For film and video producer Richard Shaw, a crucial first step in starting a new project is choosing the right equipment. An expert in moving-image technology for two decades, Shaw was an early pioneer of nonlinear editing techniques and the founder of production and post facilities in both Atlanta and Hollywood. His recent work includes editing and co-producing (with writer David McBrayer and Karen Shapiro) Beat the Drum, a film that tells the story of a young South African AIDS victim. Shot on location in Super 35mm film, Beat the Drum has won 27 international awards.
In addition to movies, Shaw's other recent projects at Pinlight LLC, his Los Angeles-based film and video production/post company, included an assignment from a major record label to document a top recording artist's Tokyo concert tour. Partnering with director and co-producer Lee Cantelon, Shaw knew they'd need a camera capable of high-quality image capture that would also be unobtrusive enough for them to shoot in the cinema verite style they sought.
"Lee and I shopped around and looked at several HDV digital camcorders," Shaw recalled. "We checked out all the available models and found that the Canon XL H1 was head and shoulders above the others, so we went with it."
"The XL H1's HD-SDI output and genlock capabilities impressed me the most as professional features," Shaw noted. "Having all of that on a $10,000 camera is pretty cool. HD-SDI output will come in very handy when it's time to edit our footage. And genlock lets us interface the XL H1 with other systems or mount it on a jib arm and lock it into a switcher. SMPTE time code input and output is another great feature and something that will also come in handy. If we do a multi-camera shoot and want all of our cameras to track with the same time code, we can do that as well.
"I also like the fact that the XL H1's input gain controls--instead of being stepped, as they are with most cameras--are variable," Shaw continued. "Video cameras normally have, for example, 9dB gain and then an 18dB gain. But the XL H1 levels are different and also variable. So if you don't need the full amount, you can kind of just tweak it up a little bit until you have enough gain to get the shot without getting excessive video noise.
"Last but not least, the audio quality of the XL H1 is something we really appreciate. There are separate level controls for each channel behind a flip-open door. Having that much control over the sound without letting the camera ride your levels for you all the time is great. And the microphone that comes with the camera is far better than we anticipated it would be. There were times when Lee couldn't snap a lavalier on someone, but he was close enough to use the camera mic and it sounded just great. The XL H1's mic seems way better than normal."
After shooting test footage to show the record label that the Canon XL H1 was the right camera for the job, Cantelon traveled to Japan to document the artist's ten-concert tour there. Using the XL H1 ensured that the tour would be captured in pristine HDTV, but in a way that was unobtrusive, in true documentary fashion.
"It was an intimate sort of shoot, not a big concert video with five cameras feeding into a production switcher in a truck in an alley," Shaw noted. "We used just one XL H1 and the visuals are stunning."
In addition to onstage performances, Cantelon also captured behind-the-scenes footage, commentaries by the recording artist, and scenes of Tokyo during Christmas season. He shot in the XL H1's 1080 24f mode to achieve a filmic look for their project.
"Tokyo is so colorful at that time of the year, and our images have such high resolution they look like 35mm film," Shaw explained. "With the XL H1 all the colors just popped out, especially in Tokyo where they use a lot of reds in their clothing, signage, and décor. The colors we captured looked like they were shot on high-quality 35mm film. They are super-saturated, brilliant, with no clipping or distortion. Individual colors--reds, oranges, and other saturated colors--didn't have that typical NTSC clamping many cameras produce, where everything looks drab."
Besides its filmic look, Shaw also noted the film-style ergonomics of the XL H1. "The XL H1 is film-like in its feel; you can cradle the camera," he commented. "And when you're up on stage trying not to be seen, having a black camera in your hands is really appropriate. It just has a really nice feel in your hands.
"The light sensitivity of the XL H1 proved to be a lot gentler and nicer than we had anticipated," Shaw continued. "The controls for adjusting gain are very good. But it was the crispness of the image, though, that really knocked us out. And of course, being a Canon camera, the lens is really good.
"It's just uncanny just how crisp the XL H1's image is. You can see individual pores on people's faces, individual hairs. Lee related how he had shot blackbirds flying across a completely crisp, blue sky at one point and he said the XL H1 picked it up perfectly. Any normal camera would create 'ringing' around all of those birds against such a saturated sky. It would have looked like video. But not on the XL 1; it was totally crisp."
In addition to its image quality, Shaw's experience with the XL H1 has also convinced him that it's actually two cameras in one. "In 4:3 DV mode with 24f selected you can shoot something that looks like 16mm for SD projects," he noted. "Or you can go into 16:9 1080i 24f and it begins to resemble 35mm for HD projects. A lot of our international customers want 1080i format video with the look of film, and the XL H1 saves us a ton of time because we can just shoot and start cutting. We don't have to do any processing to it; it already looks like film.
"We just think the XL H1 is a great camera."
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