The digital negative: shooting in Cinema RAW Light

A scene from Brett Danton's Jaguar ad shot on a Canon EOS C500 Mark II.
Advertising filmmaker Brett Danton, who has worked for high-end brands including Jaguar, is a huge fan of the Cinema RAW Light file format because it enables him to capture as much digital information as possible, giving him increased flexibility in post. © Brett Danton

More and more filmmakers are seeing the light. That's Cinema RAW Light, the Canon-developed compact RAW file format that is not only fast and easy to use but also allows creatives to achieve results that are simply not possible with other codecs.

"RAW scares a lot of people because they think it's hard to handle, but it's not," says advertising filmmaker Brett Danton, a convert to the Cinema RAW Light format that was first introduced with the release of the Canon EOS C200, and is also available on the Canon EOS C500 Mark II and the Canon EOS C300 Mark III.

His thoughts are echoed by Ollie Kenchington, who runs an award-winning corporate film production agency and is one of the world's best-known colour grading experts. "From a colourist's point of view Cinema RAW Light is a fantastic codec to work with – there's just so much data inside of it. But it's also a very low CPU load codec, which means that it can play back very easily. Those two things are kind of the holy grail: lots and lots of data, but lightweight enough to edit with a laptop."

So how can you make the most of the creative opportunities that the recording format offers? Here, Brett and Ollie explain why they choose to film in Cinema RAW Light, and reveal how simple it is to incorporate the file format into a standard shooting and grading workflow.

Smaller files without sacrificing quality

Shooting in RAW ensures optimum control over image quality, maximises dynamic range and enables far more control of grading in post-production. But filming in full 16-bit RAW generates massive file sizes that can be difficult to work with. Cameras often need a separate recorder and dedicated software to transcode the footage into a format that editing programmes can work with. Historically, this has limited the use of RAW to large productions.

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Filming in Canon Cinema RAW Light produces significantly smaller files – between a third and a fifth of the size of standard RAW footage – without sacrificing image quality or colour fidelity. The Canon EOS C200 allows you to capture 4K images internally, recording to a CFast 2.0 card; the Canon EOS C500 Mark II enables Cinema RAW Light recording internally onto CFexpress cards at 5.9K; while the Canon EOS C300 Mark III supports continuous recording up to 120fps in 4K Cinema RAW Light, also onto CFexpress cards.

Cinema RAW Light does not record in the frame-by-frame structure of the traditional RAW format. Instead, the information is compiled into a single RAW Movie file, giving filmmakers all the data they can squeeze out of their cameras, recorded at the highest quality.

"I think of RAW as a 'digital negative'. You're grabbing as much information as you can and you have full control over what you can do with that image at a later date, which makes it possible to go back and repurpose what you've shot," explains Brett. "For example, Netflix wants HDR content, so if it's interested in a documentary you shot in RAW, you can regrade it – you're not constrained by how you shot it. And for me, the colours are richer and have more depth."

"The data that you've got opens up all kinds of creative avenues," adds Ollie. "We're talking about a billion colours if it's 10-bit, 68 billion if it's 12-bit. And not only do we have a huge colour palette, they're encapsulated in a huge gamut as well. Canon Cinema Gamut is bigger than the human eye can see in terms of colour response. So we've got a huge number of colours that we can capture within a very large gamut, which means that we can go anywhere. To a certain extent we're future-proofing ourselves depending on what deliverables might be an option in the future."

Red-tinged clouds and orange skies at sunset reflected in the water below.
Colour grading expert Ollie Kenchington films in Cinema RAW Light because it's "full of rich colour information". © Ollie Kenchington
The Canon EOS C500 Mark II.

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Shooting Cinema RAW Light

Because there's no need for external recording units, the shooting process is largely the same as with a compressed codec, although Brett exposes differently in Cinema RAW Light. "With RAW, I'm looking to gather as much information as possible rather than trying to expose for a predetermined look. We decide on the look in post," he says.

"If you're working to finish in HDR, you don't want to blow out highlights. If you've got a subject with a lot of contrast, you've still got to decide where you want the shadow area to sit. Ideally with RAW, you want to lift the shadows a little and not have them sit on the very bottom, because that's where noise can come in. I use my waveform to check I haven't blown highlights in the brightest part of the image, then see if that puts a lot of important stuff into the dark area. Then I might clip the highlight a little more."

Ollie encourages filmmakers to always shoot a colour chart and to get the white balance right on every shot. "People might think getting exposure and colour right doesn't matter with RAW, but it's useful information," he says.

A key advantage of filming in Cinema RAW Light is that the file sizes are small enough to edit. Brett still generates proxy files – an exact copy of your footage in a smaller file size – but mostly uses them for clients to view on set. "I've used all three of the Canon cameras that shoot Cinema RAW Light," he says. "When the Canon EOS C200 came out, we did a proxy workflow and edited those files," says Brett. "Now I only use proxies to upload as rushes with a LUT dropped on, so clients can have a look."

Computer screens and monitors set up for a video editing workflow.
In the past, filmmakers have avoided working with RAW footage because the large file sizes are difficult to handle, but filming in Cinema RAW Light produces smaller files that are much easier to incorporate into a shooting and grading workflow. © Ollie Kenchington
A close-up of a woman's face.
Ollie loves the flexibility the codec gives him when it comes to adjusting colour space and gamma. © Ollie Kenchington

Improved computing capabilities

To make the most of shooting in Cinema RAW Light you need extra storage, higher resolution screens and powerful hardware, but technology in areas such as memory, storage, computer graphics and processing is improving all the time. "CFast and CFexpress memory cards are incredibly robust and fast so everything downloads really quickly," says Brett. "It's best to keep the software and files on two different fast drives. I store the RAW footage on a fast SSD Thunderbolt 3 external drive and use an SSD with my laptop. If the footage won't play back smoothly, it's usually the external drive that's causing the bottleneck."

"You can scrub through it very simply, which is kind of incredible really," adds Ollie. "We've got a file that's full of colour information, it's really rich with data, and yet it's lightweight enough to cut together and work with – even on a laptop. There aren't going to be many systems that struggle. Earlier this year, I was doing a demonstration with the Canon DP-V3120 [a 31-inch 4K HDR professional reference display], which is an incredible monitor, and the whole thing was being driven by my 16-inch MacBook Pro. It's quite staggering to think that we can work with these files on a laptop. It opens up all kinds of options."

A top-down shot of a Canon EOS C300 Mark III filming a glass bottle ringed by light tubes.
The Canon EOS C300 Mark III is Canon's latest camera to support Cinema RAW Light, capable of recording in 4K at up to 1GBps. Both the Canon EOS C300 Mark III and the Canon EOS C500 Mark II have been added to Netflix's list of approved cameras. © Brett Danton

Editing workflow

Canon's Cinema RAW Development software can be used to convert Cinema RAW Light files into a codec that's readable by a range of non-linear editing systems (NLEs). Footage can also be dropped straight into Adobe Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve and plugins ensure compatibility with Final Cut Pro X 10.4 from Apple (using the Canon RAW Plugin for Final Cut Pro X) and Media Composer from Avid Technology (via the Canon RAW Plugin for Avid Media Access).

"In terms of cutting and editing, and the grading tools you use for colouring, Cinema RAW Light is no different from any other file," says Ollie. "There is no specific workflow. The different software presents the RAW tools slightly differently. The RAW image doesn't have a gamma applied, so you can make it Rec.709, Canon Log 3, Log 2 or Log.

"You can make adjustments to ISO, gamut, gamma, white balance, tint, highlights, shadows and sharpness. It's a 4:4:4 file with the full Bayer pattern information from the camera sensor. You've got complete control and changes are non-destructive. So this is a codec that we can push quite far if we need to, which opens up all kinds of creative avenues."

All these options could be confusing for the less experienced filmmaker – especially when mixing footage from different cameras – but that's when you see the benefit of an all-Canon Cinema RAW Light workflow. "You've got the same flavour of RAW in the three Canon cameras, so you've got consistency and you know you can match those files together," explains Brett. "Filming in Cinema RAW Light means the Canon EOS C200, Canon EOS C300 Mark III and Canon EOS C500 Mark II play very well together," adds Ollie.

Yazar Adam Duckworth

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