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Review: Blackmagic Design Video Assist 4K

Testing the Blackmagic Design Video Assist 4K in a variety of shooting situations at a succession of four trade conferences

When I first requested a review unit of the Blackmagic Design Video Assist 4K, my intention was to use it for a fairly narrow purpose. Having recently upgraded my go-to conference video camera, the Sony PXW-X70, to 4K (and resolved to rent matching 4K-enabled X70s for the duration of the conference season), I’d quickly discovered that 4K XAVC--particularly the 100Mbps version--looks great and holds up well under color-grading duress, but is a bear to edit, bringing both of my PCs to a virtual standstill in Premiere Pro.

My hope was that working with 4K footage recorded to one of the ProRes 4K formats on the Video Assist 4K would give my overtaxed editing systems a break from the drudgery of slogging through 100Mbps XAVC without having to resort to proxy editing or downshifting to 60Mbps.

As a state-of-the-art 4K monitor/recorder, the Video Assist 4K (Figure 1, below) offers a host of scopes, exposure and color calibration tools, and sophisticated monitoring features in addition to the range of high-quality 4K codec recording support I was looking forward to leveraging. All of these features are accessed through a very navigable and not overly complex touchscreen.

Figure 1. The Blackmagic Video Assist 4K

Unlike other monitor/recorders I’ve used in the past, the Video Assist records to SDHC/SDXC cards, rather than SSDs or HDDs, which suits my existing production kit a lot better. It supports both SDI and HDMI I/O for video and embedded audio. What’s more, its 7” screen offered 30% more focus- and exposure-setting real estate than I’ve enjoyed on other monitors I’ve worked with. Though the relative ease of editing 4K ProRes compared to 4K XAVC was my primary interest in adding the Video Assist 4K to my production workflow, I had high hopes for the monitoring features raising my game as well.

Recording Presentations

As sound and forward-looking as this bit of production-to-post strategic thinking seemed, once I was on-site with the Video Assist 4K, the more pressing strategic question proved how best to use the one unit I had for the various production tasks I had before me. Each year between March and May, Streaming Media’s publisher, Information Today Inc., produces four trade conferences, during which I capture as many sessions as possible, plus interviews, B-roll, timelapses, and testimonials.

One benefit of shooting in 4K but delivering in HD is that it allows me to record two conference tracks at once with a single camera shooting medium-wide in each. But this also means capturing two PowerPoint feeds in two different rooms simultaneously. Traditionally, my go-to workflow for capturing a split feed from a presenter's is to record it on my own laptop using a Magewell USB Capture Plus HDMI/DVI/SDI and Wirecast. But since I have only one laptop, working two rooms at once means I might be stuck with the option-of-last-resort for the other room: shooting the screen with a second camera.

Although its advanced monitoring capabilities are overkill a job this basic, the Video Assist 4K proved viable and reliable solution for recording a presenter’s laptop feed via HDMI or SDI, with a smaller footprint and simpler workflow than the laptop-with-Wirecast approach (Figure 2, below). (It did prove more difficult to sync with the video of the speaker, however, because I didn’t have an XLR-to-Mini-XLR cable that would have allowed me to bring in an audio feed; another audio input option would be a welcome addition.)

Figure 2. Recording a conference PowerPoint presentation from a split laptop feed with the Video Assist 4K

This application is also a good fit for the lower-bitrate, less storage-intensive ProRes PR format. If you’re shooting all day, your SD cards will fill up mighty fast with 102Mbps ProRes LT files, which is way more bits than you need for a mostly static 1080p or 720p slide deck, even if the presenter throws in a little animation or video.

One other factor to consider, especially for long shoots, is battery life. The Video Assist ships with an adapter, which works great if you’re near a power supply. For battery power, it takes two LP-E6 Li-ion Canon-type batteries which are hot-swappable during recording (Figure 3, below). This is a great plus, since in my experience, these batteries don’t last long. I kept four of these batteries on-hand for all of my shoots with two charging at all times.

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