Canon‘s XL H1 HDV Camcorder Scores Big for Director Erik Laibe‘s Soccer Film

Writer I. J. Azimzadeh and director Erik Laibe wanted to make an unconventional film about chasing the American Dream. Their plot revolved around an Iranian soccer player who comes to the U.S. only to be lured away by another professional team. Themes of culture, religion, and family would predominate. Much of the film‘s dialogue was in Farsi. The budget was under $1 million.

Needless to say, Header: The Breakaway Dream was not the standard fare of big-budget Hollywood movies, but better suited to be made as an independent digital production. Fortunately, the filmmakers had several advantages going for them, including the use of a studio that Azimzadeh owns, a full postproduction set-up, and the choice of the revolutionary Canon XL H1 HD camcorder to make this cinematic vision a reality.

“If this film had to be shot on 35mm, it probably wouldn‘t have been made, because of the cost, because it would have been too much of a risk,” Laibe says.

HD SDI Output

The choice of the Canon XL H1 as the camera that would photograph Header: The Breakaway Dream was much more than a financial decision, Laibe explains. “We did a lot of bench tests with Birns and Sawyer. We put different cameras next to one another. We rented them, took them out for a day. We looked at all of them from the point of view of ‘What‘s going to give us the best image?‘

“The XL H1 HD camcorder was so much better than the other cameras,” Laibe continues, “some of which had a real problem with rapid movement during soccer games. And I like the fact the XL H1 accepts other lenses. Portions of the film were shot using a Canon 400 photo lens with the EF Adapter, which turns it into something like a 2800-millimeter lens. It definitely had its advantages; we were shooting in a stadium and wanted to blow out the background, so it worked quite well. Also, we wanted to avoid compression.”

This is where the XL H1 HD camcorder‘s HD-SDI (SMPTE 292M) output proved essential to the project. At 1.5 Gigabits per second, the uncompressed output of the camcorder‘s HD-SDI terminal surpasses all available data rates for video production. One of four BNC‘s on the XL H1‘s built-in Professional Jack Pack, the HD-SDI (and SD-SDI SMPTE 259M) connector is mounted alongside a genlock input to synchronize the use of the XL H1 HD camcorder in a multi-camera, live-switched production environment. Also included are BNC‘s for SMPTE time code input and output to facilitate editing and other professional postproduction processes.

“The first thing we did was buy a 7TB [Terabyte] RAID to capture directly to hard drives,” Laibe reveals. “We set it up back when people were still saying, ‘That can‘t really be done!‘ But it can be done, and we did it. We did a test and it worked perfectly through a Blackmagic Multibridge Pro. The only problem was the RAID is very heavy, expensive, and vulnerable, which makes it something you really don‘t want to have in the field. You don‘t want to have to carry 14 of them with you, especially when you have more than one camera on the shoot. That‘s when we decided to record to Panasonic DVCPro decks, the compression on which is minimal.”

For the majority of the production of Header: The Breakaway Dream, the XL H1‘s HD-SDI output was fed into the tape machines, with the camcorder‘s HDV cassette serving as a back-up. The filmmakers also used a Blackmagic Design DeckLink box to feed images to 23-inch LCD monitors in true 1920 resolution to see what they were shooting. “It was in real time,” Laibe says, “and it was beautiful.”

Low-Light Versatility

Most of Header: The Breakaway Dream was shot in the XL H1‘s 24F mode. Soccer sequences, however, were shot 60i recorded to the camera‘s HDV cassettes. “We wanted portability,” Laibe explains, “and we‘re going to take those scenes and stylistically give them a different look.”

The XL H1 HD camcorder‘s 8.3 lb. portability also came in handy for other shots, Laibe reveals. “We did a lot of interiors in cars. Many other HD cameras just physically wouldn‘t have fit inside the car. And even though we were inside a car the image quality didn‘t suffer.

“The more you can take the filmmakers away from having to worry about the gear, the more they can concentrate on creating the image and the experience that they want to communicate,” Laibe elaborates.

Laibe credits Director of Photography David Lewis, ASC, for getting the most out of their XL H1 HD camcorders. “His lighting is just amazing,” Liebe says. “And the camera really handled low-light situations very, very well. We were finding ourselves taking away lighting on many instances and really getting shots that were beautiful.”

In one scene, for example, the two principal actors are sitting by a hotel pool. “Very subtle lighting,” Laibe informs, “back-lighting, candle on the table. We bounced light out of the pool to give the movement in blue, and the XL H1 HD camcorder handled it very well. You‘d expect to see a lot of grain, but it didn‘t happen.”

The Leader in its Class

Based on his experience shooting Offside, Laibe believes the XL H1 is poised to find more and more applications in both feature films and documentaries.

“Truthfully, I think of all the cameras that are out there, the Canon XL H1 HD camcorder is definitely going to have the longer life as far as viability,” Laibe asserts. “I think the SDI output is a big thing. I think the other companies really missed the boat by not having that. The image quality is pretty incredible. We‘ve had people coming in and looking at our footage, saying, ‘I can‘t believe that‘s not film!‘ Plus, we were blessed with an extremely good DP in David Lewis.

“The XL H1 HD camcorder is a great tool,” Laibe continues. “It‘s allowing filmmakers to make certain things that wouldn‘t have gotten made, necessarily. The XL H1 HD camcorder was relatively easy to use and the operators took to it quite quickly even though it was the first time they shot with it. These cameras have pretty extensive menus. All in all, it gave great images, and it‘s only going to get better as people get more experience using them. We own two, but we shot the soccer stadium footage using three. We even had four on one day.”

“I‘ve played with the camera a little bit, just to educate myself, and I‘m amazed. I was in Las Vegas and I set the XL H1 HD camcorder up on a tripod in front of the fountains of a major casino at night to experiment with all the different light intensities. Even though I‘m not a camera operator, I was still able to just intuitively get beautiful images. And the way the XL H1 HD camcorder handled it was amazing. So, it‘s just going to be a very interesting.”

“I think the XL H1 HD camcorder is going to be viable for all kinds of productions and be the leader in its class,” Laibe adds. “A lot of other cameras have gotten buzz for this or that, but when you really get down to the meat of the situation--the image quality of the XL H1 HD camcorder, the lack of artifacting, the interchangeable lenses, the optics, and everything else, at least in our testing and experience--it‘s a hell of a camera, and we‘re looking forward to the next time we pull them out of the cases.”