Strong men and powerful machines burrow 1,000 feet into the side of a West Virginia mountain, creating a passageway just 48 inches high amid damp and dusty darkness and the ever-present danger of cave-ins and other mishaps. It’s the world of Coal, a reality series from Original Productions, and the challenge of capturing its daily drama for a major cable network required the outstanding HD performance and rugged build quality of XF305 professional HD camcorders from Canon U.S.A., a leader in digital imaging. Co-Executive Producer and former U.S. Marine Eric Lange had used other HD camcorder brands on other shows, but says the Canon XF305 was the right choice for this tough assignment.
“Many of our shooters use Canon digital SLR cameras and lenses, which provide unbelievable quality,” Lange explained. “Our past experience with Canon equipment gave us the confidence that we wouldn’t have equipment failures. We chose the Canon XF305 professional HD camcorder for several reasons. To begin with it records to Compact Flash memory cards. The ability to record at 50 Mbps on two hot-swappable 80-minute 32GB cards proved essential in the dirty, unpredictable environment of the coal mine. Our shooters didn’t have to change-out their cards during each entire shift. We had three cameras shooting per shift around the clock for two months. We shot a high ratio of footage and produced ten hours of Coal for Spike TV. The Canon XF305 delivered fantastic performance in the mine. We couldn’t have done the job with any other camera.”
Canon Optical Advantages
Canon HD optics provided essential capabilities for capturing the footage that Lange and his team sought deep beneath the earth. The XF305 professional HD camcorder is equipped with a Genuine Canon 18x HD L-series lens with a 35mm equivalent zoom range of from 29.3mm to 527.4mm. Designed for capture of everything from wide-angle shots to extreme telephoto situations, the professional operability of this integral HD lens also includes a full manual focus mode with mechanical “hard” end-stops and distance markers for repeatable manual focus. Made with advanced optical materials, the lens is compact and lightweight for maximum mobility, and it features Canon’s SuperRange Optical Image Stabilizer system to achieve steady shots in challenging environments.
“Trying to stay in critical focus in a 48-inch-high mine – where you’re within three to four feet of your subject all the time – is a difficult thing to do, especially in a low-light situation,” Lange confided. “We put a lot of responsibility on the camera operator’s shoulders, which is why the XF305 was the best choice inside the hole. Its lens gives you a bit more ‘wiggle room’ to maintain focus because its depth of field is greater. This makes it easier to shoot the dynamic environments of reality TV. The mine is a cramped space and if a problem suddenly occurs you need to move fast. The XF305’s lens gave us the ability to shoot wides and cut-aways along with our interviews, all of which were really close to the action.”
Lange noted that the XF305’s autofocus and Genuine Canon face-detection features also proved handy in the unpredictable and hazardous environment of the mine. “A lot of our shooters prefer manual focus, but in situations when something goes down and there’s a lot of running around, autofocus can be handy,” he said. “The autofocus on the XF305 worked well in low-light, which surprised us. We used the face recognition feature of the XF305 a few times as well. Reality shooters are always looking for a safe position, and when the unexpected happens, face recognition lets them stay focused on multiple subjects while also avoiding getting crushed or run over.”
The advanced capabilities of multiple Canon-engineered-and-manufactured components contribute to the excellent low-light performance of the XF305 professional HD camcorder. These include the f/1.6-f/22 aperture range of its Genuine Canon 18x HD zoom lens, the high sensitivity of its three native 1920 x 1080 CMOS image sensors, and the precision optimization of such factors as tonal gradations and shadow detail provided by the camcorder’s sophisticated built-in DIGIC DV III image processor. This imagery is then passed to the XF305’s MPEG-2 4:2:2 50 Mbps Canon XF codec, which records fine detail and accurate color, and provides smooth compatibility with post-production workflows.
Complementing the excellent low-light capabilities of the compact, highly mobile XF305 was the production team’s choice of a lighting solution, which consisted of small, battery-powered LED panels sealed inside Pelican cases.
“Obviously, there’s very little light down in a mine, but the low-light capability of the XF305 worked out fantastically for us,” Lange noted. “It enabled us to save battery power by running our panels at only about ten percent, which made them last through all ten hours of each shift. We had the ability to shoot the entire show a lot darker, which was aesthetically something that we wanted to do. We wanted to see the beams of the miners’ helmet lights. We wanted to see glimpses of the miners’ faces, and we had the ability to shoot with a lot of latitude but still be on the dark side. The XF305’s Canon XF codec even gave us enough latitude in post to make color-correction adjustments that were fantastic. In fact, even when we dropped all of our lights and shot silhouetted stuff, the camera still had the ability to pick up great images.”
Picture and Sound
Among the many innovative design features of the Canon XF305 is its folding four-inch LCD panel, which can be positioned on either the left or the right of the camcorder for flexibility in tight shooting situations. The panel is rotatable and can be angled 35 degrees further toward the front for when a cameraperson is unable to be positioned directly behind the camcorder.
“The LCD screen is yet another thing we really like about the XF305,” Lange stated. “In most cramped situations, the full rotation of the LCD allowed us to shoot with the camera parallel to the operator’s face. The face of the camera operator was often literally next to the barrel of the lens, and he or she would be shooting sideways in order to get the shot. That LCD allowed us to get into really cramped ‘yoga positions’ and still see the image, which was a big benefit. One other thing: normally, in dusty, difficult situations the LCD is the first thing to fail, but we had no problems with the Canon LCDs, and that was another huge benefit.”
Providing approximately 100 percent field of view coverage, this big 1.23 megapixel LCD panel is designed to facilitate checking critical focus, and can display live vectorscope and waveform monitor screens within the HD video frame. The XF305 also includes a 1.55 megapixel electronic viewfinder.
“As for the audio on this camcorder, it’s fantastic,” Lange added. The XF305 includes a built-in stereo microphone and two XLR audio inputs with +48V phantom power. Internal and external mics can be used simultaneously. “We ran a two-mic setup through one XLR and in the other XLR input we ran a shotgun mic, which is common in reality TV because these mics have great range and are directional. In situations where two of the subjects being shot weren’t miked, the camera operator would use the XF305’s on-board mic, and it was perfect. It did the job when everything else failed because of the environment.”
Lange and his crew used a total of 12 Canon XF305 professional HD camcorders (ten for shooting and two for back-ups) to capture the Coal series. A critically acclaimed program, its combination of cinema verité grit and human drama brings new levels of intimacy and drama to reality TV. Although many factors contribute to any show’s success, Lange credits the XF305 with playing an important role in this one.
“The build quality and burliness of the XF305 is very rugged,” he observed. “Coal dust was everywhere in the mine, and it got into everything, but we had no problems with these cameras. The way Canon seals the lens of the XF305 works really well. Normally by the end of a two-month shoot like this one you’d see the focus and zoom rings start to fail, but there was nothing that an air can couldn’t blow out at the end of a shift. Even the XLR inputs, which can be a weak point on cameras, were good. We cleaned those out after every shift in the mine and had no corrosion, no audio crackle, no problems.”
“Looking back, when we arrived at the shooting location and saw what we were getting into, we worried about the XF305 camcorders,” Lange concluded. “Then after we dropped a few, sat on others, and even ran one or two into drilling machines, we saw how rugged the build quality of the XF305 really is. The Canon HD camcorders became the least of our worries, and that let us concentrate on the safety of our shooters.”