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Production with Blackmagic Design’s URSA: Integrated, Innovative and Intended for User Upgrades

Among URSA’s many outstanding features, one of the more significant is that it’s user-upgradeable.

Over the past three years we’ve seen Blackmagic Design put remarkable capabilities into its small-body professional cameras: the 2.5K Cinema Camera (2012), Production Camera 4K (2013) and HD Pocket Cinema Camera (also 2013). Now comes the the full-sized, full-featured and user-friendly Blackmagic URSA 4K digital film camera. Among URSA’s many outstanding features, one of the more significant is that it’s user-upgradeable.

Dan May, president of Blackmagic Design, reflects with a grin, “With our long and distinguished history of making high-end cameras, we wanted to make something that would stand out from the other models. So the URSA camera was intended to fulfill the requirements of large film crews as well as those of a single shooter.”

Key to the URSA concept is that almost everything you need for sophisticated production purposes is built-in, including a 10-inch fold-out picture monitor complemented by two 5-inch touchscreens, one on each side. The left side of the camera, which offers access to the 10-inch fold-out monitor and a 5-inch touchscreen (which displays settings, camera status and scopes), is designed to be used by the director of photography. The right-side screen provides information useful to camera assistants (format, frame rate, shutter angle and timecode along with a scrolling audio waveform monitor) and lets them check and update camera parameters independent of the DP. An audio station at the camera’s rear features audio meters, controls and audio connections. If you’re shooting solo, then the large fold-out monitor, built-in scopes and internal recorder means you don’t need any extra on-set equipment because it’s all built-in.

URSA may be configured with either an EF or PL lens mount, and soon you’ll also be able to order a broadcast video sensor with B4 mount. The camera’s Super 35 global shutter 4K image sensor and lens mount assembly can be changed to suit your production’s requirements. You can eliminate cumbersome cables connecting to external recording systems because URSA has dual internal recorders capable of saving both ProRes and raw to CFast cards (a variant of CompactFlash developed in 2008 by the CompactFlash Association based on the SATA interface) for continuous operation in the field.

URSA on the set of Maury Dahlen’s documentary series about the Beat the Odds scholarship program.

“When we designed the URSA, we recognized that many DPs were building our previous handheld DSLR-style cameras into giant ENG rail rigs saddled with all their ancillary equipment, turning a $3,000 camera into a $15,000 to $30,000 handful,” May says. “That proved to me we had the building blocks for the kind of full-sized production camera I wanted to give the industry. Sure, a DP can add stuff to the URSA if they want because there are multiple mount points all over the camera, but all your basic functionalities are already there.”

As a not-so-minor aside, the URSA—which costs $5,995 for the EF version and $6,495 for the URSA PL—comes with DaVinci Resolve 11.1.2 color correction and editing software for Mac and Windows.

URSA’s larger size accommodates an internal liquid cooling system that allows higher frame rates while keeping the chassis cool and the fan quiet. This optimizes the operation of the 4K Super 35 sensor today and prepares the camera for whatever new, heat-generating sensors may be available in the future.

On Nov. 20, Blackmagic Design announced a free URSA software update, version 1.9.9, which offers support for 80 fps 4K recording, a new CinemaDNG 12-bit raw format employing 3:1 compression, frame guides, slow-motion playback and in-camera CFast card formatting.

It’s hard to keep up with this speed of development, so we reached out to several pro DPs to learn about their early experiences with the URSA.

Maury Dahlen

From left, DP Maury Dahlen, gaffer Micah Zarlow and producer Rex Camphius.

A freelance DP based in Los Angeles, Dahlen received his URSA last September, having ordered it right after its debut at the 2014 NAB Show. The first thing that grabbed the attention of Maury’s crew was the size of the 10-inch picture monitor.

Dahlen used his URSA to shoot a documentary series about Beat the Odds, a scholarship program from The Children’s Defense Fund. Generous support for the project was provided by producer/director J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens) and his wife Katie McGrath.

The internal cooling system is one of the features that most impressed Dahlen. “It’s really quiet. I never heard it running, but the camera stayed nice and cool even after an eight- to 10-hour shoot,” he says.

“The dedicated buttons on the LCD panel are really useful. You just hit the focus button on the left side and you’ll get a bar graph that shows you peak focus. Another dedicated button automatically adjusts the iris during setup,” he continues. “Even the color temperature designation is dialed in through the touchscreen. Other cameras have similar functions, but on the URSA you can access them through a very simple protocol.”

Dahlen plans to use his URSA in 2015 on a feature he is shooting in New York called The Ranch, which will be distributed by New Line Cinema.

Marco Solorio

From the BMW documentary feature film 10/10ths shot by Marco Solorio. Photo by Darryl Gatan.

Marco Solorio is a cinematographer, director and owner of OneRiver Media in Walnut Creek, Calif. Although the URSA he has been using has not yet been upgraded to software version 1.9.9, he recently used the camera on commercial/corporate projects for clients such as VMware and on a documentary feature for BMW called 10/10ths.

“One thing I am looking forward to in 1.9.9 is the ability to format the CFast cards in the camera itself, which improves their performance,” Solorio says. “I’d been shooting with the Blackmagic Design Production 4K camera since I was a beta tester, but the integrated form factor of the URSA lets me pack a whole camera/battery/lens contingent into a single bag to take on location without all the rigging accessories I used to affix to the Production Camera 4K. That makes it a lot easier to travel.”

Solorio would like to see a limiter function on the audio to help control levels, a high pass filter to roll off low rumble, and a menu option to switch the analog audio input to AES/EBU digital (AES3). But paramount for Solorio is the ability to shoot 60p 4K in both ProRes and raw, and he looks forward to 1.9.9’s ability to increase that to 80 fps. “It’s the global shutter and Super 35mm sensor that makes the big difference in the quality of the images,” he says.

Kholi Hicks

From Kholi Hicks’ Piloxing spot. Photo courtesy of MEG, DWP and Ductape Media.

Director/cinematographer Kholi Hicks, who hails from Santa Monica, Calif., has been testing the 1.9.9 upgrade. With it, he shot a commercial for Piloxing, which is a combination of Pilates, boxing and dancing.

“My initial impression of URSA was a funny one,” Hicks says. “Whenever anyone sees that huge 10-inch monitor, they often ask, ‘What were they thinking when they built this thing?’ They may be accustomed to the usual 5-inch or 7-inch on-camera displays, but once they use the 10-incher, they ask, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this before?’”

It takes some getting used to, though. “Quite simply, it means you don’t have to keep your gaffer over your shoulder or hang monitor arms off the camera anymore,” he continues. “It’s like having a large EVF, but you don’t have to squint into it.”

He continues, “We are all accustomed to a certain way of working, but the URSA simply affords us new options. People tend to gather around the camera just to watch those screens.”

John Brawley

John Brawley took this photo of his Blackmagic URSA.

Well-known early adopter and blogger John Brawley says that what Blackmagic Design has done with URSA is “quite amazing.” You can see some of his URSA test footage online at Brawley is responsible for shooting several Australian television series including Hiding and Party Tricks.

He finds the URSA plays well with other 4K production cameras on multicamera shoots. Still, it took some time to get used to it. “With that 10-inch screen, it can be awkward to shoot handheld,” Brawley admits, “but it’s actually a very well-balanced camera with a low center of gravity. Many cameras today will roll left to right on your shoulder because their lens is set so high, but Blackmagic Design shaped the URSA well for a production environment.”

Brawley appreciates URSA’s ability to record raw CinemaDNG files with lossy 3:1 compression to reduce the data rate. “The great thing is that this just came out as part of the 1.9.9 software update,” he says, “so future upgrades should be equally simple to implement.”

With all this technological innovation, it is easy to overlook how easy the camera is to use. Brawley lent an engineering prototype of his URSA to Glendyn Ivin, director of the upcoming Australian television series Gallipoli, to capture images for the series’ opening credits. “Glendyn is familiar with cameras, of course,” Brawley says, “but with just a few minutes introduction to the URSA, he was able to come back with images good enough to make the final cut.”