Gear Porn: Filming with Blackmagic Production and URSA Cameras

nowhere mind blackmagic camera

This post is mostly for the gear nerds out there who might be interested in the equipment and processes used to make the film. Please forgive any serious lack of entertainment value.

Democratization

In 2014, Blackmagic Design released the first relatively affordable ($2,995) Ultra HD (3840 x 2160) Camcorder, the Blackmagic Production Camera 4k. For me, what set it apart from comparable options was its global shutter and cinematic dynamic range. Shortly after the release of the 4k Production camera, Blackmagic announced the release of their URSA 4k camera, with sensor frame rates as high as 80 fps.

After spending 3 years writing Nowhere Mind, I finally felt like camera technology was at a place where production could be possible on a reasonable budget. To maintain a consistent visual design on the film, we have limited photography to these two cameras–the Production camera for 24 fps footage, and the URSA only for slow-motion. As time progresses, and cameras, monitors, projectors, and televisions move to 6k, 8k, 10k, and beyond, Nowhere Mind will have a resolution comparable to 2015 theatrical quality output, which is more than appropriate for the film’s budget.

Given the straightforward and often flat look of digital images, FilmConvert, a software plugin that mimics the look of real film stocks, will continue to be used to create a grainer, dirtier, and higher contrast image.

(Click to watch this clip in 4k)

Blackmagic Production Camera Grade

Obstacles

Both the Blackmagic Production Camera and the Blackmagic URSA have their limitations. First, and most glaringly, is the black sun problem. When the camera points to a very bright light source (the sun, LED bulbs, high wattage tungsten lights, etc) the image peaks in that area, and there is an inversion effect in the pixels that causes bright points to look black. The cameras are also very limited in their ISO sensitivities, leaving the user with only 3: 200, 400, and 800. The noise levels in both 400 and 800 can be almost unbearable, so effectively speaking, it could be said that these cameras have only 1 ISO level.

Another drawback to the Blackmagic cameras is the file size. When shooting in UHD ProRes HQ, for example, 2 hours is roughly 1 TB of data. Yeah, you read that right. To compensate for this, I hope to implement a process in editing where each scene is composed separately, exported in ProRes HQ, and then stored on a separate drive. When each of the scenes are completed, they will be imported into FCPX on their own, without the endless sea of individual clips that comprise them. Then an assembly of the entire film can finally come together. Four scenes in, and so far, so good.

One of the things that excites me about technology like this, is that the more ubiquitous it is, the less it will matter. When a writer drafts a captivating narrative, people don’t say, “that’s beautiful. What kind of word processor did you use?” However, when a talented cinematographer or photographer captures a breathtaking shot, they are all-too-often asked, “what kind of camera did you use?” It will be a beautiful day when the tools become invisible, and the creative intelligence (or lack thereof) behind the tool will be all that matters.