Shooting a Low-Budget Short with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

I've worked on several short films over the years, all with their own particular set of challenges. But all of them have had one thing in common - they have all been low-budget. Saturday's shoot was no different. I worked as a DP on a one-day shoot for a six-page short film. We shot both interiors and exteriors on location at an apartment building in downtown Memphis, using the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.

In an earlier post, I wrote about my impressions of the BMPCC after using it for the first time. In this post, I want to discuss what I liked and what I didn't like about using it in the context of a low/no-budget film shoot, and what gear I recommend in case you find yourself using this camera under similar shooting situations. 

The film consists of two people exiting a hotel room, walking down the hall, getting on an elevator, then walking out through the lobby and exiting out onto the sidewalk. All the while, the two are engaged in an intense conversation. So, you can imagine that I spent most of my day using a steadicam rig with the BMPCC, tracking with the talent down hallways and in elevators. Here's what I learned from that set-up:

  • You have to consider the camera's crop factor. I've seen it listed at 2.6x, 2.88x, and 3.02x, but regardless, this camera is tough to use in tight spaces. We kept a 14mm 2.8 Rokinon prime on the camera throughout the entire shoot. It definitely can affect your shot selections if you don't have a variety of lenses to choose from.
  • I would recommend a rig with external monitor and a remote follow focus. Again, this being a low-budget film, I only had the camera and the steadicam rig, so the director and I had to plan out shots that didn't require me to pull focus, which would have thrown off the balance of the rig. The camera'a smaller super 16 sensor was an advantage in this situation. We could open up our f-stop as we needed, and still maintain deeper focus than would have been possible with a full-frame camera. So, during rehearsal, the director and I framed our shots and then grabbed a focus mark. As I tracked with the talent, I stayed approximately 8 feet in front of them to maintain focus. And since the 14mm prime acted more as a mid-range lens on this camera, I was able to maintain a good medium shot for the walking and talking scenes (of which there were plenty).

Once we wrapped the interiors, we moved to the exterior of the apartment building for some nighttime shots, which included another tracking shot of our couple as they exited the building and walked around the corner. Once around the corner, they stopped for a few more lines, before finally continuing on down the street. Here are a few more things I learned from working with the BMPCC on our nighttime exteriors:

  • Although the dynamic range of this camera is pretty incredible, it was obvious that we would need additional lighting for the walking shots. As the talent walked away from the building, they were heavily backlit by the building's awning. The challenge was to light them for a long tracking shot without seeing cable runs going into the building or down the sidewalk (we couldn't afford a generator). As DP, I didn't mind the darkness, but I needed to interrupt the shadows by having the talent move into pockets of light as they walked. I needed it to feel as though they were being illuminated by streetlights. So, we used four battery-powered LEDs and set them up at specific intervals along the sidewalk. We gelled three with CTO and I dialed in a low Kelvin temperature on the fourth (about 2900 degrees) to give the lighting a warm, amber look. I kept the lens at 2.8 and the ISO at the camera-rated 800. The resulting shot shows the actors moving in and out of the light as they walk. 
  • Once the actors stopped on the other side of the building, we were able to plug in and use our fresnals. I used the other awning on that side of the building as a natural rim light and framed up the shot not looking back toward the building, but rather down the street. This gave the shot a lot of depth, and since each light pole was wrapped with Christmas lights, I was able get some soft bokeh and some additional light for the scene. The director staged talent in both the foreground and background so I simply used two 300W fresnals with CTO as a hard side light. I diffused the foreground 300W with 216 and elevated the light, aiming downward to act as a practical street lamp. For the background, I kept a nice, hard side light, as if it were coming from a nearby window, neon sign, or other similar source.
  • Although the BMPCC sensor is less sensitive to light than the 5D Mk III, I was pleased with the way I was able to light the scene with only two fixtures. I relied on the dynamic range of the camera to preserve the shadow detail for correction and grading. This really helped the talent and crew, since we were at the end of the day and were rushing to get the final few shots. We only had to worry about maneuvering two fixtures. 
  • The temperature was the biggest problem during the exterior shoot. It was in the low to mid-30s, which started to affect the camera's batteries. For those who have used the BMPCC, you already know this, but in case you haven't, be warned: this camera burns through batteries like nothing else I've ever seen in any other camera. So, take a battery that already has a short charge duration, add in cold temperatures, and the result was a camera that kept going down during takes. It was extremely frustrating. So, always, always have plenty of extra batteries for this camera and plenty of battery chargers.

I hope this has been helpful and will better prepare you for your next shoot with the BMPCC. If you would like to share your experiences of working with this camera and pass along a few tips, please do so in the Comments section.