Inside Canon Japan 2013
In November 2013, I went on a Canon Optics Press tour to Japan with a small group of journalists, to meet with and interview a number of leading Canon executives. We also enjoyed a hitherto-rare event: a tour of Canon's optics factory in Utsunomiya, which has ordinarily not been open to outsiders (even several Canon employees on our trip had never been) where we met many of the people responsible for making those lenses and saw the processes that go into creating them. We also had a visit to InterBEE, the world's third largest broadcast show (after NAB and IBC), where I learned more about Japan's plan to broadcast 8K in time for the 2020 Olympics, to be held in Tokyo.
Among the highlights of the trip was an up-close and personal look at Canon's entry into the monitor business with the DP-V3010 4K Reference Display monitor, which I describe in more detail in this article.
THE FACTORY TOUR
The tour to Canon's optics factory in Utsunomiya (110 km north of Tokyo by high-speed train) was a real highlight of the tour.
We travelled 110 km – and just 50 minutes – north of Tokyo to the factory in Utsunomiya on a high-speed train.
Located on Canon's immense campus in this factory town, the Canon's "Image Communication Products Operations (ICPO)" facilities are comprised of "workshops," areas in the factory devoted to one specific process in lens manufacturing.
Canon's Utsunomiya Lens Factory, where we were ushered through spotless – and extremely large – workshops in our matching lab coats.
One of those workshops was to visit the new apprentices, which gave an interesting window into Canon's relationship with its employees and its philosophy as a company. Canon accepts high school graduates into its apprenticeship program, and trains them in all the basic processes of lens manufacturing.
But, under the supervision and tutelage of "Meisters" (masters, who have been practicing their craft at Canon for at least 25 years), the students begin with a process that teaches them a great deal about lenses, despite the fact that they will never actually perform this particular process. The "Meister" system is based on the idea that an employee sticks with a company throughout his or her career; as part of this system of mutual loyalty, the employee has the opportunity to gain mastery of a process. Apprentices begin at the bottom, but the very Meisters who teach them are role models within reach, over time.
Meister and apprentice
To control the parameters of the lens-making process, Canon also manufactures many (but not all) of the machines used for mechanized portions of the lens manufacturing process. But I think all of us in the tour group were impressed – and surprised – at how much of the process is still done by hand.
In workshop after workshop (some of them "clean" rooms), we watched people engage in the age-old hands-on craft of creating a lens. Perhaps the highlight was meeting the "Meister" – a 30-year Canon employee – who hand-assembled each Canon EOS Cinema lens that left the factory. Her very evident pride at her craft – and her humbleness in insisting that the excellence of the finished lens was due to many at Canon, not her particular skill – was an impressive example of what goes into making a Canon lens.
The Meister at her trade. It requires 25 years to become a Meister.
"The lens factory was amazing from the apprenticeship scheme to the lack of hot oil smell in the machining room to the clean room conditions of assembly," said cinematographer Geoff Boyle, FBKS, who noted how "Canon lenses are manufactured to such low tolerances," a "quite amazing accuracy of manufacture."
Which brings me to an exciting piece of news. It wasn't long ago that I wrote about director Michael Apted's stupendous UP documentary series. Canon brought on Apted to shoot a documentary about the people behind their lenses. Apted agreed to interview Meisters and other workers at the factory but, dubious that there was an actual story, said he would happily give Canon the footage if he felt he couldn't make a movie based on what he found. But he did indeed find a story worth telling and, at Utsunomiya, we saw 10 minutes of the movie, which was shot by cinematographer Maryse Alberti and is being edited by Apted in Los Angeles. From what we could see, it looks like a fascinating story that goes into much greater depth at what we were able to see in our short visit.
I plan on following up with Apted and Alberti to write about the making of their documentary. As of this writing, plans for the documentary's release are not yet set.
Canon's Shimomaruko Tokyo headquarters
Meeting with the Canon executives at the Simomaruko headquarters
MEETINGS WITH EXECUTIVES – THE BACKGROUND
Canon is at an interesting moment in its history. Whereas mobile phone cameras are quickly replacing the market for consumer-level cameras, Canon has created a new market for itself, with the professional Cinema EOS cameras, specifically the C300 and C500. [It's also worthy of note that Canon is also a big player in high-res digital printing and visuals/optics for non-entertainment industry including astronomy and the medical/scientific community.]
The C300 in particular has made rapid and serious inroads into indie film/corporate-industrial markets. This market is highly competitive but Canon offers one important advantage: a chance for owner/operators to leverage their existing stock of Canon lenses. That compelling factor cannot be overstated; how many RED owners have bought this inexpensive camera only to realize (too late) that the camera body is useless without an investment in professional – and expensive – lenses?
CINEMA EOS CAMERAS
Canon Chief Executive Maeda made it clear that the Cinema EOS camera series are still new, and that Canon has a long-term commitment to listening and responding to the demands of professional filmmakers and cinematographers. So far, said Maeda, users have been asking for ruggedness and lighter, smaller form factor as important goals.
The Canon EOS System
Canon has a long history in creating cameras and lenses, with many "firsts" in the industry (click here to see that history), including the more recent line of SLRs. The EOS 5D Mark II, introduced in 2008, which democratized filmmaking and revolutionized the use of smaller, less expensive cameras on bigger movies. Two years ago, Canon unveiled its EOS line of cinema cameras. "We believe it's opened doors for cinematographers and documentarians to be more creative," said Canon USA Senior Vice President Elliott Peck. "Our motto is to learn something new every day. I've asked our team to approach with an open mind, to learn from users and business partners and not be arrogant."
Maeda pointed out that the triad that that Canon identifies for producing high quality imagery: image processor, lenses and sensor. "Our strength lies in the fact that all these three components are developed in-house so we can select optimal components," he said. "Among all the technologies the most important is to achieve best quality images; optical competence is our core strength."
But let's go back in time to 2008, when Vincent Laforet made Reverie with the D5 Mark II camera. Group Executive Ken-Ichi Shimbori described how that film changed Canon's thinking about how the D5 Mark II cameras would be used... and by whom. "We had no idea how huge the DSLR movie market was," he said. "The response was beyond our expectations." Advisory Director Hiroo Edakubo, Group Executive in charge of the video camera division, noted that the EOS D5 Mark II, "created a new trend in the industry." "We emphasized getting feedback from Mark II users in order to create the new range of cameras," he says, referring to the research and design that went into creating the Cinema EOS system.
At the meeting, there was no big reveal of a new Cinema EOS camera, but Canon did reveal firmware upgrades; the maximum ISO setting on the EOS C500, EOS C300 and EOS C100 have now been increased to ISO 80,000, which will allow filmmakers to shoot in even more lower light conditions. Also recently announced is an optional feature upgrade for the EOS C100 to support Dual Pixel CMOS AF autofocus technology, for continuous autofocusing with Canon's EF lenses.
Cinema EOS system is developed mainly for moviemaking, Edakubo added, but "after launching, C100, C300 and C500 found various applications we never expected." Giving examples of live 4K broadcasting for Japanese League Soccer, French Open and Daytona 4000. In filmmaking, the Canon C300 was used to shoot Blue is the Warmest Color, which won the Palme D'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The EOS C300 was also used for special purposes in Ron Howard's Rush.
In addition to the presentations, journalists had semi-private interviews focused on specific topics, with relevant executives. I attended more than one of those interviews with Boyle, and echo his assessment of those meetings. "At the HQ I was impressed that in the one on one meetings they were really keen on understanding how we used the kit and how they could improve it, really paying attention," he said. "In the lens sessions when I produced the 17-55 stills lens and the 15.5 - 47 lightweight cine zoom and asked for their bustard child they took it really well! They also understood what I wanted and why."
In one of those interviews, I was able to ask Canon executives more questions about future plans for the Cinema EOS line, especially with regards to filling in the "top" position of the line's pyramid. "We knew C500 wouldn't go to the top notch high end of Alexa camera," said Edakubo, who revealed that the company is continuing to develop a camera for the higher end spot. "Our products are now being used by so many people in diverse ways, we're compiling those comments and reflecting on them." He did reveal that "the largest number of suggestions received relate to the viewfinder," and cinematographer Jon Fauer, ASC suggested that the handgrip be adjustable. "It's a brilliant design because it's so compact and small," said Fauer. "If you could make it modular, it would be really nice."
One of the stops on our tour was Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto, Japan.
I also asked about the potential conflict between potential users of Canon's popular SLR cameras and the newer Cinema EOS 300. "We don't think of it as cannibalization but as stepping up to a better suited camera for some users," said Senior Staff Engineer Kenji Kyuma. "The C300 and C500, are the cameras developed for high quality movies, so those filmmakers who feel they're missing something [with the SLRs] can smoothly migrate upward."
I asked about what the executives had called "Canon's 4K world," asking how the company would integrate its 4K product both internally and with 3rd party products in the production/post pipeline. "We have an open strategy for a 4K system," said Edakubo. "Our 4K system is aimed towards collaboration with 3rd party products and manufacturers. There may be different formats for compression but in this case there is nothing to worry about; we have established our structure in a way that can be processed easily to meet their needs." In fact, continued Edakubo, Canon has been having talks with various 3rd party manufacturers, specifically with those offering nonlinear editing systems.
Canon has also immersed itself in the requirements for ACES in the last 18 months, reported Edakubo. "We're way down the road in terms of the ACES proxy coming out for the C500," he said, noting that Canon's new 4K Reference Monitor is also ACES-compatible. "It's very important to us to be engaged with ACES. This is the workflow of the future."
Ninety million Canon EF lenses are now out in the marketplace as of May 2013, 100 million doubtless to be reached soon. And the array of Canon EF lenses is impressive: 73 models for still photography and 14 in the Cinema series for movies and broadcast, many of them multiple award-winners. In Japan, Canon Senior General Manager of the Optics R&D Center Naoya Kaneda showed off one of Canon's most recent breakthroughs in lens technology: the EF8-15mm/4L "Fisheye Zoom Lens" for Circular & Diagonal Fisheye/180° angle of view.
Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x
When asked what customers are asking for, especially from the professional series (identifiable by a red ring), Kaneda said they're looking for lenses that are "more robust, reduce ghost/glare, and are lighter in weight." "We want to deliver innovation," said Hayakawa. "We combine what exists in the market plus new values like fisheye lens and extender functionality."
Kaneda also pointed out Canon's history in introducing innovation in lens technology, from the use of fluorite (1969) to aspherical lenses (1971) to, more recently, Diffractive Optics (2001), SWC (Subwavelength Structure Coating) (2008) and Hybrid IS (Image Stabilizer) (2009).
Yasunori Imaoka, Senior General Manager and Group Executive in the Optics R&D Center, focused in on Canon's existing and future technologies for professional lens products, including the EOS Cinema lenses. "In the era of Digital Cinema, we have put our efforts into cinema lenses," he said. "Our flagship for our 4K resolution we call the Top-end Zoom category – with four modes. Also for 4K is the Compact Zoom lenses, with four models. We also have six different Prime Lenses."
Lens highlights include minimized breathing, reduced ghosting and flare, attractive blurring with 11 blades, drip-proof structure, reduced longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberration, and flange-back adjustment mechanism. "For EF Cinema lenses, we have the EF Mounts and PL Mounts for zoom lenses," he related. "For single focus lenses, we have the EF Mount only. Digital communication between lens and camera with the EF Mount offers various benefits, for example, displaying/recording of the lens data."
The next generation includes SHV (Super-Hi Vision) – or 8K – zoom lens. "Of course we will continue to improve image quality," said Imaoka, who revealed that NHK is using Canon's SHV 8K lenses with its experimental 8K broadcasts. "Super Hi-Vision 8K Zoom Lenses have 16x the resolution of HDTV. That's the requirement: a very high performance lens with four times performance capacity of a Full HD. We have a 10x zoom on this lens and we can correct aberration to the limit."
Visiting Canon's headquarters and optics factor was a window into the philosophy and culture that drive the company and its products. The presentations by and interviews with executives stressed Canon's awareness of its own history – and leadership – in many aspects of cameras and lenses over the company's history. At Canon, the company's history provides its own employees a context for the search for excellence.
Perhaps no more was Canon's commitment to the future more clear than in the rigorous apprenticeship program. Those 17 and 18 year olds are learning from the Meisters, as different groups have every year. What better way to ensure a deep knowledge of the company ethos and how its products are made? What better way to ensure an on-going group of masters of the craft? Canon may not be the only company to invest in its own work force in this hands-on manner, but it is certainly a path to admire and emulate.
Follow Debra Kaufman on Twitter @MobilizedDebra
Photos © and courtesy of CANON Photo Production Dept. Photos by Leigh Nofi.