Canon EOS C300 Helps Capture Documentary Footage in Deep, Dark Caves for No Place on Earth
It was a challenge unlike any cinematographer Zac Nicholson had ever faced. Asked by director/co-producer Janet Tobias to film scenes deep within a narrow cave for an incredible true story of human survival, Nicholson relied on the compact size and low-light performance of the EOS C300 cinema camera from Canon, U.S.A.
A second unit director and one of several cinematographers on Tobias’ film No Place on Earth, Nicholson’s assignment was to re-create scenes showing how 38 Ukrainian Jews hid from the Nazis for 18 months in what today is recognized as the longest underground survival in recorded human history. No Place on Earth took two years to produce and combines re-enactments and interviews with four elderly survivors to tell a remarkable story of courage and endurance.
“I would take one of the actors deep into the cave and go through crevasses that you couldn’t even get lighting equipment into,” Nicholson explained in describing the photography of a scene depicting the exploration of the cave by the refugees. “These are places that are physically challenging even without a camera. There are ultra-compact cameras available, but I used the Canon EOS C300 because these images had to look great on big screens in movie theatres. I use only candles for lighting many of those scenes because that’s what they had in the caves during the war. Those candle-lit EOS C300 camera shots are in the film, and they look beautiful, and it was only the compact size and low-light capabilities of the EOS C300 camera that made them possible.”
“The Canon EOS C300 camera enabled Zac to maneuver in the caves as a very mobile second unit,” Tobias elaborated. “There are a number of quite intimate images that I think are very important for conveying the emotional message of the film that were captured with the EOS C300 camera. These included images of children. The simple set-ups made possible by the compact EOS C300 camera enabled the children to be very natural in re-creating the experience of everything from play to fear inside the cave. We were also able to capture scenes of climbing and digging in very tight spaces high up inside a shaft that would have involved unbelievably expensive and complex rigging had we used a larger camera. The Canon EOS C300 camera is an incredibly nimble camera with a beautiful image and it was invaluable to us on both budgetary and artistic levels.”
Equipped with a Canon Super 35mm CMOS sensor, revolutionary Canon DIGIC DV III image processor and a 50 Mbps 4:2:2 MPEG-2 codec for superb cinematic picture quality, the Canon EOS C300 digital cinema camera is engineered to deliver full 1920 x 1080 HD and a selectable ISO range up to 20,000 for exceptional low-light performance. With a camera body weighing just over 3 lbs., the C300 can accommodate virtually any shooting setup, from highly mobile run-and-gun situations to elaborate production rigs (the C300 is compatible with a host of major third-party shooting accessories).
“I love the challenge of boundaries and obstacles in filmmaking,” Nicholson added. “We were dealing with a harsh environment that didn’t really ‘want’ us to be filming in it, and we used illumination that wasn’t made for motion capture, yet the EOS C300 camera delivered great results. The candles and oil lanterns we used for certain scenes also served as ‘practicals’ that could be photographed for realism. Plus, I was directing actors that didn’t speak English, so giving them a prop such as a candle and allowing them to explore with it, and then being able to capture those images made for great footage.”
Multiple cinematographers working with separate teams in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Ukraine used a variety of professional digital movie cameras to shoot No Place on Earth. Nicholson had originally been asked by Tobias to shoot behind-the-scenes content with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital SLR camera. Some of that footage later became integral to the film’s climax. Then when the Canon EOS C300 became available Nicholson purchased that camera, and it became the camera of choice for capturing even more key scenes.
“I had been using the Canon EOS 5D Mark II for a lot of my own documentaries and narrative experimental work,” Nicholson said. “I think Canon was the first to understand what they had created for filmmakers in the DSLR market, and then to push that beyond its boundaries into new areas. For a long time I had been waiting for something I would be comfortable shooting movies with that didn’t use film. The EOS C300 camera was what I had been waiting for. I have heard other filmmakers praise the EOS C300 camera, and everything I saw from it was extraordinary. Plus, I’d be able to use my Canon EF lenses with the EOS C300 camera. As soon as the EOS C300 camera became available I bought one, and it has exceeded my expectations. I have been shooting with it ever since and it’s basically been my workhorse, the camera I hope to shoot with every single time I go out. There were a lot of things that we did with the EOS C300 camera for No Place on Earth that were in environments that were so difficult to shoot in that we could not have physically or logistically done them with a larger digital cinematography camera, especially one requiring assistants. The EOS C300 camera provides a small, almost DSLR-like shape and structure, which is highly portable and maneuverable, and yet it gives you a sensor that can match those of the larger digital cinema cameras.”
The extreme portability of the Canon EOS C300 camera was not only essential to Nicholson’s cinematography in deep, dark caves, but during “magic hour,” when daylight light takes on a unique “look” just prior to sunset. Assigned to shoot re-enactments of Nazis searching for hidden families in a historic village outside of Budapest, Nicholson had to work fast to capture a sequence of shots for a montage scene bathed in the unique look of the last hour of sunlight. Nicholson credits the ergonomics of the C300 as the key to the scene’s success.
“We had two actors dressed as SS soldiers and a limited period of perfect ‘magic hour’ light to capture a whole sequence of shots of them looking into hiding places,” Nicholson recounted. “We needed a variety of shots to tell the story, and we were really only able to get them all done because of the size of the EOS C300 camera, which gave us the ability to move and shoot on the fly. The EOS C300 camera allows you to do things creatively and as a cinematographer who also directs, it’s great to have a camera that doesn’t weigh you down as a larger, heavier camera would. If we saw something interesting happening in real time in front of us with the actors, I could just pop the camera off the tripod and start shooting. The EOS C300 camera is so well designed for hand-held work, I personally love the way you can cradle it. If you’re running you even can use its top handle to kind of balance out the shakiness.”
The detachable top handle on the Canon EOS C300 digital cinema camera includes a 1.55 megapixel adjustable-angle 4-inch color LCD monitor for accurate judgment of composition, focus, and color. A bright 1.55 megapixel electronic viewfinder (EVF) is built into the camera body. Both the EVF and the LCD monitor can display a waveform monitor, vectorscope, and other screens for adjusting picture quality.
“In general, I used a mixture of the EVF and LCD,” Nicholson confided. “If the EOS C300 camera was on a tripod for a set shot I preferred to use the flip-out LCD screen. For hand-held work I used the eyepiece because it felt more natural, like a 16mm camera. Also, it gave me an extra layer of stability. I used the battery that comes with the EOS C300 camera and a slightly larger external battery, and between those two I always had more than enough power, even with the LCD out and the camera on and running for extended periods. I never even came close to running out of batteries.”
The C300 records to two CF (Compact Flash) cards through dual slots with a choice of serial or parallel (for backup) recording, providing up to 80 minutes of recording time on each 32GB card. “I own four CF cards, and used them instead of an external recorder or computer, which you don’t want to be hooked up to when you’re down in a cave,” Nicholson asserted. “Our DIT periodically downloaded the CF cards and had them back to me in 15 minutes, so I never had to worry about not having enough card space.”
Diverse Lens Choices
The Canon EOS C300 digital cinema camera is available in two versions; one using industry-standard PL-mount lenses, and the other equipped with an EF lens mount for use with Canon’s line of more than 60 interchangeable EF Series lenses designed for Canon EOS digital SLR cameras. Canon also offers a series of five precision-matched EF-mount Cinema prime lenses for the EOS C300 (and its companion Cinema cameras the EOS C500 and EOS C100), as well as EF- and PL-mount versions of two competitively priced top-end Cinema zooms with over 4K resolution as well as two compact, lightweight hand-held Cinema zooms with 4K resolution. Nicholson used the EF-mount version of the EOS C300 Cinema camera to shoot his portions of No Place on Earth.
“Using Canon EF Series photographic lenses gave us a lot of options,” he noted. “Another cinematographer on this project brought several of his own Canon EF lenses, as did a still photographer. We were all trading lenses, which gave us a great many creative options. The ability to just grab a lens made for photography with no film equivalent, and then use it on the EOS C300 camera right when it’s needed gave us an extra layer of creativity in our ‘back pocket,’ so to speak.”
Among the Canon lenses Nicholson used were the EF 24mm fixed-focal length wide-angle prime, the 16-35mm ultra-wide zoom, and the 24-70mm and 24-105mm standard zooms. “I tended to use the 24mm prime and 24-70mm zoom the most down in the caves,” he said. “The 24mm was one of my workhorses. It’s a nice wide-angle lens that let me get up-close to actors, and in low light you can keep it open at f/1.4, which I did a fair amount of the time. That allows so much light into the camera that it makes a nice, crisp, sharply focused image. The 24-70mm zoom was also really helpful because it opens up to a fast f/2.8. When you’re deep in a cave you don’t want to have to carry around too many lenses, and the 24-70mm zoom provides variable focal lengths that enhance creativity by enabling you to do things on the fly.”
Editing and other postproduction work for No Place on Earth necessitated integrating the multiple digital cinematography formats used to photograph the film. Smooth postproduction workflow for the Canon EOS C300 camera was enabled by its employment of the industry-standard MXF (Material eXchange Format) container file format for compatibility with all major editing software and systems. In addition, the EOS C300 can record in Canon Log mode, which helps ensure capture of a full 12 T-stops of exposure latitude and is designed to provide the utmost quality for creative post production color-grading processes.
“I shot all Canon Log,” Nicholson noted. “The latitude of the EOS C300 camera is fantastic and gave us so much creativity in both production and post. Integrating multiple digital cinema formats required the broad latitude in the stop range and the EOS C300 camera delivered that. The camera is really impressive in that it can both see into the dark and see shadows – even when the illumination is a flickering candle from off-screen – while also providing images that don’t bloom and look like traditional ‘video.’ Having shot so much on the fly with quick lighting set-ups, the ability to capture so much detail with images that we could play with later in post was a great comfort factor.”
No Place on Earth made its world premiere to sold-out audiences at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently being shown in theatres by Magnolia Pictures in the U.S. “This is a story with incredible meaning,” Tobias stated. “At the end of the day you carry away that it’s not just a great adventure/survival story, you carry away what people are capable of doing under impossible-to-imagine circumstances. I’m developing another project and we are committed to the Canon EOS C300 camera and EOS C500 camera because we’ve had such a good experience.”
“Janet had a vision for creating something that went beyond what people expect in a documentary with re-enactments, and she did an incredible job of bringing it to the screen,” Nicholson affirmed. “For my part, the Canon EOS C300 camera gave me creativity and opened possibilities I didn’t have before. That’s all you can ever hope for in any piece of equipment. Some of those images of the exploration scenes in the cave really stick with me. That we were able to use just a candle and still get images that are not only usable but beautiful, I think, is a great testament to the Canon EOS C300 camera.”