February 17, 2020

The Ursa Mini Pro G2 is AMAZING… but it died on us after 3 months

The Ursa Mini Pro G2

A camera exceeding expectations… but
(it died on us after 3 months)

In the first half of 2019 I didn’t’ once think we’d be leaving the RED digital cinema camera ecosystem. The announcement of the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6k (BMPCC 6k) really grabbed my attention 6k, 50fps, 13 stops dynamic range, dual native ISO… for $2495 USD!!??

So to back track, in mid-2019 we were rocking a Red Scarlet-W as our A-cam and a Red Scarlet-MX as our B-cam. The W is capable of 120fps at 5k, 50fps at 5k with an advertised 16+ stops of dynamic range (DR) and outstanding color science. It may not truly be 16+ stops, but it’s got the most DR of any camera we’ve owned. The highlight latitude is superb. The MX was our first RED with no slow motion at 4k (just 36fps at 4k widescreen and 48fps at 3k). Around 13 stops of dynamic range and the same excellent internal variable compression raw r3d workflow. After retiring as our A-cam in 2017, it’s been a superb b-cam to the Scarlet-w.

Gav in his element flying the Red Scarlet on a customised Movi M5

Gav in his element flying the Red Scarlet on a customised Movi M5

Although outstanding cinema machines for narrative and music videos there were some things that made the RED’s not ideal for us. Slow boot time, power hungry, no internal ND’s (without expensive third party options) no decent onboard audio without expensive modules… that same money was better spent (IMO) on a Fuji Xt3, a 16-55mm lens and a Ronin-S for events and travel videography. It’s nice having a hybrid stills/video camera in the line up too.

But, I loved the Red image, the R3D workflow and felt I could put up with the shortcomings because I just couldn’t see myself leaving the excellent compressed raw workflow that Red provides.

Along comes Blackmagic RAW (BRAW).

From the BMD site:

“Blackmagic RAW is a revolutionary new and very modern codec that’s easier to use and much better quality than popular video formats, but with all the benefits of RAW recording. Featuring multiple new technologies, such as a new advanced de-mosaic algorithm, Blackmagic RAW gives you visually lossless images that are ideal for high resolution, high frame rate and high dynamic range workflows. Incredible image quality, extensive metadata support and highly optimized GPU and CPU accelerated processing make Blackmagic RAW the world’s first codec that can be used for acquisition, post production and finishing. Blackmagic RAW is a totally new design, plus it’s cross platform, freely available and includes a developer SDK so anyone can add support for Blackmagic RAW to their own software.”

… an continued… 

The new advanced de-mosaic algorithm is a central component of Blackmagic RAW. Part of the RAW processing is moved out of software and into the camera, where it can be accelerated. Noise management, sensor profiling and new edge reconstruction algorithms are used to produce high quality cinematic images with incredible depth, crisp details and beautiful image separation. The partially de‑mosaiced images, along withthe unique characteristics of the image sensor, are encoded and saved into the Blackmagic RAW file so you get total control over features such as ISO, white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation and more. The partial in camera accelerated de‑mosaic allows for extremely efficient compression. This results in significantly reduced processing on your computer, making it faster to decode and use the files while retaining the sensor data needed for full RAW control!”

With the BMPCC 6k, Blackmagic Design got my attention, I wasn’t yet thinking about replacing our Scarlet-W – but perhaps replacing our aging Red Scarlet-MX with the BMPCC 6k. Roughly the same dynamic range, both with a compressed raw codec, 6k  over 4k and 50fps at 6k instead of 30fps max at 4k! Cheaper storage… it seemed a no brainer. I thought the raw recording should help us bring the ‘looks’ in line to a useable level. I was also accutely aware that there is so much more to a camera than the specs and the RED’s including the older MX sensor have a beautiful organic look that has only improved with RED’s updated ipp2 color.

I should also note that the build quality of the Red leaves the BMPCC in the dust, it’s a true cinema camera built for the rigours of the production environment. However, little did I know at the time – BRAW would leave R3D in the dust for speed in Premiere and Resolve (at least as of today – I know RED’s new SDK hasn’t made it’s way into Premiere yet). That said, RED has benefited from a longer time in the Premiere ecosystem, certain features ‘just work’ whilst there have been some growing pains through several iterations of BRAW in premiere that have mostly been ironed out but not completely. In Resolve, now my platform of choice BRAW is king!!! And even in Premiere, BRAW is way faster at equivalent compressions and resolutions. It’s a ridiculously fast format in post.

Once we got the BMPCC 6k I stumbled across this sample footage from Wyatt Visuals using the Ursa Mini Pro G2, an iteration on the original which maxed out at 60fps at 4.6k. I need (often use for clients) 100 – 120fps at 4k on the Red Scarlet-w. It’s a really important tool to me for branded storytelling to capture beautiful character moments. So here was a camera shooting 4.6k, no crop for 120fps (like the Scarlet-w, and yes I know the updated Dragon-x shoots 5k 96fps full sensor and the newer 6k version shoots 75 fps at 6k… that’s awesome but is  a lot of additional cost). The G2 also has decent onboard audio onboard with two xlr inputs, nd’s built in (2, 4 and 6 stops) and the new BRAW codec internally… Plus it could record direct to SSD’s. (Redmags are expensive… I’ve never had one fail EVER. So totally reliable. But expensive).

We jumped ship and even picked up the Rawlite OLPF for the G2. (Improving IR filtration and virtually eliminating potential moire/aliasing). Red have excellent OLPF’s… I never see aliasing or moire on RED’s and this is/was something I’m paranoid about but has proven to be a non-issue with the Rawlite OLPF. Because the RED’s sold for more than the BMD cameras cost it enables us to invest in a few other kit upgrades (including the Flowtech75 tripod not to mention all the necessary peripheral purchases – ssds, rig parts etc for the new cameras.

NOTE: I’d love to see BMD start integrating a proper/better OLPF into all of their cameras.

For three months we were loving life. Continually impressed with the image quality and ease of use of our new Blackmagic Design cameras, easily the better all rounders for documentary and narrative work. The only obvious trade-off we could see is a slight loss for latitude in the highlights comparted to RED, but nothing big. Not playing around with screw on ND’s alone has made our lives so much easier.

What amazed me the most was just how crazy fast BRAW is to work with in post in both Premiere and Resolve. For speed, this is the best format I’ve ever worked with, period. Not just with regards to raw format. Surely it’s at the cost of something?? Seriously how are they doing this?

I feel I need to thoroughly test shooting these cameras in a controlled environment at varying ISO’s to confirm that when I adjust ISO in post that I’m not “losing” anything. The image quality to file size ratio is off the charts. We now had a faster compressed raw workflow than ever before! – When you’re shooting documentary style moving through different mixed light environments you don’t always nail your white balance (or your exposure) so to non-destructively adjust in post is a big deal.

Also, habit I picked up as a RED shooter is exposing to the right (of a histogram). I’d tend to overexpose a little, whilst protecting highlights from clipping – then bring the exposure back down in post. This would result in the cleanest possible image and is something that only a raw format can truly allow you to do without loss if image quality.

Then, almost three months to the day with our Ursa Mini Pro G2 whilst on a commercial shoot with an agency, it died on us after about 40 minutes of shooting. It refused to turn on. Fortunately, we had the BMPCC 6k on standby as we were using it as a second angle for three interview shots. Our runner raced to a local rental house to pick up another G2 and we shot a few key shots without our A-cam (on the BMPCC 6k).

Props to DP Shane Piggott and Camera Assistant Andrew Samson for dealing with the issue so professionally. Speaking to attendees from the client and agency hours later, they weren’t even aware that our camera died which I think is a testament to how professionally they dealt with the situation.

When the camera went down we were tight up against the Christmas break (BMD closed for two weeks… as did we) which slowed us getting the camera back from repair. Then, the Australian bushfires slowed the postage down a few more days. But taking those two delays into account, Blackmagic Design were VERY fast at getting the camera fixed and back to us (replacing the power board). Less than a week, I think. We’d bought the camera from Leederville cameras (a local reseller in Perth) so we just had to drop it in there and everything was taken care of (we have a two year warranty).

We got the camera back just in time for two doco style corporate shoots in the Pilbara region of Western Australia (Humid and 40 – 50 degrees Celsius). Happy to report these shoots were no worries for both the Ursa Mini Pro G2 and the BMPCC 6k.

Has this experience made me second guess our decision or my enthusiasm for the camera system? This blogs already pretty long… In short… shit does happen…. If it happens again I’ll probably be thinking twice about BMD as our main camera systems. But electronics can, and will fail sometimes across all brands… Although our RED’s never did. I just think these BMD cameras are the best value propositions on the market, period (not talking for rentals).

Watch the video for more details.

Links to the BMD and RED cameras:

Ursa Mini Pro G2

Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6k

Red Dragon X 6k

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