A frenzied crowd of young country music fans explodes in cheers and applause as singer Gary Allan strides onstage at Chicago’s House of Blues. Crisp, film-like close-ups of Allan and his band are intercut with tight shots of the joyous faces in the audience as the singer acknowledges their enthusiasm and the first chords of one of Allan’s million-selling hits begins. This dramatic you-are-there footage captures the excitement of a leading country artist’s thrilling concert, and all of it was captured in vivid HD using Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 7D digital SLR cameras.
“Gary Allan: Live at the House of Blues is a concert special on the Great American Country cable network,” said Rhet Bear, director of photography on the project. “These kinds of shows are usually produced using traditional truck packages, big mobile production units that deploy more than half a dozen big HD cameras, a crane, lots of lights, and a large crew. This time around, however, the show’s director, Stephen Shepherd from Tailight (a Nashville-based production company), had the idea of shooting the concert with Canon HD DSLRs. Stephen didn’t want to do a traditional-style live show. He wanted something that had a lot more energy and a lot more frenetic action to it. The Canon DSLRs made this possible. They’re small and aren’t tethered to cables, so they can get up-close and into places that larger cameras can’t.”
Bear, an experienced DP who has shot everything from car commercials to feature films, explained that Shepherd had introduced him to the Canon 5D Mark II a few months prior to the Gary Allan assignment. “Stephen brought a 5D Mark II over to my house and told me how amazing it was,” Bear recalled. “I played with it for about five minutes. Five minutes later I called a local dealer to see if they had one. An hour later I bought the camera. The rest is history.”
Soon after becoming a Canon EOS 5D Mark II owner, Bear put it to the test by shooting the first of several country music videos. “My first attempt to shoot something completely with the 5D Mark II was on a cold day in Nashville,” Bear said. “It was about 20 degrees outside and I had a temperature of 103 the whole day I shot. You can’t call in sick on this kind of job, and although I felt awful I was thankful that I was carrying around the 5D Mark II, which is a very lightweight camera.”
“We went out with a very small crew and shot in extremely low-light outdoors in downtown Nashville,” he continued. “It was pretty mind-boggling what we were able to capture with bare minimum lighting and the 5D Mark II. In the end we shot a very high-end-looking video for a fraction of what it would have cost if we had to pay for camera and lighting rentals.”
A New Production Paradigm
Confident of the capabilities of the Canon 5D Mark II and its postproduction workflow after making music videos, Bear and Shepherd persuaded Tailight and GAC that it was the right camera for the Gary Allan assignment. The DP and director were, however, asked to bring along one additional digital HD camera from another manufacturer getting a lot of press at the time. Bear and his team of camera operators brought that camera, along with five Canon 5D Mark II, and – for B-roll – two Canon 7D DSLRs to the concert.
“Two songs into the performance, the other manufacturer’s digital HD camera stopped working,” Bear revealed. “All the 5D Mark II and 7D cameras, however, continued to shoot and worked flawlessly.”
Since they weren’t using traditional shoulder-, tripod-, or crane-mounted HD cameras tethered to a mobile production truck (with camera operators receiving director instructions over headset intercoms), Shepherd devised a “zone system” for Bear and the other Canon 5D Mark II camera operators by which each would be assigned to shoot in particular areas of the stage and theater during the concert.
“We had several really great operators and all of them had shot with the 5D before, which was important,” Bear noted. “They understood that they alone were in charge of focus and exposure. Each of them got into places that a normal taped show would not have been able to get into. They could hide behind the drummer, get up next to the keyboards, or get down in the pit. Each individual operator was on his or her own, and there wasn’t anyone giving us a traditional line cut. It all went amazingly well.”
Canon EF Lenses
All lenses used for the production were Canon L-series models, which included EF 24mm and 28mm fixed-focal length wide-angle primes, an EF 24-70mm standard zoom, 70-200mm telephoto zoom, and a 16-35mm ultra-wide zoom.
“We also shot interstitial interviews backstage before the show,” Bear added. “These were in really low-light areas, so we used prime lenses. Having an f/1.4 or f/1.8 prime on the camera really enabled us to dig into the dark areas behind the stage, which was great. We did have a compact LED light that we floated around to bring up the ambiance just a little bit, but there otherwise wasn’t a lot of light.”
“In addition to my film and video work I have always liked being a still photographer,” Bear confided. “This is why I’m comfortable holding the Canon DSLRs. I don’t use a follow-focus or any special camera supports. It feels natural for me to have my hands right on the lens, especially with the 70-200mm telephoto zoom. I can go from zoom to focus just by moving my hand two inches forward or back.”
The Canon 7D DSLRs on the shoot were outfitted with the Canon EF-S 10-22mm ultra-wide zoom lens. “That’s my favorite lens for that camera because it delivers a really nice super wide-angle,” Bear said. “I still shoot a fair amount of film and other digital formats, and I always have a 7D on every job, basically as a director’s viewfinder or as a ‘C’ camera when we need to get a tight shot that we can’t get a larger-format camera into.”
Audio for Gary Allan: Live at the House of Blues was captured using a separate multi-track ADAT machine. Each Canon 5D Mark II DSLR also recorded audio of the concert, which served as scratch tracks for final audio post.
“Canon’s 5D Mark II and 7D DSLRs provide a lot of advantages for a show like this,” Bear stated. “I don’t think the Super Bowl is going to be shot this way any time soon, but for the work we do they’re great. There are also economic benefits. With the 5D Mark II, a lot of the camera operators we work with already own these cameras, and many of the lenses. So we have basically the entire production at our disposal anytime we want to go out and shoot something. These Canon DSLRs are very liberating.”
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