Can the Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro excel on a run & gun shoot?

Can the Ursa Mini Pro work as a run & gun camera?  The short answer is yes.  Read on to find out why…

The day the Ursa Mini Pro was announced, we put in an order for one. It checked off a lot of boxes for Yonder Blue Films.  The picture quality was great.  We could use a variety of lenses with the interchangeable mounts (mostly EF and PL for us).  It could use professional batteries.  It has built in ND filters. It can shoot a variety of resolutions in various ProRes codecs and various RAW compression sizes.  And you don’t need to attach an external recorder.  The fact that the menu system is incredibly easy and all of the new external controls made this camera a no brainer for us. Well… almost.

There was one concern: weight.  Once you add a professional Anton Bauer battery, quality glass, and an EVF, this camera is a bit heavier than something like a Blackmagic Pocket, GH5, or C100.  The body of the camera is 5 pounds.  That’s not too heavy, but it’s not a lightweight either. Given, for everything that it can do, the weight is pretty low.  It has all of the inputs and outputs you’d expect on a professional camera built into the body, so you don’t need to add a bunch of modules to make it work.  Which makes rigging up the camera a lot easier, making you very efficient.

But we were use to usually using lighter cameras and we wondered if we could move just as quickly with a heavier camera, yet still work as a smaller crew when the project required it (we’ve had crews from 2 to 10 people and worked on productions with hundreds of crew members).

Frame grab from Wofford College video project.

Frame grab from Wofford College video project.

The first project we put the camera to the test on was for Wofford College.  It was a video about their new arts building and the generous donation behind it.  We had done a fair amount of testing with the camera beforehand, so we knew it was up to the task, and this was a fairly fast paced shoot with several setups and it was a good first shoot for the camera.  We had a big advantage though - the entire shoot happened in and around one building. So with the aid of our carts, moving from location to location wasn’t difficult.  Also we were a three person crew, a crew that has worked together a lot, working with a long-time client that is VERY helpful in providing what we need to get a video produced in a timely fashion.   

Another frame grab from the Wofford project.  This is backstage in their new theater.

Another frame grab from the Wofford project.  This is backstage in their new theater.

The second shoot for the Ursa Mini Pro would be completely different.  It was a fundraiser for The Public Lands Project.  Fundraisers, by their very nature need to be cost effective, but present the cause with the highest quality possible. Our most successful fundraiser video helped to raise 5 million dollars.  This shoot would be 2 days with 2 crew members.  Much of it would be outdoors, without carts, and thunderstorms would definitely be a part of the schedule.  So how would we make a cinema style camera (one that meets Netflix’s strict requirements), work on this run & gun shoot?  Give the finished video a watch before you read on.

The most important piece of advice I hope you take from this article comes down to one word: plan.  At Yonder Blue Films, pre-production is a VERY important part of the process.  Good pre-production can ensure success.  First we needed to nail down the script.  Our on screen talent knew what they wanted to say.  We gave them some guidelines and advice then they wrote out the rough draft for the narration.  From there, director Benjamin Rowland rewrote that rough draft and came up with scenes and b-roll that would compliment what Ronnie Pettit & Shane Burns of The Public Lands Project had to say about their upcoming project.  The script was then sent to Matthew Young for a final rewrite before production.  That script would be the blueprint for the video. From there we could come up with a schedule.

Shane Burns & Ronnie Pettit of The Public Lands Project. (Frame grab from Ursa Mini Pro.)

Shane Burns & Ronnie Pettit of The Public Lands Project. (Frame grab from Ursa Mini Pro.)

On the first day of a shoot, there’s a lot of energy.  We wanted to take advantage of this, so we scheduled the most difficult part of the shoot for the first half of the first day.  From there we scheduled scenes so that it would just get easier and easier. This gives a quick shoot like this momentum for everyone involved.  That energy and momentum comes across on camera.

The hub of our shoot was an art / photography studio in Clayton, GA - a quaint town near the border with South Carolina.  Ronnie Pettit recommended a great place to stay that was only a half mile away, a local inn within the city limits. This cut down on travel time significantly and ensured a good night’s sleep for the crew in a clean and comfortable location.  

Ronnie's FJ Cruiser. Our scouting vehicle for pre-production and featured in the video.

Ronnie's FJ Cruiser. Our scouting vehicle for pre-production and featured in the video.

Benjamin Rowland, the Producer, Director, and Camera Operator arrived the day before and met up with Ronnie Pettit, one half of The Public Lands Project, to do some location scouting in Ronnie’s tricked out Toyota FJ Cruiser.  While scouting some of the outdoor locations there was a fair amount of rain, but between rain clouds, Ben grabbed two shots to go ahead and get the ball rolling.  He also mostly pre-lit the art studio the afternoon before the first day.  That evening, the second half of the crew arrived: James Persinger.  James would serve as Assistant Camera, and the entire Sound department.  Ben and James both wore a lot of hats.  

As mentioned earlier, we started with the on-camera / VO portion of the video first.  Getting this portion done first proved to be a good call, as it took the pressure off the on camera talent for the rest of the 2 day shoot.  We also mostly used cooler lights so we could turn off the A/C and not cook our talent with hot tungsten lights.  Quality LED lights and Plasma lights from companies like Visionsmith, Blind Spot Gear, Aputure, Arri, and Hive, to name a few, will save you a lot of time when you need quick lighting setups that don’t generate a lot of heat and can run off house power or batteries if needed.  Plus they keep the talent comfortable.  We still use traditional HMI and tungsten lights, but they weren’t as prominent on this shoot - one of our favorite lights though is the Joker line from K5600.  The Arri M series of HMI’s are great too.

Ronnie shares his results in his darkroom.

Ronnie shares his results in his darkroom.

From there we moved on to the darkroom sequence.  Since the room was fairly small, we needed something small and portable to pop off quick shots at various heights as easily as possible.  This is where the Easyrig saved the day.  This was the first time we had used an Easyrig on a paid shoot.  We have wanted to add one to our arsenal of gear for a long time, and we finally purchased one through Innocinema, our local cinema gear dealer, and put it to work on this project.  It is awesome!  We clamped it to our Wooden Camera top handle, attached a Sigma 18-35 lens, and knocked out every shot we needed for the scene with ease and stability in close quarters.  We liked it so much, that we used the Easyrig for another sequence in the video where we needed the same speed and stability.  One piece of gear we’re considering adding is a Serene Arm from Flowcine, as this may allow the camera operator to walk with the camera without adding unwanted motion to the shot.  We need to find out if this is an option with the Easyrig Minimax.  Flowcine also makes several other products for camera movement that have really caught our eye that we would love to test out.

Behind the scenes shot of putting the Easyrig to use in another scene. Ghostbusters!

Behind the scenes shot of putting the Easyrig to use in another scene. Ghostbusters!

Our new light meter, courtesy of Sekonic and planet5D.

Our new light meter, courtesy of Sekonic and planet5D.

The second day mostly consisted of outdoor b-roll.  This is where the built in ND filters and the monstrous dynamic range on the Ursa Mini Pro really came in handy.  We shot in sun, shade, a mix of both…  The conditions were constantly changing with the weather too, as it can go from thunderstorm to sunny very quickly in the Georgia mountains. And outdoor lighting wasn’t an option on this shoot.  We used Sun Seeker to figure out when best to shoot each location during the scout, and though we couldn’t be at every location at the perfect time, it definitely allowed us to capture scenes during the ideal time of day when possible.  Our new Sekonic light meter helped us to nail exposure in challenging lighting situations. Being able to quickly change ND filters and shoot on a camera with so much dynamic range allowed us to shoot quickly outdoors with natural daylight as our only light source.  We could expose for the shadows AND the highlights, which was pretty liberating, and FAST.  To give the project a distinct look and shade the lens from any unwanted flares, we used a Bright Tangerine matte box & shade, with Tiffen Bronze Glimmerglass.  We recently met Bill Wages ASC, the man behind Glimmerglass, at a Panasonic Varicam event hosted by Arri CSC, and the origins of this very special filter are quite interesting (a story for another day).  (*Note, the Varicam is also an incredible camera that is definitely one you should check out.)

O'Connor 1030D and Manfrotto 536 - a match made in heaven.

O'Connor 1030D and Manfrotto 536 - a match made in heaven.

A good tripod can make all the difference on a shoot, and here we think we’ve found the perfect combo for most of the situations we find ourselves in. We used our O’Connor 1030D fluid head on our Manfrotto 536 legs.  This combination allows for buttery smooth shots at various heights from high hat level to basket ball goal level and everything in between with counterbalance for all kinds of camera packages.  During one scene, we were on a 200mm Canon lens on a riverbank and were able to smoothly track Ronnie through the river.  And we had one shot at it as a thunderstorm was rolling in, so having a smooth reliable setup was of the utmost importance.  We were loading the gear into the van just as the rain started to pour. 

They were in complete shade and the clouds were hit with hard sun. The Ursa Mini Pro gave us the dynamic range we needed to pull off this shot without additional lights or modifiers. 

They were in complete shade and the clouds were hit with hard sun. The Ursa Mini Pro gave us the dynamic range we needed to pull off this shot without additional lights or modifiers. 

Nice to have a bag that holds a rigged camera and accessories. And the Zacuto Gratical HD is a joy to use! It makes nailing exposure and focus much easier.

Nice to have a bag that holds a rigged camera and accessories. And the Zacuto Gratical HD is a joy to use! It makes nailing exposure and focus much easier.

Speaking of rain, protecting our equipment became really important on this shoot.  Pelican Storm cases with TrekPak dividers kept our gear safe from the elements.  And our new Cineluxe Shoulder Bag 24 from Tenba allowed us to keep the camera built so we could pull it out and start filming immediately, once the rain cleared.  The waterproof bottom on this bag really became important on this shoot!

It's about to rain again! Frame grab from Ursa Mini Pro on a 200mm lens.

It's about to rain again! Frame grab from Ursa Mini Pro on a 200mm lens.

So how did the Ursa Mini Pro fair on this run & gun shoot?  Really well - in the end the additional weight is actually an advantage.  You end up with smoother shots with a little bit of extra heft, and it isn't too much.  This camera, along with our decades of experience, critical gear, and planning, allowed us to drive home early on the second day!  We made it home in time for dinner!  I can confidently say that this camera can be a great tool for a variety of projects, all the way up to a feature film.  That’s a really versatile camera!  How did it fair in post-production? We’ll talk about that in our next post.  Hope you enjoyed this one - share it if you did and we’ll write some more. And if you need your idea turned into a video, contact us.

Now that you know some of the backstory, give the video another watch. And support The Public Lands Project to help protect our public lands.  They were a pleasure to work with, and they will make a great impact with their project - we can't wait to see where it goes!

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