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Building a Blackmagic Cinema Camera Rig

Blackmagic SM BMCC5The Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC) is a very impressive camera that offers a huge bang for your buck. It’s also simple to operate with focus and level controls that are quick and easy to maintain when properly rigged. I spent a couple of months trying the camera with different add-ons, and eventually turned out an awesome rig. 

With the hope of finding a quick and easy way to shoot indie films with a very small crew, I started with a Canon-mount BMCC model before switching to the MFT model, which lets me to use the Metabones Nikon-to-MFT speed adapter. This allows for Nikon mount lenses while also increasing the field of view and adding a stop of light. Combining a set of Rokinon T1.5 Cine lenses with the Metabones put my effective F-stop around F1 — that’s bright enough to shoot using available light in most situations, which is very exciting. The only downside of the BMCC is its crop factor of 2.3 that makes a 24mm lens looks like a 55mm lens. The Metabones reduces this crop factor to what I estimate to be about 1.63, which turns 24mm into 40mm, 35mm into 57mm, and 85mm into 140mm, which are more usable. When mounted on the Metabones, a Sigma 18–35mm 1.8 zoom lens was converted to 29mm–57mm.

The first challenge that I tackled involved camera support. Like most DSLRs, the BMCC is small in size and in need of support. Berkey Systems makes great support products that I’ve used on other cameras with good results. The company’s 18-inch rods, handles and shoulder pad give me a good solid foundation that lets me quickly slide the BMCC onto a tripod or use it for handheld shots. I also use a Petroff follow focus, but found that some other rod systems couldn’t take the pressure it exerts against the lens, which results in slippage. The Berkey System was rock solid with every accessory I tested. Good cine gear is never cheap, but Berkey System offers a great value, as it’s a great American product that’s well designed and very accurately machined. 

While the Berkey Systems Baseplate would have worked with the BMCC, I prefer a cage from Wooden Camera because it’s specifically designed for this camera. 

The cage comes in two parts — a cage and baseplate — and has a quick release to remove the BMCC from the baseplate that I mount on the rods. The Wooden Camera BMCC cage also allows free access to all of the camera’s important ports. Not all BMCC cages do this, as it can be difficult to plug in cables, remove the SSD, etc. Another cool thing is that, as I change my rig, I have places to mount new accessories, like a camera handle or iris rods above the lens. I especially like that the cage is small and lightweight yet strong. When I attached the Wooden Camera handle to the top of the cage, I found that I could lift and carry the whole 18-pound rig without any problems. 

For professional matte boxes, Petroff products have been my first choice for over 10 years. Petroff matte boxes are about half the weight of aluminum boxes but solidly built and easy to use, and I’ve never had any problems with them. Mine have top, bottom and side flags to keep out unwanted light. I tested the Petroff 3-stage matte box with the BMCC. My logic was this: Since the BMCC is all about getting a cinema look, which is achieved by placing the background out of focus, I needed to use ND filters to keep my lens open in any lighting situation. The BMCC also needs an IR filter to avoid funky-looking artifacts in the blacks when using ND filters. I used a set of Tiffen 4x4 IR ND filters, placing one in slot three nearest the camera, which left the front two slots open for polarizers or other FX filters. In the rear slots, I tested Tiffen IR ND .6, .9, 1.2, and 1.8 filters. Each .3 represents a stop of light, so that allowed me to keep the lens open while cutting down the light by two, three, four or six stops while simultaneously removing the IR light that might interfere with the camera’s sensor. In the Petroff matte box, all of the filters can rotate for use with a polarizer filter, or slide up and down to position a grad filter. You know how important this is if you’ve ever tried to reposition a filter during a shoot while using a matte box that didn’t have this feature.

I also tested the BMCC with Petroff’s mini follow focus, which is tight and easy to use. It has a nice, black anodized finish; angled marking disc for easy viewing; quick-release mounting bracket; movable witness mark; and it’s reversible. Unlike some budget mini follow-focus units, the Petroff product is high quality with no gear lash. Seriously, when I put my hand on the lens and barely turned the follow focus, I could feel an instant lens movement. I used it with a set of Rokinon Cine Prime lenses and just loved the way it felt, as there’s absolutely no “slop” in the gears. And when I moved from SD to HD, focus became much more critical. (To find and maintain proper focus, I also tested some viewfinders and monitors.)

The BMCC only has one SDI output and no HDMI outputs, which is normal for professional cameras, but my Small HD DP4 EVF only connects via HDMI. To solve this problem, I use an Atomos dual-battery connect converter, which are great little devices for converting content from HDMI to HD-SDI (on Connect’s H2S model) or from HD-SDI to HDMI (Connect’s S2H model). I used the Connect H2S, which is pretty easy to set up. Following the signal flow out of the BMCC, I used a short SDI cable from the SDI out of the camera into the Connect H2S, and a HDMI cable to connect the output of the Connect H2S to the input of the Small HD. It was that easy to convert my Small HD DP4 EVF for use with an SDI camera. I also really like that the Connect H2S has a loop-through SDI connection that I can use to feed a signal to my Marshall 7-inch monitor or 17-inch 2s2 monitor. 

Like most cameras, the BMCC has a built-in monitor that’s fairly useless in bright sunlight. Adding a viewfinder will solve this issue as well as aid in finding proper framing and focus. I prefer an Alphatron EVF viewfinder for the BMCC because it can use both HDMI and SDI cables right out of the box (the Waveform and Focus Assist are outstanding on this EVF). The Alphatron EVF-035W-3G viewfinder is a quality piece of gear that has a HDMI and a BNC (HD/SD-SDI) connection in and out, so it works with the HDMI connections on DSLRs and SDI connectors on cine cameras. With its strong yet light magnesium housing, this EVF is made for the real world. There are ¼ 20 holes for mounting the Alphatron EVF-035W-3G on the top, bottom and one side. I used mine on an arm that mounts to the top of my Wooden Camera BMCC cage, but it could also mount directly to the top of the BMCC. 

Blackmagic Alphatron SMThe Alphatron EVF viewfinder screen is super sharp because it uses an iPhone Retina LCD panel with an LED backlight. This combination makes it nice and bright in sunlight, even with the eyepiece flipped up. The viewfinder’s 3½-inch, 960x640-pixel, 16x9 display has 1000:1 contrast ratio, 24-bit RGB color, and a viewing angle of 160x160 degrees. A manual lens shutter keeps direct sunlight from damaging EVF LCD Monitor (just twist the eyepiece to open and close it), which is very handy when shooting in bright sunlight or dusty areas. When focusing, the Alphatron EVF has Focus Assist that can outline what’s in focus in a selected color, making it really easy to do corrections as the focus changes. For example, if actors walk toward the camera, the Focus Assist will keep them in focus as the focal plane changes. And when blocking a shot, the Focus Assist shows what would be in focus for a particular f-stop, so you can select the proper IRND filter to get the right depth of field to cover the action. A Waveform monitor can appear in a small box in the corner of the viewfinder, or two Wide settings can stretch it out along the bottom of the screen — and both let you see enough of your image for proper focus and framing. 

The Alphatron EVF-035W-3G viewfinder is small and lightweight, yet loaded with professional features. It’s easy to use in real-world production on a variety of cameras and it’s very user friendly, as it always works with you during a shoot. It features an Audio menu that lets keep an eye on audio levels right in the EVF. It displays 16 tracks of audio, so you can adjust size, peak decay time, and reference your levels in dB. This is very handy because the BMCC has no audio meters.

Sometimes I need a monitor as well as an EVF. I tested a Marshall V-LCD70MD-3G model, which includes the base unit with a preinstalled MD-3GE module, providing an additional 3G/HD/SD-SDI input with loop-through. I really like having both HDMI and SDI inputs and outputs so that I can use the monitor with both DSLR and cine cameras. The extra flexibility also helps when I need to loop through to other gear. The V-LCD70MD-3G 7-inch monitor offers a Hi-Brite 800-nit, high-resolution 1024x600 LED Backlit IPS panel for better viewing in bright daylight. There’s also a sun hood that attaches to the monitor to shade the screen. The Marshall V-LCD70MD-3G only draws 9.6 watts (or 0.8A at 12VDC) and weighs just 1.2 pounds. It delivers an amazing picture and is loaded with cool features. To keep track of your audio and video levels, it can display a Waveform monitor and Stereo Audio bars. These may be displayed separately or together in any corner of the monitor. 

During a shoot, time is money, so it’s important to be able to shoot quickly — and the Marshall V-LCD70MD-3G has a Clip Guide function that can help. When you need to know if parts of your image are too dark or too brightly lit, you can use the Clip Guide to visually filter data on the screen that’s under a Lower Threshold or over an Upper Threshold, so that you can easily see a colored representation of what is over/under exposed. The User-Definable Function buttons are always faster, and the V-LCD70MD-3G Monitor has four of them on the front panel. These four buttons allow quick access to settings and features, including Focus Assist, False Color, Aspect Ratio, Screen Markers, Monochrome Mode, Color Temperature and Delay Mode, which allow you to speed up the selection your favorite features. 

My favorite Marshall V-LCD70MD-3G feature is the False Color filter, which aids in the setting of camera exposure. As the camera iris is adjusted, elements of the image will change color based on brightness values. This shows a colored representation of my image, which is great for adjusting lighting during green-screen work. When the screen is all one color on the monitor, it’s all the same brightness, which means there are no hot spots or dark spots that can be difficult to key out in post. I assigned the False Color filter to a Preset button, so I just hit the button, do a quick pan of the shot to instantly see if there are any problems. It’s really nice to have this powerful exposure tool readily available. 

The Marshall V-LCD70MD-3G also has focusing tools. If you want to zoom in to see part of the image better, you can tap the screen of the BMCC twice to zoom in for focus. You can also use the Input Crop with an auto Scaling feature in the Marshall monitor, and select the area of the image that you would like blown up on the screen. With these two functions, you can always see what you’re doing. You also have a large selection of screen markers to choose from, like 4:3, 13:9, 14:9, 16:9, 1.85:1, 2.35:1 and 2.39:1, with safe areas from 80 to 95 percent. There’s also a Custom option that lets you set up a Screen Marker of your choosing. The Marshall V-LCD70MD-3G monitor packs a lot of powerful features into a compact, lightweight package. Its internal software will ensure that you have accurate picture and audio monitoring in everything from 4:3 to 2.39:1 aspect ratios. Overall, it’s a great little camera-top monitor that works well with the BMCC, and its SDI and HDMI ins and outs let you use it with most DSLRs or cine cameras. 

The BMCC does a really great job of recording to SSDs, but not all SSDs will work. I tested a pair of Digistor Professional Video Series SSDs. These 240GB drives are rated at SATA 3, so they easily capture video in ProRes or DNxHD formats. They’re even fast enough to record the BMCC’s 2.5K 12-bit Cinema DNG RAW files. To work with the BMCC, an SSD has to be fast as well as reliable. In one test, I let the camera record ProRes for three hours straight — and when I took out the Digistor SSD, it was really toasty. Any SSD that you put into your BMCC is going to have to withstand a lot of heat, especially when shooting in a hot location. The Digistor SSDs I used worked well and never failed, even when outdoors in the Florida sun.

Now let’s talk about the power and cables that make my BMCC rig work. To avoid changing out a lot of small batteries, you’ll want to use a single power source. I first tried an Anton Bauer battery before switching to BlueShape batteries, which are lighter and more powerful. BlueShape also tests its designs by dropping new prototype batteries from five feet onto a concrete floor — that would kill most batteries, but BlueShape does it 50 times! That’s the kind of reliability I want in my rig. I tested the BlueShape 90 and 100 models, which are legal to take inside a plane. The 90 lets me record on the BMCC and run an Alphaton EVF for three hours (until I run out of SSD space) then play back for 45 minutes. The BlueShape 187, 225 and 270 models work great with the camera on a tripod, as they’re lighter than other batteries, but I prefer less weight on my shoulder for handheld work. My client monitor is a 2s2 17-inch Hi-Brite model that you can see in bright sunlight from six feet away with no monitor shade, and it powers nicely from a BlueShape 270 for several hours. 

Blackmagic SMBlueShape1Lastly, it’s important to have great cables to tie everything together. The Wooden Camera battery plate has a cable to power the BMCC and charge its built-in battery. It also has two P-Tap connectors. The BlueShape batteries have two connectors, so you can plug in everything, if needed. I usually run to a P-Tap block from one of the P-Taps on the battery plate to plug everything else in — this includes the EVF, monitor and any on-camera light I might need. You could run a bunch of cables to the back of the rig, but by doing it with the block in front of the battery, you can wrap Velcro around the rods and hide the extra cables between them.

For SDI cables, I ran one CineCoil out of the BMCC into the EVF, then out of the EVF into the Marshall on-camera monitor. From there, I can also go out of the Marshall to my 2s2 17-inch monitor for client viewing. CineCoil cables use curly cord, which are specially made to the company’s specs, and they use 90-degree BNC connectors that don’t stick out and get in the way. I love these things because cables can stretch, and you don’t end up having to deal with a bunch of excess cable. I used two 10-inch CineCoil cables that can stretch to 22 inches. There’s also a 20-inch model that will stretch to 32 inches. For audio, I use the short XLR audio cables that came with my Sennheiser RF mics to plug into the Wooden Camera A-Box, which has its own two cables that plug into the BMCC.

The BMCC in an incredible camera for even triple the money. With my BMCC rig, I can shoot at about F1 in very little light, thanks to the Metabones and Rokinon T1.5 lenses. Using the Petroff follow focus and matte box along with Tiffen IR ND filters, I can get a very shallow depth of field in almost any lighting situation, or even shoot into the sun. Meanwhile, the Alphatron EVF and Marshall monitor show me framing, focus and iris information, while the Digistor SSDs record up to 12-bit RAW video. And the added benefits from the Berkey System rods, handles and shoulder pad; Wooden Camera BMCC cage and A-Box; BlueShape battery system and CineCoil cables, I just love using this rig — and you will too.

MSRP: Berkey Systems Rods, Shoulder Pad and Handles $600
Contact: www.berkeysystems.com

MSRP: Wooden Camera BMCC Cage, Battery Slide with V-Mount Plate and A-Box $1,300
Contact: www.woodencamera.com 

MSRP: Petroff 2-Stage Matte Box $1,370, 3-Stage with Bottom Flag $1,830

Petroff Follow Focus $1,298 
Contact: www.petroff.ws 

MSRP: Tiffen IR ND .6, .9, 1.2 and 1.8 4x4 Filters $1,040
Contact: www.tiffen.com 

MSRP: Atomos Connect H2S $295
Contact: www.atomos.com

MSRP: SmallHD DP4 EVF $599
Contact: www.smallhd.com

MSRP: Alphatron EVF $1,395
Contact: www.alphatron.tv 

MSRP: Marshall V-LCD70MD-3G $1,299
Contact: www.marshallmonitors.com 

MSRP: Digistor Professional Video Series 240GB SSD $250
Contact: www.digistor.com 

MSRP: BlueShape Batteries
Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

MSRP: 2s2 17-inch Monitor $3,800
Contact: www.2s2.com 

MSRP: CineCoil Cables $24
Contact: www.cinecoil.com 

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