A documentary featuring the lives of people residing along the Beijing Great Wall Cultural Belt was captured over nearly five years with URSA and Pocket Cinema cameras in Blackmagic RAW.

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The documentary series titled ‘At the Edge of History: People and Places of the Great Wall’, was produced over a period of four years and eight months to record the stories and lives of people living along the Beijing Great Wall Cultural Belt. Spanning six episodes, it was released at the end of last year on iQiyi, the Chinese subscription VOD OTT streaming service.

Navigating the rugged terrain near the Great Wall involved travelling through several remote, untamed areas that challenged the production’s small crew. Li Cheng, one of the series' directors and cinematographers, described scaling one mountain after another, which required considerable effort and planning. After returning from several exhausting shoots, the team decided to refine its strategy.

Camera Logistics

At the outset of the project, the team had carried a fully rigged Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K camera that they had been using for five years, matched with large zoom lenses and a tripod. “However, for the wilder mountainous terrain, we eventually opted for the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K to travel lighter. For the less demanding areas, we worked with the larger URSA Mini 4.6K,” said Li.

“The Pocket Cinema Camera 4K strikes a good balance between image quality and portability. When it was originally released in 2018, I was really impressed by its features, especially the ability to record 4K 60p and 2.6K 120p Blackmagic RAW internally, in such a small camera body.”

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He commented that even today, it remains one of the few cameras that integrates so many different features into one device. “Including 48V phantom power and timecode input connections is particularly valuable for documentary filmmakers like us, and means we have all the necessary tools for the job. Another standout feature is the High Frame Rate button. I can switch immediately over to slow motion mode without navigating through menus.”

The Optimal Codec

A substantial amount of footage was generated daily, but media management work could only be done after returning from outdoor shoots. "The capacity of the media storage cards was limited, and unlike filming a scripted series, the volume of footage produced each day was unpredictable. Therefore, the choice of recording codec played a crucial role in the acquisition," he said.

"Blackmagic RAW turned out to be the solution for us, as it is versatile enough to allow us to adapt to various scenarios with distinct video profiles. For instance, for interview scenes with simpler compositions, we opted for 12:1 compression to help manage file sizes. Conversely, for more intricate settings, we selected 5:1 or 8:1 compression to ensure the detail would hold up."

Beyond those compression options, the 12 bit colour depth of Blackmagic RAW proved invaluable for their documentary project. Operating in unpredictable environments, where ideal conditions and opportunities could vanish in an instant, this depth made a difference. The cinematographers often found themselves clinging to rocks while scaling cliffs or walking from bright sunlight to dim watchtowers on the Great Wall.

"Since achieving good images in such uncontrolled environments was not easy, having the Blackmagic RAW codec’s 12 bit images gave us ample latitude for enhancement in post," Li noted. "We recorded smoother highlights, eliminating issues like banding in the sky or harsh transitions on subjects' faces. That advantage, combined with Blackmagic Design's Generation 5 Colour Science, gave us some very satisfying results."

Snowy Encounter

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Encountering unpredictable weather was also inevitable and, because most of the production took place in the wilderness, presented one of the team’s major filming challenges. “In March 2021, we filmed a young local man protecting the Great Wall, following him as he scaled its heights,” said Li. “After climbing about 400m, a sudden snowfall caught us off guard, and we realized we had no protective cover for the URSA Mini 4.6K.

Determined to capture the rare snowy scenery of the Great Wall in Beijing in March, they persisted with the shoot, hoping the snow would soon stop, but it only grew heavier, forcing them to slide down the icy terrain to safety. Li said, “Despite the worsening conditions, our subject continued his mission of picking up rubbish along the Great Wall, prompting us to keep filming until we reached the foot of the mountain.

Old Friend

“Surprisingly, the camera continued to function but without the proper tools to clean and dry it, we discovered display corruption due to moisture exposure upon restarting. It was our own fault for not taking proper protective measures. I want to pay homage to the camera, my old companion, which completed amazing and unforgettable projects, one after another.”

As a replacement for this camera, the team acquired an URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2, appreciating its ability to record high frame rates in Blackmagic RAW, particularly 4K at 150p. “This speed and resolution fulfilled our requirements for slow motion footage in Ultra HD. Upon its announcement in 2019, while most of our projects were still delivered in HD, the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2 could already record high frame rates in 4K and up to 300p in HD," said Li.

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Future Audiences

“Documentary productions often span many years, but with the camera's future proof capabilities, we’re confident that our projects shot on the G2 will meet the viewing demands of future audiences. To date, it remains one of our primary cameras for critical projects, including the one for the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, for which we captured numerous VFX plates. The footage quality proved more than adequate for VFX processing. With careful maintenance we believe it will continue to serve us for eight or even ten more years."

Regarding future developments, Li is very interested in the company's announcement of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera 6K, and anticipates the possibilities of this full frame camera.

‘At the Edge of History: People and Places of the Great Wall’ went live on iQiyi on 7 November 2023. www.blackmagicdesign.com