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Cinematographer Russell Carpenter, ASC: Shooting The Calling — The Oscar-winning DoP of Titanic and a number of other blockbuster films on Canon’s new C700 4.5k flagship cinema camera, the state of image making and what he likes to see on the theater screen
Academy Award winning DP Russell Carpenter, ASC recently teamed with Director Tyler Stableford in Colorado to shoot the The Calling: A Portrait of Life In The High Country, a short film that Canon commissioned to show of the capabilities of their latest digital cinema camera, the EOS C700. HDVP recently connected with Carpenter for a revealing conversation about his hands on experience with the new camera, his thoughts about the types of programming the C700 will be ideal for and where he feels the future of digital cinema is heading.
The Calling documents moments throughout a typical day with a real-life working cowboy, a pair of rock climbers and a master distiller. The film manages to nicely showcase the dynamic range, color science and highlight and low light capabilities of the new C700 without it becoming a typical boring demonstration film. Carpenter has had some but not a lot of exposure to recent Canon cameras. Carpenter explains, “Working on the feature film world, my experience typically involves shooting first unit camera with the Arriflex Alexa or the Alexa Plus. Typically, smaller, more portable cameras like the C300 would be used in a second unit or action camera capacity where smaller size and lighter weight is more important.”
How does an Oscar winning cinematographer end up shooting a short form project like this? Carpenter recalled the sequence of events that led him to the high country of Colorado to shoot The Calling. “I received a call from the executive producer, Steve Tobenkin, just to check my availability. At the time, he couldn’t tell me a lot about the project, but he did say as the dates drew nearer, he could tell me more. As the date approached, he told me that this was for a product rollout. Immediately when I hear, “product rollout”, I think ‘Uh oh, this will probably be something pedestrian, a somewhat prosaic kind of thing’. In the service of showing the audience what a camera can do, it can become boring. I talked to Tyler and he told me what he wanted to do, as a director, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be a lot of fun!’ He wanted to capture some poetry in the images.”
Carpenter elaborates on why he feels the C700 is a whole new paradigm for filmmakers, “Working with the C700 though, this was the first time I felt with a Canon camera, ‘Wow, I could go out and feel really comfortable shooting a feature film with it.’ Not only because of what it is capable of sensor-wise, but also because of the design and ergonomics. I think the way the camera is laid out is perfect for not only the cinematographer but also for the camera operator and first assistant. The C700 is designed to really accommodate a feature film workflow.” In his typical humble and self-deprecating manner, Carpenter clarified where his viewpoint stems from. “I am not a technical guy, I am the ultimate end-user, and I look at the C700 and think, ‘Wow’ this camera can make really pretty pictures!’”
While Carpenter typically has ample time to extensively test a camera package before embarking on a feature, for The Calling, he only had one test day to see what the camera was capable of before departing for Colorado to shoot the project. “Right away, I was knocked out by what I could see in the shadow areas. We only had time to test it in the Codex RAW codec. I have other tests I would like to do with the camera, like testing the Codex RAW versus the Prores. I suspect that the Prores output is very, very good too. But when we shot RAW, I was amazed at what I could see even 4, 5 or 6 stops down. The camera is rated at 800 ASA but I would easily rate it at ASA 1600 and have no problem with shooting there all day, knowing that there is just so much detail in the shadows.
As a cinematographer, I also am concerned with how things look in the highlights as well. Does the image have a filmic look? That’s what a camera like the Arri Alexa really nails. I don’t know how much they changed the ‘secret sauce’ in terms of the various Canon Log settings, but to me, the high end response of the C700 looked very, very good too. I want to take the camera out to shoot during the next full moon. I am sure I can shoot beautiful imagery under moonlight now. The camera looks terrific and has a very filmic quality to it. I shot some tests at ASA 6400 and while there was a tiny bit of noise, I really liked what I saw. It didn’t take heroic measures to get rid of that noise either. It was just like, turn one dial and it was gone and everything was fine. I really liked that.”
The C700’s physical layout represents a totally new design for Canon. The existing EOS Cine cameras all have a tall, modular design that puts the audio inputs on top of the camera, mounted on a handle. Not so on the C700, the design is a completely different approach for Canon and geared much more toward a multi-person camera crew shooting style than the single operator approach favored on the other C series. It’s first EOS Cinema camera to have the audio inputs built into the body for instance. “I found the layout of the camera to make sense. It’s a very simple, intelligent design where you can just pick up the camera and be ready to shoot.”
Much like Canon’s EOS C300 MKII, the C700 allows the operator many different options for choosing output resolution, color space and bit rate to various video outputs of the camera as well as the viewfinder. Carpenter explains one of his favorite features of the C700, “In your viewfinder, not only do you have a histogram visible, you can also choose whether you want to see your images in REC 709 or whatever your LUT is, or you can just see the image flat with no LUT applied. I was so interested in seeing the image in just Canon Log 2 because we had scenes where we were just shooting into the clouds, backlit things, and I really wanted to know what I was holding up there when the sun or the reflections off of the clouds would get so bright. I really liked the fact that I could instantly view the image flat or with REC709 in the viewfinder. That was another thing I liked about the menu structure and options, you can be a mere mortal and operate it, you don’t have to be an engineer or AC to understand how to make the camera do things.”
When asked to discuss the lenses he and Stableford used to shoot The Calling, Carpenter had some interesting viewpoints about the glass that was utilized. “One thing that was challenging was that on this shoot, we had one camera that had Canon’s EF mount and we had one camera that had a PL mount so we had to go out with two sets of lenses. I wasn’t using Canon lenses to shoot the features that I work on, but after this shoot, I came away with a lot of respect for the Canon glass. I spent 90% of my time behind the camera using the Canon CN-E 30-300mm T2.95-3.7 L cinema lens. It was just a great lens for what we were doing. I wish I had some of the faster anamorphic lenses, but I found in testing that when we were shooting in anamorphic, on a 20’ screen, it looked fine. When we showed the film at the ASC on a 20’ screen, I was happy with how it looked.
Speaking of the rock-climbing scene, we shot that late in the day. I was on the long end of the Canon 30-300 while Tyler was up on the rock with the climbers, he used the Cooke 12mm T2.8, that lens was perfect for those shots. We dealt with a tremendous amount of contrast in that scene since both of our shots were facing up toward the sky, plus the climbers were in full shadow. Especially in the background of my shot from the ground, there were lots of white-hot clouds. I thought the C700 handled that challenge really, really well and the lens was amazing too, with a noticeable absence of flares.”
Some of the other features of the C700 are not always common on higher end digital cinema cameras or are just not commonly used in feature filmmaking. Carpenter found in shooting the Calling, that some of these features worked to his advantage, “I have never been a fan of internal ND filters. On this project though, we shot with those and I thought they held up very well and they didn’t throw anything into the image that I didn’t like. While I feel that this camera is feature film production ready, I think it is also going to find a great market with companies like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu that are demanding 4K origination for series and movies. In documentaries, you need to often shoot with a very fast camera; you often need the internal ND filters.”
Shooting in the RAW workflow with the optional Codex recorder seemed to be a fairly transparent workflow for Carpenter. “In the past, I shot with some early cameras like the Arri D-21 and to utilize a RAW workflow, you had an external recorder that you had to be tethered to with cables. The connections were really not robust enough to withstand the abuse of feature filmmaking. With the C700, the Codex RAW recorder just sits on the back of the camera like a battery, it’s great. It never got in the way. This was basically the maiden voyage of these cameras in a production situation. We had zero problems with the Codex system, it was phenomenal. The main thing about the Codex was the ability to record the entirety that the camera was seeing. Same with the newest monitors, you can actually see what you are shooting while you are shooting. It used to be so difficult to tell what you were actually capturing. You couldn’t tell what you had captured until you saw it in a dark edit bay.”
“This was also my first experience in shooting HDR. This technology is going to really change how cinematographers work. We all have tricks of the trade that we use. For instance, you might be shooting out of a window and have the scene lit by a big light outside of the window. You think, ‘Well, I’ll just overexpose it to make it so we can’t see that light source’. You’re not going to get away with that anymore when shooting HDR. Or you might have a really hot streak of light on a person’s chin. You know that if you go five stops up, it can become beautiful and shiny. But with HDR, you have to make that same light so much brighter to get the same result when played back on an HDR system. Because we didn’t have all that many resources, we had a scene where we didn’t like the ceiling. So we threw a big piece of white card to cover it. In monitoring it in REC709, it looked exactly how it was supposed to look, blown out, and the ceiling and the wall blended together and you didn’t notice it. But when you looked at it on an HDR monitor, it looked pretty funky.”
Carpenter is still a traditionalist in some ways, even though he uses bleeding edge new technology like the C700. “I still love the traditional film look of 24 frames per second. There have been experiments and films shot at higher frame rates to introduce a sort of hyper realistic feel to the story. I agree with what Ingmar Bergman said in the 1950s. When an audience goes into a theater, they are agreeing to go into a trance in a way. To me, the hyper real look doesn’t induce that dream state where you go along for the ride. End of rant. When asked about his views on 3D and Virtual Reality, Carpenter responds, “I think 3D is going to get better and better. A few years ago, it was, ‘everything needs to be in 3D. Again.’ But now people have backed away from that. I don’t have experience in VR. But I am looking forward to seeing how the new technology continues to develop.”