A Little Heavy and a Little Fussy, but a High-Quality 10-Inch LCD Viewfinder Adds a Lot of Value
Blackmagic Design's Ursa can be thought of as the big sister to the Production Camera 4K, which I reviewed here. The first thing you notice when looking at the Ursa is it actually looks like a video camera, as opposed to the Production Camera 4K, which looked like a wheel chock with a lens mount. The most unusual attribute of the Ursa is its 10-inch flip-out HD monitor — a huge feature that I'll discuss in detail below.
The first thing you will notice upon taking the Ursa out of the box is that it is heavy. The camera alone weighs 16.32 lbs, not counting the top handle, battery plate or media. Add those items, a brick battery, lens, mics, optional viewfinder, etc, and you can easily wind up with a 25–30 lb rig. I put it on a Manfrotto 504HD tripod system that I use for my full size ENG rig (a Sony HVR-S270u, which is not a lightweight system), and it actually pushed the tripod legs down even though they were locked. Having a heavy-duty tripod and a Betacam-style plate are essential. While it may look like an ENG-style camera, it is not. As an experiment, I used it on the show floor at NAB 2015. It was, in retrospect, too bulky and heavy for quick news-type set ups. The newer Ursa Mini may be better suited to ENG, but the Ursa is definitely more of a cinema rig, best used where you have more time to do your set-ups.
The Ursa was designed to be operated by a crew of three, including the DP, 1st AC and an audio person. The DP would use the 10-inch flip-out LCD, while the 1st AC and audio person can use the 5” touchscreen LCD for focus-pulling or setting adjustments. For the audio mixer, there are two multi-color LED VU meters on the right side of the camera and two large audio level knobs as well. Back on the operator side, there is another five-inch touchscreen LCD opposite the 10-inch fold out. While it can display video, it would most likely be used by the DP to control menu settings. Audio adjustments are very easy for a dedicated audio person to make, but if you are solo, it can be a bit awkward reaching around to the other side of the camera. With a little practice you can get used to it, using the waveform audio display on the operator-side 5-inch monitor.
Before you start shooting, you will need to go through the camera's menu and adjust settings to your needs. Codec, frame size, and frame rate are somewhat interdependent, as some frame rates only work with certain codecs. White balance isn't controlled the same way it is in most conventional cameras. You are given a choice of 18 different settings ranging from 2500K to 8000K, with the idea that one of those presets will get you in the neighborhood and you can dial it in more in post. Similarly, you only have three choices of ISO (200, 400, and 800). You can also adjust audio parameters, such as mic- or line-level, and audio levels.
One of the few camera adjustments you can make without the menu is the iris when using an EF mount, which can be controlled using buttons on the 10-inch LCD. One of the things that is missing from the menu — and this is really annoying — is the ability to set timecode values. Many people like timecode starting from zero, or one hour, while others have their own systems. The Ursa doesn't let you set anything; all timecode is based on time of day. To add to the confusion, the timecode doesn't display on the camera. Every time you hit record, the display starts from zero, even though in post it will have a timecode value. You can now tap one of the 5-inch displays that are running the clip's run time and it will switch to timecode on the 5-inch monitors. The 10-inch still displays the clip's run time. One problem with running “time of day” for timecode is if you shoot a clip past midnight. That may not happen often, but it will on night shoots. I like to set my own timecode, normally using the “hour” number as a real number, to help organize footage in post. I can only hope that there will be a software upgrade to fix this problem.
Recording is done on the newer CFast 2.0 memory cards. The Ursa has two media slots. They run from one card to the next or can be set up as an array for recording at higher frame rates. The CFast cards are about the same physical size as a CF card, but cost a lot more because they can record the much higher data rates required for recording raw 4K material — currently about $350 for a 128GB card that will give you a maximum 34-minute record time on the ProRes LT 4K setting, which is probably the most compression you would want to do for serious production work. There is a 4K Proxy using the camera's heaviest compression that will give you 100 minutes per 128 CFast card. I suppose in a 4K emergency that will do, but “proxy” footage isn't meant for serious work. I find it curious that the much smaller Production Camera 4K can squeeze in an SSD, but not the larger Ursa. If you want to back up your recordings in the field further, you can attach a Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Shuttle to the SDI out and record the 4K downconverted to HD only (the HyperDeck Shuttle is only capable of up to 1080p).
I tried a number of shoots with the Ursa. Just to get better acquainted with it on a “real shoot,” I shot a play at my kid's school. The shoot taught me a lot. My setup was the Ursa with a Canon 24–105mm EF zoom lens, Anton Bauer Dionic HC batteries, Sony ECM-672 short shotgun mic, and a Sennheiser G2 wireless system plugged into the soundboard for a direct feed. As I mentioned earlier, it was a bit much for my Manfrotto 504 tripod. Even with the legs locked, it sank slowly under the weight of the rig. Luckily, I was able to compensate by wrapping the legs with gaffer tape.
My plan was to shoot 4K (really 3840×2160 UHD), keeping the lens wide and doing minimal zooming, but I couldn't help myself. It took a little time to get comfortable with the set-up. A follow-focus probably would have been a good idea, but the 10-inch LCD was very easy to focus with. Without a camera assistant or dedicated audio operator, adjusting audio using the controls on the opposite side of the camera was a bit of a challenge, but I could use the touchscreen's audio menu to ride levels in a pinch. While the Dionic HC batteries will run my usual ENG camera for seven to eight hours, they powered the Ursa for only 1 to 1.25 hours. At the 4K Pro Res LT setting, I got 34 min on an 128GB card. Because of those capacity limitations, I definitely recommend having a data wrangler available to dump and back up cards as needed. I was very happy with the footage, but when I gave it to the guy whom the school actually hired to edit the two performances together, his iMac-based edit system couldn't handle the 4K data rate.
My next experiment was shooting a couple of small performances by reggae star Matisyahu. We were both vacationing at the same hotel and we struck up a conversation by the pool. He is a bit of a tech geek and was intrigued that I actually brought the Ursa on a vacation. He agreed to let me shoot as long as I didn't sell anything I recorded. The first performance was outdoors on a poorly lit patio. I had a small LED light, but it wasn't enough. The poor lighting, coupled with the slower f/4.0 Canon 24–105mm EF zoom lens and the not-great low-light capability of the standard Ursa sensor, resulted in basically unusable footage. If I had it with me, I probably could have used my faster f/1.4 Canon 85mm prime lens and gotten usable footage despite the lighting conditions.
The next night Matisyahu did a well lit stage show. Using the same set up, I got much better footage. This was a longer show and allowed me to do a lot of experimenting. I shot some of the songs doing actual zooming, and some on a wide shot of the stage, doing zooms, and other camera shot adjustments in editing. You can see an example below.
There were some challenges, though. As I hadn't thought about taping a 2.5-hour concert on my vacation, I didn't bring all of my batteries. I had the one IDX V-mount battery and charger, and one Anton Bauer Dionic HC without a charger. This presented a bit of a challenge. I wound up using the IDX first, until it ran out, so I could recharge it while the Dionic was in use. Because the charge takes longer than the drain, I had to make the Dionic HC last longer. I felt like Scotty on Star Trek, without enough dilithium crystals to run the shields, warp drive, phasers and life support. When Captain Kirk demands enough power to get away from the Klingons, he has to pick two of the four. In order to keep going with minimal power drain, I closed the 10-inch LCD, which shuts off both it and the inside 5-inch LCD. I only used the 5-inch LCD on the opposite side of the camera, toggling between the camera view and time-left-on-media screens. This extended the battery life by about 50%. This trick can save your shoot but, like Star Trek's unnamed guys in red shirts, there was a casualty. It is best not to let the camera run until the batteries are drained, and one file did get corrupted when the battery died. I haven't found anything that could salvage it. Don't let that happen.
Next I tested the Ursa as a run-and-gun camera at NAB. While my friend and volunteer camera operator Pat Harris of Cycle Sports TV and I were not the only people shooting at NAB with an Ursa, no one was running and gunning with it. In order to be at all efficient in moving around, we needed a heavy-duty two-shelf cart to carry the camera, tripod, batteries, chargers, laptop, hard drives, and lenses. Anton Bauer lent us a Digital 150 V-Mount Battery, a 150 watt-hour battery that worked a lot better than the Dionic HC 90 batteries we were using. But the bulk of our set-up cut way down on the numbers of interviews I was able to do at the show. The five-pound Ursa Mini would be better suited to cover ENG-type shoots rather than the big Ursa. Ursa is a cinema camera, not ENG!
Another important lesson we learned at NAB was that you need to check your recording media before you start anything important, just like with tape. Just because it looks like it is recording and the timecode is rolling, that doesn't necessarily mean you're getting a good recording. I was horrified to find out most of our interviews at (ironically!) the Blackmagic Design booth were unusable pink blotches, although the audio was good. After that incident, I learned that Blackmagic Design recommends doing a few-second record and playback check every time the camera is powered on. If you get the pink screen, turn the camera off and on, and that should clear it up.
NAB also allowed us to test the Ursa and its 10” LCD outdoors. We needed a shot of the exterior of the Las Vegas Convention Center for our coverage. We were expecting to have the sun wash out the LCD, forcing us to cup our hands around our eyes and press them against the LCD, but that was not the case. The 10-inch LCD was perfectly visible in the direct sunlight. It was unbelievably clear. Walking back to our car, a producer/director team asked about it, and they didn't believe us when we said how good it was. We turned it on and let them have a look for themselves. They were astonished how good the LCD was. They mentioned that they had just finished a shoot on the beach, and in order to see the shots, they had to put up a tent for a monitor, run power and video cables just to see the shots. They felt the Ursa could have saved them a lot of time and money.
My latest shoot with the Ursa was one it was more suited for — a last-minute promotional piece for a fashion watch company. After we scouted a location and made notes, the client changed locations one day before the shoot, so I came in not knowing what to expect. Nevertheless, while I was the only one on the crew, there was enough time to do four indoor and two outdoor set-ups. While shooting outside, just before and after sunset, I was making a lot of adjustments between takes as the light was continuously changing. At one point, after trying 800 ISO, the image got super noisy. I switched it back down to 400 ISO, but nothing changed. It was then I realized this had to be some sort of software or internal computer error. I rebooted, and the problem went away.
I captured most of the shots in 4K 30p to re-frame in post, but we did a number of product shots in 1080p 60. I chose the higher frame rate over higher resolution to show the movement of the watch mechanisms in smooth slow motion (we'd be finishing in 1080p 30). While the client really had no clue about video frame size and frame rates, he did know that he was pleased with the final product.
One more thing to consider — the Ursa lists for $4,995, and it includes the $995 version of DaVinci Resolve, now called DaVinci Resolve Studio. The upgraded features include support for multiple GPUs, 4K output, motion blur effects, temporal and spatial noise reduction, 3D tools, remote and multi-user collaboration tools. Resolve is not only a color-correction tool, but with version 12, it's also a full-blown editor. It has a lot of great features even in the free version, including titling, multicam editing, camera syncing, special effects and keying, Adding media to a project is a bit screwy if you don't have it all in one folder, and if your media isn't based on a Quicktime file (like those produced by Blackmagic Design cameras), it won't load it. Instead, you need to use another program to convert it to ProRes or such. I'd use Resolve a lot more if it read the files generated by my fleet of Sony ENG cameras and the wide variety of footage brought in by clients. Premiere Pro does. But if you are only shooting on the Ursa (or its Blackmagic cousins) there are enough features to turn your Windows 8.1 (version 12.2 dropped Win 7 support) or Mac OS X computer into a powerful editing system.
The Ursa is a good tool for productions that are staged for the camera, rather than run-and-gun situations. It has some limitations and quirks that will make many professionals cringe — until they remember how little they paid for the Ursa. Many of these things may be corrected in future software updates. Hopefully, Blackmagic Design is working on fixes so it can be a great camera. On the other hand, if you want a run-and-gun or ENG camera, you'd have to work hard to find a worse choice. But as a tool for affordable cinema, TV, and corporate productions it is great, with the convenience and quality of the 10-inch and two 5-inch touchscreen monitors making up for some of the other shortfalls in functionality. When the user-upgradable 4.6K sensor becomes available, I plan to take a look at it and Blackmagic's high-resolution OLED viewfinder for a follow-up review.