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Canon XL H Series HDV Camcorders
Canon XL H1S (with SDI), Canon XL H1A (without SDI). Also XL H1.


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Old April 22nd, 2006, 03:15 PM   #1
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Tips and Tricks for the XL H1

We just got done shooting a narrative feature film with the Canon XL H1, and I think some things we have learned about the camera might be useful to others going down the same path.

Overall, both the Director of Photography and I were astounded when we first saw the footage on an HDTV. "Guess I'd better sell my film camera," the DP said. The XL H1 and other cheap HD cameras are a huge leap forward for the democratization of cinema. More significant, in some ways, than the introduction of DV. It's exciting to be on the bleeding edge of this technology, but there were many little technical pitfalls I wish we had known at the outset of this project. I will try to address those here.

There is a lot of debate between the cameras, a lot of it about technical aspects such at HDV vs. DVCProHD, 24F vs. 24P, etc. In my opinion none of these technical discussions are nearly as important as the subjective feel of the images these cameras create. Yes the XL H1 uses the inferior HDV, but I think only a professional with a careful eye can see the difference. And let's all just face it: 24F is the same as 24P in the end. What's important is ultimately the image.

Personally I find that the XL H1 creates beautiful images. The colors, the blacks, the highlights, all are lovely, detailed, film-like. I haven't worked with the HVX200, but I find the XL H1 to produce better images than the the Sony Z1U. The XL H1 is still a sub-$10,000 camera, so it's not quite as great as the Varicam or the F900, but it's pretty close. It's also not film, but its pretty hard to tell the difference.

So, Tips and Tricks for the XL H1.

TRICKS

4 XLR ins:
Get the Canon MA-300 adapter and get yourself 4 XLR inputs. Perfect for a couple of wireless lavs, a boom, and another mic. Sure, it's less data for the audio channels, but it's plenty for voice recording. Sure, you can't digitize audio 3&4 easily, but it is possible, and it's just so darn useful to have four audio channels in the field. (Also, you can easily mount the wireless lav receivers right on the back of the camera.)

Using the Canon on-camera mic via an XLR input:
Say you're using a single boom mic, inputting via XLR 1. You've got XLR 2 doing nothing, and the on-camera mic doing nothing. Seems a waste. Well, all you need to do is adapt the on-camera mic to input through XLR 2. A short female-mini-to-male-XLR adapter will do for the audio signal, but the mic needs power. Simple, just get a short micro-mini extender cable, plug one end on to the mic, and the other into where the mic's connector would normally plug, on the camera's handle. Make sure the mic is switched to stereo, and voila, you have a second XLR mic.

Monitoring in the field:
Though many people told me it couldn't, the XL H1 downconverts to NTSC on the fly during recording, so you can plug a little monitor or deck into the video and audio out jacks and have yourself a video tap. Perfect for the director who wants to see what's going on through the camera. I used a little DV camera, and recorded it all so we could have a playback tape if needed. Very useful. (Note that the output NTSC is anamorphic, stretching the 16:9 image over the whole 4:3 frame. A monitor with a 16:9 switch is useful, or something that automatically adapts, such as what I used, a Sony PD-100 DVCAM camera.)

Native slow motion:
In a 24F project, shoot 30F and use Cinema Tools to slow down the footage to 24fps for a slight slow motion effect. Use 1/60 shutter speed for a standard look, or 1/30 for a slightly dreamier feel.


TIPS AND WARNINGS
(This all sounds pretty negative, but I think all of these problems are manageable if you know about them ahead of time. Also, in defense of the XL H1, I bet a lot of these problems are true with the other cameras as well.)

The Viewfinder:
The viewfinder is without a doubt the camera's greatest weakness. It's like evaluating the subtle brush strokes of a Van Gogh using your cell phone screen. Here are the main things to watch out for:

-The Whole Image: Most prosumer viewfinders don't show the outer edges of the recorded frame, but this viewfinder crops out more than most. You can't see 5% or more of what you're actually shooting on the left, right, top and bottom of the frame (the top and bottom of the display is pretty close to a 1.85 aspect ratio! In a 16:9 camera!) So give a big margin for the boom and know what's on the edges of your frame.

-Color and Contrast: It's impossible to know just what you're capturing using the viewfinder. The good news is that whatever it is, it looks a whole lot better for real than it does on that little screen. Be careful with blacks though: often what you thought was total blackness has some detail, perhaps that you didn't want. I really recommend getting an external monitor (even just NTSC) for at least a day, so you can get a sense of how to interpret what you're seeing in the eyepiece.

-Focus: You just can't tell. Double check a lot. The zoom-in, focus, and zoom-out technique seems to work. The magnifying feature kind of works, though not as well as you'd think. Fortunately, the camera has such a large depth of field that you're probably in focus anyway. And in HD when you're just a little out of focus it's not a huge deal.

-Ghosting and Lagging: In 24F mode, brightly lit objects leave serious trails behind them, though this is not recorded to tape. Also, the action in the viewfinder is delayed by as much as a half-second. It makes following close action a little tricky, but doable. Overall, in high-contrast, high-movement shots, the viewfinder becomes a messy blur. It's really advisable to have a second monitor, even if it's just a little one, for these situations.

Other issues:

-Gain: Don't go over +6 dB. The XL H1 does fairly well in low light, almost as well as the Sony Z1U. However, the gain in the XL H1 is not so great. It creates a slight, barely perceivable banding, i.e. the grain isn't uniform. Doesn't look good the higher gain you go. Also, the gain creates a flashing effect when recording to HDV, I assume because of the 15 frame long GOP compression. Overall, the +12 dB did not hold up on an HDTV. Frighteningly, a lot of what the gain looks like depends on how the contrast is set on whatever random HDTV your watching the footage on.

-Autofocus: Unreliable. Sometimes it takes a long time to find its focus spot, and once it does, bounces back and forth quickly to get exact focus. And it always seems to focus on the background. Better to let your subjects be slightly out of focus than deal with the stupid autofocus.

And then some nuisance issues:

-It's easy to record accidentally. The top record button is very sensitive. Easy to slip into record mode. I recommend turning on the red record-tally light just because of this. I don't normally like that light, but here I had to make an exception. (Fortunately the viewfinder's LED record lamp makes it unlikely to accidentally NOT record.)

-It's easy to knock the shutter speed buttons. Keep an eye on your shutter speed.

-The Stabilizer: works pretty well unless you're trying to do slow pans. Leave it on except in this case. Also turn it off if you encounter "fireflies," moving lens flares due to a light source within the shot.

-Moisture disasters: If you ever get the message "CLEAN THE TAPE HEADS" from the camera, make sure you do so. Because of the long-GOP format of HDV, any small problem with the heads means you probably aren't recording anything at all. This happened to us. Lost a whole day's shooting. Tape turned out almost entirely blank. (Only happened once though, when we were shooting in heavy rain. We shot many more days in the rain without further problems.)

-The on-camera mic is great, but be careful that you've got the viewfinder apparatus securely tightened, otherwise it rattles and the mic really picks it up.

-If shooting in 24F, use non-drop timecode. More film friendly. Wish I had known that from the start.


Anyone got anything else?
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Old April 22nd, 2006, 03:19 PM   #2
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Wow. You've summed up quite a bit about the H1 in a single post. Great job, Gabriel -- much appreciated!
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Old April 22nd, 2006, 04:07 PM   #3
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Great post, Gabriel. Just about sums it all up, but I do have a minor disagreement:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Gabriel Fleming
-Gain: Don't go over +6 dB. The XL H1 does fairly well in low light, almost as well as the Sony Z1U. However, the gain in the XL H1 is not so great. It creates a slight, barely perceivable banding, i.e. the grain isn't uniform. Doesn't look good the higher gain you go. Also, the gain creates a flashing effect when recording to HDV, I assume because of the 15 frame long GOP compression. Overall, the +12 dB did not hold up on an HDTV. Frighteningly, a lot of what the gain looks like depends on how the contrast is set on whatever random HDTV your watching the footage on.
Were you using NR1 or NR2? These increase banding signifigantly, especially with gain on. I've found +12 db to be pretty decent, given the actual boost. I've used it before in a pinch and I thought it held up pretty well. Certainly not ideal, but it's useable.


Quote:
-If shooting in 24F, use non-drop timecode. More film friendly. Wish I had known that from the start.
Great tip! Simple but true. That said, what are the issues of "going to film" with a 23.98 timebase?
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Old April 22nd, 2006, 05:29 PM   #4
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Great post, but I personally think that focus is even MORE critical to nail in HD, since most HD screens we're viewing things on are very large! The H1 is definitely tough to focus using the VF or EVF screen, but the magnify feature helps a ton. I use it all the time...when I can.

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Old April 22nd, 2006, 06:35 PM   #5
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I use the B/W option, peaking and magnifying...when I can too.
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Old April 24th, 2006, 10:55 AM   #6
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4 Audio channel ?

Thanks a lot Gabriel!

You said that it's possible to aquire audio channels 3&4, but I didn't succeed to do that with Firewire cable and FCP 5.
I've recorded various mics on the 4 channels, and listen them with the phones on the tape, but I only get the 1&2 in FCP, even with the Variable Mix option in audio setup...
Anyone knows the procedure to capture channel 3&4 ?
Maybe 4 RCA outputs are required ?

Thank you !
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Old April 24th, 2006, 01:18 PM   #7
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gabe, that was totally awesome =). it should be an article or a sticky or somn. it's reference-level. comeback and let us know future projects! =).

the only thing i would add is, ya gotta be somewhat in shape to hold some of these heavier cams. if it's been awhile, please give yourself a few days to get used to the weight. i was so outta shape and thought i could pick it right up and do a wedding, there were a lot of shaky shots. =). so get in shape and stay in shape but also give yourself some time if you aren't regularly utilizing a heavy cam like the H1 =).
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Old April 24th, 2006, 02:14 PM   #8
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To respond to some responses:

Mr. Elton,

I've never used the NR features, and I've found +12dB to be noisy but acceptable on an NTSC monitor. I have to say, though, that when I watched footage shot in +12dB on an HDTV, the noise was out of control. It was possible to adjust the monitor to reduce it to an acceptable level, but in the TV's normal, consumer settings, the noise was so great that any viewer would be distracted by it. This frightened me, as you never know how your audience's TV is set.

As far as 24fps video-to-film timecode issues, I haven't gotten that far into the process to see all the problems yet. But I did discover that Cinema Tools, when performing an automatic reverse telecine, assumes that the "A" frame falls on timecode frame :00 and :05. This is a standard telecine convention, and if you're recording in drop-frame timecode, this numbering accuracy is lost. So Cinema Tools can't automatically find the "A" frame. (This may be a moot point, however, as the XL H1 may not follow this :00 :05 convention in its internal telecine.) Regardless, non-drop timecode has always been the standard in film post production, and indeed drop-frame should only be used when exact real-world timing is needed. Why early DV cameras only used drop-frame is a mystery to me. I've always assumed there must be a reason, and have continued to use drop over the years. From now on I'm sticking with non-drop.


Mr. Wild,

True, true, focus is critical in HD. But I noticed that some of my footage was just barely out of focus, it didn't really bother me. I suppose because of the huge depth of field: whatever is out of focus, it's not that much out of focus, so it feels like the whole frame is in focus, and the subject's softness isn't distracting. What distracts me as a viewer is when something else in the frame is definitely in focus, but not the subject, and your eye is drawn to the focus point (like in 35mm when the actor's ear is in focus, but not the eyes). Since with HD everything is kind of in focus, the different is not as huge, and not as distracting. That's how I feel. Very much subjective, though.

Mr. Fournier,

I'm afraid I don't have an easy solution for audio 3&4. I know technophiles will balk at this, but here's my suggestion: output 3&4 through the RCA jacks and record onto a DV tape, then digitize that DV tape. Or, go from the RCA jacks directly into the computer if you have that ability. Timecode will be an issue. It should be possible to clone the timecode onto your new tape using either the timecode out or perhaps the lanc jack? Recording video over to the new tape as well would be helpful in the syncing process.

This seems an issue deserving of its own thread. I would like to know what techniques others have discovered. Is there any way at all to get the audio out as a data stream, and not go through the RCA jacks?

Mr.(?) Yu,

Good point about the camera's weight and balance. I can't hold the thing up for more than an hour. I start to shake. My DP is quite athletic and struggled with it himself. It's a real problem. (As an aside, my DP recently started shooting with the JVC, and says that it's very well balanced, easy to hand hold, and very easy to focus, a much better camera for documentary work where you're following action for hours on end. Just as an aside.)

I should also plug the movie's website: http://www.yearzeropictures.com
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Old April 25th, 2006, 09:41 AM   #9
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You got to be very careful with the mini headphones input on the camera, it kind of stick out, and makes it very fragile if there is any unusual tension, lets say handheld camera style shoot where camera operator has to control audio levels and periodically change camera angles, sometimes very quickly.
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Old April 25th, 2006, 11:42 AM   #10
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addendum to holding heavy-arse cams:

the longer you hold it, the "steadier" it will become as your muscles will get used to it. the first 1/2 hour was terrible, but after bitching, it works. it ain't good for your arms (gotta see chiropractor afterwards ;), but good for the shot =). 5 months back, i did a XL H1 shoot and held the cam for 5 hours straight with brief intervals of changing tape/battery, but otherwise, on shoulder 90%. it felt like i lost the arm afterwards =).
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Old April 25th, 2006, 01:39 PM   #11
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the xl1s rig that i use is probably heavier than the h1, because it has an fs-4 on it, 11 nimh aa's, mounting bracket, fm walkman, rf audio reciever, 2x multiplier, etc.

i got the steady stick to support all the weight, and it's been a lifesaver... highly recommended for the h1, but you'll probably need to be at least 5'8" tall, because the stick is simply too long... it's a design flaw.

virtually all of the camera weight is transferred to the steady stick belt, and it helps to set it so that the pressure point is on your hip rather than your diaphram, which helps to keep the camera steady.

thanks to all for this great thread on the h1!
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Old April 26th, 2006, 05:06 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Gabriel Fleming

-Autofocus: Unreliable. Sometimes it takes a long time to find its focus spot, and once it does, bounces back and forth quickly to get exact focus. And it always seems to focus on the background. Better to let your subjects be slightly out of focus than deal with the stupid autofocus.
I can't understand why Canon doesn't provide full autofocus control of many seperate focus points within the viewfinder frame, as it does with most Canon and Nikon SLR cameras. The main subject of the scene is almost always set off-centre for a more powerful framing, but the AF Canon XL lenses just continue to focus back on the background or centre subject, even after you've adjusted focus with the manual focus ring - and it is a pain to waste time switching the AF button on and off all the time. When you are focussing through foliage or fine tree branches etc the AF hunts like mad, and it would be far better to have four small squares light up for a few seconds when you hit a button that places the focus region on one of the four 'power-points' of the frame.
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Old April 26th, 2006, 10:32 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tony Davies-Patrick
I can't understand why Canon doesn't provide full autofocus control of many seperate focus points within the viewfinder frame, as it does with most Canon and Nikon SLR cameras.
Not sure if this is a factor, but I think the Canon SLR AF sensor and image sensor are not simultaneously active (and hence the need for predictive AF while the image sensor is active during high-speed shooting). Other design differences which may have an impact include 1 vs 3 sensors with prism, and considerable difference in sensor size.

Best,
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Old May 14th, 2006, 01:06 PM   #14
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Procedure for still image recording with any XL or EOS lens:

See http://www.dvinfo.net/conf/showpost....4&postcount=13
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Old June 4th, 2006, 09:14 AM   #15
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Procedure for the easiest way to do true 24P intermediate codec editing on the Mac:

http://www.dvinfo.net/conf/showpost....40&postcount=7

Note from Barlow Elton: "for anyone trying to figure out a low cost way to get 24F HDV into FCP without hassles. This will likely be obsolete when Apple finally integrates 24F support within FCP..."
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