Friday, 12 September 2014

IBC 2014 product launches place 4K in the mainstream

A round-up of 4K items of interest from IBC 2014 in Amsterdam.

Those of use who use DSLRs like the Canon 5D to shoot time lapses have been aware of the 4K phenomenon longer than most. The detail it produces and the ability to move the video around within an HD raster without quality loss are just two of the benefits of shooting in 4K. The football World Cup in Brazil was a testing bed for broadcast 4K and many high-end TV series have been shot in 4K - some have even been transmitted (on Netflix) in 4K.

The biggest drawback with 4K is its size. File sizes are huge and because it is such high quality you don't want to compress it too much. Most versions of HD codecs such as ProRes and H264 have been beefed up to handle 4K images but the obvious omission was a new DNx codec from Avid. Most people expected Avid to enhance their AMA system which uses plug-ins to handle other codecs within Media Composer. Most of the time I get to a point in the edit where I transcode the AMA material to DNxHD which Avid handles beautifully and is compatible through the Avid/EVS system. 

Yesterday at IBC in Amsterdam Avid announced they have developed DNxHR a 4K (strictly a UHD) version of their codec which will be available in Q4 of this year. They have called it "4K beauty without the bandwidth" and are releasing a new version of Media Composer to cope with it. Hopefully this will be a universal codec that once added to a PC or Mac can be used in Adobe, DaVinci Resolve and other edit systems. I have yet to discover the all important MB/sec size of this codec but it could be a good alternative to H.265 for distribution of 4K material.
Blackmagic Design has been an early advocate of 4K and is now producing very usable firmware for its 4K Production Camera. In the older HD Cinema Camera DNxHD was one of the recording options so I hope the Production Camera will gain DNxHR recording when it is released.

Blackmagic also added a new monitor to its line-up today with the SmartView 4K, a 15 inch rack mount (or VESA mount) LCD monitor for under $2,000.

Blackmagic Design SmartView 4K

Not sure how good it will be for grading (no gamut information), but it has built-in LUTs so it is intended to be used by creatives and not just engineers. It is due out in December 2014 and hopefully won't experience the delays of other Blackmagic products.

One monitor that you can definitely grade on is Sony's new BVM-X300 4K OLED Master Monitor. I am sitting in front of its HD cousin and it is the best monitor I have ever seen, I cannot wait to see the 4K version but unfortunately I'm not in Amsterdam this week but an edit suite near Heathrow.

Sony BVM-X300 4K OLED master monitor

Unlike the Blackmagic Design monitor this 30 inch monster is true 4K (4096x2160) with an extra wide gamut range, although Sony must be gutted that is doesn't cover the full ITU-R BT2020 wide colour spaces and have to admit it in their documentation. Of course this will probably cost more than a small car, even if that small car is a mini with all the extras on. Canon's competing monitor, the DP-V3010 is currently £29,000 at CVP.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Using the EVGA Nvidia GTX 780 6GB graphics card with DaVinci Resolve

Thought I would offer some feedback on the new Nvidia GTX 780 with 6GB of GPU RAM (double the original card). The gaming community weren't too enthusiastic about this card saying that the extra RAM would have no effect on game play, but looking at the demands of DaVinci it seemed like the extra RAM would help. Unusually I became an early adopter and bought the EVGA branded card from Overclockers when it was released. Here are my findings.

Prior to installing the new card I had an Nvidia GTX 570 (1.28GB) with an old Nvidia Quadro card. I have a Windows i7 3.6GHz processor with an Asus P9X79 motherboard (not the Pro) and 32GB of RAM, so not a slow machine. 

With this setup HD playback was fine until I added NR or sharpen when playback was 1 or 2 frames per second. As soon as I changed the project settings to UHD the screen filled with shash and I got the message that I was out of memory. I could render out in 4K but it was slow and I could not see the results processing.

With the GTX780 installed in PCIEX16 slot 1 and the GTX 570 in slot 2. Thanks to a tweet form @rohit_bmd I tried removing the GTX570 as he suggested this card may slow things down. He was right and all speeds have increased by 2-3 fps with just the GTX 780 in place.

The result:
In Media and Edit modes the 4K (well UHD) footage from the BMPC plays back at 21 - 23 fps and audio is smooth. This is only on a 1920x1080 computer monitor - I don't have an external 4K monitor yet. 

In Color mode even without adding any grading, NR or sharpening the playback occurs in bursts with a slight pause (less than a second) between each one. DaVinci reports that playback speed is varying between 10fps and 13fps. Adding sharpen lowers this rate to 8-10 fps. Not ideal but at least I can see what the effect the colour correction on a full 4K image. For noise reduction this makes a big difference. I have not received any out of memory pop-ups.

Delivery (rendering) is very quick and I can now see the pictures as they are processed.

The computer RAM is barely being troubled by Resolve and 16GB would be more than enough but the CPU peaks at around 75% usage on playback so a fast processor is recommended. 

An added bonus of the new card is the speed of After Effects which is loving the massive CUDA core boost. 

Conclusion: For the money I think this is an excellent upgrade for DaVinci if you are wanting to work with 4K footage. It surpasses what would be expected from the DaVinci configuration guide from this setup. I think that if I added another GTX 780 6GB card I would be close to running at 25fps in Color mode.

Hope this helps others looking at buying this card. EVGA are offering a step-up if you have an older EVGA card.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K experience Part 2

In part 1 of this blog I documented the first experiences of using the Blackmagic Design Production Camera (BMPC) and how I chose the SanDisk Extreme II 240GB SSDs, a cheap battery solution and a low priced EVF monitor. So far this setup has cost £2310 for the camera, nothing for the battery system (OK about £16 if you bought it), £260 for 2 SSD cards and £400 for the Cineroid EVF-4CSS a total of £2986 (or €3577 or $4936). To this I have to add a tripod and of course suitable Canon lenses which can easily double the price.

But as a result I have a rig capable of shooting 4K pictures on a good codec (ProRes at the moment) with a global shutter (so no "jello") and I have a piece of software that would cost $995 if bought separately, more about this later. But the usability of the BMPC is always an issue and the form factor of the camera worried me because it is heavy and, I predict, easy to drop. I also needed something to attach the EVF and an external microphone. 

I had looked at a lot of cages but the cheap ones were, well cheap, and all of them were bulky and meant I couldn't fit all the kit in my brilliant Lowepro Stealth Reporter D550AW bag. My solution is from Redrock Micro with a top handle and the Ultraplate which added about £100 to the total. The Ultraplate offers just enough screw points to attach the handle, the EVF on a mini magic arm and a mic or recorder if needed.

So the whole rig looks like this.

Post Production

So I have shot the footage, got (most of) it in focus thanks to the EVF and now I need to edit it and Blackmagic Design have kindly included a copy of DaVinci Resolve 10 with a USB key in the BMPC box to help me. This is the first time I have tried to work with 4K footage and I have a pretty powerful PC to do so with i7 processor, 32 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 570 and Quadro FX580 graphics cards. Unfortunately this is far to weak to properly edit 4K footage and as I don't have a 4K monitor I can either view the footage in HD or just see the top half of the footage spread over two 1920 monitors. 

It's not brilliant but it is possible to work this way and produce great results. I work mainly with Avid Media Composer which is less than useless for 4K or Adobe After Effects which is more than good but Resolve is like neither of these and if you are going to use it properly will take fair bit of learning  - persevere it is well worth it. This is not a tutorial in Resolve so I just want to highlight some of the Eureka moments I have had so far. 

Where you store your footage for editing is really important, run the included Blackmagic Disk Speed Test on all your drives and put the material on the fastest one - you can archive to a slower drive later. A raid drive such as the G-Raid is likely to be the best, better than the fast SSD (that was a surprise). 

Unless you have a monster $1000+ GPU like the GTX690 or NVIDIA Titan you will not be able to play 4K on your timeline, you will get a screen of shash and a GPU out of memory message. Go to project settings and select 1920x1080 as your timeline resolution. 

THIS IS IMPORTANT. When you have finished editing and grading and you go to the "delivery" window and select UHD as your output you have to go back into project settings and set the timeline to UHD, if you don't your final output will be HD expanded to fit the UHD raster. Resolve is actually very good at this and it took a lot of looking to see the difference. Below is a still from a scene in Trafalgar Square and two crops with the timeline set to different resolutions. The middle picture shows the image at 400% with the timeline set to UHD and the bottom picture with it set to HD. The bottom picture shows a lot less detail.

If you look at the comparison table of Resolve lite and the full version there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference, but go about a third of the way down and you will see this section:

After the sharpening tool (like the 5D the images generally benefit from a bit of sharpening) the noise reduction tools make a huge difference particularly in areas like sky or flesh tones, be gentle with it and you will be rewarded. The BMPC is not good at shooting in low light (and I am not a fan of ProRes for this) and sometimes scenes like the one below in St Pancras Station mean lifting the dark areas considerably which can bring in really bad speckle. The noise reduction tool in Resolve is amazing at reducing this.

The format you output will always depend on where you will put it, but I have established a workflow from producing 4K time lapses where I output QuickTime Cineform versions which are indistinguishable from uncompressed files but much smaller and then use Adobe Media Encoder to produce QuickTime PhotoJPEG versions for stock companies or broadcasters since that is such a user friendly format and one that Resolve cannot output directly. 

These two blogs have been a quick summary of what I have learnt "hands-on" with this amazing camera and what I feel is the minimum requirement to shoot good footage. Hopefully it will give a bit of guidance to those still in the queue for the 4K Production Camera.

The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K experience Part 1

There has been a huge amount of debate over what the Blackmagic Production Camera (BMPC) would be like to use, and as I finally have one, here are my initial experiences of using it in the real world.


In previous blogs I got excited then bored by the long running saga of the BMPC 4K that was announced in April 2013 and eventually started shipping to real users in February 2014. I recently discovered that I was about 20th on the list of my supplier (CVP in London) even though I think I ordered it and put a deposit down within two days of the launch at NAB - this is a popular camera. On 10th March CVP let me know that my camera was in and asked whether I wanted to carry on with the purchase... less than 2 hours later I had it in my hand.

I admit that I did have last minute indecisions about buying the camera, especially as the Panasonic DMC-GH4 had just been launched and the price of the Canon C500 was falling faster than Felix Baumgartner, but the price of the BMPC 4K had also dropped and I felt it was the best solution for me to shoot good quality 4K material.

I had done the same research that many others had performed without actually having the camera and I decided that I would try to get the minimum amount of gear to make the camera work, remembering that I was not hiring the camera out or using it with a client. I already have a decent collection of suitable Canon EF-mount lenses so the only thing I had to get in theory was an SSD card.

SSD Card

There is a notorious list on the Blackmagic Design support pages which gives SSD cards that are "certified" to work with the BMPC but most of them are not available any more. The BM forum is also full of people having problems with SSDs on the Cinema Camera, dropping frames and so on and so I entered the first minefield of decision making with trepidation. 

Cutting to the chase I settled on a pair of SanDisk Extreme II 240GB [SDSSDXP-240G] drives which are not actually on the certified list. These are 7mm thick drives and I had read that even with the shim attached (which comes with the drive) it did not fit the slot in the BMPC too well. Also BM advise that the larger SSDs are faster, although the specs don't agree with this. Well I can report that I have encountered none of the issues above - the drives fit snuggly, don't rattle, but are not too tight to remove with fingers. I have cycled the two drives and after five shoots I have not seen any problems. Shooting 4K ProRes HQ (no RAW available yet) I was getting about 12 secs per GB which is about 48 minutes of footage on a disk. I quick formatted the cards to Ex-Fat each time and I feel these cards should be "certified" soon.

Battery Life

Probably the the biggest concern of many before the launch was how long the fixed battery would last and the answer is NOT BLOODY LONG! I have not timed it but it is nothing like the 2 hours stated in the specifications in real life use. I looked at and rapidly dropped the idea of professional battery packs that added about £600 to the price and looked again at the spec of the camera. 

It is very unfussy about the power source, any DC source from 11-30V is OK. I had a couple of 12V 7Ah batteries that used to power a burglar alarm (they get replaced every 2 years) that I felt would work. I cut the cable off a power supply that used to power an external hard drive and put terminals on the other end. I plugged it into the camera and up came the symbol that the camera was charging - perfect. 

If you can't recycle burglar alarm batteries, you can get the same battery on Amazon for £15.39. The centre pin of the cameras power socket is quite wide so not every plug will fit it. If the camera is on a tripod you can plug it in while using it but I tend to plug it in to the battery when it is in my bag so the camera is normally fully charged when I am ready to shoot. So far I have not run out of power.

Monitor v EVF

I predicted that the screen on the back of the BMPC was going to be more help to my wife putting lipstick on than checking the picture was in focus and so it proved. My first shoot was at sunset so there wasn't much backlight to trouble the screen, but despite using the green focus assist not one shot was in focus. I had to get an external monitor. 

I contacted James Miller, camera guru and infamous lens whacker for his opinion. He had recently been running tests on a BMPC side-by-side with a Canon 1 DC and he told me that an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was essential and preferred over a field monitor mainly because you can close off all the light with your eye.

The output on the BMPC is SDI not HDMI so the EVF had to connect to that and the main options (available in the UK) were by Zacuto, Alphatron (TVLogic) and Cineroid. CVP in London let me look at the first two on my camera and I was impressed by the sharpness of the Zacuto Z-finder EVF Pro and unimpressed by the softness of the Alphatron EVF-035W-3G (so much so that I checked out two in case one was faulty). The focus check on the Zacuto was also significantly better. However the weakness of the cheaper Zacuto was the HDMI connection (which kept cutting out) and that I needed a SDI to HDMI converter. The battery powered BM converter costs over £200 and apparently lasts 2 hours before recharging, so I was not keen on this option. 

CVP didn't have a Cineroid demo unit but the importers Octica let me try out the EVF-4RVW with the "retina" screen and the much cheaper EVF-4CSS. There was a surprising lack of difference between the two and the EVF-4CSS was almost as sharp as the Zacuto. Crucially the EVF-4CSS has SDI connections and was almost half the price of all the others. It's made of fairly cheap plastic and wouldn't survive misuse but that makes it light which is good for me and takes LP-E6 batteries from the Canon 5D's. If you are looking for a reasonable priced EVF for the BMPC I can recommend the Cineroid EVF-4CSS which appears to have been created for the BM cameras.

With the SSDs, my home-brew battery solution and an EVF, the BMPC is a nw a pretty usable camera, and I believe that this is the minimum a sole user would need to get it there. However you do need somewhere to attach the EVF and probably an external mic. You also need to do something with the material you shoot, so in part 2 I will look at an alternative to a cage and some of the issues of post production and post some examples from the shoots.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Blackmagic Design 4K Production Camera price shock

I went along to BVE 2014 at the Excel in London today and made a B-line (bee-line?) for the Blackmagic Design Stand to explain why I was a trifle miffed (British mid-level anger) about the non-arrival of my 4K Super 35 Production Cinema Camera, ten months after I ordered it.

And there it was. Not my camera of course, but a living, breathing, full production version sitting on a Manfrotto tripod aimed at a miniature fairground. I took in the scene and then my eye caught the most amazing figure in front of the camera; no, not a gorgeous model but the price of the camera.

Hang on. This was over £3,000 including the government's 20% cut just a week ago, and it's now £19 cheaper than a brand new Canon 5D MKIII body! So what has happened, or to my suspicious mind, what is missing? 

Well the first thing that's missing is compressed RAW recording which is promised to arrive later (as it did in the 2.5K) and Avid DNxHD which won't because Avid still don't have a codec that works with 4K. And... well nothing else. DaVinci Resolve colour grading software is still included, the sensor hasn't been changed, there is still a 6G-SDI output and the picture looks great. In fact the industrious James Miller has already compared the quality of the BMPCC with the Canon EOS 1D C here and it really cuts the mustard as we say in Blighty.

I have felt that this camera was going to miss out on the impact it made at NAB and with the Digital Bolex (kind of) available and the Panasonic GH4 launching that may have been the case before Grant Petty dipped into the BM Design piggy bank and made Christmas come late for all of us, by making this camera the bargain of the decade.

I ordered mine on 26th April 2013 about 2 nano-seconds after it was announced and I am still 30th on the list of orders at CVP, but I am hopeful that I might get it before the UK sinks again or the US freezes over. I might even be able to film Great Britain in the sun. Now how to spend that £1000...

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

What decade are we in anyway?

There are some decades that just lend themselves to a catchy name - the Roaring Twenties, the Swingin' Sixties, and the err... Noughties! Since the Twenties (should it have a capital?) every decade has been easily described by the leading number in the decade and adding "ies" at the end.

We struggled a bit to come up with something for the last decade mainly because the word nought is not used by speakers of American English it is always zero. But eventually it took hold and pretty much everyone describes the decade as the Noughties if only for the reason that we all love a good play on words.

So the next decade, "The New Twenties", is covered (whether it is roaring or whimpering we don't know) but we are stuck without suitable nomenclature for the current one. Options put forward so far are "Oneders", "Onesies", "Deccies", "Tennies", "Tensies", "Tenies", "Tenties", "Teenies", "Tenners", "Teens" and "Tweens". Each have their attractions and also confusions.

Onesies, the all-in-one slouch outfit, coincidently make a big impact on the "fashion" world in this decade so I suggest this could be the favourite although we are really in the tens not the ones.

All the "ten" prefix options are pretty good, are numerically correct and it comes down to the comfort of pronouncing them. It might be that another word needs to be established in front of it to describe the decade, but the lead contender here is probably "austerity" which alliteratively is pretty hopeless with everything.

The Deccies could be a good outside bet here, since it won't be confused with anything else, satisfies scientists and mathematicians and is easily pronounced. There could be an argument on how many c's are included, but I believe two is minimum. I think Bill Bryson should be the judge of this one.

There are always time sections of a decade so early-Deccies, mid- and late-Deccies are all satisfactory. And if Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and all can keep going for another 6 years I can definitely see this become "The Decadent Deccies". But for now we can keep calling it "this decade". Boring.


Blackmagic Design 4K Production Camera to break all records - for delays?


Back in May 2013 I wrote a blog about the mythical Blackmagic Design 4K Production camera and how I was expecting a long delay for its delivery. At the time of writing the Blackmagic Design website was showing this:

So let's allow a month or maybe two and then at least I should get my hands on a demo model. Nope. The "expected" date on my supplier's website keeps adding a month.

Blackmagic announce a plethora of new equipment throughout 2013 and on August 2nd Grant Petty posted:

The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K is not yet shipping as we need some more time. Our first batch of sensors was delivered only this week, so we have not been able to complete the software for the camera. We expect to start shipping in about 3 to 4 weeks once the final software work and testing is completed.

Followed by this on September 4th:

It's taking a bit longer than we expected to do this and we think its going to take about 3 to 4 weeks more to get those changes done and to get the QA process completed before we can start shipping.

Then on December 18th the boss posted some personally hand shot material and said:

As I have mentioned previously we have been working hard on redesigning part of the camera due to differences in the production sensors to what we experienced in the early camera builds, however that work is completed now and we are in final testing. 

The Blackmagic forum announcement for the camera has now had almost 26,000 views and 219 replies, which are becoming increasingly frustrated. But at least in January some DoPs managed to get their hand on beta versions for testing.

So you would expect me to be fuming about putting down a deposit on a camera and waiting more than 8 months to receive it. Well, I am several levels below fuming because it is about expectation management, and I expected this.

I have experience of trying to get a new product to market and despite best planning rarely does anything go to plan, particularly when dealing with micro-technology. The lessons learnt from the original cinema camera really didn't apply to the 4K, it was a clean sheet of paper with lots of new ideas written on it, which then got smudged.

There still is, 10 months on from its announcement, nothing on the market that matches the camera's specs and price and I am pretty certain that not many will have asked for their deposits back and lost their place in the queue. I am still excited by the prospect of the camera and can't wait to get my hands on one. 

The biggest worry is that the guy who updates the BM website knows something we don't as it shows that the camera will ship in Q4.

Let's hope he is just as clueless as the rest of us and hasn't updated it recently.