Triple Threat

Writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier looked at a bunch of cameras before diving into his sophomore feature Blue Ruin, a revenge drama whose prolific festival run bowed out at Sundance in January, having scooped up a FIPRESCI prize at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Saulnier didn’t want to test these cameras in the usual environments of a fluorescent-lit showroom at a camera house with a focus chart and a bunch of consumers shopping around him. He needed to take them out on the road for a more real-world, cinematic setting. This is where he fell in love with the Canon EOS C300.

"I’m not wowed by technical specs," says the Virginia-born, Brooklyn-bred filmmaker. "I go with the overall look and vibe of a particular camera, and the C300 won out. The only tech specs I’m concerned with are the practical ones—lightweight size, the format that the footage is recording to, whether I can take it into the woods for an entire day without a generator and lots of cases, low-cost accessories, getting some sort of professional-grade camera movement going on with a 10-minute setup instead of a 45-minute setup, and if I can have total freedom to hop in my minivan and catch a sunrise by myself if need be."

All of that lined up with the C300, plus it recorded to a CF card, which Saulnier already had in excess of because of his Canon EOS 5D Mark II kit. Compared to its competitors, the C300’s onboard recording capabilities were superior in that it captured straight to CF cards at a comparable resolution and at an even higher data rate. This was key in his decision, as Saulnier wanted to avoid the hassle of using an external recorder. "The point of buying a small camera is to keep it small, lightweight and all onboard," he adds.

After Saulnier bought the C300 kit, which he could own at the same price as renting a high-end ALEXA feature package (for which he does have an affinity), he, his lead actor Macon Blair and associate producer Chris Sharp—all buddies since childhood—went on a scouting trip. They were able to fit the entire camera package into one backpack and the support easily loaded into the van.

For lenses, Saulnier was originally looking at fairly expensive cinema lenses, but realized that the most important thing for him to take advantage of was the C300’s native 850 ISO.

"If you have a fast camera and get slow lenses," explains the NYU graduate, "it negates the whole thing. 4K HMI rentals can become 1.2K HMI rentals if you have the right lenses for your camera."

So Saulnier went with Canon’s still photography-designed L-series primes—the 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm were his go-to lenses, and on hand were 24-70mm and 70-200mm zooms—all EF mounts.

"For about $1,200 per lens," he says, "I had a great-looking lens with a maximum aperture of a T1.2 or a T1.4. Most cinema lenses have more going on in there, and are certainly better for focus pulling and ergonomics on a film set, but for me, I just needed a really fast lens to save on lighting. I wanted to be able to wait for true dusk and bang out five or six shots of coverage to complete a scene in waning light. We really wanted to bake the time of day into a scene. In Blue Ruin, we don’t just have establishing shots at the head of a scene to set the mood and proceed to ‘cheat’ the rest with heavy lighting and image grading. We shot magic-hour scenes at magic hour—sunrises, sunsets, at dusk and at dawn—so we had to bang out shots at lightning speed."

Part of baking in that time of day and maintaining the subtle contrast that defines the look of the film, even within extreme lighting conditions, came from the dynamic range of Canon Log. Blue Ruin‘s colorist, Alex Bickel from Color Collective, was truly impressed with it. He graded using a Film Print Emulation LUT, and the dynamic range of the C300’s Canon Log footage provided a great starting point and allowed them to achieve a very filmic final grade, according to Bickel.