Punk Rock Cinema : Black Magic Design

Punk Rock Cinema : Black Magic Design

“Punk-Rock really shook up our world. It was like a Year Zero Stalinist thing” – Douglas Hart, filmmaker and bass player with The Jesus and Mary Chain.

I’ve been testing Blackmagic Design’s latest release, the eGPU, an all-in-one external graphics card for Macs. To anyone reading this who was expecting to just hear about Punk Music, this is a computer add-on which will hopefully allow our music documentary team to speed up their post-production process. For any DITs, Editors and Cinematographers currently confused about these mentions of Punk Music I’ll try and connect them both up. Blackmagic Design are a little punk themselves.

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Perceived wisdom dictates that before The Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks arrived, in order to be successful within the music industry it was required to have the support of international record labels, prohibitorily expensive recording studios and producers. A 1977 Buzzcocks single proved otherwise – that cheap recording equipment and inspired musicians, and management could indeed lead to a band successfully releasing a record on their own.

From this record release a paradigm shift occurred within music and soon smart electrical manufacturers began releasing inexpensive musical equipment to catch this new wave of creativity. This resulted in a perfect symbiosis of inspired musical companies and equally inspired independent musicians gaining Top of the Pops and chart appearances. Only a few years earlier neither could have dreamed of such events occurring, it really was then a place for the elite. Home studios, recording equipment, MIDI, Synthesisers and computer sequencers became readily available. The musical playing field had been levelled by musicians wanting change and the means of that change being offered by sharp electronics companies and software manufacturers allowed this.

The film industry was a little slower to catch on to the changes happening in music though. Although Final Cut Pro editing had opened doors, even by the mid 2000s independent filmmakers still had limited access to high quality; inexpensive equipment. Sony PD150 cameras had arrived but there was still a large quality hurdle to television broadcast standards, and even then still a significant expense barrier to cross.

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In 2005 we started our journey to creating two feature length documentaries on Scottish Post-Punk and Independent music. And interviewed Douglas Hart, who provides the quote at the start. It was a very tough beginning as we were aiming for television broadcast results but without the budget to hire the cameras and equipment needed. The film playing field was not yet level though that would change.

Red releasing their groundbreaking Red One Cinema Camera in 2006 did cause shockwaves within the industry. However, it would not be until independent filmmakers desperate for that cinematic look began experimenting with a novelty function within Canon’s 5D STILLS camera that a true independent filmmaking revolution began. There was still a lot to do and eager companies began to move fast.

Right in amongst this gold rush of technology was our film. It took us ten years to make and during that time we saw many new products and companies emerge, some of which were essential to us being able to make our film with our very small budget. We tried many of these new toys but it wasn’t until around 2012 that we began to notice significant changes in our costs and quality from some of them.

One company that changed how we operate significantly was Blackmagic Design, an Australian company who seemed to truly understand the needs of the new wave of emerging independent filmmakers, hungry for low cost and powerful tools once the mainstay of studios.

I had been experimenting with Davinci Resolve as a Digital Imaging Technician after Black Magic had rebranded and offered it to a public for a fraction of the original cost. It would prove to be our most valued tool in creating all of our films within budget.

At this point during our production we had amassed a huge archive of footage, hundreds of hours ranging across a hugely vast array of formats all over a 40 year period. And because of our need to use better and cheaper cameras we had amassed an equally huge library of interviews – hours and hours of different formats. The project had become huge.

For those unfamiliar with post-production processes, eventually all of these different formats have to be converted into one single format. There are various ways of doing this, all dependent on budget. The edit itself would be carried out remotely, at the home of our superb editor – Angela Slaven. We unfortunately did not have the means of a traditional edit suite or the vast, fast, expensive storage they offer so had to devise a plan for the most cost effective alternative. It was decided that we would convert our entire archive to ProRes for future consistency, essentially creating new masters of our footage. We would then create Avid friendly proxy files for speedy editing. Our very final online would be from the amazing team at Arteus, Glasgow, our saviours. Our temporary festival online was created entirely in Resolve by the great team of John Sackey and Sean David Mcnamee.

Weeks were spent upscaling, transcoding, reframing, changing aspect ratio, de-noising and trying to gain a level of consistency. The actual tools for allowing these tweaks are very simple and quick, unfortunately the computer processing time required was phenomenal. We required an old-style Mac Pro as this was then the only option which allowed us to use the GPUs needed to accelerate the processing. Due to work requirements the setup had to be moved around many, many times. It was big and clunky. A portable version was very much needed but unfortunately non existent at the time.

Towards the end of the production Blackmagic released their own Cinema Camera. It was small, portable and importantly recorded footage as ProRes. We could now move from Glasgow to London with our entire kit in one bag. A revelation for us. Our final interviews were all shot on this camera, alongside a Sony F5, which would could easily transcode to ProRes. Below are a couple of stills with the camera featuring Joy Division and New Order’s Peter Hook; and Teenage Fanclub’s Gerard Love.

We finished in July 2015 and screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. We could not have done this without Blackmagic’s Resolve, and the cameras portability allowed us to shoot more interviews in a day. Our savings in post allowed us to use more songs and footage which clearly added much production value to the final product. Of course having so much support from the Arteus Team (Ian Ballantyne, Audrey David, Sharon, John, Kevin, Graham Struthers and all) made this even more pronounced.

 

July 2018 – Testing the Black Magic eGPU

We have now completed our two feature films, Big Gold Dream and Teenage Superstars.  Both are still very independent but we’ve been very lucky to have them screened at festivals throughout the world, television, DVD and online.  As we are still very much looking after these ourselves (with excellent assistance from Arteus and Amber Content) we are constantly having to create all manner of deliverables.  Often because of other commitments they have to be completed remotely. And this takes time…

 

It was by no means an understatement to say I was super excited to hear that Blackmagic had developed an external all-in-one GPU.  Other solutions existed but consisted of external enclosures, big and noisy.  This option seemed to be an all in one, lightweight but powerful box.

When working away from home – which is often the case – I really need to use a laptop so this option has opened up some very interesting opportunities for lightening my workload.

 

While I’ve mentioned I also work as a Digital Imaging Technician (DIT) where I have some powerful equipment, I’m mostly unable to use this for my independent filmmaking.

I decided to approach the testing of the new eGPU from the vantage point of an independent filmmaker.

I decided not to use top-of-the-range equipment, but what would likely be used in an average indie kit:

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The simple ‘indie’ laptop setup used for these tests

2016, 2 year old medium spec MacBook Pro – 15″, 2.6Ghz with 16GB memory

2018 Caldigit Thunderbolt 3 Hub

2014 G-Tech G-SPEED 12TB RAID Drive. USB3, configured to RAID5

2013 Lacie 2Big RAID. Thunderbolt 1 with an Apple TB3 to 2 Adapter.

2018 Davinci Resolve 15 – Non Studio Version

 

I wanted to test a variety of scenarios that I will be using for two projects I am currently working on, as well as creating deliverables for the 2 existing films.

New Film 1 is a new music documentary called ‘FAST FORWARD’, a companion to Teenage Superstars which will have a similar workflow – many interviews and archive spread across a variety of resolutions and formats.

New Film 2 is a drama called Far From the Apple Tree (starring The Innocents Sorcha Groundsell) which also uses a variety of formats. The reason I’m using this project for one of the tests is because we shot a proportion of it at 6K with Red Epic cameras.

The tests would be very simple, performing each one twice. Once with the eGPU and once without.  I’m using Davinci Resolve, reading from one drive and writing onto the other. While not 100% mathematical and scientific it is simple enough to gauge the usefulness of the GPU.

I’ll later perform far more scientific tests as part of my DIT work.

 

THE TESTS

 

  1. RED

I always think a great speed test for any drive, software or processor is to work with raw footage, especially a raw flavour which is slightly complicated.  I thought I’d go straight in at the deep end with the 6K Epic footage. Because the drives are so relatively slow I decided it best to debayer at 1/2 Res.

 

6K Red Without eGPU - playback

Without the eGPU the playback speed clocked in at a fairly impressive 17fps.  Quite nifty for an old laptop, especially as I’ve seen it play back elsewhere at 2 fps before!

 

6K Red With eGPU - playback

With the eGPU however playback showed a respectable 25fps – the camera recording speed so no complaints there.

The more important results to me would be from rendering out.  I decided to not make any grading adjustments but to purely transcode from 6K R3Ds to ProRes422HQ.

6K Red With without eGPU - render 2

Rendering without the eGPU took an expected hit from the playback speed. Still a respectable 15.5fps average.

 

6K Red With eGPU - render2

With the eGPU I was getting an average of 25fps realtime.  There were a few moments of dropping below this.

In conclusion, the eGPU has the potential to increase productivity in Red workflows without having to buy a £6K Red Rocket X.  I’ve had to purchase over 5 in a near ten year period and that became expensive.  While 25fps realtime transcoding is not an earth shattering performance it is very good and very useable .The eGPU does increase transcoding times by around 1/3rd without a Rocket and for anyone working on a budget this is great news.

Because I was using the non studio version and only had access to one eGPU it would be an interesting experiment to test with other GPUs / faster drives to see how powerful it really is. I would expect a little more than the tests here showed. From an independent and budget perspective this is good.

 

2. ProRes422HQ to H264 in a Quicktime Wrapper

As mentioned, one of my most common uses for Davinci Resolve is to create deliverables for my pre-existing films. Examples being excerpts, DVD extras, online versions etc.  Our Masters are in ProRes4444 although for this test I used our ProRes422HQ Master instead and transcoding to a highly compressed h264 Quicktime for uploading.

Rather than the short duration of the Red Clips this would be a 90 minute movie (Big Gold Dream). This is a common step for me and one which is usually very reliant on time. Anything which can boost this while remaining portable is very desirable.

ProRes 422HQ to H264 without egpu - render

Without the eGPU I was getting around 50-60fps.

ProRes 422HQ to H264 with egpu - render

Using the eGPU the speed would reach around 100fps, likely bottlenecked by the drives.

While the speed was very inconsistent without the eGPU – 55fps being one of the lower speeds it was very consistent when using it.  I can certainly see using it for this purpose as a real benefit to my workflow.

 

3. ProRes 422HQ to h264 WITH MULTIPLE NOISE REDUCTION NODES

 

I then decided to push the ProRes a little more. One of the most taxing tasks for GPUs, more so than CPUs is multiple Noise Reduction nodes.  This next test would be footage shot on the Blackmagic original camera at ProRes422HQ to an MP4.  Unfortunately I was using the non Studio version of Resolve which is why there is a watermark but speed results should be the same regardless.

 

ProRes 422HQ With 3 Nodes and NR - Without GPU - render

Without the eGPU I got 7fps – very slooooow

 

ProRes 422HQ With 3 Nodes and NR - With GPU - render

Adding with eGPU showed a remarkable change. Up to 19fps

The conclusions here – which further and more exacting testing should be done – are a significant improvement on multiple nodes of noise reduction with the eGPU. Very surprising.  Certainly the biggest increase I saw throughout the tests.

Without the multiple nodes, even without the eGPU the rendering speed from ProRes422HQ to h264 was around 100fps, bottlenecked by the drive speed. I think with more testing on higher spec-ed equipment should show a very powerful use for the eGPU.

 

4. Upres-ing Archive footage and adding multiple nodes.

The final testing in this initial round would be based around bringing our new documentary archive in spec with the rest of our material.

For Big Gold Dream and Teenage Superstars I did not have the luxury of being able to run my system overnight due to working in remote locations and having a very bulky Mac Pro.  This meant that I had to fit this stage of post within a very small time-frame – and often processes had to be cancelled early as I did not have enough time, which was very frustrating.

I was hoping from test no.3 results that we would obtain similar results.

Our archive often consists of an incredibly wide range of formats, often not having access to the original material.  We have DVD, miniDV, VHS, 8mm, youtube – all sorts of material which we often have to take ‘as is’.  Although Arteus have been able to go back to as much of our original source materials as possible we mostly have to make new masters here for a variety of reasons.

It’s very common for us to have 3 hour VHS tapes, digitised using inadequate hardware/software and usually of a very aged appearance.  This means we have to upscale, Denoise, reframe and add a little colour correction.  This may be fine for a 15 minute tape but when there are 20 or 30 x 60minute tapes needing these tweaks time-management very quickly becomes important.

For this last test I upscaled a miniDV tape, reframed for 16:9, added some noise reduction and some small colour corrections.

H264 Long Clip - NR and Reframe - without egpu

Mini DV Upressed, re-framed, Noise Reduction added and a small amount of colour correction. 7.5 fps without the eGPU

 

H264 Long Clip - NR and Reframe - with egpu

Mini DV Upressed, re-framed, Noise Reduction added and a small amount of colour correction. 19 fps without the eGPU

 

I did indeed notice similar results to the previous multiple node tests, which will be fantastic news for us.  This will literally save us days on such a long project.

 

Overall Conclusions

While this may not be the most revolutionary piece of equipment ever designed, it is an incredibly useful tool for independent filmmakers, editors, colourists and digital imaging technicians.

An average noted one third increase to your workflow is seriously impressive for around £1K.  It is very fast for a standalone GPU card but because it is also a stand-alone itself – not requiring – a TB3 external pcie chassis it becomes incredibly good value. An external chassis alone would cost a similar amount as the eGPU.

Another benefit I discovered was the low noise generated from the fans – always an issue for me with external chassis units.  This is a very quiet unit.

The addition of USB3 ports is very welcome, especially as Apple now require you to buy adapter or hubs due to the removal of all legacy ports on the new MacBooks.

A personal negative for me is the construction. While it is small and relatively portable it feels designed for desktop users.

For many of my uses I would be expecting to take it outside for use on mag-liners, vans and studios; often with it being in transit.  It would be nice if there were options to mount it in a rack or flight case. But this is a small niggle for a very well designed product.

 

For us and our films I can it as an invaluable tool for saving time, time which in turn saves us money which can then be spent on other areas of production.

 

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The nifty USB hub, handy for the new MacBook Pro’s!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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