Hands On with the Mini / Micro Panel & URSA Mini Pro

Early in 2017 Blackmagicdesign had caused ripples in the indie film sector when they released a whole range of new products from grading panels to cameras and web streaming to live video production gear. In a recent article, I gave a brief summary based on the information released by Blackmagicdesign. Since, my company sent me and my post production colleagues to visit the Blackmagicdesign truck on its stop in Brussels. The fancy black truck has been hitting major cities across Europe to showcase the newly released products.

We found the truck after some searching in the parking ground of a football stadium in a Brussels suburb. By the time we got there, there was already a merry gang of folks who, judging by their mostly gray hair, were plenty older than our group of 20-somethings plus our boss. Provided with fresh coffee, we were off to a good start exploring the products.

The Ursa Mini Pro

The first item on the list to check out was the URSA Mini Pro. As promoted, it sits snugly on the shoulder with the provided mount, only the extended handle and grip were a little too short for my liking and could not be further extended to fit me (however, they could be shortened). The grip itself has three buttons, two of which are entirely useless. Sorry, not sorry. It has a big ole’ record button and then a button to toggle the “Auto Iris” and “Auto Focus” features. I’ve put these in quotes because neither function does what you’d expect it to. Hitting the auto focus button starts a process of the camera stepping through focus points, hoping to find one with maximized focus. Disregarding the fact I am quite critical of any sort of auto-focus system in video / digital film cameras, there are plenty better solutions and I’m certainly never going to use this button. The auto iris button is just as bad. It exposes the image so that no pixel is overexposed. Considering expose-to-the-right (ETTR) and other concepts surrounding shooting log-style footage , this makes little-to-no sense. Alister Chapman goes to some length to explain why being too low in the exposure latitude is not a good way to expose and while it is a rather heady topic, it’s supremely insightful once you read his article a few times 😉

So, two “no-good” buttons, a slightly short handle and … the rest is really decent. More actual switches and buttons, an LCD that displays useful information, though I reckon on the wrong side of the camera, and a rather good eye-viewfinder make this a decent package. When compared to something like the Sony FS7, you actually have to pay to get the shoulder bag, handle and EVF, so by the time you’ve bought those, you could also afford the Sony. Just a consideration, I’ve not actually shot on either camera. Oh, just one last thing. The firmware seems buggy. Depending on what buttons I pushed, I got displayed information overlaying other data on the bottom of the screen. While I’m generally excited for this update to the URSA Mini, maybe we should hold off until Blackmagic fixes the firmware.

The Mini and Micro Panel.

Wow. I love these panels. They actually do feel as good as promised. The build quality is vastly superior to the Avid panel (as I hoped it would be). The wheels and balls have a great weight to them when used and the knobs have 4000 sensor points around the 360° of rotation (or so I was told by a very friendly rep). I started out with the larger of the two, or the mid-range panel, the Mini. Like the giant Advanced panel, it has displays to show information and bring up different sub-menus and functions. They do not yet have an option to display waveforms, but they might at some point get this feature (if and when the Advanced panel gets it). The only other difference in terms of control surfaces are buttons to the left and right of the displays that enable instant access to many DaVinci sub-menus such as curves, keys, power windows and so forth. The buttons on the right let you manage your nodes.

I found this layout quite intuitive after a few minutes already and I spent probably about a half hour fiddling around with the Mini until I moved over to it’s smaller sister, the Micro panel.

Right then and there, I felt as though I had cut off my left arm. Sounds ridiculous, but I felt I was already reaching for buttons that weren’t there anymore. You can still disable nodes, create stills, skip between clips and of course grade with primaries, but the lack of control features especially for curves and power windows felt like an immense loss. Other than that, the build quality is exactly the same and for a third of the money, the panel is a great product. I guess had I not started out on the Mini, I would not have missed a thing, coming from years of having almost no access to grading panels (save the Avid one at uni).

What is the takeaway? At the post-house I work for, I’m now lobbying for the Mini panel with my fellow colorist colleague. We are looking at setting up our first grading suite there and hopefully will be able to offer color grading as a service around this summer. As far as this goes, I talked at length to the reps about various other features of DaVinci, especially relating to the requirements for 4K grading, but that should better be discussed in a separate article. We feel that, while the Micro is a great product for on-set work or a small budget, the Mini is really a fully featured panel for daily grading in a post house.

The Roundup

Considering the crazy affordable price point of Blackmagicdesign gear, it is amazing what they keep pulling off. From a 30.000€ panel to a 1000€ option is a long way and the fact that they took it really shows how dedicated they are to supply filmmaking equipment for an ever-growing indie market. And while their products are affordable, they are not always perfect. The long history of firmware issues their cameras suffered (and apparently still suffer) from seems to be the result of pushing the price boundary and making these products as affordable as possible. This is a reason, not an excuse, for bad firmware. In all fairness, Sony has also had their share of firmware related troubles with the FS7 – focus/iris control issues, anyone?

So what is the takeaway here? Both new lower-priced grading panels are an amazing addition to Blackmagicdesign’s lineup and offer a great option for young colorists looking for grading panels. For the URSA Mini Pro, it seems they have listened and finally made a camera that is actually built for camera people instead of social media appeal. Heck, who wants an iPad stuck to their URSA?

Bottom line: Kudos to these great new products.

What’s up next?

Gearing up for some color grading projects, we are in the process of upgrading an HP workstation to get a full-fledged 4K grading space. As this project progresses, I will keep you posted on a few of the hardware choices we make to get our 10bit grading space set up.

Also published on Medium.

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