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Film-Style Shooting with the Canon XL H1

COW Library : Canon Cameras : Todd Terry : Film-Style Shooting with the Canon XL H1
Pro HD Digital Camcorder Review from The Creative COW Magazine

Creative COW Magazine presents Film-Style Shooting with the Canon XL H1

Todd TerryTodd Terry
Huntsville Alabama, USA

©2007 Todd Terry and All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
Interchangeable lenses and powerful, accessible controls make the Canon XL H1 the choice at Fantastic Plastic. In this Creative COW Magazine prosumer hd digital video camera review, Todd Terry discusses the real world pros and cons of the Canon XL H1.

I hate change. I always have. If things are going along perfectly swimmingly, I've never really seen any need to rock the boat too much. Normally, that might put me at odds with the world, since I work in an ever-changing business - but I seem to get by.

True, sometimes I will find myself working on versions of software that are one or two (or six) versions behind the current ones, but it makes me happy in my little comfort zone. At least as of today I believe everything is up to date. What? CS3? Oops.

Having this fear of change, I really surprised myself a little over a year ago, when my tiny production company made the leap to acquiring almost all of our video with the then-spanking-new Canon XL H1.

I was more than a little nervous about going from the full-sized DVCAM format that had served us well for a decade to the miniscule MiniDV tapes, but we made the move and haven't looked back. It hasn't disappointed me, even once.

But making that leap wasn't easy. I'm an old film guy. I love everything about film -- from the smell of the stock when you open the bag in the dark, to the purr of the camera, all the way to the beautiful images on screen.

Our little company mostly does television commercials, and I consider myself blessed that in this video age we've shot countless TV spots on 35mm film, even for small mom-and-pop clients with tiny budgets. One can stretch a buck a long way by looking hard enough for nickel-a-foot recans, and calling "action" even before pulling trigger.

However, we had an unusually large number of political clients last year: two senators, a couple of representatives, a judge… the list goes on. These guys all needed great looking commercials, but as voting day neared, the spots were coming fast and furious as candidates frantically fought back at each other. We often didn't have the luxury of even one day to get the film souped and the negative telecined. Sometimes I directed a spot in the morning that had to air in the afternoon. These guys wanted and needed the look of film. They could afford its cost, but not its time.


Enter the XL H1. We eventually stumbled upon a combination that was able to give our clients a look they were thrilled with, but with both fiscal and time budgets more in line with video productions.

In the end, we spent the summer shooting with the XL H1 body married with a P+S Technik Mini35 lens converter, and 35mm cine primes. On its first couple of outings we rented Zeiss lenses, but quickly decided it was best to bite the bullet and buy our own primes.

Canon XL H1
Fantastic Plastic's fully rigged XL H1 sits alongside its less fashionably attired sibling, with 400 series P+S Technik Mini35 lens converter for use with PL mount superspeed cine lenses, preserving 35mm depth of field. The matte box, follow focus unit, and battery adapter complete the wardrobe. The goldmount adapter has been rewired so a single Anton-Bauer brick powers both the camera and the lens converter, eliminating the need for small multiple batteries.

That was much more of a logistical decision than a financial one. Fiscally, it didn't make a tremendous amount of sense to buy the lenses rather than rent, especially since they are by far the most expensive part of the complete system.

We knew a decent set of superspeed primes was going to be substantially more costly than the lens converter, which was itself more expensive than the camera… and it all adds up fast. We finally found a great set of Panavision-rehoused Leitz superspeeds in Los Angeles, and snapped them up.

But logistically it was the only option: we don't have a cine rental house in our city, and it was getting to be quite a chore to organize shoots tightly, and to race to the Greyhound station to pick up lenses bussed in from a hundred miles away every other day.

We know that many people use SLR still lenses in this setup, and we tried some great Nikkors we had, but just found the results unsatisfactory. Still camera lenses are just too hard to use. Focusing them (especially rack focusing, or following action) requires great finesse: the full range of focus on a still lens is only about one-eighth of a barrel turn, as opposed to almost a full turn on a cine lens.

Besides, many still lenses (even high-end ones) breathe a bit when focusing – they're just not designed for motion footage use. Cine lenses and a good followfocus unit are the way to go.

You can skew your myriad camera settings all day to emulate various filmstocks, but at the end of the day, even 24p video is going to look like video. Maybe great video, but video nonetheless.

The biggest culprit is video's inherent almost-infinite depth of field. If you want a true "film look" out of an HDV cam (or any video camera, for that matter), a depthof- field converter is really a must. A lens converter can restore those shallow DoFs, and many do an absolutely beautiful job of it.

The XL H1's removable lens makes it an ideal camera to pair with a DoF converter, since you don't have to use the camera lens itself as a relay. I've been a bit puzzled why so many manufacturers of otherwise great "prosumer" HD and HDV cameras don't take the extra step to provide interchangeable lenses, or offer a more expensive additional model that does.

There are a wide range of converters to choose from, starting with those that are only a few hundred bucks, up to the one we chose, made by P+S Technik. Yes, on the high end the converters do cost roughly as much as a good used Buick, but I've found in the DoF conversion world you really do get what you pay for.

They're not a "stick it on the front and make magic" tool though. You definitely need to know how to use them, and how to light, block, and direct for FILM.

That's not to say those with pure videography backgrounds can't make use of them. The learning curve isn't too steep, but it's as much of an art as it is a science. I recommend a lot of experimentation for shooters who've never had their peepers behind the eyepiece of an Arri before.


Of course, HDV has some detractors. Plenty of them, actually. I recently spent some time on the COW trading ideas with a fellow shooter who couldn't comprehend why we would put together such a killer "front end" only to back it up with an HDV camera body.

He's not alone. More than a few guys and gals will go on at length about horribly high compression, long GOP issues, etc. But I mostly find that to be a cloud of numbers: data rates, compression theories and such. I try to give a lot more weight to my favorite quality-control tool: my eyeballs. If it looks great, do it.

And when shot properly – that is, shot like a cinematographer, not your Uncle Murray taking home movies – then HDV can look great indeed.

I'll say that right out of the box the H1 didn't look that great. The factory defaults are terrible. But to Canon's credit, they have made available customization for 23 different recording specs: gamma curve, knee point adjustment, black stretch and press…. and a bunch of other parameters to boot.

It took some time, but we went in and carefully tweaked all these seemingly endless adjustments until we came up with several schemes that closely emulated our favorite filmstocks. Then we saved them as instantlyaccessible presets so with one button push I can go from shooting Kodak 5201, to 5229, to back outside with 5205.

They're like "virtual filmstocks," only it doesn't take five minutes to load the magazine, cursing in the darkroom as I drop the scissors yet again.

There are a couple of other features that I appreciate about the XL H1. One is the 48v phantom power that's provided via its XLR audio inputs on the rear. I can (finally!) easily use our favorite Sennheiser MKH416 mics without having to provide a separate power source.

The other is that, much like a "pro" camera and less like a "prosumer" one, there are actually tons of physical buttons and switches on the body to make the changes and tweaks you need quickly. There's still a complex menu with the XL H1, but, to Canon's credit, the most frequently used items are accessible by real honest- to-goodness knobs and buttons. You don't, for instance, have to search in a menu to change shutter speed; there are buttons that do it.

Of course, every marriage has its ups and downs, and our union with Canon does have some downsides. While Canon's somewhat proprietary way of cranking out 24fps has more than its share of detractors, I'm in love with the way it looks. I've watched so much telecined film that the look of a lot of HDV 24fps makes me cringe (as does 60i that has been converted to 24p).

But the 24f footage from the XL H1 is right on the money, with a perfect 3:2 pulldown even if you toggle through and count frames and fields.

Unfortunately, no one (yet) makes a deck that will play back HDV footage shot in the 24f mode. At this point, you must use the camera as a source deck when capturing. I hate doing that, and hope someone makes a deck soon.

At least the problem is limited to that one mode: If you want to shoot standard def at 24f, 30f, 60i, or HDV at 60i, then other decks have no problem with the footage.

Also, while Canon was smart enough to include an HD-SDI video output, unfortunately it's video only and doesn't embed audio. Sure wish it did.

And lastly, the viewfinder. It stinks. Stinks out loud. It's not a problem limited to Canon though, as I've never put my eyeball to any HD or HDV camera's finder and came away satisfied. Sony, Panasonic, JVC -- they all suffer the same problem. The Accuscene viewfinder on the Panavision Genesis is one of the few HD camera finders I've seen that I'd put in the "great" category.

Canon XL H1 with the SteadyCam mount
When needed, the Fantastic Plastic XL H1 can accessorize wearing the O'Connor head and Porta-Jib. Not shown is the SteadyCam mount.

That's why we carry a 17" 1080 monitor when it's feasible. Remember that if you're using cine lenses and a DoF converter, you can get depths of field as narrow as a couple of inches. Focus becomes super critical.

The XL H1's finder does have some helpful "focusing aids" (magnification, edge finding), but we find the old fashioned "Hollywood" method of focusing via a tape measure to be by far the most accurate.

If you want great images that look exactly like film, there's really only one easy step to remember: shoot film. But if time, budgets, or logistics don't allow that, cine lenses and HDV in the right hands can give images that just might surprise you. It has definitely surprised me.

Todd TerryTodd Terry
Huntsville, Alabama

Todd is the Creative Director at Fantastic Plastic, and a member of AFTRA and the Steadicam Operator's Association. He has earned five TVAF "Best of Show" ADDYs® as Director and Cinematographer of the year. Todd claims to own no socks.

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Re: Film-Style Shooting with the Canon XL H1
by Jay Brooks

When you use a DOF on your camera, how do you set up your lenses. I have the stock canon lens, hooked up to an achromat, then attach the dof adapter, attached to a lens with the FF.

Any suggestions if there's better more efficient way of going about this ?
by Jon Herndon
Love this article. Great job Todd. I am intrested in those "Kodak 5201, 5229, 5205" presets you have tweaked on the xlh1. I use an xha1 with a letus and was wondering what kind of results I could get when using your mastered presets. Could you please contact me for this?

Jon Herndon

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