The developers of the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM break down the work that went into creating the new lens.
There's a revolution going on in TV and filmmaking. TVs are getting bigger and better every day – with increasingly high-resolution screens and HDR sets capable of showing more realistic colours with greater shadow and highlight details – to match the impressive production values of TV shows from streaming services and the like. Audiences demand the utmost in cinematic quality from their home entertainment now, in everything from the latest box set binge shows to documentaries. Which is why when the multi Emmy award-winning UK production house Ember Films faced shooting a high-quality dramatic trailer in three days, the filmmakers turned to the next generation full-frame CMOS sensor found in the Canon EOS C700 FF.
With the increasing demands for productions to offer Hollywood-style quality, wafer-thin depth of field and low-noise footage in low light, it's only the very latest crop of large-sensor cameras that can truly deliver the exceptional performance demanded by the most critical cinematographers.
The full-frame Canon EOS C700 FF video camera is mated to a huge range of compatible Canon lenses, including Canon's range of cine lenses – which is one of the key reasons why, when it came to choosing a setup to shoot a cinematic-style film trailer in an incredibly short time frame, Ember Films chose the setup.
The film's director Jonathan Jones says: "A huge factor for choosing a camera is the amount of lenses to choose from. You know this camera is designed with Canon's industry-leading lenses in mind so they work perfectly and communicate well. I use the 50-1000mm Canon lens (the Canon CN20x50 IAS H E1/P1) all the time for our wildlife work.
"But Ember is not precious in any way about equipment – we're about acquiring the best images we can in the given circumstances. We just make it work and it's what we pride ourselves on. We just got on with it and the Canon EOS C700 FF helped us do that."
The sub-three minute promotional film trailer mixes Ember's experience in wildlife cinematography with years of shooting scripted drama for major broadcasters. The idea for the film was Jonathan's own.
It is set in a world where bees have become extinct, the food chain has broken down and the world has fallen into chaos. Men are conscripted to protect the country's borders while vigilantes fight for survival. "We didn't want to make a post-apocalyptic world that was a typical Mad Max-like scenario, but something that was more character-led," Jonathan says.
"Most people who are into natural history like big cats. We have made many natural history shows with David Attenborough that tell the story of insects and it’s always been of great interest. I feel those tiny stories are way more interesting and complex than lions that sleep all day," says Jonathan. "We whinge about flies and insects but they are essential to our survival.
"Einstein had a theory that if bees became extinct the world as we know it would cease to exist within four years. This could happen in our lifetime if we don't change the way we live our lives. We are already seeing the demise of bees and other pollinators. It's a story that needs to be told."
Jonathan decided to make the trailer to highlight what could happen if we don't tackle the problems facing our pollinators, and hopes it will help him get a commission to write a full 12-part series.
The team at Ember scripted and storyboarded the film, which was to be shot in record speed in just three days.
"It's a lot harder to make a trailer as we were having to put the time into making very short scenes in a short time," says Jonathan, "Normally you get your trailer from a longer, already captured piece and you take out the shots you like. We had to create the shots that might make a trailer so it was all a bit upside down.
"We really needed twice as long as we had to capture what we needed but the team was fantastic. If anyone sees it and we tell them how quickly it was captured in just a few days, they're amazed. That's what you get when you take a team that's worked together for over 10 years, as our whole business is geared around a small but highly effective team, using new equipment and technology to our advantage very quickly, on a limited budget."
With the Canon EOS C700 FF new to the team, Jonathan did some tests with the camera before the shoot began.
"The simple thing that any DOP looks for is the latitude of the sensor, the dynamic range and sensitivity, so you know you can bring your lighting budget up or down appropriately, swapping larger lamps for smaller ones, or using LEDs," he says, heaping praise on the 5.9K sensor that offers over 15 stops of dynamic range. "The Canon EOS C700 FF enabled us to shoot some darker scenes than we normally would have done.
"I'm always interested in frame rates, especially how quickly we can access them and make it work on set. If you know your way around pro cameras, it doesn't take long to get up and running with it.
"The traditional form factor means it's ideal on a classic dolly or jib setup – a classic drama setup," he continues. "But I did some handheld shots in trenches with some small explosions and it handles well. The challenge is that to really know and trust a camera, you need to work with it a lot. But the Canon EOS C700 FF was easy to use straight away."
Like the majority of cinematographers, Jonathan sticks with manual focus, but he did get a nice surprise when he tried the Dual Pixel CMOS AF system. "My experience with AF is hit and miss but it's incredible on the Canon EOS C700 FF when using Canon EF lenses. We tried face detection and it tracked and was very accurate. The challenge from a drama point of view is that you don't always want it to focus on a face – you may want to hold focus at a certain point and let the person walk away out of focus. To have that option is incredible."
"We used a whole mixture of lenses as the camera has multiple applications. You can't film anamorphic lenses on full frame but the camera has a crop mode so we used anamorphic lenses on just a couple of shots that had a lot of light effects to give it that unique look," he says. "I wouldn't normally mix and match between aspherical and non-aspherical lenses but I just went for it because we were delivering in a super widescreen format so it didn't make any difference."
Of course, it's in the final footage that the quality of a camera really shows through, but Jonathan's team first had to get used to the large file sizes from the camera. The majority of the footage was shot in 12-bit Raw to the CODEX drive but some was shot directly to the CFast cards to keep the camera size down in less roomy shoot locations.
"In our pipeline, we keep a Raw workflow all the way. But with this we had to transcode due to the size of the files and one of our editing platforms doesn't support the codec yet, so we had to apply a LUT to get it looking about right," he says.
With such detailed files, it did increase time spent in post-processing to ingest files, but once on screen, the colours were so good that it actually saved time in grading.
"We were instantly very impressed with the look," says Jonathan. "The skin tone was something I feel it grades very well, with a filmic aesthetic that's very nice. The detail is there but not in a way that's unappealing. It produces a sharp, crisp image but with a soft gamma curve that looks quite filmic."
"The biggest challenge was that our idea was too ambitious for the limited time we had. But we wanted to push the boundaries," says Jonathan. "If a camera can perform over some very intensive days, from location to location and get set up very quickly to record actors' performances, it's a testament to the camera. And the Canon EOS C700 FF delivered."
Ember Films' video will be shown at Camerimage 2018 in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Come and see Canon's impressive range of cinematography kit there, from 10-17 November 2018.