Shooting 4K with the Canon C500: It’s All in the Details

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How much lighting and grip equipment did I use to shoot a short film in 4K Canon raw in a forest? One bounce card. For one shot. And it turned out to be overkill. That’s pretty amazing.

My late aunt used to joke that if she wrote a memoir she’d call it “When the Bobbin Runs Out.” She was an avid seamstress and she worried about this constantly: the bobbin is a spindle that feeds thread or yarn into a sewing machine, and it often sits inside a cylinder that prevents the sewer from seeing how much material is left. “You never know how full it is,” she’d say, “you just know it’ll run out eventually.”

I had a similar experience recently when I saw footage on a QuadHD (4K) monitor for the first time. The programming was on a loop and showed a number of cool things, such as a trailer for the latest Bond film, but the really stunning sequence took place in a small European square, probably located somewhere way up north. The opening of the shot showed a cobblestone roundabout surrounded by beautifully multi-colored houses, and the textures in the shot were amazing.

And then the camera boomed up.

I felt the ground drop away. Suddenly I could see into yards and across rooftops in incredible detail, and I found myself frantically scanning the frame in an attempt to see everything there was to see before the inevitable edit. I’ve never been so panicked by a shot before: there was so much to see, and I had no idea where to look.

That’s a problem.

Painters have been dealing with this issue for years. Although their end product is a singular image it has to tell a story and keep the viewer engaged. Everything about the composition is designed to keep your eye scanning the frame but not in a random manner; rather, the painter knows exactly where they want you to look first, second, third, fourth… and then back to first again. Meanwhile they know that the next picture in the gallery is only a short distance away, so they work to keep your eyes within their frame as long as possible.

It took me very little time to realize that the great strength of QHD is embracing shots that contain endless amounts of detail and texture, which are like candy to the eye; at the same time the viewer must be guided as to where to look, otherwise they’ll be forced to scan the frame hoping that they’ll see everything important “before the bobbin runs out.”

I decided that I needed to learn more about painting techniques.

I’m always looking for ways to improve my skill set, so when I stumbled upon a book called “The Simple Secret to Better Painting” I thumbed through it and bought it immediately. This book sums up a number of very complex techniques in very simple ways, and while it won’t make you into a master painter it will certainly put you on the path toward enhancing your own images so they maintain the viewers interest as long as possible without frustrating them.

A number of these techniques are already in use in the moving image industry, they’re just known by different names. For example, the author talks about how corners are “eye drains” that suck the viewer right out of the image unless the eye is blocked from exiting the frame and directed inward, and indeed we do the same in commercials by darkening  the corners–or “vignetting” the image–in the grade to keep the viewers’ attention focused on the product or action.

I won’t go into all the techniques presented in this book because it’s just better to read the book, but I will say that when Canon sent Adam Wilt and I a C500 to play with I decided I had to shoot something with a lot of texture using some of the principles outlined in this book.

I knew I wanted to shoot along the rural Northern California coast between San Francisco and Pescadero but I didn’t really know where or what. A friend recommended that I check out the cypress grove above the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, about 20 miles south of San Francisco, so I stopped by one day on my way home from work and shot some stills. It was absolutely perfect.

I’m not really a director, but my favorite director / friend wasn’t available to help out and I didn’t know anyone else to beg a favor from, so I became the director by default. I shoot portraits on occasion with my husband, Devin Baker, and we work well together because he focuses on performance while I focus on the image, so I roped him in as my co-director. Adam Wilt volunteered his time as DIT and location sound mixer, and a former film student who I’ve mentored over the years, Ted Allen, came along as camera assistant. Our actor, Darren Sarkin, was cast literally the night before thanks to Craig’s List. We didn’t meet him until call time on the shoot day, and as luck would have it he was perfect for the role and a real professional.

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About Author

Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After ten years in Hollywood working on feature films, TV series, commercials, music videos, visual effects and docs he returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area, where he currently shoots commercials and high-end corporate marketing and branding projects.   When Art isn’t shooting he consults on product design and marketing for a number of motion picture equipment manufacturers. His clients have included Sony, Arri, Canon, Tiffen, Schneider Optics, PRG, Cineo Lighting, Element Labs, Sound Devices and DSC Labs.   His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC and SMPTE.

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