 4 cameras a lot and they are struggling to keep up. I've honestly not really run into a situation yet where I've regretted shooting ProRes but it is nice to consider those unadulterated DNG files if your production can accommodate them. On Defender we shot 2.6 TB in four days of shooting frame with DNGs.
BU: Have there been any work flow issues, and what should people be thinking about?
JB: DNGs are a whole new game. I've also found that the way I expose for this camera is nothing like any other camera. The thing with DNGs and to a lesser degree even ProRes film is that you have to be prepared to grade your footage. There’s no magic button that makes it look good. Each shot will take some attention. The good thing is that DNGs are open and can be opened by lots of different image processing applications. I've seen some very nice grades from ACR, Lightroom and Capture 1.
Don't underestimate the amount of time required to grade and get the most from this camera. If you want good pictures then you're going to be spending a lot of time in your DNG processing application and if you don't have the patience to learn how to grade then this is not your camera. If you want to shoot and deliver right away then go get a C100 or an FS Sony.
BU: Are you finding that the camera is an actual 800 ISO, and are there any exposure issues, or tips you can share?
JB: I've found my views seem to be a bit heretical. But here goes. I think this camera benefits from being exposed to the right. Normally, just about every other camera likes to be underexposed slightly so you protect your highlights. What you're doing is trading in some shadow dynamic range for more highlight dynamic range and buying yourself a smoother curve in highlights. And this is where video can look like... video. Hard clipping is always a bit ugly in electronic cameras.
Forget what you know about exposure with this camera and be prepared to start again.
The Blackmagic doesn't respond like any other digital camera I've shot with. Even cameras like the Alexa that have huge DR give you a lot of room to expose and even though you're not technically clipping, you wouldn't dare put important information like skin tones in the top part of the curve. In other words, the camera hasn't technically clipped, but it will struggle to reproduce nice looking colour and skin tone at those higher exposure levels. It's not overexposed, but it's kind of only good for non-critical highlight detail.
The BMCC doesn't respond this way. It seems to me that you can expose right up until very near clipping and the response is still very linear. It's like you can use more of the cameras dynamic range. So what I tend to do is give the camera a lot of light by exposing it to the right. I use the Zebras set to 100% and this will show me where highlights are clipping. Some have misunderstood my mentioning of this to mean that I use 100% Zebras to make sure nothing clips at all but this isn't correct. I make an informed choice about what I choose to allow to clip. I can trust that the camera has useable DR right up into it clips.
The good thing about Zebra is that it works no matter what the viewing conditions. In bright exteriors where you might be having trouble seeing the image on the screen or even with an external monitor, you can always trust seeing zebras ( or not).
You're a DP so you need to decide what's important. There's no such thing as "correct" exposure. It's a choice about where to position your exposure. There's a difference. So I use the 100% zebras to indicate what is clipped at the sensor level and I then "decide" what to let go and clip and choose what to protect. So I tend to end up with my exposure positions a lot more "to the right" than I do with other cameras because I can. Also the further away from the left you are the less noise you tend to have.
This means in effect I'm tending to rate the sensor at lower than 800 but I don't really think about ISO in those terms with the camera. In fact ISO is becoming less relevant with the way exposure tools work in camera.
Because the camera is always working at ISO800, changing the ISO in camera is only affecting the view LUT. Even when shooting ProRes, the clipping point doesn’t change. And the Zebras, unlike most other cameras, are not affected by ISO, or codec changes. The Zebras represent linear sensor clipping irrespective of the mode you’re shooting.
I also mostly always leave the ISO at 800 because that is what the camera is ALWAYS shooting. As a way of previewing my exposure, I tend to use the VIDEO setting on the display whilst shooting FILM. Is gives you a 709’ish looking image and that along with zebras @100 gives you a very good indicator of what's going on with exposure.
A lot of my DNGs tend to look overexposed but in reality they're not. It's simply how the files are being interpreted by the various post workflows. I would say overexposure only happens if you have clipping and unrecoverable highlight detail.
BU: Are there any plans to tackle the reflection issues experienced with the screen, and how best would you recommend that this be done?
JB: It's funny there are so many complaints about the screen reflection. I guess because it points slightly upwards and tends to reflect sky it is difficult to see in bright light, but so is any other screen on a camera without a hood. I don't think it's particular to the BMCC.
I find that I prefer to use an EVF a lot with the camera, mainly because as a camera operator I prefer to operate with a viewfinder instead of a screen anyway as its more engaging and you’re more connected to the frame but it does make it a lot easier to see the shots in both bright conditions and when you can't get to a good viewing angle on the screen. You can also just use an external monitor as well as the appropriate hood and arm to get it in the best position of course.
Often with the way battery rigs are works on the camera too, the battery can tend to get in the way of the sight line to the screen too.
BU: Have you run into any IR problems when using ND? If so, what have you found to be the best solutions?
JB: Yeah you'll see IR contamination in the blacks from anything more than an ND9. Most of the commonly available IR nd filters seem to work, including the Tiffen T1s and the Schneider Sapphires.
BU: The camera doesn't have a very strong OLPF if it has one at all, have you found this to be an issue?
JB: Every now and then you'll get a situation where something will buzz a little but it's usually very minor and certainly a fraction of what you get with DSLRs. I'd rather it didn't do it of course, but it's yet to be a deal breaker. With 5Ds passing tech checks anyway, it's not like a broadcaster is going to reject a shot with some moire.
BU: Are you adding in more diffusion?
JB: No. When shooting with EPIC intercutting between the two can be a bit more noticeable than with Alexa. If anything I tend to diffuse the EPIC.
BU: When using the Cinema Camera alongside the Alexa, are there any accommodations that you have to make in order make it seamlessly cut / work?
JB: The camera works really beautifully alongside an Alexa, in either DNG or ProRes film. Early on I posted a shot of the BMCC sitting next to an Alexa on Puberty Blues with a very simple title..."Baby Alexa".
This is a comparison the camera has come to earn in my mind simply for its look. When shooting ProRes using FILM mode, you're going to find the file behaves in a very similar way to the Alexa in terms of grade and almost DR.
BU: Has there been any one particular lens that has stood out for you when combined with the camera?
JB: With the m4/3 version of the camera that I have I've been enjoying the m4/3 stills lenses a lot, the 12mm T1.6 SLR magic and the Voigtlander 17.5mm T0.96. I have also really liked using the Leica R mount stills lenses. They have great lens personality and I like using the camera naked with them (no rig). I can pull focus myself off the barrel and it gives me a very intimate way of working.
BU: EOS or MFT?
JB: BOTH! I'm greedy. Sometimes it’s really handy. If I did have to choose one of the other though, I do find it hard to go past m4/3. Mainly because of the way I can scale up to the full on PL mount cinema lenses I'm usually have access to OR, I can go more spare and use regular and inexpensive and small stills lenses....m4/3 is a bit more flexible and I don't have any EF glass.
BU: What do you see as the future for the camera, and are we looking at a serious contender for the go to camera for the independent film market?
JB: I think Blackmagic Design are only just getting started. You have to remember this is their first camera and none of their engineering team have any prior experience building a camera. They've only been servicing the post market, so production is a new area for them. They're only going to get better and learn from their mistakes. I think their emphasis of game changing quality at such a fraction of the cost of comparable cameras means they can't really be ignored. It also makes it easier to forgive the niggly little things that a lot of people feel are genuine shortcomings of the camera. Battery and ergonomics comes to mind. But you adapt. I remember going through the same process when DSLRs became the "thing" people wanted to shoot with. You find a way to make it work and get on with it.
For me though, I just love the pictures coming out of the camera. There's nothing that compares for the cost and the price and size. Sure I can get an Alexa, but it's 10 times the price and size. I think they've already gotten to the point where they can trade just on their pictures, let alone their price point. And that's how it should be for a camera.
BU: Exactly how much material does it take to tent cover a house?
JB: A lot! We did kill off most of the garden!
We all at RAWComms and BlackmagicUser.net would like to thank John for his time.
You can follow John on his blog at http://johnbrawley.wordpress.com/
The Perfect Host is currently showing on Netflix USA and UK.
Lake Mungo is available to buy or rent on Itunes.