Are Canon Cinema Cameras the Ultimate Documentary Solution?

A meandering interview with Canon’s Tim Smith

This year all 5 documentaries nominated for an Oscar were shot on Canon cameras. To further discuss this accomplishment, Canon gave me the chance to interview Tim Smith, Canon’s Senior Advisor for Film & Television. I took the opportunity to do so and derailed the conversation at every turn, reminiscing about “the day, back in”, the state of the industry, and getting shooting tips out of him. This interview took place before the Oscars, so we didn’t know who won yet, but an interview from Brian Hallet with the winner Jimmy Chin can be found here.

Tim’s job at Canon is unique. He embeds with higher-profile productions and works with Cinematographers to aid in productions using Canon cameras and make sure the production doesn’t face any hiccups. “Face of the product” type stuff. He is also an associate member at the ASC an and as such has a wealth of knowledge about imaging as a whole.


Kenny McMillan: Getting to hang out on set all day doesn’t sound like a terrible gig.

Tim Smith: Oh yeah it’s a gift, I wouldn’t trade it for the Presidency of this company, I’ve got a better job than he does. Best job I’ve ever had.

K: How did you land that?

T: 30 years ago there was really no experts in electronic imaging. My background was still photography, and my passion was audio, so video cameras come out and they’re kind of still cameras with tape recorders attached to them. That’s about as close as you can get to an expert 30 years ago, truth be told I probably wouldn’t get the job these days I don’t have the background for it. Back then there wasn’t a whole lot of people doing that kind of thing and the position was with Canon came up, and a rival company at the time, I interviewed with both of them and luckily I took the Canon job and then 30 years later I’m talking to you.

K: So looking at the five documentaries nominated this year, it looks basically all C300…

T: It’s huge yeah there’s some 5D stuff in there as well, but everything is a Canon Image which is huge for us. It sort of came as a shock when we figured it out, it wasn’t like somebody told us. The Canon company kind of worked it all out, and I mean we knew some of these Productions because we had involvement with them like Free Solo and RBG where we had worked with the cinematographers and answered questions or helped them pick out cameras, things like that, so we had some relationships directly with some of the projects and the others not, so to find that we hit the trifecta is a big deal. We’ve sort of been building to this although that wasn’t an expectation, it’s not the first documentary to be nominated, or even to win, with a Canon product but the first time we’ve had 5 for 5. I mean if you go back to 2002 there’s a film called Spellbound by Jeffrey Blitz about a kid who competed in a spelling bee, which is a documentary shot on an XL-1 to Mini DV tape. I remember when that got nominated they called and said “we got nominated for an Academy Award” and I thought “from our camera?” I was in Japan actually, we were developing the XL-2 at the time, and we were able to say to the engineer that designed it, you know, “a film shot with that camera you designed just got nominated for an Academy Award” and I remember the look on his face. He’s long since retired. We’ve always done pretty well in the doc category, I think 2002 it was more about the image was good enough that it didn’t interfere with the telling of the story, whereas most video cameras up to that point looked like home movies the audience may not have accepted them as something they should pay $6 to go see. I remember back in those days the big deal was how do you get Mini DV tape transferred to actual film so you can submit them for reviewing at festivals, because you know that’s the only way you could do them back then.

K: Oh yeah I forgot about that!

T: It was huge! Trying to figure out how to do the pulldowns, and how do we match up audio, and how to get it to film… luckily that’s not even an issue anymore but that was a big deal back then.

Documentaries are my thing. I mean, I get to work on TV shows, I get to work on Feature Films, but I’ve always had this love of documentary. So in this particular case, this particular idea that there are five docs that we have something to do with is a huge source of pride for me and the company. I just think documentaries are sort of special. They change things. They don’t just entertain you. It’s not just a fun evening; you walk away smarter than you walked in and I think that’s kind of important. They can change the directions of things like elections, things like diseases, our perception of the world, so it’s an important category. I’ve worked on docs as well, independents, and they’re a lot more work than people can imagine. They may not look like A Star is Born but boy they are a lot of work. There’s a lot of devotion there and never any money.

K: I feel like people like Bourdain probably had a hand in pushing the envelope visually for the doc world. His later stuff looked incredibly cinematic [shout out to Zach Zamboni].

T: Oh sure, but you can also look at that production and go “wow look how much money they have” when most of these people don’t have a dime ya know? There’s always a shoestring, there’s always somebody else’s budget. I mean with Spellbound the guy who did it has gone on to have a really great career. Television, Features, all sorts of stuff, and that was his first thing! First thing he ever aimed a camera at got an Academy nod. He didn’t win, he lost to Bowling for Columbine which isn’t bad company to be in, but that was kind of the time when documentaries started to find an audience. Back then you couldn’t see them anywhere, there was no place to watch them. I remember a few years later there was March of the Penguins and I had a kid at the time who is hugely into Penguins so we had to drive 60 miles to find a theater to go watch this documentary but it was finally showing in a theater. Nowadays you flip on Netflix or something and Free Solo and RGB are right there. There’s an easy way to do it which is important.

K: Oh for sure, but that being said there’s something important about going to the theater and making a day out of it, no? Like, that day’s experience is more memorable than if you just flipped on Netflix.

T: I mean my kid was still sitting on my lap at this point, now he’s six foot one or something but yeah finding a theater in San Diego when we lived in Orange County, making a day of it and having dinner and going to the movie… it was a really cool experience but I live in California. If it’s hard for me to find a screening back then how did Kansas do it? How did the Midwest do it? Now I think it’s different, we can all see them there’s a great audience for it.

K: Definitely, and I think people in the information age are really hungry to learn new things.

T: I think so too, this whole age has changed. We have all this podcasting, all these ways to go deeper than the 6 o’clock news, than the 45-second blurbs about what’s going on in the world and then on the next story. You can dig deep into these things. But now they’re also making money I mean, you have the “Supersize Me’s” and the Michael Moore films where now people know the names of documentary filmmakers, you know? They’re famous directors but they’re doing docs and when they make a movie, those movies make money (which, obviously, it is Show Business).

The winning film last year was Icarus, which was shot on Canon cameras, and the year before that it was the OJ Simpson one, “Made in America” which was shot on Canon, so technically not only do we get all five in the category this year, we’re guaranteed our third year in a row for best documentary. As somebody who has to sit there and kind of watch them and pull for a winner I obviously have always pulled for the Canon project, but this year I’m kind of torn because I can’t eliminate anybody from the competition. I won’t pick a winner but I’ll tell you, Free Solo has gotten more attention than probably any documentary we’ve been involved with. RBG as well both of those got real attention. These are people who watch regular movies but they know these movies too so it’s a big deal.

K: I still haven’t seen it but my friend was saying the same thing. Must be crazy to be a camera guy on that [Free Solo] project.

T: Well the climber is also shooting most of it, the climbers are all shooting.

K: Oh no kidding?

T: Yeah there was a lot of prep involved in that. Jimmy Chin is also doing a lot of the shooting so they’re shooting each other, they’re shooting up and down… there’s an arc to that story where, if you don’t know what’s going on, you wonder if they’re going to survive. Now since we know the people made it that didn’t work for me, because I’ve seen them since and we would have heard about it, but it’s spectacular looking. From a cinematography award standpoint documentaries don’t get considered but boy this one really kind of nailed it. You can get Best Documentary, you can’t get Best Cinematography in a documentary. If you could I would easily give it to Free Solo.

K: So why do you think everyone picked a Canon over, say, the FS7 or something like that? I know for me, one of the reasons I picked the C100mkII over other offerings back in 2016 was the fact that I could dress it down or build it up as needed, but it essentially did everything I needed right out of the box with minimal accessories.

T: I think that’s the thing now, when we introduced to C300 there weren’t a ton of people playing in this “reasonably priced, high-quality image” market, but now we’ve got Black Magics and we’ve got, ya know, the FS7… Sony didn’t have a camera back then, and even GoPros are looking pretty good these days. There’s a lot of choices, so to get 5 for 5 now? I mean 7 years ago it might have been a lot easier. Now they’ve got a lot of choices and a lot of affordable cameras in that price point.

On a theatrical feature film, a lot of times you have more money than time and on a documentary, you have more time than money, and money always plays into the doc world, and then size. I mean, if you’re going to pull yourself on a rope you’re not doing it with a 25lb camera on your shoulder up the side of a mountain, but none of that works unless the picture quality is there, that the image is good, and that’s what I think the difference is. You know that C100mkII that you have is a great value and also delivers a great image that stands pretty favorably against cameras that cost a lot more money. You also, if you’re in the EF-mount, have a lot of lenses you can choose from that won’t break the bank because of all the still lenses that will go on there. They’re not cinema designed, so in some cases theatrical cinemaneeds needs a little more cinema style lens, but in the doc world they’re perfect, even down to autofocus if necessary. Autofocus has come so far in the last 10 years that it actually really works now and can be used a lot where you wouldn’t dare do that at any kind of level of film 10 years ago. Now you can do it and worry about getting the shot. and yes they work when you pull them out of the box. When you buy a Canon camera, the charger’s in there, the battery’s in there… you got to buy a lens, and you’ve got hundreds to choose from, but a out of the box a Canon Cinema Camera like that C100 is ready to go. You’ve got an image on the same day.

K: I actually remember the first Canon video camera I got was the XL2 because I saw 28 Days Later and thought “surely if they used this camera, I can make something with it.” [laughs]

T: Oh my God yeah you know that was a big turning point too, that was quite a movie to be shot on something like that. It really really worked when they did that, it was Danny Boyle I think. That was quite the thing. That sort of sparked this other film Soderberg did called Full Frontal, and I got to work on that for the entire time, and nobody ever saw the movie but it had a great cast: Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Duchovny, shot by Steven Soderbergh in like one month… but 90% of it was shot on the XLs, but that’s when you still had to figure out how to transfer to film, shooting on PAL for the few extra lines of resolution, it was a whole different thing. But that movie got a lot of attention, “28 days”, and it drew a lot of attention to the camera theatrically, that may have been a big start for us.

K: Did that cause you guys to start working more towards cinema cameras? How many XL features made it over to the C-Series cameras?

T: The idea of interchangeability in a cinema camera thing came from the XL. When it came out, it really wasn’t a camera that Canon was all interested in putting out. We had never done an interchangeable lens video camera and we didn’t have a line of lenses for it. We ultimately only produced three maybe four lenses for it. We even built a 3D lens for that which didn’t go anywhere for other reasons, but there was a lot going on there. I mean, first and foremost we’re kind of a lens company, and to have cameras that you have put lenses on is a good business model. One’s the razor, one’s the blade, and the profit’s in the glass. When you buy glass it lasts forever but you buy a body… how many cameras have we made between the XL1 and now? When you’re a camera company that doesn’t make glass, I’m not really sure how they do that, where the money is, cuz you spend a fortune to pour a mold and build a new camera and build new features and then somebody decides to go to 8K and you’ve got old cameras again, but the glass lasts.

K: Why do you think the C300 is the go-to over other C-series cameras?

T: Yeah it’s still a pretty popular camera. We’ve evolved obviously to the C300mkII, which had more to do with 4K becoming a standard, but shooting in HD even in a documentary can hinder you in getting it sold, so people are moving over to the Mark II.

I think if you asked most of the cinematographers they would tell you color science. The color Imaging from Canon. That comes from our stills side. They’d say we have spectacular color science, it’s a beautiful image. If you talk to the producer they probably say “Well it’s reasonably priced” but nowadays not so much because everybody is reasonably priced! The Black Magics are reasonable, even the REDs. You still have the outliers like Arri which are getting top dollar and deservedly so, but in the doc world you’ve got a lot of choices in that price range that you can afford, you know the fs7 and so on… It’s the colorescience I think. It’s a very natural video look I think. There’s also one sort of feature, intentional or not, that’s in the Canon design that didn’t start with the XL but it did start with the C300, and that’s the way the sensor is created. They were trying to lose the concept of fixed pattern noise, which is what you see you in a typical video style camera, like news and things like that. There’s noise in the sensor, and every sensor has it, and it’s always in the same spot; it’s fixed. Where on the C300 it’s random. Every camera has a certain level of noise, that’s just part of it, we all see it and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s random looks more like film grain. I think there’s a psychological edge to that in the Canon sensor, it’s giving you that. The pixels are filed fired differently every frame, scanned off differently so that every image you don’t have that noise still sitting in the same place which I think people pick up on, on a subconscious level. It has much more to film grain look to it,

K: On the subject of the “Canon look”, I’ve heard from multiple people (usually in forums online) that the look of Canon cameras is “just a boosted red channel.”  Does that sound right?

T: Oh weird, I think we’re warmer actually. I actually tend to think Sony goes to the red side, but I mean our color science was evolved over the stills world. That’s where it’s coming from, and on the stills side we target flesh tones. But when you push the reds it looks really video-y. I would say we’re just the opposite of that, no one color just pops out at you and our flesh tones are really always pretty accurate. We also do an incredibly good job in the low light area by design, which is different than other sensors. Our sensors roll off faster -we overexpose faster than most- so you got to be careful on the top end, but we’ve got tons of bottom-end. The low-end on Canon cameras, in general, is spectacular and you just tend to want to protect your highlights, be really careful that and then let the bottom fall where it is on a Canon sensor. I think latitude and colorescience are the strengths. Our colorescience is very natural, very much like our still camera designs.

K: Yeah I’ve been able to pull amazing stuff out of the shadows on my C100mkII.

T: We even have a camera called the ME20 which is a specialty camera that goes up to 4.5 Million ISO, so when it comes to shooting in the dark nobody beats us [laughs]. With documentaries, you don’t bring lights. Having good low light performance in the doc world is critical. You’re in a bar, in a restaurant, you’re in an alley, a war zone… you’re not bringing truck lights and you’ve got to consider that. I think the low light performance is great. Now, Free Solo? Lots of sunlight but there are dark scenes. If you’re interviewing Ruth Bader Ginsburg and you’ve got 20 minutes from setup to leave, you’re maybe opening a blind and turning on a practical light as the way to go.

K: To that end, do you have any practical advice for people shooting on Canon sensors?

T: When it comes to exposure, I mean obviously like I said you protect your highlights and let the bottom fall where it goes because you’ll be able to pull out or crush the details in the blacks, it’ll be there. Just protect the highlights don’t overexpose. We roll off very fast. You look at the Arri sensor, it rolls off very slowly meaning it takes a lot to overexpose an Arri, but the detail on the bottom end isn’t the same. So in our case, you think the reverse of that: you protect for your highlights go with the lows.

Also, these cameras can record in different bit depths relative to resolution. Several of our cameras have the ability to shoot 2K 12-bit as opposed to 4K 10-bit so you do sacrifice resolution for bit depth but bit depth is where your color is. So you have to figure out what you’re thinking, you know? Can you get away with 2K for distribution and bring more color into it? The C200 raw feature is spectacular both when it comes to color, especially, it isn’t just about resolution, you’re getting all that color information off the sensor when you’re shooting raw. That’s a very practical camera to shoot raw with when raw isn’t that practical on bigger cameras. The C700 raw is a very expensive proposition, for instance, because you’re shooting a much more expensive media, is a lot more data, whereas you can have a sort of compressed raw on the C200 which works really well.
Unlike the days of the XL-1 where you shot everything in what’s called 709, a standard TV look, you’ve got different logs to choose from. So are you shooting Clog2, Clog3… you can create custom logs, which all deal with the amount of color information coming off that sensor so you do your prep work. The only universal truth is protect your highlights [laughs]. Everything else is about how are you going to finish the footage, how are you going to grade it?

Trust the image though, it’s there. That sensor’s giving you everything you can possibly use later on so it’s there. There’s a lot of times our people have shot, they get back to post and go “wow I didn’t even see that cable in the corner” and then it’s there on the footage. There was one film we worked on, Amityville: The Awakening shot by Steven Poster, I remembered one shot where he was shooting a lake in the moonlight. He loves to shoot at around 3200 ISO, that’s his look. He shoots way up there and he gets a great look out of it, but that’s where noise starts to get introduced in these cameras. So I’m watching the monitor pretty intently to see if maybe he’s pushing it too far, and I start seeing what I think is noise on the lake and I was like, you know, “you may have to crush this later, I don’t know what you got to use” but when we get to post he finds out it wasn’t noise. The lake was like glass, that was the reflection of the stars,  all that detail was there. It was pretty crazy, they ended up keeping that shot in the film.

So the sensors are pretty amazing, especially in low light. So trust the low-light, watch the top end, and then think about your color. How you’re going to get it there. That’ll determine what kind of log you want to shoot in, how far you’re going to go. And do tests. You don’t have to do it every time, if you become a filmmaker who says “Canon is my camera” you get to know how the camera will perform so you won’t be surprised, but if you’re coming to Canon for the first time or you haven’t shot it much you need to test it like you would need to do with any camera that you’re not used to.

K: Tim thank you so much for your time and congrats.

T: My pleasure, thanks.

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Kenny McMillan is the founder and director of OWL BOT Digital Cinema located in West LA. His work spans the Internet from Vimeo to YouTube netting dozens of views. He previously worked as an events…

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