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I run a business on the side that does media/film/video productions. This business largely runs itself but in order to keep clients happy and the business current I'm always on the lookout for new ways of doing things. New ways that are better, stronger, faster and more efficient than what we've done in the past. Efficiency ultimately translates into cost savings and cost savings keep clients happy.

Live-streaming video content is an expanding area of business for my little company. Live streaming is fortunately very interesting to me because it poses some curious challenges and marries several fun technologies, like video compression, network routing, transcoding, repeating, routing, proxying, optics, storage, cabling, etc. It's multi-faceted.

A small portion of the equipment necessary to make a reasonably-decent show work.

We generally achieve live streaming in one of two main ways; but they both start with big heavy cameras, expensive coaxial cables, a big bulky video mixer, some LCD monitors, loads of converters, frame rate and resolution "scalers" and then an output step. The output step involves either a dedicated video streaming device, like the Teradek Vidiu or a laptop running a USB3 capture card and the amazing OBS.

Even more equipment.

These setups are unfortunately huge and by extension very expensive (as they require a lot of expensive equipment, space, cabling, setup time, crew, etc).

A client recently started asking about ways in which they could do smaller, "lighter-weight" multi-camera streams for the purposes of internal marketing and staff training. One of this client's staff members had found an advert for a system, called the "SlingStudio".

The SlingStudio Hub

Now, "SlingStudio" is a very poorly thought-out name, because the word "Sling" often means a type of support equipment that may not be "safe for work". My client's staff member mentioned this device, the SlingStudio that is, and asked if it could work for their purposes. I looked into it and I must admit it seemed too good to be true... and it is, sort of. They've taken a leaf out of Blackmagic Design's book, in that it isn't a bug-free product and it certainly isn't plain-sailing to operate.

An NTSC HDMI-equipped camera attached to a SlingStudio CameraLink

The SlingStudio is tiny compared to the setup we normally use. The switcher and video encoder/streaming module are contained in one device the size of a fancy wifi router - and ironically the device is also a wifi router, albeit a very limited one. The system has some notable limitations, that mostly extend out of its core design:

  • All video sources, bar one, are wirelessly streamed to the device over 5GHz 802.11ac wifi using proprietary equipment or a smartphone application (which uses the phone's camera).
  • The device is 30p only. 60p is available as an option with another set of limitations.
Have lots of batteries ready...

In order to use the machine in practice you need the following :

  • HDMI-equipped cameras all operating on NTSC.
  • For each camera you need a wireless transmitter.
  • If you're operating for longer than ~1.5 hours you'll need USB power banks for each of the transmitters.
  • Tripods (optional!).
  • The SlingStudio "hub".
  • The hub's battery "base" or a power supply.
  • An iPad.
  • An internet connection.
The SlingStudio's iPad console operating with three wireless video sources.

The above makes for a very compact setup compared to traditional configurations. In South Africa, almost all of our "ENG"-style cameras operate on PAL (25p/50i) frame rates, which makes them incompatible with most projectors. This means that you need a frame rate converter to connect a normal mixer and camera setup to a projector system - but the SlingStudio is an American product and it only supports NTSC (specifically 30p, 60p* and 60i). As a result of this frame rate selection all venue projectors are happy to deal with the signal the SlingStudio outputs. The SlingStudio can output video to the internet via RTMP or to Youtube and Facebook directly. It can even create events on those platforms using the iPad console interface. In parallel it can also record your output stream (program), your video sources individually, your line-in audio source and output a limited set of streams via HDMI. Really impressive stuff. All this is at an extremely attractive price point that's a fraction of the cost of a traditional setup. So what's the catch ?

There are several catches, but it is possible to work around them if you understand them in the context of your brief. Here are some limitations, some of them are South Africa-specific :

  • The SlingStudio is an NTSC/30p/60p/60i product and as such will only work with equipment that supports these framerates. Many cameras in South Africa are locked to PAL frame rates and are therefore incompatible with this system. This is especially true of cheaper "handycam"-type camcorders.
  • The company that makes the SlingStudio (DISH) are hell-bent on preventing the SlingStudio being used by non-US customers; you need an iPad with a US iTunes account to download their control application. US retailers will not ship the SlingStudio to South Africa (or anywhere outside of the US and Canada). Warranty support is, naturally, unavailable.
  • The SlingStudio -only- works with a Macbook or an iPad, no Android folks.
  • The SlingStudio uses 802.11ac wifi on 5GHz to transport camera video streams and as a result you are subject to all of the complexities that come with that, including interference and general frequency congestion (which can be erratic and severe).
  • Full HD video at 30 fps is roughly 1.5 Gbits/second, but the SlingStudio transmits video data over wifi at anywhere between 2mbit/sec and 10 mbit/sec. It manages to do that by heavily compressing the footage and that comes with the price tag of notable latency. This isn't an issue if you're only recording and streaming to the web but it is a problem if you're planning on going out to a projector in the location in which you're filming. The SlingStudio does have a low-latency mode which sacrifices quality for latency.
  • The system is cutting-edge and as a result sometimes suffers a software glitch here and there. You have to keep your technical wits about you to navigate these issues.
The SlingStudio's wifi quality checker interface.

In practice the system has been pretty amazing so far. I performed extensive testing (in excess of several days of streaming) before actually using the device on a real shoot. In a real-world environment the system unfortunately has failed once so far, but after some investigation I came to the conclusion that the fault was caused by a ground-loop between an HDMI input and the machine's line-in audio input (the ground-loop was created by an audio desk's dodgy power supply). The solution was to put as much of the system on battery as possible and air-gap everything else (we moved the audio onto a wirelessly-connected camera). This resolved further issues. The lesson here is don't "electrically" trust the voltages of third-party equipment.

So, if you find that your SlingStudio's wifi occasionally abruptly disappears but the device continues operating normally otherwise, you're probably experiencing a ground-loop related issue. Galvanically isolate the crap out of everything.

The SlingStudio's Quad View output

The SlingStudio can send a "quad view" output, program output or HDMI pass-through to the HDMI output. Switching between these modes is seemless, so it's possible to use it as a rudimentary auxiliary output.

The real SlingStudio treat is in the edit...

For all the SlingStudio's limitations, issues and reliability concerns the feature that really stands out is the edit - it's possible to import SlingStudio recorded projects/footage into Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro. The resulting timeline includes all of your cuts and transitions. It's an absolute treat and makes fixing things easy. This is the biggest sell for the SlingStudio for me against other competing solutions.

All-in-all the SlingStudio is an amazing piece of equipment at an almost unbelievable price-point ($1000 without the transmitters and iPad) but it does have very specific limitations and can be finicky. A traditional system is a lot more effort to set up but it is much more reliable and provides lower-latency and better quality feeds.

This is a somewhat brief overview of my history/experiences with Blackmagic Design's Cinema Camera (2.5k variant). I came to own this camera as well as their 4K "Production" and Pocket variants, but fortunately I didn't repeat the mistakes with the latter that I had made with the former.

Magic Camera

Around June 2012 a colleague on a shoot told me about this amazing camera set to be released in the near future. He couldn't remember the name of the manufacturer or the model number of the camera but he knew it could shoot RAW and that it took DSLR lenses. Shooting with Canon DSLRs at that stage was new and edgy; everyone wanted the shallow depth-of-field look, but most couldn't afford it through traditional means (read "ARRI" and "RED"). In what seemed like a fit-of-rage-type mistake, Canon introduced HD video recording to their 5D MKII and then to their 550D and 7D. This opened up a whole new look to budget filmmakers. Of course it wasn't without risks; early video-shooting Canons readily overheated, suffered severe aliasing (they still do 🙈), had inefficient compression, poor battery life, no manual-focusing aids, no exposure aids, etc. so they were (and still are) a pain to work with. The promise, then, of a camera that gave one that shallow DOF, used existing Canon EF glass and shot RAW (!) was like the heavens were opening up to deliver a gift from a god (lowercase by choice).

I did some research and discovered the camera in question was the Cinema Camera, by Blackmagic Design. Soon to be shipped, waiting to be pre-ordered. Back then "pre-order" wasn't common and Kickstarter was a fledgling business...

Shut up and take my money

So I pre-ordered three of these magic cameras, expecting to have them in a few weeks. Of course B&H charges up front for pre-orders (unlike Adorama, who are a more decent company generally speaking). Of course the product that was supposed to ship a few weeks later actually shipped 8 months later. And this, my friends, is how Blackmagic Design operates; promote pre-orderability to your customers, use the funds to develop your product and then ship out a half-baked product (and by half-baked I mean prototype).

Yes, 8 months later, when the cameras actually arrived, I and many others, quickly discovered that the firmware was hopelessly incomplete. They were beautiful, shiny metal boxes that could do one thing: record raw video. No format, no delete, no time remaining, no exposure aids, no auto focus, no focus aids, no audio metering, severely impeded audio, the list goes on. An alpha product, at best. Barely field-usable. But okay, it filmed raw video, at 2.5k, holey smokes, that's amazing. Even now 2.5k 12-bit 4:2:2 video is pretty damn amazing.

Half-baked product, but it worked and it did something nothing in that price-range came close to doing: shooting RAW video. Blackmagic Design was promising firmware updates to fix all the issues, so things weren't looking too bad. But of course, Blackmagic Design didn't seem to realise that they (1) had customers and (2) that those customers are what should be driving their business. And so it came to pass that BMD CEO Grant Petty announced only 4 months after my cameras arrived that they would reduce the retail price of the cameras by 33%. Yes, $1000 price reduction.

Thanks for the asset value destruction Grant. Good job.

The video business isn't just about filming cool stuff; you buy equipment and it starts depreciating. You use said equipment for a while and then you eventually sell it.

Purchase Price - Sales Price = Effective Cost

As a business, you have to pass your costs onto your clients with a profit margin. Therefore, if you can reduce your equipment purchase price and increase your equipment selling price you can improve your profit margin and/or offer your client a better deal (which makes your business more competitive). Blackmagic Design, by reducing the price of their product by a third only 4 months after shipping severely damaged the resale price of their product and in doing so fucked their pre-order customers, who had already been fucked by the fact that the product was grossly late and was an alpha product at best (more like a prototype really). Blackmagic Design Cinema Cameras (2.5k variant) now retail on eBay, used, for around $500. In 5 years they've lost 83% of their value.

A Sony PMW-200, having been released a year before the BMCC, now retails on eBay for around $ 2300  with an initial retail price of $ 6000 - that's a depreciation of 62%.

Lessons Learnt

  • Don't buy big-ticket Blackmagic Design products.
  • If you do decide to buy a BMD product, don't pre-order buy it.
  • Don't pre-order buy anything.
  • If you decide to buy a BMD product, try and buy one second-hand. They don't bite when they're second hand and you'll optimise your costs. I got my 4K BMDs using this route and I saved a bundle.
  • At minimum make sure the product has been on the market for at least 6 months - if it's used it's probably got a track record already and it'll have some updates that make it usable.

Bonus Material - An incomplete list of issues

  • No audio metering
  • Audio inputs had hardware-applied filters which heavily impacted usability of recorded audio
  • No disk format
  • No file deletion
  • No time remaining
  • Dodgy battery indicator
  • No autofocus
  • Severe infrared contamination
  • Overexposure artifacts (purple fringing)
  • Unreliable and poorly defined exposure metering
  • It didn't deliver "shallow depth of field" like its DSLR cousins because its sensor was too small.
  • RAW isn't anywhere nearly as useful as everyone thought it'd be. In practice formats like ProRes, DNXHD and in recent times high-bitrate H.264 Intraframe are radically easier to work with and cheaper.

An incomplete list of good things

  • It had amazing dynamic range.
  • It re-used existing collections of Canon EF lenses.
  • It used relatively cheap solid state media (SATA SSDs) - this is ironic because BMD's latest cameras mostly use the silly-expensive CFast standard, which very few other companies have adopted.