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URSA Major: Blackmagic Develops a Comprehensive, Cost-Effective Cinema Camera

An indie shooter’s dream, this camera's affordability puts it within reach of a broad market.

I was present at the 2014 NAB Show last April when Blackmagic Design president Grant Petty introduced the URSA 4K camera. While the announced features and specs were certainly impressive, I was a little put off by the size. Aren’t cameras supposed to be getting smaller? Who is going to buy a 16-pound brick of aluminum with a 10-inch screen? I wondered if Blackmagic Design had made an uncharacteristic misstep.

Then around Thanksgiving 2014 I was loaned an URSA for review. After 10 days of shooting, learning and testing, I can tell you who would buy a 15-pound camera with giant screen: any filmmaker, independent producer or commercial shooter who needs greater quality at a lesser price.

I received the demo camera within days of Blackmagic’s introduction of firmware update 1.9.9, which offers support for 80 fps 4K UHD recording and a new CinemaDNG 12-bit raw format employing 3:1 compression that makes raw shooting more storage efficient without any visible loss of quality.

Blackmagic is currently shipping URSA in PL and EF mount versions. The company has announced but not yet shipped URSA Broadcast, which features an Ultra HD sensor and B4 lens mount, and URSA HDMI, a camera body without a sensor that offers an HDMI 4K input with mounting plate so that the user can use any HDMI camera as a sensor head. My test camera was the EF mount model.

The PL and EF models of URSA use the same sensor as the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K, a 4K Super 35 image sensor with global shutter. It supports ProRes HQ, ProRes 422, ProRes LT and ProRes proxy recording at resolutions up to Ultra HD. It shoots uncompressed CinemaDNG raw and, with the recent update, 3:1 compressed raw.

URSA records to dual CFast 2.0 cards. CFast media is somewhat scarce at the moment but prices have dropped significantly. A 128 GB CFast card can be found for around $800, about the same price as a comparable Sony XQD card (also hard to find in stock) but more expensive than SSD drives used in the Blackmagic 4K camera. Media costs need to be considered when estimating the cost of a complete system. Blackmagic supplied two 128 GB cards and a USB 3.0 CFast reader for this review.

I had noted excellent skin tones when shooting with the Blackmagic 4K camera; URSA showed similar strong performance here. The cameras’ color science produces very pleasing images, in fact, and reds actually appear red. I did note that when shooting in bright sunlight with external ND filters (URSA has no built-in ND), blacks looked a little brownish, indicating IR contamination. It is easily overcome by using IRND filters. Additionally, like the 4K camera, pointing the camera at a bright light source could produce that infamous “black hole” at the highest concentration of light. This is caused by sensor overload and has been observed in other CMOS sensor cameras. Again, know that it can happen and plan your shot accordingly. Or fix it in post.

The lack of internal ND filters is consistent with the idea of URSA as a cinema camera. It doesn’t have paintbox controls because you will be doing that work in post. To aid you there, Blackmagic includes a free full license of DaVinci Resolve, a $1,000 value. (Resolve is included with all of Blackmagic’s cameras except the Pocket Cinema Camera.) Within the camera, URSA has presets for white balance, ISO from 200 to 800, as well as film (log) or video (Rec. 709) dynamic range settings both for recording and viewing.

I spent most of my testing time shooting 4K raw and 3:1 compressed raw because the greatest strength of this camera is its raw capability. There are many cameras that shoot ProRes or AVC variants at resolutions up to 4K; my interest was how well URSA performs as an economical raw digital cinema camera.

Shooting Experience

URSA is designed for multi-operator operation—I was particularly impressed with the viewscreens on both the operator side (left) and dumb side of the camera—though it will accommodate the needs of the single shooter easily. Using EF lenses, iris is either automatic or controlled by buttons on the camera body. The camera also can autofocus, though that capability will be used rarely by professional operators.

There is only one issue with shooting solo, and it’s that audio metering is located on the dumb side of the camera. If you’re operating only from the left, it is very difficult to see levels. The large monitor does not show audio levels.

Using URSA as a two-operator camera was a snap. In a scripted scene, I alternated with a colleague as operator and first assistant camera. It was easy to pull focus and monitor audio meters while the operator got the shot.

Photo by John Brawley.

And that 10-inch screen! What a pleasure to compose a shot and check focus visually or with the aid of zoom and peaking.

In ProRes shooting, there is the option of film (log) or video (Rec. 709) recording. Only film mode is available with raw recording. However, in both raw and ProRes, viewing options are film or video—i.e., as recorded or with a viewing LUT. URSA outputs a logarithmic raw similar to ARRI’s Log C, as opposed to a linear raw. In fact, applying an ARRI Log C LUT in DaVinci Resolve produces very similar results to the Blackmagic LUTs.

Recording 3:1 compressed raw 4K footage produced an amazing image that did not show artifacting on a UHD television. URSA’s compressed raw files are only slightly larger than 4K ProRes HQ. As an example, at 23.98 fps, a 128 GB CFast card holds about 16 minutes of 3:1 raw and 19 minutes of ProRes HQ. (Check Blackmagic’s site for a list of recommended CFast 2.0 cards.)

As I mentioned earlier, version 1.9.9 of the firmware added frame rates up to 80 fps, adjustable in 1 frame increments, when shooting compressed raw. The slow motion is clean and does not require appreciably more light than shooting 60 fps.

Like the 4K camera, URSA has a global shutter. No flash banding. I shot moving vehicles and saw no skew.

The EF mount on my test URSA worked with Canon lenses as well as my Tamron and Tokina lenses. The Tokina 11-16mm, one of my favorite pieces of glass, performed flawlessly with the URSA—no vignetting even fully wide. The camera controlled both third-party lenses.

Photo by John Brawley.

URSA has two professional XLR balanced analog audio inputs with switchable phantom power. External power is via a standard 4-pin XLR power cable. On the rear of the camera are multiple screw mount points for adding V-Lock or Anton/Bauer battery mount plates. There are two SDI outputs: one 12G-SDI 10-bit 4:2:2 and one 3G-SDI downconverted for external monitoring. Everything is well thought out and solidly constructed.

Postproduction

The postproduction workflow is greatly facilitated by DaVinci Resolve. Simply copy those CinemaDNG files to an edit station and import into Resolve. Apply LUT, if desired, and output in an editing format 4K, HD or proxy to your favorite NLE. Edit and bring back into Resolve for final grading. Working in raw requires some degree of computing power (both CPU and GPU), as well as ample fast storage, but anyone who buys an URSA would already know that.

Summary

The strength of the Blackmagic solution is that the company gives you what you need to shoot 4K UHD cinema. The camera is well designed. I think of it as minimalist in design and maximalist in output quality. It is heavy, but experienced operators will find it well balanced if mounted to a third-party shoulder mount. The PL or EF mounts are not interchangeable, but Blackmagic has said that the whole sensor and mount assembly is user-upgradeable if at some point Blackmagic should release a new sensor. The ability to upgrade the sensor extends the camera’s lifespan.

My skepticism turned to admiration. It is a camera I would be thrilled to own and one with which I could create a wide range of work. Look at the specs for yourself. I think Blackmagic has a winner with URSA. If your work is in features, commercials or shorts, URSA is well worth your consideration.  

Product:Blackmagic URSA (EF mount)

Score:

Pros: Exceptional image. Solid build. Full complement of I/Os. Global shutter. Slow motion up to 80 fps. Raw and 3:1 compressed raw recording. ProRes options for either log or Rec. 709.

Cons: No true 4K, only UHD. Potential for IR contamination in bright sunlight with just ND filters. Size and bulk for some. Cost of media. Poor low-light capability.

Bottom Line: Image quality and raw capabilities far outweigh the negatives. It is a great camera for shooting commercials or an indie feature. An indie shooter’s dream, in fact, because its affordability puts it within reach of a broad market.

MSRP: $5,995 (EF mount), $6,495 (PL)

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