URSA Major or The Big Dipper?

The left side of the camera is the DoP’s station. It’s dominated by a 10in flip-out monitor – like a Handycam but HUGE – mounted on a very sturdy looking hinge.

The left side of the camera is the DoP’s station. It’s dominated by a 10in flip-out monitor – like a Handycam but HUGE – mounted on a very sturdy looking hinge.

ADAM GARSTONE reviews Blackmagic Design’s 4K URSA camera and finds a surfeit of high resolution monitors encasing a heavy camera with a sure-footed upgrade path.

it’s become a terrible cliché to misquote Fight Club, but in this instance it’s unavoidable, because the first thing you notice about the new Blackmagic URSA is that it’s very heavy (when you pick up the box), and the second thing that you notice is that it’s very heavy (when you take it out of the box). Even the packaging is heavy. URSA is astronomically heavy. The real reason that Pluto was demoted from being a planet was that URSA is bigger. It seems to be made from the same alloy that’s used for neutron stars. I’m surprised the thing doesn’t have an event horizon. 

There is a reason for all this mass, of course – it’s so you can use it to knock down brick s^!t houses. Blackmagic already make slightly delicate DSLR replacement cameras but the URSA is designed for the rigours of professional use.

That philosophy extends to making much of the camera user upgradable. Perhaps the most interesting expression of the idea is that the lens mount/sensor housing can be replaced by undoing four screws. So, when a new sensor becomes available, or you sell your Canon EF glass and buy PL, you swap the block, not the camera. Other parts of the camera – such as the assistant/sound recordist’s ‘station’ – look like they unscrew as easily as the sensor block.

Which brings us to another aspect of the URSA’s design philosophy – stations.

The left side of the camera is the DoP’s station. It’s dominated by a 10in flip-out monitor – like a Handycam but HUGE – mounted on a very sturdy looking hinge. Sadly, the hinge doesn’t allow this monitor to be flipped to face forwards but it’s a small detail. Along the edge there are a set of transport control buttons – Record, Play, Skip forwards and backwards – along with Zoom (for focus assist), on screen Displays and PGM, which allows you to monitor an incoming video feed. The buttons operate with a distinct click, which is a nice tactile touch, but a bit of a pain if you are recording sound.

More Screens

On the camera body, underneath this huge monitor, is a second, 5inch screen and two slots for CFast cards. The cards supplied with the review unit were SanDisk Extreme Pro, 120 GB. These are currently about £550 (plus VAT) each (ouch!) but they’re needed for the massive data rates that this camera is capable of generating.

The 5inch LCD defaults to a clear display of shooting settings (ISO, colour temp, frame-rate and format and so on), timecode, histogram, focus peak, and audio as a rather groovy travelling waveform. Below these is a linear display of the amount of data on the two CFast cards, with a mark showing the length of each ‘take’. One peculiarity of this display is that, if you change the record format from 4k to 1080p, the line doesn’t show the 4k data – it appears that the card is now empty. Switching back to 4k restores the correct display. I’m pretty sure that this is a bug, and Blackmagic have demonstrated their willingness and ability to respond to user feedback on bugs and feature requests – mostly. I really like the idea of this second display – it provides a lot of information at a glance without cluttering up the ‘viewfinder’ display, and is very well laid out.

The 5inch LCD is touch sensitive, but below it is a row of dedicated buttons for auto Iris, auto Focus (both, of course, require compatible lenses) Peaking, Display, Menu, Slate and power. The Display button cycles the screen between the default display described above, a viewfinder display and a menu for formatting the data cards, turning Zebra on and off, and toggling the guides on the 12G-SDI out. It’s great to have peaking on a dedicated button – no more double clicking as on the other Blackmagic cameras. It’s easy to criticise URSA for not having more dedicated controls, but they all push the price up – I felt that there was a reasonable balance, but that a couple of user-assignable buttons would have been handy, and would have helped with the camera’s ‘future proof’ design concept.

Menu

The Menu button brings up the settings menu that will be familiar to anyone who has used the Blackmagic cameras. There are a few settings specific to the URSA, notably phantom power for the XLR audio inputs (yes – they are XLRs!) and separate display controls for the 10inch and 5inch screens. The Recording menu also implements at a long-awaited feature – off-speed recording. It’s now possible to set a Project framerate (say, 24fps) and a separate sensor framerate – up to 80fps at 4k (well, 4000x2160 or 3840x2160), selected in 1fps steps. You can’t use CinemaDNG RAW at 80fps – the data rate would overwhelm even those expensive CFast cards – but Blackmagic now implement 3:1 data compression, which is visually lossless, and that is fine at 80fps.

Separating the project framerate and the sensor framerate is neat – it means that the playback, even on camera, is controllable. You can decide if you want to overcrank and see playback in slow-mo or not.

Again, I would lay out some of the menus differently – setting the camera name, for instance, is at the top of the camera settings but is unlikely to be changed often. Move it to the bottom (or to a different menu) and leave the screen real-estate for more crucial settings.

There are a few other oddities with this DoP station. The 10inch screen on the review unit had a distinct green tinge – and there are no controls to tweak this – and it’s very shiny, making it hard to see in bright light. There is no ability to show audio meters on the screen, which is fine if you have an assistant or audio recordist (see the section on the assistant’s station) but a pain if you are operating single-handedly, especially if you are using an EVF (there isn’t one supplied!).

Rolling the camera is also slightly annoying – the button on the edge of the 10inch screen is fine, and there is another (rather fiddly to find in a hurry) button on the back of the screen for when it’s closed. It would be great, however, if the 5inch touch screen also let you go into record – there is a very tempting transport status ‘button’ next to the timecode display but it doesn’t do anything except display the transport status (yet?).

I would still like to see some indication that the viewfinder Zoom function is enabled, like an on-screen display of the word ‘Zoom’, for instance.

Timecode is another slight oddity. There are BNCs for TC in and out, but no control in the menus – for instance to set Time of Day, Record Run or whatever, and the camera didn’t seem to jam to incoming timecode – you needed to feed continuous TC in. Accurate timecode is quite hard to do – to avoid drift you need super-stable (and expensive) crystal oscillators. Perhaps Blackmagic didn’t want to load the price of URSA for those who don’t need accurate TC – you can always hook up an Ambient Lockit box if you want to.

URSA uses the same 4k sensor as Blackmagic’s Production Camera. It shoots 4000x2160, 3840x2160 and 1920x1080, encoded as CinemaDNG (with, or without lossless compression) or ProRes – HQ, 422, Proxy or LT.

URSA uses the same 4k sensor as Blackmagic’s Production Camera. It shoots 4000x2160, 3840x2160 and 1920x1080, encoded as CinemaDNG (with, or without lossless compression) or ProRes – HQ, 422, Proxy or LT.

Assistant Station

The right hand side of the camera is given over to the assistant’s station. This has another 5inch touch enabled LCD, identical to the DoP’s and with identical functionality – you can even use both screens simultaneously to enter different information. This might even make Blackmagic’s metadata entry page useful, finally. This screen is the principal reason why I would like to be able to roll the camera using the LCD – basically you can’t do it from this side, you have to reach around to the buttons on the other side.

Next to the screen are large, stereo, audio meter LED stacks, gain controls and mute and solo buttons for each channel. The gain controls are continuous encoders, so you’ll need to have the LCD showing the appropriate menu to see exactly where the gain is set. The mute and solo buttons don’t have telltales, which seems a little dangerous. 

There is a 1/4inch headphone jack and a LANC input on this side of the camera, along with two audio XLRs and a 4-pin, 12v XLR power output and 3G-SDI for an EVF. The rear of the camera, on this side, also has the 12G-SDI in and out, genlock reference and TC in and out, all on BNCs.

There is also a 4-pin XLR for 12v power in, and there is an optional plate for V-Lock batteries. I’ve had many issues with V-Locks and, sure enough, the first time I took some of the (considerable!) weight of the camera on my knee for a low angle, handheld shot, the battery popped off. I prefer Anton-Bauer Gold mount for that reason and it seems that it’s possible to fit a suitable plate. It would be nice if Blackmagic offered the option as well.

Great Features

Physically, URSA has some great features. There is a built-in Sony VCT-14 style quick release tripod plate and sturdy holes for 15mm rails. The top handle slides into the body of the camera and fixes to one of six 3/8inch threaded points – the handle itself has another four. There is an optional shoulder mount with rosettes, which I didn’t get to try out (and I’m not sure my shoulders are strong enough…). Heat from the sensor and electronics is piped – using a fluid cooling system – to a heat exchange tunnel at the back of the camera. This should make the electronics relatively dust proof and keeps fan noise down, however there is no option to stop the fan when you are recording – and it’s quiet but not silent. The whole unit gets reasonably warm – one area Blackmagic doesn’t seem to embrace is power management. There is, for instance, no option to turn off any of the monitors that you aren’t using. However, the IDX 146Wh battery supplied with the review camera lasted for a couple of hours of general use. Turning the camera off manually isn’t the end of the world as it boots up again in four or five seconds.

The review camera was fitted with the Canon EF lens mount – other options include PL, B4 and a weird, sensorless version with an HDMI input and a mount for a DSLR. There was a tiny bit of rotational play in the (very nice Zeiss Compact Prime) lens when mounted but it didn’t effect operation of the camera in any way and, to be fair, the same lens showed the same play on my 1Ds Mk III. There is a built-in ND filter on the B4 mount camera.

URSA uses the same 4k sensor as Blackmagic’s Production Camera. It shoots 4000x2160, 3840x2160 and 1920x1080, encoded as CinemaDNG (with, or without lossless compression) or ProRes – HQ, 422, Proxy or LT. As ever, Blackmagic includes a full version of DaVinci Resolve as a backend for the camera’s workflow.

Images

Although I couldn’t test both cameras side-by-side, it seemed to me that URSA’s images were less noisy than those from the Production Camera – perhaps due to better cooling. There is the same fixed pattern noise – so obvious in low light that the focus peaking highlighted it. There is also the same, limited range of ISO settings (200, 400, 800). In poor light the noise is obvious, but easily dealt with in Resolve – at least you have the choice of implementing this noise reduction rather than having it forced upon you, as many cameras do. As with the Production Camera, URSA isn’t a ‘low light’ camera – but then neither is an Arri 535. Buy some lights!

With a well-lit scene URSA is capable of producing excellent results, with good colour rendition, nice tonality and great resolution. It handled tricky winter light very well – just avoid overexposing the highlights, as with its Blackmagic brethren – with Resolve revealing detail in the deep shadows, albeit with a little noise. It suffers from artefacts in very over-exposed situations – like direct sun – but I saw no blooming. The global shutter is wonderful – it’s hard to go back to looking at images with rolling-shutter jelly. Moiré is present (there is no optical low-pass filter) but minimal.

Perhaps surprisingly, the audio inputs are reasonable as well. Of course, you’ll want to record audio separately (won’t you?) but as a reference both the line and the mic inputs are quite acceptable, unlike the Production Camera and the Cinema Camera. Again, there are some odd software bugs – when you duplicate channel 2 from the channel 1 input, quite sensibly the gain sliders are ganged in the menu. However, the hardware controls continue to change the gains independently.

URSA is quite a camera. It’s very solidly built – though time will tell how well it really stands up to everyday bashes. Used carefully it can produce excellent results and, most amazingly, it costs just £3400 plus VAT. You’ll need an EVF, battery solution, lenses, matte box and a strong tripod (and helium balloons – did I mention it’s really heavy?), but it’s a proper camera, not a souped-up DSLR. It’s crying out for a better sensor to suit that 12 bit, RAW CODEC, and some more software development, but the user upgradability means I wouldn’t let that delay purchasing one. Pound for pound it’s probably the best value camera in the world.

Posted on March 2, 2015 and filed under 4k, broadcast, cameras, reviews, sensor.