by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the November 2020 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)
In mid-July of this year, Blackmagic Design CEO Grant Petty held an online press conference to announce their latest camera, the URSA Mini Pro 12K. I follow all the industry new product announcements for my work with DCS, but this one really caught my attention, not only as a trade journalist, but as an equipment owner. They leapfrogged over the expected move up to 8K by designing a Super35 Sensor that can natively shoot 12K as well as 4K, 6K, and 8K. Instead of the traditional Bayer-pattern single sensor design, this camera uses a Symmetrical pattern readout that allows the full 80 megapixel – 12,288 x 6480 sensor to natively output the various resolutions without cropping or computationally intensive scaling. The idea is to allow the user to select which resolution best suits their needs without affecting the field of view.
The online press conference also included some beautiful sample footage photographed by John Brawley, ACS, a DP whose work I have come to admire on shows such as “The Great”. I decided there and then to take the plunge and buy an URSA Mini Pro 12K. At less than $10K for the body, the price was right, and I think it really checks off a lot of boxes required for the next generation Digital Cinema camera. So, I put in my order with B&H the very next day, and was assured I would be in the first batch of orders shipped; (more on that later).
It is hard to spend money when there is so much uncertainty in the world, and I honestly still don’t have any imminent projects to shoot with the camera, but I want to be ready when things get rolling again. Since I’m looking to the future, I want a camera to be versatile and not limited by constraints such as resolution. I have owned many great cameras over the years, and a few are still in storage that no one wants to use anymore since they are only HD, or God forbid, standard def.
So, while I don’t expect to be shooting too much 12K, having the ability is something I find desirable. Who knows what Netflix may demand down the road? I also like that it shoots BRAW, Blackmagic Design’s RAW format, which I have found to be a really solid and flexible codec. Since I have a significant investment in S35 format glass, I also like that this camera fits into my current lens and camera support infrastructure.
As some of you may remember, I was an early adopter and quite active in the rollout of the RED One, and later the VariCam V35, sharing my experience and test footage with the community. Similarly, I wanted to start shooting with the URSA 12K and see if it lived up to my expectations. I also wanted to see what benefits capturing at such a high resolution might offer, and verify that a 12K workflow was practical for the kind of work I do.
Since I was in the first batch of orders, I was expecting to receive my camera in early to mid-August, roughly a month after my order. I wanted to be ready to hit the ground running, so I ordered accessories and media and gathered some tools to make sure my media management was up to snuff. Accessories included a Bright Tangerine matte box, and top handle, as well as the Blackmagic add-ons, such as the EVF, (which is excellent,) an Anton Bauer plate, and for handling media, a ThunderBlade 8TB flash drive from OWC.
All the ancillary items came relatively quickly, but were not of much use without the camera. I was frustrated at first during this months long period before I actually received the URSA camera in October, but then I realized that they were no doubt just working out some of the last minute bugs. Having suffered plenty of arrows in my back from previous pioneering beta camera testing, and not having any immediate projects to shoot during the pandemic, I was happy to let them take their time. I’m actually still waiting on the Blackmagic External Recorder that can hard-mount onto the camera body for fast and economical recording of 12K onto USB-C NVMe SSDs, but I have been getting by okay with CFast for which there are dual slots.
With the camera in hand, it was time to start shooting. My good friend Conrad Hunziker joined me for the unboxing. He is an accomplished Cinematographer after spending many years as a sought after DIT. He was with me shaking out the bugs of the RED One in 2007, (pictured here), and wrote a software program known as R3D Data Manager that was for a long time the go-to way to handle RED footage. His vast knowledge of both camera and computer technology make him an excellent resource as these disciplines merge in digital cinematography, but all Conrad really wants to do is shoot, so I’m lucky he would put on his tech hat to get me going with the new camera.
We set up the URSA and the pipeline to post via Resolve. I’m still amazed that Blackmagic gives such incredibly valuable all encompassing software away with every camera they sell. Currently it is the only software that can handle the 12K BRAW, but since this is my first experience with it, I was lucky to have Conrad, who has worked on-set with it for years as a DIT, to help me get started.
I chose my 20-120mm Fujinon Cabrio as the primary lens; it covers S35 and I’ve noticed it is a bit sharper than my other Cabrios. However, at T3.5, it is not the fastest lens in the tool box, so I decided to reach out to Sigma and borrow a set of their FF Highspeed Cine Prime lenses for these tests. I had used them extensively on my last feature and was very impressed with the look and quality, and at T1.5, they would offer the speed I was looking for. Although, as the FF in the name designates, they are designed to cover Full Frame, when you use only the center of their coverage area on S35, you are using the sharpest part of the lens, and besides speed, I was also looking for resolving power.
I like to test cameras the way I will be using them, so rather than looking at charts and scopes, I want to photograph people. Since most of my work is narrative supplemented by some celebrity interview and documentary assignments, I needed to round up some on-camera talent. I heard that a friend of my wife had a daughter who was looking to gain some experience in front of the camera, so I reached out, figuring that we could benefit each other; I would have a model to photograph and could give her some experience along with some footage to start creating a reel. She was eager to participate and I was also very pleased when her mother, who is a veteran Actress, wanted to join her. The pairing could not have been more perfect. They are both beautiful, and to our benefit, have very different skin tones. Shellye Broughton, being of African American heritage, has a much darker complexion than her mixed race daughter Luna Von Dahlern.
Finding a location during a Covid lockdown would have been near impossible if the “Mathers Backlot,” at my mother’s house were not available to me. I was joined by a small volunteer crew who were also interested in checking out the camera including my longtime Camera Operator and 2nd Unit DP, Cameron Cannon, and Christopher Scott Knell, who does a lot of the DCS editing, but was serving as DIT that day while Camera and Lighting Specialist Ron Sill served as Gaffer.
As I mentioned earlier, part of my usual work involves celebrity interviews, although this work has come to a grinding halt during the pandemic. So one of the things I wanted to test was whether I could accomplish a proper looking sit-down interview with two subjects in a socially distanced manner. This would involve one locked down camera using the benefits of the extra resolution to create closeups in post in order to give the appearance of multiple camera coverage. I think when you see the results, you’ll agree that it worked well, a technique that might help this kind of work to move forward safely in spite of the pandemic.
We commenced to also shoot a few short dramatic scenes with improv dialogue in various lighting scenarios to get an idea of how the camera handled them. I always like to add a little movement when appropriate and possible, but with such a small crew, a dolly was not in the cards. However, a filmmaker friend, Warren Eig, has been wanting me to take a look at a new Slider he has designed and this shoot presented the perfect opportunity. The EigRig SLIDE-R1 kit is quite versatile and includes both a 4’ and 3’ span that can be mounted on stands, sticks, or a dolly, and also has the ability to run on various lengths of speedrail. It’s smooth, quick to set up, and sturdy. It’s available for sale at BandPro and you can get more details at Warren’s website: www.eigrig.com
Recording 12K in BRAW, (the only format recorded in-camera,) allows for several variations in compression, and vastly different file sizes. There are two basic encoding schemes, Constant Bitrate and Constant Quality, and within those, different compression ratios you can choose from. The Constant Bitrate option is set to never exceed a specific data rate no matter the content, making it easy to understand the relative amount of compression being used. It’s designed to give you the best possible images within predictable and consistent file sizes with set compression ratios from 5:1 all the way to 18:1. Constant Quality, on the other hand, preserves image quality by completely removing the upper data limit. That means complex frames will be encoded at higher data rates to preserve detail and maintain quality. Only Constant Quality ensures quality levels are not compromised. Blackmagic RAW Q0 has minimum quantization and yields the highest possible quality, while Blackmagic RAW Q5 uses moderate quantization for more efficient encoding and a smaller file size.
For our tests we recorded 24fps 12K BRAW in Constant Bitrate at 5:1 compression onto 4 Angelbird brand 256GB CFast cards. At that setting, each card gave us only 7 minutes of record time, so efficient data management was required to get us through the day’s shoot. I knew this going in, which is why I came prepared with some really fast download options. OWC was kind enough to provide one of their extremely fast ThunderBlade 8TB Thunderbolt 3 Solid State drives. They advertise transfer speeds up to 2800MB/s read & 2450MB/s write. Now I didn’t have a precise way to measure our transfer speeds handy, but I can tell you that it was backing up our cards to the drive at roughly 2.5 seconds per gig. That’s only about 10 and half minutes for a full 256GB card, so that is one potential roadblock you can cross of the list if you’re thinking of shooting 12K. Once the External Recorder is sorted out allowing use of USB-C NVMe SSDs, it is only going to get faster and more practical.
OWC also provided one of their Thunderbolt 3 Pro Docks which has Dual Thunderbolt 3 ports, 3 x USB 3.1, eSATA, DisplayPort, 10 Gigabit Ethernet, as well as an SD and CFast card reader which we used for our transfers. At a time when computer i/o connections are changing at such a rapid pace, these docks are really an essential piece of kit to allow for connection of legacy gear that might only be a couple of years old. The late model MacBook Pro I used on this project only has Thunderbolt 3 inputs, which none of my other gear features; so we would have been lost without this dock.
Having such efficient on-set data management allowed me the opportunity to have our DIT, Christopher Knell, open the files in Resolve between takes, apply various LUTs, and then push them around a bit to get my bearings. The camera being so new, there are not yet any dedicated LUTs available for the URSA 12K, but Resolve allows you to create your own, and import them into the camera. I didn’t get around to it on this shoot, but I’ll be doing that before the next. It is just one of the benefits of having camera and color management software created by the same company, although BRAW support is quickly being adopted by other NLEs such as Premiere, and we are finishing this project in ACES anyway; (more on that later.)
Currently, only a Beta version of DaVinci Resolve handles 12K BRAW, and the full updatable software suite is included with every camera, but I am most comfortable editing in Adobe Premiere, so I created a work print to get a rough cut in Premiere, then turned it over to seasoned Editor Nelson Torres to finesse the cut. Nelson uses Resolve for all his editing projects from network promos to features and was quickly able to create a Resolve project in HD that could be auto assembled at full resolution by the Post house for the DI. This included not only the edit points, but also all the reframing coordinates for the closeups and stabilizations we designed in order to try to highlight the value of shooting at higher resolutions. (FYI, we plugged in the same external OWC ThunderBlade 8TB drive as we had in the field for the edit and were impressed at how easily it handled the 8K files.)
The same day I dropped a drive to the Burbank headquarters of Roush Media, I got an email with a Frame.io link to the assembled cut for my approval. Although the Frame.io system allows for frame-by-frame comments on the timeline, I didn’t need to take advantage of that ability since everything looked great. They had applied a scene referred ACES color transform which looked better than what I had chosen for my work print, and had the added benefit of helping to get everybody on the same page for the next step in the process, the HDR color grade to be handled by Master Colorist, Keith Roush, Owner of Roush Media.
As I mentioned, Roush Media is headquartered in Burbank, California, but Keith Roush is currently in Atlanta setting up a new satellite office, so this gave me a chance to try another technology I have been eager to experience. Although it can also be a very good way to maintain safe social distancing during the pandemic, I had not previously had the opportunity to try a live remote color session. They were able to stream the output of the Baselight color system to the display in my home using the VLC Media Player. I was then able to communicate via Zoom with Keith as if we were in the same room for the color session. I have to say, it went off without a hitch. In short order, they were rendering the masters for me to pick up back in Burbank just a few hours later.
I asked Keith for the Colorist’s perspective on this new camera, shooting in 12K, and working with BRAW. He has colored a lot of footage shot with Blackmagic cameras and feels this one is by far the best. According to Kieth, there is a lot of color information to work with, and the additional resolution opens up some interesting possibilities. However, he cautions against pushing the digital zooms too far especially if the image is at all underexposed. He feels that there is always a trade off in terms of noise, grain structure, and the like, so you can’t do a 3 x zoom into a 12K image and expect to get perfect 4K.
As Keith notes, Blackmagic Design cameras have come a long way since they were first introduced less than ten years ago with the first pocket camera. Now with this latest sensor technology, I think they took another giant leap in quality. The URSA may not be ready to satisfy the very high end cinema camera rental market, but ARRI, Panavision, and Sony have that pretty well covered. However, to have this level of quality and flexibility in a package that is so relatively affordable will make a great solution for many Owner/Operators.
I don’t expect to shoot much 12K, but I think having this ability is still important. Not just as a hedge against obsolescence, but for VFX and Virtual Production plates, reframes, and stabilization, to name a few. I tried to look at the challenges and potential benefits of shooting 12K in this evaluation, but the most important factor is really how it looks. As my grandmother used to say, “The proof is in the pudding.” I think the camera looks great, but you can judge for yourself when viewing the two minute test reel at the following link. This is an HD SDR, but a UHD HDR version will also soon be posted. Please note that the closeups in the interview setup and the bar scene are digital zooms from the 12K master shot, and that the Chinatown sidewalk and tunnel shots were highly stabilized, which would not have been possible without the extra resolution.
View the test in HD on Vimeo here: https://vimeo.com/485764350