Filmmaker Vincent Laforet Discusses The Canon C300
As most of you know, the Canon C300 is the most talked about camera on the market. With the announcement of the Cinema EOS system, Canon is going ‘all-in’ on the high-end digital production game, especially with the C300 camera and the new Cinema EOS professional PL- and EF-mount lenses. The C300 is now on the market with a street price of approximately $16,000 (body only).
Canon has also opened the Canon Hollywood Professional Technology & Support Center to bring service to the professional community, as well as conduct training and workshops. I recently got the chance to sit down with filmmaker Vincent Laforet, who was conducting a C300 workshop at the Hollywood Center, to discuss his experience shooting with the camera. Laforet is a DGA director and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who originally made his name in the filmmaking world by shooting visually stunning films (Reverie, Nocturne) with Canon DSLRs.
HDVIDEOPRO: When you shot the short, Mobius, for the Canon Hollywood C300 event, what were your first impressions of the camera?
VINCENT LAFORET: My first impression on paper, to be very honest, was that I was not that impressed. It was equivalent to everything that’s out there and perhaps behind two or three cameras like the EPIC and F65 – cameras that had already been announced. When you look at the white sheet, it really doesn’t pop off the page. But on the first day of the shoot, when I actually lensed something, I immediately went to the Canon rep and said, “OK, this is special.” What I’m trying to say is that people will look at the specs on paper at first and not necessarily say, “I have to try this because this is groundbreaking and has a new resolution that no one else has.” But when you do use the camera, it has one of the best sensors in digital cinema.
HDVP: Can you be more specific on why you weren’t blown away by the specs?
LAFORET: Well, it’s only 1080 – it’s not 4K, 2K. It’s not 60 – 120-fps, 300-fps. It’s locked at 30-fps max at 1080. For those that are pixel-pushers that want 4K and 5K or that want to do sports shooting where they want to shoot 120-fps – it was a little bit of a letdown. But what made it come right back is when you actually use the camera. The dynamic range is astonishing. The fact that this camera is regularly being compared to being a viable B-camera to an ALEXA is about the biggest compliment you can give a camera. I’ve heard several DPs who have worked with it, as well as my colorist, say that the C300 would intercut extremely well with the ALEXA, which is probably the Rolls Royce right now for digital cinema cameras for highlight retention and dynamic range.
I think this camera actually exceeds the ALEXA in one area, which is low light performance. I think the ALEXA starts to break up a bit at 1600 ASA and starts to really break up at 3200. While this camera seems to be very comfortable at 3200, anything over 10,000 ISO starts to be a little marginal and 20,000 is where I think it starts to break.
HDVP: There have been reports that shooters were getting clean images from 20,000 ISO with the camera.
LAFORET: There were four films made for the [Canon] launch and two of the films went to 20,000 ISO. Depending on the the material being captured (color and luminance), I think that anything above 10,000 ISO is a bit too far when projected on a 60-foot screen, but many will find it more than acceptable – especially if the image is de-noised or shared online or on TV of course. As a film, Mobius was meant to be a test of how this camera would perform in difficult daylight (desert) settings. I wasn’t necessarily trying to push the boundaries of low light. I put it through its paces on a Steadicam, on a helicopter, a Russian arm and on sticks and handheld as well. But I didn’t feel the need to go to 20,000 ISO. I was trying to produce as filmic a look as I could. A look where someone could look at Mobius and say that this is something they could definitely use for their next motion picture film.
HDVP: It’s interesting that you bring up the ALEXA since that seems to be the camera that has caught on with cinematographers because of it’s 14-stops of latitude. It seems like Canon is following their lead in terms of latitude, not resolution.
LAFORET: Well I think that dynamic range is as important, if not more, than resolution ultimately. Resolution has two obvious advantages: one is increased detail and the second is the ability to pan and scan as well as to stabilize the image, which is a nice thing to have. But ultimately what cinematographers and filmmakers struggle with the most, in my opinion, is dynamic range or lack thereof. There’s a scene where Roberto, the local, steps out of the car in full light and we have our protagonist inside the car and you see more than enough detail on him in full shadow as well as on Roberto in full sun. And that’s not something anyone expects from many of these digital cinema cameras. That’s what people expect from film.
When I tell people that a lot of the scenes were done without any fill or any light whatsoever, you can see their minds really start to think about potential uses – how a camera with this latitude at this price is groundbreaking. The reality is that Mobius was shot in three days and we had 60-shots a day so we didn’t have 20 or 30 minutes for each set-up to light – in fact we found ourselves using a lot of negative fill. We were moving very fast and this camera allowed me to shoot what I think is one of the hardest tests for any digital camera – 10:30 or 11:00 am in the desert when the light is almost straight down but at an angle, we did a 360 move – it’s the final shot of the film – without any fill whatsoever. At one point, your actors are fully lit and at the end of the shot they’re at full shadow. And the fact that the camera held all the detail throughout the entire 360-degree move in the desert with bright sand is pretty spectacular.
HDVP: What lenses did you have?
LAFORET: We had the C300s with an EF-mount, and used Canon EF lenses.
HDVP: So how do you feel EF lenses will work for professional cinematographers. Will they be used by big productions?
LAFORET: I think they’ll be used as specialty lenses. The optics are more than good enough, it’s just a question of the rotation on the barrel and being able to have marks of 3-feet, 4-feet, 5.2-feet versus 3-feet and infinity within an 1/8th of an inch on an EF Zoom lens. The optics have always been fantastic with Canon but those lenses were built to be used with autofocus lenses not as manual focus lenses.
HDVP: In your opinion, what are the biggest strengths of the C300?
LAFORET: The biggest strengths of this camera are: 1) The dynamic range of the camera – the sensor is spectacular; 2) Low light performance and the ability to dig into the shadows. That’s where this camera really has an advantage over a lot of other cameras. 3) The Canon Log they have is pretty spectacular as well. I’ve worked with other cameras where you have to dig into the shadows and there’s nothing there; 4) The noise on this camera looks very similar to film grain. I used to work in a black-and-white darkroom and the black-and-white channels of the C300’s different colors look very similar to Tri-X film. When you start to push the camera further than it should be, or even if you have to dig out shadows, instead of pulling out this random pattern noise and banding – the issues we’re used to with digital chips – you’re pulling out a very granule-like structure that is more pleasing. That’s one of the secret sauces of the camera that people don’t know yet because they haven’t used it but when they do they will find that’s the case.
HDVP: Can you take me through the workflow of shooting in Canon Log?
LAFORET: It’s incredibly simple. We literally shot, copied the cards off to a laptop for the D.I.T. We shot to two [CF] cards simultaneously so if there was corruption on one card, you can use the second one. We dropped it into [Adobe] Premiere Pro and off we went – no stuttering, no transcoding – it’s the same format as the Canon XF305.
HDVP: Shooting in Canon Log, would you say the look is similar to using the Technicolor CineStyle profile with the 5D Mark II?
LAFORET: The CineStyle is more aggressive I would say. The problem with the CineStyle look is that you can lose color very quickly if you’re not careful. So I would never use CineStyle on an overcast day where there is a mix with spots of sunlight for example – because all the colors of the skin can just disappear. For the most part, it’s extremely useful but if you’re not careful or know what you’re doing in a low contrast situation, you can get yourself in a pickle with skintones.
All the compression and artifacting that we’re used to with the 5D Mark II, are gone with the C300. It’s 8-bit versus 10, which I don’t think is as big a deal as some people make it out to be in the long run – although I’m not trying to dispel mathematic principles obviously – and the compression is much more favorable.
The Canon Log to 8-bit, is a very filmic and pleasing look. If you want to push it so far that you might break it, you probably should be shooting Raw at that point anyways. If someone wants to do something really stylized, that’s when you really when you want to go Raw and where cameras like the EPIC shine as well as the ALEXA with Raw decks. Raw is a fantastic tool when you know you’re going to push the image in post or that you plan on giving it a very particular style in grading. Most users tend to do a lot less and therefore this format will be more than sufficient for them.
HDVP: For the DSLR shooter, compare the C300 to a 5D Mark II.
LAFORET: The C300 is a DSLR grown up. It’s a DSLR without excuses. Everything that has driven you crazy for the past three or four years now, is all gone. No compression artifacting, no crushing of the blacks or blown out highlights. No aliasing issues at all. No moire issues, which was just nightmarish. I feel like I’m finally able to talk about this now (laughing). It drove me crazy. With the C300, it’s all gone and the fact that is has, effectively, a 4K sensor downsampling to 1080, it delivers extremely sharp and clean images. Between the XLR inputs and all the camera controls, it’s ready for production. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the C300 and would actually have a debate between this and the ALEXA, depending on the crew size, budget, and camera support I had at my disposal. If I have a large crew and a Steadicam, dolly, or generally good support for a heavier camera, there’s no question I’m going to use the ALEXA. But if I’m going to go light and spontaneous, I really would go with the C300 at this point or use them both together. If I need to push the image – for a commercial for example – then the EPIC would be my tool of choice.
HDVP: I’d like to ask you about the target audience for the C300. The $16,000 price point is one that most low budget shooters can’t afford. So what’s going to make a filmmaker rent a C300 over an EPIC or ALEXA?
LAFORET: At the end of the day, this package will probably rent for a 1/3 or at least half of what an ALEXA rents for, especially with all the bells and whistles. I think this camera will slowly build a solid following for what it does. It’s a camera without many excuses. Does it have the highlight retention of the ALEXA? No, nothing else does but as a package, it’s certainly more affordable, lighter and smaller. So you can have three or four of these cameras on a shoot instead of one ALEXA, operated by individuals as opposed to teams. If you are shooting with an ALEXA, you can throw a C300 into the mix as a B or C cam. The EPIC and ALEXA, see colors differently and intercutting them isn’t really an option. They are two distinct stocks of film if you will – each with clear advantages.
HDVP: So what do you think Canon should incorporate into the next Cinema EOS camera?
LAFORET: I think higher resolution and higher frame rates. And eventually Raw capture. I think Raw has been another big mountain to climb, although Raw can be both a gift and a curse. It’s a gift in that it gives you more latitude in post but it’s a curse in that it’s more post intensive. If the next camera has the ability to record both Raw and ProRes simultaneously, now that would be fantastic.