A curious middle ground has risen up in the indie filmmaking world. DSLR cameras like the Canon 5D revolutionized low-budget videography, while higher-end digital cinema rigs like the RED Scarlet and Arri Alexa are robust enough for Oscar-nominated cinematographers while remaining "cheap" by Hollywood standards. But DSLRs are still-photo cameras at heart, and are ill-suited to some of the rigors of film production; meanwhile, the RED and Alexa are still expensive enough to remain out of reach for many productions, not to mention cumbersome to use. Isn’t there a camera that can appeal to middle-class media makers who occupy the growing territory between "one man band" and "major production company"?
The recently-unveiled Blackmagic Cinema Camera seeks to fill that niche. At $3000, it costs less than Canon’s flagship DSLR, the 5D Mark III. But it’s designed to shoot motion pictures with professional workflows, just like the RED and Alexa. Oh, and it’s freaking beautiful-looking, too.
The Blackmagic Cinema Camera looks more like an iMac crossed with a Polaroid than a piece of production equipment: all smooth aluminum curves and lush matte plastic, with a sheer touchscreen interface gracing the back panel. The aluminum body allegedly gives the camera a rugged solidity without excessive weight. (I say "allegedly" because I haven’t seen it in the flesh, and Blackmagic didn’t respond to my requests for comment.) Unlike the RED Scarlet’s aggressively, often inscrutably technocratic interface, the Blackmagic camera’s touchscreen actually looks human-readable. And it’s stuffed to the gills with pro-quality specs, like 13 stops of dynamic range, the ability to output into industry-standard lossless video codecs, and a full raft of ports for external monitors and mics.
Then again, "user experience" means something very different to professional filmmakers than it does to amateurs or even prosumers—and a well-designed cinema camera has more in common with a Leatherman tool than it does with a svelte piece of consumer tech like an iMac. For example, consider the gorgeous-looking flush-set ports on the side of the Blackmagic. There’s a reason why the Alexa and RED cameras are studded with open ports like a horny toad—in the heat of production, when you’re pushing cords and cards and peripherals in and out of the camera all the time, messing around with doors and covers just gets in the way. Also, it’s only a matter of time before they get broken off.
And what about that large, friendly touchscreen—you might think, how could anyone mess that up? I’m not saying the Blackmagic does, but putting crucial controls into an interface with non-haptic feedback can drive cinematographers nuts if it’s not carefully considered. At the very least, touchscreens are fragile and usually require gentle swiping and tapping, and sometimes they simply aren’t that great at registering input compared to physical controls. Think of the difference between an iPad and a Kindle Fire: while setting up a shot, I wouldn’t want to be jabbing and swiping repeatedly on a touchscreen that wasn’t perfectly, seamlessly responsive. (I had this experience recently with the RED Scarlet, which also builds most of its controls into a touchscreen UI.)
The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is undeniably sexy, and sends a very clear message: professional filmmaking gear should be beautiful, not just functional. And what’s wrong with that message? It works for Apple. But the design language of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera feels a bit off all the same. It’s saying: Love me. You know you want to. But what it should say is: Trust me. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m just not sure I do.