With an updated Super 35 4.6K sensor featuring 15 stops of dynamic range at 3200 ISO, high frame rate recording up to 300 fps, an expanded control set and additional recording functionality, does Blackmagic Design's URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2 digital cinema camera tick all the boxes for the new-generation filmmaker? Dubai-based independent filmmaker and post-production expert Jac Mulder gives us his verdict.
The age-old practice of cinematography consists of the craft and practice of creating visuals that result in storytelling, and the unfolding of the evolution from film to digital has led to experimentation and excitement. In order to roll with the punches, this evolution has led manufacturers to set their sights on quality, resolution and picture quality.
This review is not a comparative study of ‘what’s better’; rather, I treat the new URSA the same I would any other camera. Pick it up, throw a lens on, slam a battery on the back, aim it in the right direction and play. Put it on a set of heads and legs, push the depth of field, slide through the frame, pull focus and see the peaking, see the detail and push the camera some more – in natural light and in a studio.
For those of you who require super technical specs, the information is out there. The 15 stops of dynamic range, no need to transcode, a 4.6K sensor with an HDR image sensor… this is all a good start. Then the question is: does it feel like a Super 35?
My background as a technical director turned action director has its merits here. My love of post-production and storytelling means I scrutinise camera choice as I have done on my previous feature films. The love of picture, texture, dimension, framing and more comes into play when tasked with testing new gear.
Let’s start with what I like. The PL mount is easy to operate and if you slide a lens in, the clamping is both accurate and sturdy. I love the weight of the camera, and Blackmagic Design’s choice of body materials seems accurate. The options for mounting all forms of peripherals make the camera very likable on first viewing. The buttons are easy to access and understand, and the interactive LCD screen is very responsive. From the front, the camera has a very space-age look, but the side view could potentially have gained from consultation with an industrial designer, as it is a little cumbersome and, although well balanced, looks bulky.
The following features got me very excited, because planning all steps of your workflow is necessary. Imagine being able to plug in a USB-c SSD HD with zero regard to transcoding or transferring the copious amounts of footage captured, coupled with the ability to load your own LUTs – scrubbing through your choices, because it probably took a long time for you to prepare the .CUBE files. Select the look, light it accordingly and enjoy the shoot. It all just works and is simple; you can edit on the same HD footage you recorded too.
The recoding card options are a dream; never having to concern yourself over stopping to record is a great feature.
This rarely happens in my world as a filmmaker – I guess the ‘over shooting is a sign of a bad director’ mantra will always steer my thought process when it comes to planning and blocking.
Each individual has an opinion, a specialised idea of what makes a camera better, good, acceptable and worthy of choice for a production, a shoot or a run-and-gun guerrilla episode. For me, the viewfinder is a little too inconsequential and the small LCD screen that pops out takes me back to the Handycam days. I want my monitor on top, big, with explicit, vivid and incremental options. Here, while it is bright and clear, a larger version would still be incredible. The built-in ND option, although quick and simple to use, is not a feature I appreciate, especially since I love the matte-box/prime/filter combo, but the convenience is beneficial.
Then I got to play with the footage in DaVinci Resolve. That was quite a treat; a simple upgrade of the software gave me full access to the .BRAW file. Initially, I just dragged and dropped the files into the timeline. After looking at what I had shot, I first went to highlights and blacks to see noise and detail in the darks and to see how far I could roll off the highlights.
I peaked the colours and was surprised – it was rather impressive. However, being thorough, I decided to climb into the colour science. A colour-managed YRGB was my starting point, and I again looked at the picture with the typical Rec.709. I tweaked, pushed and played, and then I went into the camera RAW segment and discovered more detail. What I love about the LOG option is the LUTs, either created or purchased online, do have variety between RAW and pre-coloured image. This is where you truly have to use a high bitrate monitor to perceive the quality of the image.
In the RAW options, I felt the footage leaned towards an ARRI Mini look. I pushed the depth of field with the Xeen lenses at a 1.5 stop, and applied the built-in ND filters. I framed both a subject and a scene. Inside, with natural daylight filling the scene, all the surfaces held a fair amount of texture. As for the global illumination of the scene, the blacks were a little washed out, but could be controlled nicely in the grade. The saturation levels never peaked when I pushed them too far; the highlights could simply be controlled and swung in any direction I liked. Even the teal/orange look worked beautifully.
As for the human subject shot in a white studio, a warm kino filled in the details. What I needed to see was the high-speed capabilities and how the compression dictated the quality of the picture. Compression does factor into any and all formats, whether it be ARRI, RED, Phantom or Sony, so it was only fair to test this. I did notice an overall softness, and if I truly pushed the picture I could see the artifacting, but this is pretty much standard with most formats and I was completely happy with the results.
The look I loved was this breakdown: Set DaVinci Resolve 16 to Log on the .BRAW file, and in settings, decode using Project. Enable Highlight Recovery. In the colouring panel, first look at your image and decide what monitoring options you have, because this will ultimately be your output. Now, since the image is set to LOG, browse through your LUTs, or simply create one.
I went with a Lutify grade option – in the Generic, I applied the Heulandite Log file. I stopped at that look and loved it instantly. But what surprised me was the next step – all the noise was gone. I pushed the levels, tweaked the blacks, and I have to confess that noise in the blacks was not an issue. This allowed me to focus on the roll-off, the blending, the softening and sharpening. A power window was created; this process is more for isolating specific areas and truly making beauty shots shine.
I was immensely impressed with the speed the .BRAW file tracked at – my masking window blasted through the image almost as fast as it played in real time. This was exciting for me, as I usually use 8K footage to grade. It was a delight – quick and accurate, the two things that are important when grading.
The G2 does slot in higher than I expected, above broadcast and close to independent level, and is most certainly playful enough to push boundaries. It made me consider this camera for a production-value TV show, or even a somewhat more technical TVC. Blackmagic Design has proved its worth – it has built whole systems covering every step of the way and keeps pushing the sensor, the price and the options.
This is a lovely camera, one I would certainly like to have in my arsenal. That Super 35 feeling does come through. With the right mindset, up-and-coming filmmakers now have a choice – other than a DSLR where a little record button on the side makes you think you’re a cinematographer. With the URSA G2, you’re not a videographer anymore; it’s one step closer to film.