While the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro was conceived primarily as a live streaming tool, I propose that it has so many intriguing features that, for me, it’s becoming an indispensable tool for all kinds of non-live streaming shoots.
By now, you’ve probably read at least one of the pieces I’ve written for HDVideoPro or seen a YouTube video or read elsewhere about live streaming using the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro. I have an interesting value proposition for you to consider about who should be using the ATEM Mini Pro. Here it is. Even if you’ve never considered, aren’t presently and have no plans in the near future for live streaming, I still think you should consider spending $595 for the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro. Why? It’s pretty simple: it’s too handy for its multi-view monitoring function.
Getting Into Multi-Camera Shooting
Perhaps if you only ever shoot single camera, you may not need the functionality that the ATEM Mini Pro provides. Do you ever shoot multiple cameras though? Besides live streaming, my business has lately been embracing the convenience and flexibility that comes with shooting multiple cameras. There’s something to be said for the speed and flexibility that shooting with two, three or four cameras offers that’s not possible with single-camera shooting. If it’s a narrative piece, these are most often shot with a single camera “film style” as we used to say.
This means working with professional actors or spokespeople who are skilled enough at learning and delivering lines and being able to repeat them a great number of times with relative accuracy. Then you can light each angle perfectly, shoot the performance from one angle and then move the camera to shoot an alternative angle as the talent repeats their performance. Classic cinema/single-camera episodic shooting. If this is how you shoot, you may not gain the advantages of the ATEM Mini Pro for monitoring.
Alternately, if you have two, three or four cameras, you can often shoot a scene just once or twice and because you have multiple angles in camera, it can allow you to move much faster than shooting single-camera style. There are of course compromises to be made shooting multiple camera. More cameras, more gear, more cables, more tripods.
If you’re carefully lighting a scene cinematically, with multiple cameras, depending on where they’re located and what they’re shooting, the lighting can be a compromise because the DP then has to light the scene in such a way where multiple angles look perfect instead of just one angle. Let’s take a look at one way of shooting that usually still can work with more cinematically lit scenes, shooting two or even three cameras from the same angle.
If I’m shooting a dramatic scene between two actors, the first instinct might be to have one or two cameras on each of the actors. This would require lighting both angles at once which, while not impossible, takes longer, adds more grip and lighting gear to the scene and, generally, most DPs feel it would be a compromise in the lighting, especially for anything dramatically lit.
However, if we scale the shot back to just two cameras stacked, both from the exact same angle, one wider and one in a close up, if we were shooting with a single camera, that would be at least two takes, one for each frame, right? Multiply that to several takes in the same setup to get the perfect performance, it can be difficult for an actor to match their performance between multiple takes perfectly. Even if they nail the line and delivery each time, there might be continuity differences about where their eyeline is, the tile of their head, what they’re doing with their body, etc.
If you shoot it with two cameras, you mitigate any of these minor continuity variations. You could have two monitors for the director, writer, script supervisor and other department heads to see. Here’s where the ATEM Mini Pro starts to come into play though.
You can run the HDMI output (not every camera outputs HDMI of course. Higher-end cameras often only have SDI outputs, but most low-end to mid-level cameras have HDMI out and many mid level cameras have both HDMI and SDI outputs) into the ATEM Mini Pro. Using it’s Multiview function, you can then see the feeds from up to four cameras at once on a single monitor. Each camera will also have its audio output levels superimposed as well. That function itself has previously been possible but expensive and complicated.
The ATEM Mini Pro is ridiculously easy to set up and use. You can hook its output up to an inexpensive computer monitor or up to an expensive, high-end huge 65-inch monitor as long as it has HDMI inputs. If you expand the equation out to three or even four cameras, you can see all three or four angles at once. You can instantly go full screen with any camera to check focus or framing or look for lint on your talent’s wardrobe or any out-of-place hairs.
Here’s Where It Becomes Really Powerful
The ATEM Mini Pro can not only shoot up to four camera inputs on a single monitor, it also allows you to hook up an SSD to the program output and record it. What this means is that not only can you monitor the output, you can actually do a line cut. What’s a line cut? It’s a switched feed, a “rough cut” of the scene being recorded. Think about the possibilities for directors and editors. This gives the ability to record a switched cut.
What if your timing is a little off and you want different timing in your final edit? You’ll be shooting isolated recordings in each camera that will be your source material. What if you can walk away from each scene with at least a rough cut of your multiple angles cut together? That rough cut can be given to an editor to put on their timeline as a “rough” assembly. The camera media can then be loaded and it becomes simple to slip or slide the timing if the person controlling the ATEM was off a little in their timing.
The ATEM Mini Pro has a 3.5mm audio input, so your rough assembly of each scene will have sound from your sound mixer on it or you could hook up a small TC generator like a Tentacle Sync E to the audio input of the ATEM Mini Pro with the TC matching your sound mixer’s recorder so it all syncs up to match your camera source and sound time code.
Different Use Cases
I’ve covered a use case above for narrative production. Let’s discuss a few other scenarios. I shoot documentaries. As you know, interviews are generally the architectural framework that’s used to assemble a typical documentary. Shooting multiple cameras in documentaries presents many of the same lighting and gear limitations as in narrative but if you’re using a small crew or even doing a one-man-band shoot for a documentary, it can be incredibly helpful in your framing and lighting to see and record your setups even if you’re only shooting with two cameras.
Imagine if your camera one is on a motion-control slider with an MCU shot of your talent. Camera two is locked off on a wider-angle shot of the same. Perhaps camera three is getting a complete different angle profile shot. With this setup, you could be conducting the interview and be viewing all three of your camera angles as well. Having a rough assembly of the three cameras can be tremendously helpful as well. It takes more time to set this up than a single camera, but the end result may save you time in post and is immensely helpful in doing a rough assembly of a given scene.
Think the same about doing live events. The ATEM Mini Pro becomes a powerful tool for weddings, live concerts and musical performances. I’ve used it to record a laptop’s output for a client project; the quality for the screen recording was excellent. A limitation could be HDMI, which isn’t especially good for doing long cable runs, so SDI is better. We’ve used HDMI runs to 50 feet with high-quality cables. The ATEM Mini Pro can only record up to 1080 60p, so it won’t record UHD or DCI 4K or higher. I’m proposing using it as a monitoring and rough assembly recording tool, which is where it shines.
The ATEM Mini Pro lacks a headphone jack, so although it shows you audio levels on the meters on screen, you have to monitor your audio elsewhere, from the camera or recorder, but that’s a minor issue.
Even if you never plan on live streaming, Blackmagic Design has built so much interesting functionality into the ATEM Mini Pro that I think the product will be incredibly useful for all kinds of productions. Take a look at your situation; the ATEM Mini Pro could be a useful multi-function tool for your kit.