In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Yusuf Thakur, the first end user in the Middle East to procure a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, talks about the cameras features and how he rigged it in under USD 650 “Whats in your magic bag?” Its the question Dubai-based natural history documentary maker and owner of VFX Films, […]
In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Yusuf Thakur, the first end user in the Middle East to procure a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, talks about the cameras features and how he rigged it in under USD 650
“Whats in your magic bag?” Its the question Dubai-based natural history documentary maker and owner of VFX Films, Yusuf Thakur is often asked by industry professionals when he purchases a brand new camera. This time, it was the Blackmagic Cinema Camera.
As the first end user in the Middle East to buy the USD 3000 kit and being well known for improvising or inventing small accessories to complement every new camera he has bought, we felt the question was fully justified. And Thakur did not disappoint.
“You can rig this camera for less than USD 650 or you can spend three times the cost of the camera to do the same,” explains Thakur.
Unlike most other directors and filmmakers who prefer to buy over-the-counter accessories for their new toys, Thakur would typically rummage through his vast inventory of lenses, batteries and mounts to see what he could potentially try out on his new camera.
“Im like a mechanic, I can fix my own car,” says Thakur, who shoots TVCs for a living.
At all other times, he is a natural history filmmaker and has tons of footage shot across the Arab world that are now beginning to emerge on TV screens after broadcasters realised their value.
His production house VFX Productions is tucked away in Al Quoz, Dubai, where several other production houses are also based, and has a team that has learnt his art of trying to engineer things themselves rather than going out to the store and picking up new gadgets over the counter.
When he bought the Blackmagic, Thakur says he was immediately impressed by the small size and the simplicity of the camera, which weighs only 3kg.
He says the camera has several advantages and where there were limitations, he has devised some accessories along the way. Perhaps the one area where he wasnt as successful was in the post stage, but even that has now been resolved as we go to press.
“The first thing I liked about this camera was the fact that it boots up instantly when you switch it on. I use the word instant because most digital cameras dont do this. The RED Epic, for instance, takes at least 10 seconds and some others take as much as a minute. Is this really important? I shoot wildlife. You could miss everything in 15 seconds,” explains Thakur.
Secondly, he exclaims how much he appreciates the form factor.
“This camera reminds me of a DSLR. It looks like a point-and-shoot camera and functions like one. There is nothing complicated about it. Blackmagic has kept it basic and user-friendly. It has an in-built battery as well, so you chose your format, whether 2.5K RAW, Pro Res or RS DNX, press focus and record.”
A camera like this serves as the ideal backup when shooting wildlife, he says.
Here, Thakur and his team created an adapter to power the camera from an Anton Bauer battery pack. Together with the internal battery, the camera can run for at least three-and-half hours, he says.
“We created adapters to make it possible to mount an Anton Bauer or a V-mount battery. To change between the batteries, all I have to do it change the head cable” explains Thakur.
One drawback that Thakur faced when he first received this camera was the inability to check accurately how much battery power was left. It only shows 100, 75, 50 or 25%.
viewing made easy with THE patented Grid
A day after Thakur received the Blackmagic Design camera, he was on his way to Africa, for a shoot.
The bright, clean light from the African sun made it impossible for him to focus with the LCD. When he did, he could see reflections in it making focus impossible.
On the good side, the Blackmagic Design Cinema Cameras LCD has a double focus feature. If you tap the LCD, it zooms in on your subject.
“I had to check focus at least five times and you could never be sure if the object you were shooting was in focus.”
In frustration, Thakur tried the Grid a large eyepiece that he sourced from a Brazilian dealer for his Epic, and lo and behold! Focusing became a breeze.
The Grid is one of the first pieces of goodies Thakur pulls out of his magic bag. The Grid, which is now patented by Thakur and his dealer, is a lightweight eyepiece that you can attach to the viewfinder to give you a larger and more detailed view of the object.
“I initially bought this Grid for the Epic. You simply need to attach the Grid to the camera via a magnetic strip and view the LCD screen and it operates like a large viewfinder. The advantage is, you can use it when you need to and release it should you require that flexibility. Moreover, even when it is attached, you still have full access to all the buttons on the camera,” adds Thakur.
Although the Blackmagic camera features a peaking control, critical focus becomes easier only with the Grid, explains Thakur.
The camera comes with a fairly small sensor, smaller than a micro 4/3 DSLR. This remains the same in the newer version of the camera as well.
“To shoot wildlife, an average lens I would mount on this would not be less than 500mm. Multiply everything by 2.3 for this sensor. Essentially, the lens gives you something close to 1150mm. Now with a 1150mm lens, youre trying to focus on a bird that is perched about 400ms away. And the LCD is supposed to help you make that decision. Its a tough call. This is where the Grid comes handy.
“The 2.3 crop factor, by the way, is applicable to all 35mm lenses. Getting a wide shot, therefore, requires extremely wide lenses; an 11mm lens for instance, becomes a 25mm. You dont have a wide choice of lenses available below 11mm that will not have lens distortion. I have read that an adapter from Metabones now eliminates that issue. So when you place a 11mm lens on top of it, it actually scales the picture down to the full size of the sensor. So you have a 11mm lens functioning as a 11mm lens with a projection onto the smaller sensor,” explains Thakur.
The filmmaker has always maintained over the years that still lenses work perfectly for moving images, and he swears by his Nikon lenses.
“Still lenses are far better than any lenses in the market for camcorders. They are full frame lenses and if the optics can take care of the 35mm full frame, then it can take care of these sensors as well. Also, most lens manufacturers seem to have dropped the physical aperture on their lenses. The Auto iris function can never replace the manual iris control; you must have manual control and the best place is on the lens. It is irritating to keep punching and pressing buttons and checking the iris and you can never be 100% sure if it is accurate,” he adds.
Thakur uses two lenses with this camera.
“The Nikon 17-35 is my stock lens. And if I use a long lens, I use the 50-500 Sigma. I use them with Nikon to Canon mount adapters. Both these lenses are the last generation with physical apertures and both have full electronic control if used with a Nikon mount camera,” he explains.
One of the biggest advantages of having a small camera is to use its compactness to our advantage rather than rig it fully.
The filmmaker says several end users who purchased this camera had complained that it could not be used in a handheld position but he goes on to prove them wrong.
“Heres a piece of magic kit including a handle for USD 30 handle and a strap for USD 10 that lets you use the camera in a handheld configuration,” he says, as he puts his palm through the strap of the camera and holds it.
With a little handle purchased on E-bay that can be screwed on to the top holes of the camera, an adapter built in-house to connect the battery to the camera and a strap bought from the local market for USD 10, Thakur is all set for a handheld shoot.
“This handle, which is screwed on the top of the camera is perfect as it allows you to swap it front to back or back to front. So if I am doing handheld, I can use it in this mode. In addition, with the new firmware, this camera also supports optical stabilisation with Canon lenses.”
One of the big advantages of this camera is that it can shoot RAW footage at 2.5K.
Of course, at the editing table, RAW footage is a tedious tale, but Thakur says, its well worth the while to shoot widlife.
“If the shelf life of the product youre shooting is less than a year and its being created for TV, theres no need to shoot RAW. A film I shot ten years ago was broadcast on National Geographic Abu Dhabi recently. Natural history projects have a long shelf life and I prefer to shoot RAW,” he says.
Would any filmmaker dare to use a pair of expensive cine lenses with with a $3000 camera?
“Yes, indeed,” says Thakur as he fixes a large rail onto the tripod.
“90% of the time, I use the camera in its simple form because thats the whole point of having a small camera. Only if I decide to put longer lenses on it do I use a baseplate with 15mm rods which support a lens in the front,” he continues.
“Always use one if you mount heavy or long lenses. In the rear, we use an Anton Bauer baseplate and battery mounted to the rods. Its neat and simple and well balanced. You can still mount a follow focus in the front on the rod,” he explains.
“Once you get the camera, nothing is proprietary. You dont have to buy a proprietary drive or a proprietary battery.”
Thakurs only big investment for this camera was a 240GB SSD drive, which set him back by $210.
“This will give you a little more than an hour of RAW footage. It will give you far more if you were to record in Pro Res and DNX. Till now, I have not recorded it on any other format apart from RAW.”
One upsetting thing about the camera at the time I went to meet him was that the filmmaker could not delete a shot or format the drive in camera.
“You couldnt format the SSD in camera. If you wanted to format it, you had to use a Mac. Now, we can format it in exFAT format on a PC and use the SSD in the camera for recording,” he adds.
While you get perfect sound on this camera, you cannot gauge the audio levels on the camera.
“If you are over peaking, you just wont know it because there are no level meters in the camera. This only requires a software upgrade,” he says.
The last part of this workflow the post production is perhaps the most cumbersome as the footage from the camera is in frames and not as a video file.
This camera, however, comes with a free copy of DaVinci Resolve, which is a $1000 colour grading software.
“It is a grading software; you have to do a first pass and then export all of your footage in a format that can be used in a non-linear software. It has to be edited and then graded again,” says Thakur.
This used to be a tedious and time consuming process that utilised too much hard disk space. Initially, there were no comprehensive solutions to support the DNG format. Now, however, things have changed.
“The post-production workaround via GingerHDR wrapper now allows the Cinema DNG files to be imported and edited in proxy mode in real time or near real time in Adobe Premiere depending on the computer,” he explains.
Thakur had received his camera with a 1.1 software. He updated it to 1.2 and now has image stabilisation and iris control two things that were not available in the first version of the camera. The only difference, according to him, between the camera and the new generation is the availability of a 4/3rd mount. The camera has a USB port that enables easy upgrade from the laptop. It also has a Thunderbolt port although Thakur says he has not had the time to check it out.
“It would have been nice to have an HDMI output but they probably wanted to keep the costs down,” says Thakur.
Overall, Thakur reckons this camera is designed for those who want to make the jump from the SLR world. He also agrees hed be happy to use this camera as a backup to shoot wildlife.