There was no margin for error. The video shoot had to be completed in two four-and-a-half-hour sessions over two days and then delivered to the network at 9 a.m. the following morning. Although it would be less than five minutes long when finished, the video would involve more than a dozen TV stars, a fast-paced location shoot in narrow hallways, and a complex choreography of people running toward a moving camera while lip-synching a classic rock song. It would also have to be shot in HD by one camera operator with minimal lighting. Target audience for the video: millions of viewers who would watch it as the intro to a major awards telecast.
Director Michael Blieden knew that shooting this video would present several production challenges. For at least half its length he’d have to run backwards while capturing footage of his celebrity cast and keeping their famous faces in focus. He’d need maximum mobility and couldn’t rely on a focus puller or a wireless follow-focus system that would add weight to his camera-support rig. He’d need fast production workflow, so that separate shots could be edited together and approved while he was still shooting. Most of all he’d need a lightweight camera that delivered network-level broadcast HD picture quality. Blieden met all of these production challenges by using Canon’s XF305 professional tapeless HD camcorder.
The Crucial Camera
“We were moving into a much higher-stress environment with this assignment,” explained Blieden, who directs and shoots location segments for a late-night TV talk show. “It had a tighter deadline, more coverage needs, more celebrities, and more people watching. I have to say, the XF305 camera came almost in answer to a prayer of mine.”
Blieden began his career shooting documentary-style video with prosumer HD cameras. The experience taught him that the auto-focus features of those cameras could serve as a valuable professional production tool in certain circumstances, such as in up-close shoots of performances by rock-and-roll bands.
“Auto-focus is something a professional isn’t supposed to use,” he confided. “But I found that it can be very handy when you’re shooting solo. When this new assignment came along I was wishing for a professional HD camera that not only had auto-focus but also the kind of face-detection technology I had seen on digital SLRs. Low and behold, a few days later I learned about the Canon XF305, which has both. I literally planned the whole shoot around the XF305’s features. It was what made it all work.”
Auto Focus and Face Detection
Blieden began the production process by choreographing and blocking the entire shoot, which began with a two-minute dialogue portion and ended with the lip-synched “music video” performance. Using a cast of stand-ins and dancers, he rehearsed the shoot with the XF305, planning his moves and those of assistants holding the few small lights he’d need. Confident of the XF305’s capabilities, Blieden showed the edited proof-of-concept video to the network and got approval to deliver the broadcast version in two days.
Getting to work immediately, Blieden spent the first day shooting the dialogue portion, which depicted the host of the awards telecast arriving at the studio and meeting other TV stars who accompany him as he hurries through a corridor and past dressing rooms. The pace quickens as the story unfolds, with more celebrities joining in the procession. Accustomed to using a Steadicam to minimize back strain with other cameras, Blieden mounted his XF305 to that stabilizer system, opting not to use the XF305’s built-in SuperRange Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS) system. Although he reports being impressed with the OIS system during hand-held tests, he noted: “There’s only one scene that I shot handheld, and I turned it off because I intentionally wanted it to look shaky.”
The second day’s shoot captured the group’s lip-synched “music video” as they marched ever faster toward Blieden’s retreating camera, through various rooms and down staircases. Maintaining a wide shot with the XF305’s 18x Canon L-series zoom lens, Blieden ran backwards to capture the action, relying on the camera’s auto focus and face-detection technology to keep the picture sharp. “I love the lens,” he said. “It has a great zoom ratio and a dreamy quality while still being sharp.”
“Based on the framing I chose, the XF305’s face-detection technology would find the ‘hero’ in the shot and, for the most part, follow that person’s face and keep it in focus anywhere they went in the frame,” he elaborated. “We had one very complicated shot with everyone moving and different singing faces going in and out of the frame. This caused the face-detection to select a different ‘hero’ face three times, but that didn’t matter as long as the ‘hero’ of the moment always stayed in the frame.”
Some shots required re-takes with additional lighting added, Blieden reported, but for the most part the XF305’s auto focus and face-detection technology sped production and proved indispensable. “Face detection essentially is a virtual assistant, a digital focus puller that helps you compose your shots and achieve the look you want,” he stated. “Without it I would have needed a human assistant who would have gotten in my way or a wireless follow-focus, and I was looking to keep every spare ounce off the Steadicam. It was already carrying a wireless HD transmitter connected to the XF305’s HD-SDI output so my second camera operator could check focus using the 17-inch monitor on his cart.”
Blieden added that the XF305’s face-detection technology was also crucial for capturing single shots that allowed for smooth edits. “I got the singles I needed, and there’s no way I could have done that without auto focus and face detection.”
Recording to universally available Compact Flash (CF) cards, the XF305 captures native 1920 x 1080 video using the MPEG-2 4:2:2 50Mbps Canon XF Codec. Uniting video, audio and metadata into a single file, the Canon XF305 use an MXF (Material eXchange Format) File Wrapper, a widely supported open-source format, to maximize compatibility with existing industry infrastructure and non-linear editing (NLE) systems.
“Workflow is another great thing about the XF305 camera,” Blieden said. “We can be running CF cards and viewing video in the edit bay in four-times real-time. CF cards are many orders of magnitude better than other types of flash memory. They’re cheap, you can buy them practically anywhere, and a new card reader is inexpensive. Given the way we work, that makes a big difference. We have a lot of people that need access to the video, and with a CF card reader you can ingest footage anywhere you want: on-set with a laptop, in the graphics department, the edit bay, or my office. I even carry a spare CF card reader in my backpack.”
Three separate cameras were used in all to shoot the video, an XF305 on Blieden’s Steadicam, another on a tripod for two stationary scenes, and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital HDSLR for two low-light hallway shots of dancers silhouetted by a blue background. “With cameras inexpensive and small enough today, you can have different cameras on hand for specific shots,” he stated. “Our audio guy jam-synched time code on the two XF305’s at the start of the day. As far as I know they were spot-on; I never heard a complaint.”
The XF305’s custom picture settings feature, which enables users to tailor the video image to their particular creative needs, ensured matching video from both cameras. “There’s a ton of customization that you can do in those pre-sets, which is another awesome thing about these Canon cameras,” Blieden said. “As for the video itself, it’s rich with information, which gives you so much more to work with. It made the color-correction process a joy.”
Blieden and his assistants met their deadline with time to spare. The video aired on network TV the following evening as the introduction to a spectacular awards show. The production experience has subsequently inspired this director of photography to speak his mind.
“Auto-focus and face-detection technology were singly enabling technologies for this shoot,” Blieden asserted. “They convinced me to ‘come out of the closet’ as a DP who has used them successfully. I feel that if you’re using auto-focus and face-detection strategically they’re not dirty words for professionals anymore. They’ve gotten that good. They are tools that allowed me to work the way I wanted and to get the job done.”
“I have always wanted a camera that suited all of our needs in terms of HD quality, budget, the weight constraints of the rig I like to use, and the instant-access workflow needs of our various departments,” he concluded. “I’ve tried everything, but after I worked with the XF305 I realized that this is the camera that we have been looking for. I anticipate using it quite a lot in the future.”