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URSA Mini Pro - Taking It to a Higher Level

By Matt Siegel

For filmmakers, from high-end pros to novice students, the traditional production paradigm has undergone a radical change. "Good, fast, and cheap, AND in 4K" is the expectation. Blackmagic Design's URSA Mini Pro meets these requirements and has boldly ascended into the film industry mainstream, proving itself to be a reliable production workhorse.  

 
I am putting the URSA Mini Pro through its paces in the United States and Canada with a series of camera and workflow tests for upcoming commercial campaigns and for episodic TV. Networks, name-brand streaming providers, and producers consider this versatile digital cinema system as a serious option for reality TV, run-and-gun, and docs; as well as high-end commercials, long-form branded content, feature films, and episodic series. Throughout our initial tests and pilot programs, the URSA Mini Pro has held up remarkably well under the rigors of professional production. It has satisfied the demands of the camera crews with its professional level functionality and ease-of-use, and impressed production elites with its stellar image quality and rock-solid native 4K workflow (in conjunction with its sister product DaVinci Resolve 14 Studio, which comes free with the camera).

          
The numerous "professional" upgrades in the URSA Mini Pro include built-in ND filters, new interchangeable lens mounts, dual CFAST 2.0 and dual SD/UHS-II card recorders, and easily accessible switches and dials for fast operation and system adjustments, among others. Thanks also to excellent ergonomics and reengineered sensor and image processing, the vastly improved functionality and reliability have ushered the URSA Mini Pro into the professional realm. 



 
At Work with the URSA Mini Pro: Versatility and Functionality
As a producer and director of photography, I select the right imaging tool to tell the most compelling visual story while meeting a job's practical requirements, which are normally associated with budget and crew limitations. I advise about what makes a digital cinema camera unique and what it brings to a production. From our URSA Mini Pro tests, the camera's strengths include the texture and nature of the image (its handsome, film-like quality); the ease-of-use (OMG the GUI, touchscreen, and new menu jog shuttle); the professional level functionality (complete control through the straightforward touchscreen menu, buttons, and toggles); and the versatility (build it up or strip it down). The camera's versatility is further demonstrated by its range of onboard recording options and resolutions (12 bit 4.6K RAW to HD) and formats, including 4.6K 2.4:1, 4K 16:9, 3K anamorphic, and all varieties of Apple ProRes from 12 bit XQ down to LT Proxies.  

 
We have had the URSA Mini Pros out on a full range of productions. For a reality series, the URSA Mini Pros replaced the original digital single-lens mirrorless (DSLM) cameras, winning fans from the camera department for the easy-to-use touchscreen menu system and easy-to-read LCD display, and from the camera operators for the ergonomics and balance on the shoulder. The Blackmagic URSA Viewfinder - an electronic viewfinder (EVF), a 1920x1080 OLED with a terrific diopter, built-in magnification, peaking, and false color - received gracious nods from the operators. The URSA Viewfinder has high resolution for a crisp, clean image, but does not block up, break-up, stutter, or smear and is gentle on the eye in terms of frequency and refresh rates over the course of the long production day. The URSA Viewfinder has been an essential tool in the successful integration of the URSA Mini Pro into our production schedule. The URSA Mini Pros for that show featured not only the URSA Viewfinder but also the simple Blackmagic Design shoulder and rod solution called the URSA Mini Shoulder Kit. The cameras were configured in an electronic news gathering (ENG) style to be lightweight and maneuverable on the shoulder with Canon EF mounts using lightweight (LTW) zooms. Audio was through wireless Sennheiser kits, with the receivers attached with 2" Velcro and plugging directly to the URSA Mini Pro's top-mounted, full size XLR inputs. 
 
In this fast-moving, lower-budget production environment, acquisition has been to the two SDHC UHS-II media slots, a helpful upgrade that adds to the URSA Mini Pro's versatility. We tested a full range of SDHC UHS-II cards. Here's a practical recommendation: Do NOT cheap out with your media. In this era of high-resolution/high frame rate (HFR) and its associated high data rates, a camera is often blamed for corrupted files when it is the use of improper media. Blackmagic Design has an approved list of media for the URSA Mini Pro, which can be found at www.blackmagicdesign.com/support.  Nothing slower than the Lexar SDHC UHS-II 150MB/sec worked for us. The slower cards would choke. We took no chances and went with the 128 gig San Disk Extreme Pro SDHC UHS-II 300 MB/sec and had no issues with dropped frames or glitches in the image files. The 128 gig cards provided 23 minutes of storage at 23.98 fps for ProRes HQ UHD (3840x2160), which was the sweet spot for our post workflow and data management. As budgeted, the SDHC media cost production less than 1/3 of the equivalent 128 gig CFast 2.0 cards.

 
For the first time, I am testing and prepping the URSA Mini Pros in a cine-style configuration with PL mounts. While the URSA Mini Pro ships with an EF Mount included, its interchangeable lens mount lets you switch to a PL Mount, which can be purchased for $245. Additional mounts include F Mount ($375), B4 Mount ($385) or EF Mount ($175) if a replacement is needed. I remain impressed by the solid look and feel of the URSA Mini Pro's magnesium alloy body. The test cameras are fully tricked-out for feature film and episodic TV production and will spend their 14 hour days on heavy-duty O'Connor 2560 fluid heads, Silent Cat Sliders, and Fisher 11 dollies. For these tests, the URSA Mini Pros are paired with Fujinon Cabrios and Arri Alura zooms, and the whole package is built onto a cinema/studio style 15mm sliding baseplate. It's a new and exciting experience to see the URSA Mini Pro in this configuration. 
 
For the wireless audio receiver, wireless video transmitter, wireless follow focus, onboard Odyssey 7Q+ and the other boxes associated with high-end production, we modify each camera body with a cage system. Recommended cage and plate options range from marvelous, simple, and inexpensive from companies like Small Rig and Camtree, and build in complexity and price to include options from Shape, Wooden Camera, and Zacuto.
 
In this professional environment, we record dual system. For the on-camera "scratch" track, the location sound recordists express the desire for more advanced camera control of mic limits and trim settings and grumble about the need to put the XLR inputs someplace other than on the top of the camera. The audio in URSA Mini Pro has many performance and operational improvements, and I gently remind the audio folks that the cameras we have been using in the past which cost five times or ten times as much do not even have XLR inputs. The other "sound" issue that we are addressing is the URSA Mini Pro's fan noise. I am looking in future upgrades for a variable speed and/or fan "off REC" control setting. I am also looking for Blackmagic Design to please add a sliding door to protect the media card slots, and to add SMPTE/ARIB bars and tone for monitor calibration and post reference.
 
In the past, I have been bitten by the URSA Mini and its lack of an internal battery to hold Time Code when switching batteries, etc. With the new 4.8 firmware and subsequent 4.9 firmware, the URSA Mini Pro holds both free run (time of day) and record time code when internally generated. If you are not running a piggyback power option (e.g. two hot swappable batteries) or a Clock-it or Tentacle Sync box, pay attention when powering down, swapping batteries, and working from an external master clock. Remember to re-jam your cameras from your master clock in the morning and after lunch as a healthy production habit.
 
Test, Test, Test
The URSA Mini Pro shines when recording CinemaDNG RAW and when using the high data rate Apple ProRes CODECs like XQ, 444, and 422HQ. Recording from UHD ProRes to 4.6K RAW, with a range of 110MB/s for Apple ProRes 442HQ up to 500+ MB/s for 4.6K CinemaDNG RAW, you will quickly fill-up media. A successful production budgets for plenty of CFast 2.0 and/or SDHC UHS-II cards and plenty of rugged 6-12TB RAID 1 storage. 

 
Although it happened all the time in the low-budget world, the years of having your cousin download the cards has passed. RAW and high-resolution LOG acquisition includes lots of data to transfer and signifies that a project should be taken seriously. A data/file management tool such as Shot Put Pro 6 or the ingest tools from DaVinci Resolve should be used to copy, protect, verify, checksum, and organize your downloaded files. From student to pro, the media storage rule of thumb is start with three copies of everything: One back-up copy for the production company; one copy shipped off to the editor/post facility; and one copy which is put away as the archive material.
 
Test your workflow for acquisition and data management before you are on set and in the heat of battle. Having a system in place is essential. This includes simple things like red paper tape (hot mag) and green paper tape (fresh mag) and the right people--like a dedicated data manager. Everyone in film school is a "producer," "director," or "DP," but start now to develop a relationship with a dedicated DIT/Data Manager as part of your camera/creative team. Work with someone who has the skills to give you a glance at a simple applied LUT or basic sample color grade from DaVinci Resolve. My industrious cinematography students are skilled with cameras and lighting, but also have developed strong skills in the realm of data management and color grading. These added skills allow for accelerated entry onto professional sets and into their chosen field via the DIT/Data Manager position. 
 
While the URSA Mini Pro stands out based on its beautiful and compelling image quality, its 4.6K RAW capture, its versatility, and its uncanny ease-of-use, the camera is by no means perfect. I encourage testing. Learn from your own experience. With the URSA Mini Pro, you may discover that the camera in extreme conditions can exhibit high frequency artifacts and moiré. This may be caused by the absence of an optical low pass filter (OLPF), and requires users to pay attention. I work with terrific DITs and Data Managers who perform quality control (QC) checks - above and beyond Shot Put Pro 6 - and really watch my back.
 
The DIT/Data Manager is a safety net: A trained set of eyes doing the mundane task of copying while simultaneously doing file checks and quality control (QC). That person can catch a stray motion artifact or subtle moiré pattern in a tie or curtain that was missed when filming, affording the opportunity to either reshoot or to move on. In the case of a recent URSA Mini Pro shoot, the highly-detailed, reflective quality of a densely patterned shirt material, tight stripes and checkered materials, combined with low light and rapid camera movement, created unwanted artifacts and a slight moiré when the character walked to large picture window, creating an extreme, high-contrast lighting situation. The DIT brought the issue to the attention of the DP, then showed the clips to the director and DP who together made the determination that the shot was usable as they imagined the final edit.
 
Create extreme conditions and manifest worst-case scenarios during lighting/hair/make-up/wardrobe tests. When testing the URSA Mini Pro, because of its excellent exposure latitude and 15 stops of dynamic range, exposure tests need to push the limits with areas of the frame deep (3, 4, and 5 stops) into the darkness and the same for overexposing the highlights. Don't be afraid. Push those blown-out areas of the frame. During these tests, grab a friend, classmate, PA, or stand-in, taking the time and effort to dress them in a wardrobe or pattern that closely matches the most challenging of your production. You will not regret a second of this exercise and will go forward with the ability to light and shoot your film with greater confidence. Don't forget that motion artifacts and moiré are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to correct in post.
          
URSA Mini Pro: Quality and Value
With its stellar image quality, ergonomic design, and professional-level features and functionality, the URSA Mini Pro has to-date satisfied the demands of our professional commercial, documentary, and feature film production clients. The URSA Mini Pro is in a highly competitive market segment for digital cinema camera systems, where production/cinema cameras need to be low-cost but fully functional and in a form factor that serves the widest range of production needs. For those looking to work with or invest in a new camera system, the URSA Mini Pro is an excellent choice for both industry pros and emerging filmmakers. The URSA Mini Pro, costing $5,995, represents one of the most versatile and best overall values on the market, providing access to an imaging tool of the highest quality at an entry level price.
 

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Based in Los Angeles, Matt Siegel is an award-winning producer and director of photography. Balancing the demands of his professional career, Matt mentors young filmmakers as a film professor, enjoying his time on the faculty at New York University Tisch School of the Arts and in the School of Cinema at California State University in San Francisco.

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