How To Prepare Yourself For RAW

January 21, 2013

by Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Now that it appears that Blackmagic has sorted out the sensor issue and will begin shipping the camera in mass this January, a flood of $3,000 RAW cameras is about to hit the market. But is the market ready for affordable RAW? Are you ready? Am I ready? Don’t let this DSLR-like camera fool you. It isn’t as straightforward as you may think. Here is what you can expect, and what you should prepare yourself for as you make the switch from compressed formats to RAW…

Preparation Prior To Being On Set:
Before you even take a step on set, the first thing to figure out with this, or any other camera for that matter, is how you are going to outfit it. If you thought working with a DSLR was awkward, this oddly shaped camera will be even more awkward to work with. It is bigger and heavier than a DSLR, and it doesn’t have the built in handgrip style body that is fairly standard on DSLR’s. So I recommend spending some time making sure that you have all of the parts that you need to make this system work for your own personal style of shooting. I personally like working from a tripod, slider, dolly, or a jib for the vast majority of what I do. And to fit my style of working, I have pieced together a rig that you can find detailed part by part at the bottom of this post.

The next piece of the puzzle to figure out is how audio will be recorded. Will it be a dual system? (Sound recorder, and internal recording). Will it be sync sound only, and use the onboard mic as a sync track? (This is my personal favorite, as I hate having extra cables on the camera). Or will you be recording straight to the camera? (This is highly preferred by a lot of productions). If you will be recording straight into the camera, this is where the first hidden “gotcha” will crop up. The Blackmagic records a wonderfully high quality 48kHz 24 bit audio file, and then proceeds to beat that file to death by its internal signal processing. If you raise the levels above the 20-30% mark on the camera you will get digital clipping even though the audio going in isn’t really being clipped. The only way that I know of to avoid this is by using an external pre-amp, like the one offered by JuicedLink. This is the only way to know for sure that the full 48 kHz, 24 bits are being used to their fullest. JuicedLink has gone above and beyond by providing an online user manual with notes about the Blackmagic as well as this excellent overview of what is happening internally with the audio, and how to solve the problem:

And here is their video on setting the Riggy Assist meters: (Be sure to read the online user manual notes about setting the meters for the Blackmagic. They are toward the bottom of the manual).

The last thing that needs to happen before you head out to set, or leave for remote field work, is to make sure that your media is formatted properly. This is especially true if you will not have access to a DIT, or a computer system, as you cannot erase cards in the camera. As of this writing, that formatting needs to be HSF+, so you will need a Mac to format the drives correctly. (There has been mention that by the time we get our hands on the camera we’ll be able to use FAT32 through a firmware upgrade. But I haven’t seen this 100% confirmed yet. Better to be prepared than caught off guard). As you use, re-use, format, and re-format your drives, if you are noticing a dramatic reduction in speeds, then you are experiencing one of the side effects of how SSD’s write, erase, and re-write data. This article does a great job at explaining and illustrating what is going on under the hood. The good news is that this shouldn’t be an issue for the majority of SSD’s these days. But, in the event you are having performance problems, there is a quick and easy way to get your SSD back up to its peak speed: Secure Erase. Secure erase does not format the drive, instead, it cleans out all of the “pages” on the drive. So after you have formatted a poorly performing SSD, use Secure Erase to restore it to its factory performance speed. To secure erase on a Mac, follow these instructions. (If you are interested in learning more about secure erase, and if you really need to use it check out this article – the short answer is probably not).

Preparation For On Set:
Shooting RAW on the Blackmagic is a bit of a step “backwards” to the way most people are used to shooting with digital these days. I, for one, welcome this step back. The RAW files of the Blackmagic take up roughly 7 GB per minute. That is a LOT of data! By comparison, many of projects shot with the Epic at full frame are at Redcode 7:1, which is about 4 GB per minute. And it isn’t until Redcode 4:1 that there is roughly 7 GB per minute of data. (And that is for a 5K full frame image…). This means that if the plan is to follow the typical digital mindset of over-shooting on set, just letting the camera roll, covering every conceivable angle possible so that the story can be figured out in the edit, then A LOT of SSD’s will be needed. But with the price of $3,000 for this camera, I’m guessing that the target market will not have a lot of cash to spend on piles of SSD’s. I’m hoping that the amount of data this camera is spitting out will instead inspire, and promote a more “film style” approach to the craft: where choices are made purposefully, shooting discipline is maintained, and shooting ratios drop back down to 5:1 or less. I think a return to this mindset will be further enforced by the fact that clips cannot be deleted in camera. Once “record” has been hit, that data is being used up, and space is decreasing… choose your shots wisely. 🙂 Personally, I hope that deleting clips never gets added to the firmware, but I’m sure that it will probably get added in at some point due to the high demand for it.

The other part of recording with this camera that you should prepare for is that, as of this writing, with firmware 1.1, you are not able to view how much record time you have left on the SSD. The only way to have a rough idea, is to know how long you can record for on the SSD you are using, and then do the math via the running time code on the display. I know, just what you wanted, more math on set…

Another step back to the “film style” way of working on set will come in the way the physical media is handled. The consumer SSD’s that the Blackmagic camera uses are a blessing and a curse. They are a blessing for their comparatively cheap price to proprietary media. They are a curse for their consumer grade quality. SSD’s were never meant, nor designed, to be continually inserted and removed. The mere act of this motion wears down the contacts on the drives and at some point they will stop working. Additionally, consumer grade SSD’s are light weight and not built for the rigors of set life. They are not anywhere close to being as robust as a CF, SD, SxS cards, or Redmags. If you plan on tossing these SSD’s around, or leaving them laying around, be prepared for non-working drives, or even worse, lost data. These are HARD DRIVES, and like the days of handling exposed film, they should be treated with respect and the proper handling etiquette. That means using the static bags, carrying them in proper cases, and keeping the contacts clean and free of debris.

The last key preparation that needs to be made for work on set is data management. If there will be a DIT on the shoot, then her system needs to be able to handle the amount of footage that is being sent her way. If instead there is no DIT, a strict shooting discipline is maintained, and the footage will be copied at the end of the day, then it would be wise to consider how long those transfers will take. Drag and drop copying of files is not an acceptable way to go. You’ll need to use a verification program of some kind, and the verification part of the copying adds time to the process. (Most likely it will be Shot Put Pro). I’ll be covering proper backup and archiving in more depth in a future post.

Preparation For Work In Post
Now that you have successfully made it this far, it is time to edit your masterfully shot RAW footage! I am going to hazard a guess that the vast majority of people using a $3,000 camera will not have the coin to invest in an ultra high end computer system* that will allow for the playback of the 2.5k RAW DNG’s. That means the introduction of a “film style” edit and conform process. Offline ProRes proxy files can be exported by using Resolve so that you can effortlessly edit the files to your hearts content, before on-lining them by bringing them into Resolve for the final grade. This conforming process will add in extra time and work to post, but it is worth doing if you already went to the effort of shooting RAW in the first place. Editing off of ProRes should be quick and easy as just about any computer these days can handle that codec without batting an eye. How quick the initial transcoding of the proxy files, and then the final grade goes will be determined by the power and speed of your GPU’s. If you are looking for an affordable way to get more horsepower out of your system, check out this post.

Another factor to be aware of when you are transcoding, grading, and then creating your master, is that the I/O speed of your computer is going to drastically effect your performance and have a direct result on the time it takes to get the job done. Don’t expect to get reasonable performance out of USB or Firewire. At a minimum you will want to be using SATA or eSATA, and if you are fortunate enough to have a thunderbolt enabled Mac, you will want to take advantage of that connection as much as possible. Remember your system is only as fast as the slowest part of your I/O chain.

*I am aware that there are workarounds to get FCPX, and even Premiere to play the DNG’s. However, as of this writing neither of these solutions are elegant, and more importantly, neither of the apps are taking full advantage of the RAW file. As long as they are not taking advantage of the RAW file, then it is no different than working with proxy files, and in my opinion, it is smarter to go with a tried and true workflow than proceed with the headaches and potential problems that these “solutions” bring with them.

By making all of these preparations you will be well on your way to working in the enjoyable world of RAW video. Ignore any of these suggestions at your own risk…

Are you ready to enter the world of RAW? What preparations do you still need to make? Are there any other preparations that you suggest adding to my list?

Until Next Time – Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

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