Producer speaks out on new Canon XL H1

Hollywood-based producer Rick Shaw says shooting 1080i 24f HDV is just fine for documentary on Rickie Lee Jones

A few months ago, an old friend of HD Technology Update called to say that a feature film he’d produced was doing exceptionally well at international film festivals.

Rick Shaw — audio engineer, video editor and film producer — said “Beat the Drum,” which he co-produced with writer David McBrayer and Karen Shapiro, has garnered 27 awards so far.

A short time later he called to say his production and post company Pinlight in Hollywood, CA, had partnered with director Lee Cantelon to acquire a Canon XL H1 and that he would soon be using it for a documentary on singer Rickie Lee Jones. Test footage shot with the camera was enough to convince Warner Bros. that Shaw’s company and the camera were up to the task.

HDTU talked to Shaw about the new camera, shooting HDV 1080i 24f and the camera’s performance.

HDTU: What is the significance of the Canon XL H1 from a business point of view — especially as it relates to this project?

Rick Shaw: The XL H1 is the only camera we could find for around $10,000 with SDI output and genlock capability. And I appreciated the fact that it has XLR input and four level controls for the sound. As you know I am an old sound guy, so I appreciate that.

We wanted to have a camera that would look as much like film as you could get a camera to look. And if we went 720p, I suppose we could do that. The Canon had a new 1080i 24f mode that was crisp. The more that we looked at the camera over at Birns and Sawyer, the more we liked it. We had a setup with the camera and a big plasma monitor so we were able to shoot people in the building and in dark areas to see if it got grainy.

HDTU: The Canon XL H1 uses 1/3in CCDs as pickup devices. Some in the industry have wondered whether 1/3in CCDs would be adequate for ENG/EFP applications — especially in low-light shooting situations. What are your thoughts?

RS: One of our concerns was the low-light capability of the camera. A look at the lux spec shows it doesn’t look all that promising. But when you actually use the camera, it does quite well. Our first shoot with the camera was in Tokyo. We were impressed with the color it came up with and it looked very film like — 35mm. It has adjustable sensitivity to increase the gain, and that seemed to work very well. Until you get into the high sensitivity areas and crank it up, you don’t see the grain.

As far as the size of the chip, it was one of the factors we considered when buying. Birns and Sawyer has a receptionist who acts as a model. We zoomed in on her and could see the pores on her face, and thought since the camera was so crisp that makeup on our subjects would have to be done with precision. I’ve never seen a camera in that price range look that good.

HDTU: You decided to shoot 1080i 24F. Why?

RS: Because we wanted to get this to look as much like film as we could. We like the look of film. There is a psychological edge to it that leads people automatically to think it’s a more serious project. This wasn’t going to be a concert video as much as it will be a documentary. Also, there was some talk of projecting this at festivals in digital instead of film, and Warner Bros. didn’t want to do another film project because it now seems almost unnecessary. And because we had just finished “Beat the Drum” we were acutely aware of how expensive film is. “Beat the Drum” was shot on Super 35 anamorphic, so it was an expensive process to make a squeezed internegative, add the Dolby tracks and go through all the color timing and film processing.

With the Canon, we can do a very serious looking project in 16:9.

HDTU: What challenges does 24F HD present in post?

RS: The camera didn’t seem to have any compatibility issues in DV at 24f. Just pop the tapes out and plug them in the Sony DSR80, and they played fine. We did experiments, and it would play beautifully. And in that mode it looked a lot like 16mm. It was a pleasant film effect. It looked good.

However, no current deck, according to Canon, will play 1080i 24f. Canon suggested an alternative. You have to play it out of the camcorder, or use a FireStore drive and transfer media that way.

They called from New York and said Avid had just released a driver for Adrenaline that could ingest 1080i 24f material. Avid had just come out with it hours before Canon called.

Initially, we planned to edit in Final Cut Pro 5 HD, but there was no driver that could see the camera when we plugged it in. I did checking with Apple and they had no answer why, but it is generally felt that because of their ongoing conversion to Intel this driver was on the backburner. That may be or not.

So, we were forced to use the Adrenaline system. I am told once our footage is ingested into the Avid correctly we can master to D5 right out of the Avid, and that’s how we get our master.

HDTU: There are objective and subjective measures of picture quality. You will be shooting in HDV 1080i 24F, which Canon says is 1440 pixels x 1080 pixels (16:9) images. There is an objective difference between HD and HDV, like bandwidth and pixel counts. How about subjectively? How do you compare the performance of the XL H1 with HDTV originated material?

RS: Well obviously we can’t compete with a $150,000 camera. But I think in the final delivery stage, the average viewer — unless we are talking about transferring what we shoot to Super 35 for use in theaters — the picture quality is more than adequate for what we are doing.

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