A Shift in Focus: Why Blackmagic Cameras are for Everyone Now
“It’s funny. We were reviewing earlier today just the amount of cameras and models we’ve had, it’s quite the large number at this point.”
Bob Caniglia, Director of Sales Operations at Blackmagic Design, gave us a call to discuss the URSA Mini Pro, which recently became available to the public and is earning its fair share of rave reviews. Bob was with DaVinci Resolve before Blackmagic acquired it. He’s seen the company’s growth at its most extreme and, talking with him about cameras now, I was taken by how broad the company’s reach has gotten. I came into the interview with a question that I quickly realized was a silly one.
“Who is the URSA Mini Pro for?”
Most companies try to make their product sound like it’s for everybody, but their answers usually reveal a core demographic of some sort. As Bob talked through the thinking behind the URSA Mini Pro’s new features, though, it became clear that when Blackmagic talks broadly, it means it. Bob notes how filmmaker feedback affected the shoulder capabilities of the camera:
“Some of the feedback was that they [filmmakers] wanted more tactile controls on the URSA when it’s on their shoulder. So, if you look at the camera design, it’s the same body as the original URSA Mini with just the one side of it basically redesigned with the flip-out screen that also has an outside screen that shows as a display there.”
The URSA Mini was already a pretty easy pick-up-and-shoot camera, very different than the square design on the Blackmagic Production Cinema Camera and BMPCC 4K. Those were sensors in a box. They were awkward to shoulder mount even when you built around them. That’s no longer the case here, and the URSA Mini Pro is versatile on an even deeper level.
“The whole side of the camera is redesigned with all kinds controls that previously weren’t available because it was mostly driven by the touchscreen. Including an on-off switch on the outside which allows for underwater housing… It shows timecode on the outside when the doors shut… In addition, we added the ND filters. They’ve been added to the front… We also looked at the way that we’ve been recording, with the CFast cards, but we also added the ability to record on SD cards as well.”
Don’t like expensive CFast cards? You don’t need them. Need ND filters? They’re inside the camera. Want to shoot underwater? Blackmagic has designed for it. The XLR inputs reportedly have better preamps, and there's even a HFR button for quickly going in and out of high frame rate mode. As Bob tells it:
“This takes it to a different level and a different use in terms of being a one-man band out in the field running around and not necessarily having to take [the camera] off your shoulder to see what settings you’re on… A great number of controls, a lot of redundancy, so there’s a lot of soft controls inside that you can use, but then the hard controls outside you can lock the outside buttons so you aren’t pressing them inadvertently.”
A lot of redundancy. This is not the Blackmagic camera of old (and they aren't even very old!), where three to four buttons and a menu screen would be your only access to features. In three years, Blackmagic's flagship offerings went from minimalist cinema cameras for indie filmmakers to versatile, button-heavy, cameras that could find a home on television and live streaming sets (retaining their value to indie filmmakers in the process). The sleek BMPC 4k turned into the huge, more traditional URSA which spawned the more compact URSA Mini and has led us to the ultra-versatile URSA Mini Pro. Nowhere is that versatility more apparent than in Blackmagic's new lens mount options.
“The other thing that really is a big difference between this camera and the original is the interchangeable lens mounts. It comes standard with the EF lens mount but you can order a PL as well as a B4 ⅔ mount. It’s not a quick-release thing, but if you decide you want to move from the studio to the outside, you could change the mount.”
If the URSA brought Blackmagic out of the studio, the URSA Mini and URSA Mini Pro brings it outside of cinema and into the realm of television and streaming.
“We thought more along the lines of when you’re shooting a movie, where you’re using prime lenses - there aren’t a lot of EF lenses that are parfocal, being what’s used in television… Most of those lenses are in the B4 mount, so we had to introduce the B4 mount so that we could have the power and control socket built into the camera so that the camera talks with the lens… The way people shoot some of these reality TV shows, they’re not all staged and planned. Some of them are multiple camera. People wanted to use the URSA Minis in live TV, so we added the ability to control the cameras through our ATEM switcher line and provide talk back. The camera returns CCU functions, stuff like that. This camera evolution adds to that, so if you’re shooting football games you might want the ND filter because it’s a bright, sunny day. You can use the ND filter to get you closer to what a live video signal is, as opposed to recording RAW, where you’ll do most of your work in color correction down the road. People can shoot, video-style, and use the footage straight away without feeling like they have to do massive color correction.”
Being able to operate lenses like the Fujinon XS17X5.5 on an URSA Mini Pro brings the added benefit of connecting Blackmagic cameras to Blackmagic production gear, like their ATEM switchers. You could technically run a full live production almost entirely on Blackmagic products at this point. All of this works in sync with the sensors that have made Blackmagic cameras famous and controversial.
“Many of the features that we added in the 4.6k sensor are designed for shooting digital film, but the sensor and the new Pro body gives you the ability to do whatever you need to do that day. I could go out and shoot a commercial or a music video or shoot a feature film, but I could also chase a bank robber down the street trying to shoot for ENG.”
What has driven Blackmagic in this direction? It’s easy to imagine an alternate world where the company stayed with its minimal designs and only made major upgrades to its sensor (the ND features were inevitable, though). Think less F5 and C300 competitor and more, in theory, a poor man’s RED or Alexa Mini. According to Caniglia, a lot of these changes came about to accommodate the different ways customers were already using Blackmagic cameras.
“We launched [the original URSA Mini] at NAB, it launched a little bit later, but between NAB and IBC, which are five months apart, we changed the design of the PL version of that based on feedback of, ‘We want to put on ENG-style (Electronic News Gathering) lenses, B4 lenses.’ So we actually changed that one from there and then, as we started shipping more and more of the cameras, it became apparent that people weren’t looking to use the camera just in a cinematic way, which is basically how we built most of the cameras to that point. They weren’t really designed to be ENG style, but the more that we got feedback, the more that we were asked for things like ND filters and more tactile controls… I think that there was an evolution planned prior to that, you know, to add these things, but I think some things get moved up.”
The direction of Blackmagic cameras isn’t all that different from the evolution we’ve seen in DaVinci Resolve, which used to be ungodly expensive and exclusively for color grading, but is now competitively priced (with a free version) and can function with full editing duties.
“The whole DaVinci workflow is as comprehensive as you want it to be… Assuming you’re finished shooting you can throw it into Resolve to either copy files into media management or go straight into editing, you can edit multi-cam shoots, and of course you can do final color grading… I think the story of how Resolve has evolved has been helpful on the camera side but also the cameras have introduced a lot of people to Resolve, too.”
So, as Blackmagic products expand their use and versatility, how broad is too broad? At what point does a camera become a jack-of-all-trades but master of none? Can Blackmagic prioritize image and functionality simultaneously at this price point? The folks at Blackmagic obviously think so and, if/when changes will be made, we know the company will have open ears.
“We sort of look at where we are in the market, where we see interest, where we think maybe a prior design needs to be refreshed… We don’t necessarily always go upstream... We do a lot of listening, a lot more than people think.”
The URSA Mini is out in the wild and its impact will be revealed in time. Until then, Bob Caniglia will keep listening to the stories and feedback of URSA Mini Pro shooters. No matter how versatile he knows the camera to be, filmmakers always find new ways to shoot,
“I’m always fascinated by people who mount them to drones. That has been done quite often. I know one guy wiped out a drone and a camera in a wave.”
Happy surfing, filmmakers.