The Mini Makers: Production Successes with the Blackmagic URSA Mini

URSA Mini offers the features of a full-size production camera miniaturized into a lightweight, compact design that makes it easier for small crews and single operators to use.
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Blackmagic Design’s URSA Mini makes sport of the phrase “good things come in small packages.” It’s almost incredible what this relative newcomer to the world of camera manufacturing has packed into URSA Mini, which the company’s marketing team describes as “the world’s lightest handheld Super 35 digital film camera.” It’s got features that a decade ago would have stumped the stars. When it ships, the camera will be available in 4K and 4.6K models, with EF or PL lens mounts. Street price for the URSA Mini 4K PL is $3,495 and 4.6K PL is $5,495.

“With our long, traditional history of camera manufacturing,” begins Dan May, president of Blackmagic Design, with a laugh—it’s been all of four years since their first camera model was unveiled—“we’ve learned a lot from customer feedback. No camera can be all things to all videographers, but from the lessons we’ve learned, we know people want cameras that help their workflow in a minimal form factor, recording at least a 4K image, with easily accessible I/O and a price that doesn’t break the budget. Our URSA Mini meets all of those criteria.”

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URSA Mini

Both models of URSA Mini have a Super 35 image sensor—the sensor on the 4.6K camera is slightly larger—a 5-inch fold-out viewfinder for on-set monitoring, dual raw and ProRes recorders, and professional connectors such as 12G-SDI. The 4.6K model shoots resolutions up to 4068 x 2592 with 15 stops of dynamic range, while the 4K camera shoots up to 4000 x 2160 with 12 stops.

URSA Mini offers the features of a full-size production camera miniaturized into a lightweight, compact design that makes it easier for small crews and single operators to use. The EF mount URSA Minis (4K and 4.6K) weigh 5 pounds; the PL mount versions are 5.54 pounds. Dimensions of the models are similar, though PL mount Minis are about half an inch longer. (The 4K PL camera measures 7.61” x 8.74” x 5.78”.)

Like the full-sized URSA, URSA Mini has been designed to include much of the extra on-set equipment that shooters normally need to carry around and that limit mobility. The camera’s 5-inch, 1080HD touchscreen monitor has histogram scopes, timecode overlays, focus assist and audio meters. As well as monitoring video, the fold-out LCD touchscreen can be used to change camera settings.

URSA Mini includes a side hand grip with record start/stop, iris and focus buttons. The handle is mounted to the body of the camera using a standard rosette and also has a LANC connection. If desired, the user may remove the handle and mount a custom rig directly to the rosette.

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Daniel Peters has his own way of rigging the camera. He puts the EVF on with only one screw, without the top handle, so it only takes a second to put it on and take it off.

The camera’s professional connections include 12G-SDI out, separate HD-SDI video outputs and 12V power for connecting electronic viewfinders. For audio, there are two XLR balanced analog inputs with 48V of switchable phantom power for external microphones. URSA Mini also includes LANC for remote camera and lens control, a standard 4-pin XLR power connector and URSA battery plate internal power connector that lets you mount battery plates on the rear of the camera.

Among the breakthroughs on the URSA Mini is its enhanced metadata recording. The camera has a built-in gyroscope and records pitch, roll and yaw movements when working in raw, for example, which will eventually let users correct camera movements in post. Even Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve can’t actually perform this correction yet, but won’t it be a kick when unintentional wobble and shake can be removed in post? By the way, the GPS recording functionality that had been announced before the 2015 NAB Show has been dropped, judged premature.

These are just some of the features on the forthcoming Blackmagic URSA Mini cameras. As usual, we asked working videographers about their experiences, and it was not difficult to find exclamation points in their responses. Note that all the videographers we talked to were using the 4K model of URSA Mini. The 4.6K version is still in beta testing.

J. Van Auken

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J. Van Auken with URSA Mini

J. Van Auken (@RevelatorMovie) is a freelance videographer in the Los Angeles area who is directing his first feature film, Revelator, using an URSA Mini as A-camera. You can find out more about the film at www.revelationmachine.com, but as a talking point, think John the Baptist and the Book of Revelation.

“I’ve been a Blackmagic advocate for a long time,” Van Auken begins, “and the Mini addresses many of the concerns I had with Blackmagic’s Production Camera. The Mini is smaller, lighter, has beefed up image processing, has the same original sensor but tweaked for greater performance, and has a lot fewer ‘yes, buts.’”

The first point Van Auken makes is that when the camera is in “windowed” cropped sensor mode, it can shoot 4K at up to 60 fps. “It offers a 3:1 compressed raw recording option that can save a lot of space, giving you up to 9 minutes and 30 seconds on a 128 GB card,” he says. “That really helps our feature’s budget, and we aren’t as dependent on ‘shuttle’ [sneaker net] RAID drives. It brings our 30 TB storage allocation down to a 10 TB budget.”

Van Auken is a big fan of tactile buttons, so he appreciates the physical buttons on the URSA Mini that can relieve him from dependence on the touchscreen.

He praises several of the camera’s design features, such as the ability to remove the side handle, which makes it easier to mount the camera on a MoVI gimbal.

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Still from Revelator

One consideration that is not immediately apparent is that Blackmagic has given the 1080 electronic viewfinder (EVF) its own software, so it can be updated independent of the camera’s software. “Blackmagic Design has always been prolific in their software and firmware updates,” Van Auken says. “Blackmagic is the first company I know that is not afraid of breaking their own camera with a firmware upgrade.”

Of course, there can always be improvements. Van Auken would like to be able to turn off the tally lights so they don’t distract the cast when the camera is rolling. He’d also like to see all the controls accessible from the outside.

“Currently the power button is inside of the flip screen, and when it is mounted on a Freefly MoVI gimbal, you can’t turn the camera off without unmounting it,” he says. “If the power button could be mapped to one of the other function keys, that would be more convenient.”

Daniel Peters

Over in the U.K., Daniel Peters (@DanielPetersDOP) is a fashion videographer who shoots branded videos in the London area for companies like Hype Clothing and P&Co.

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Still from URSA Mini footage

“There are a lot of cameras that shoot 1080 and 4K,” Peters begins, “but with the URSA Mini, there is a ‘thickness’ to the image that gives it a cinematic feel. I usually have to shoot quick turnarounds, so 1080 gives me what I need, especially when recording in ProRes, that I can load directly into my Adobe Premiere NLE for a fast duck into post.”

Peters has his own way of rigging the camera. He puts the EVF on with only one screw, without the top handle, so it only takes a second to put it on and take it off. He likes attachments to be tool-less, so he has found some third-party accessories on Amazon—for example, CoolLCD, which makes a handle that goes on and comes off easily.

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Still from URSA Mini footage

When we spoke, Peters had just come back from Dubai, where he spoke at a Blackmagic event and found the company very accepting of his alternative rigging suggestions, such as mounting a mini touchscreen monitor/recorder on top of the camera instead of the viewfinder. “It’s inexpensive and lets me record raw right on the camera,” he explains. “It acts as a video assist, and takes up less space. I guess I’m just not a viewfinder kind of guy.”

That’s one of Peters’ suggestions for future improvements. Another is to get rid of the window cropping when shooting 1080p at 120 fps, although he realizes this has technical consequences due to light loss.

Jake Stark

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Jacob Stark with URSA Mini

Jake Stark (@MrJakeStark) is a freelance videographer in the Los Angeles area who uses his URSA Mini to shoot music videos, among other projects. Stark has used other Blackmagic cameras, so he recognizes the improvements the company has built into the URSA Mini.

“I like the XLR connectors for the SDI and also for the audio,” he begins. “The side monitor can now flip out and up or down, which protects it from the sun. Sure, the camera is small, but once you mount it on rails, add a battery and lens, it is still a handful. I use the shoulder mount that’s made for it, and can hold it for five hours with no problem.”

The optional Blackmagic URSA Mini Shoulder Kit ($395) includes the shoulder pad with built-in rosettes, rail mounts and integrated quick lock release attachment points. The kit also includes a top handle for carrying the camera and attaching accessories.

Stark recently shot a music video at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where the band Good Charlotte was performing. “It was a great test for the camera due to the low light,” he says. “Like other Blackmagic Design cameras, the max ISO is 800, but I was using fast Rokinon lenses. They go down to f/1.5, and since all I needed was 1080p, we were able to obtain images that were plenty bright.”

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Still from footage of the band Good Charlotte shot at 120p, ISO 800

Stark has tested his URSA Mini at 4K and found the image was consistent with that of the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K. “If you shoot raw, it grades very nicely, but that is to be expected since it has basically the same sensor. Posting it in DaVinci Resolve gives you very good results, even when you shoot at 60 fps in 4K or 120 in 1080.”

One factor Stark ran into is that the URSA Mini can be set to have a different project frame rate than the sensor frame rate. “You can keep the project frame rate at 24p and set the sensor frame rate to 120 fps—but then you have to crop the sensor, giving it the ‘window’ effect, and this changes the effective focal length of the lens. So if you are shooting with a 24mm lens, you will get results that look like a 50mm lens. This is something new to Blackmagic Design, and videographers unfamiliar with this camera will have to get used to how to get the most out of it.”

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