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This is the first in a series of posts about the filming of CNN’s first in-house-produced documentary series, which I was hired to be the director of photography for. Other CNN shows like “Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown” are produced externally. I will be covering many aspects of production from the selection of gear, to travelling, shooting, audio and much more!
Principle photography for the 1st series of CNN’s “The Wonder List” has just wrapped. Filming in 5 continents broken up across 5 months and condensed into 8 episodes! The series is about places, people, creatures that have to be seen before they might disappear. We get to meet incredible people, see amazing landscapes and astonishing creatures, but also look at what is causing this potential threat and where anything being done to stop it.
For example, one episode is about sinking Venice, another about the threat to the wildlife of the Galapagos, another is an episode about the Greek Island of Ikaria, where there is one of the 5 biggest concentrations of people who live past 100…but that’s changing. It was a fascinating series to shoot and I hope will be the same to watch!
We used a LOT of gear, and for a crew as small as we had, it was a massive undertaking, especially given my decision to bring some high-end production devices normally used by me in high-end corporates and commercials. Very much not the norm for a documentary series like this!
This first post covers that eternally tricky question “Which camera to use” very much like a common email question I get “Which camera should I buy?”
It’s incredibly important, as a the wrong camera can handicap you and can make shooting way more challenging than it needs to be.
Assessing the Options
There are of course many cameras to choose from. When you’re assessing them, their pros and cons need to be taken into account. I needed super 35mm sensor, excellent image quality, internal full approved for HD broadcast recording format, great ergonomics, and excellent light sensitivity. These are amongst the key factors I considered when assessing the options. I absolutely had no need, like almost every shoot I do, for raw! Just getting that out there. There is a time and a place for it. Documentary and especially broadcast documentary is not it. High end commercials? Feature films? Sure. The massive increase in media, hard drives and post time make in totally unworkable for this kind of shoot. After all, it took until Games Of Thrones’ fourth season I believe to move from ProRes to ARRI RAW!
I learnt my craft in news using on-the-shoulder Betacam cameras. 17 years of back screwing pain in fact! It was only when I went freelance that I started experimenting with different types of video cameras, especially larger sensor ones…and thankfully lighter ones!
There is nothing easier than shooting a documentary with one of these cameras though. The ergonomics are perfect…it goes on your shoulder! Key too is a nice B4 lens with a big range, meaning you can react fast to things happening, and you rarely need to change lenses unless you want a big wide-angle. None of this prime lens malarkey! 😉
The Key Factors
The look CNN wanted was understandably the large sensor look. This is not a problem and is of course what I shoot with 99.9% of the time. I simply don’t use 2/3″ cameras anymore. Although they’re way less convenient, I shoot my documentaries on DSLR style cameras or mostly on S35 camcorders. These days I consider Micro Four Thirds small!
What’s so good about a large sensor? Well it’s a pain when it comes to glass of course. There is no glass out there that matches the range of a good B4 lens. I need to have 3 zooms to give me a decent constant aperture range. A 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200. That still doesn’t come anywhere near close to my 22x B4 lens with 2x extender. That’s one of the sacrifices with super 35mm or full frame. The benefits are clear though. It looks BLOODY GORGEOUS! The ability to control my depth of field is wonderful. Shallow when I want. Deep when I want a bigger depth of field. It looks cinematic, and as we shot 24p (23.98p) that is the look I wanted for the show. I wanted the series to look cinematic!
So given that a large sensor is essential, what does that leave us to choose from? Well as of July 2014, when I was choosing, there were a few options. There are of course more now, and by the time you read this post Sony will most likely have brought out half a dozen more! Back then, it was essentially between two cameras. I don’t consider any of the Blackmagic cameras to be documentary cameras. Terrible ergonomics, awful battery life and poor light sensitivity rule them out. They have many great features, they just aren’t doco cameras for me.
Choosing the “A” Camera
Canon C300 w/ C100 backup (owned by me)
Sony F55 (owned by me)
Sure there are many other options. I am sure people will ask why not the ARRI Amira. Well I haven’t actually used one yet but, it’s a heavy camera and this being a small crew production and a very physical one too, the weight of the camera can make a big difference.
There was also the FS700 from Sony. I owned it at the time, gone now. Replaced by the FS7 which is leaps and bounds better in every way. I never liked it as a documentary camera. Great for other work, just not for documentary. Just my opinion. Poor internal codec, awful screen and ergonomics handicapped a really well-featured camera. You can work around these with a rig and a recorder, but it becomes too big for me to work in this situation. It’s a great camera once you get past these issues, but it wouldn’t work for me here.
CNN told me they use Canon C300 and C100s in-house for their non-news work. I think the C300 is one of the very best Super 35mm camcorders out there for documentary style filming. The image is superb with a lovely 12 stop dynamic range and excellent flat picture profile. The codec is only 50mb/s and 8-bit, but it’s 4:2:2 and surprisingly robust in the grade. Form factor wise, out of the box, it’s actually pretty useable. The rear EVF isn’t horrible and the main screen is excellent. Stick a Zacuto Z-Finder over that screen and it becomes way better.
I have used the camera a lot but I actually sold it last year after buying the F55. I couldn’t justify owning both even though the F55 isn’t as doco friendly as the Canon but it certainly can work in that environment. It’s heavier, uses V-Locks which means more weight (for luggage too), the way it deals with audio isn’t as simple, and it requires a rig.
I do personally think the Sony F55 is (still) the best camera on the market though. It has a superb image, global shutter, good low light sensitivity, works well on the shoulder, good audio handling, 14 stop dynamic range, in camera 4K and HD as well as 2K crop mode, up to 180fps slow motion internally, slick integration with raw recorder if needed and much more.
It’s at home shooting feature films as it is shooting one-man-band. It’s not cheap though. I bought it 18 months ago under 2-year zero percent finance. So it’s still not paid off yet! When you add it all up, especially the expensive media and EVF (which I wouldn’t buy now having used the Zacuto Gratical) then this is a hell of an investment. Almost as much as I spent when I bought a RED Epic.
Bang-for-buck-wise then, that crown belongs to the exceptional Sony FS7 above. I will be doing a review of this soon. This camera wasn’t an option when we started shooting, as it didn’t come out until November last year. Now I think it’s the best documentary camera on the market, but more of that in a later post (and review!)
Making that decision
Truth be told, I prefer the out-of-the camera image of the C300 to that of the Sony cameras. In Cinema Lock mode it’s just lovely. 12 stops of dynamic range, a lovely log profile and wonderful detail…it’s an exceptional HD real-time camera. Now that is where the problem lies. I wanted slow motion. Proper slow motion. More than 60fps and most definitely at more than 720p. That’s the problem with the C300: that’s all it does.
Super slow motion is one of the things that I wanted to be a signature look of the show when I spoke to CNN.
The job came about after I got an email from the presenter of the show, Bill Weir, asking if I would be interesting in shooting the series. He pitched it to me, it sounded very interesting, and coincidentally I was going to be where the show was being produced, NY, in about a week or so.
I met with him and Amy Entails, Senior Vice President, Talent and Content Development for CNN Worldwide. We chatted about what I had done and most importantly how I envisaged the series looking. I had a few ideas that excited them. I agreed to come on board, and not long after I put together this little video below based upon previously shot work to help us decide on the look of the show.
That brings us back to the C300 and the desire to use super slow motion. They wanted it, I wanted it, and the C100 doesn’t do it. That meant it had to be the F55. Why the F55 and not the F5? It’s the camera I own that’s why. Simple reason.
We did have the 4K discussion. I wanted to shoot the series in 4K as the place and stories we were going to were so special that I wanted to shoot in the best possible format. Of course CNN isn’t a 4K channel…what is? This would be shot 4K for “future proofing” reasons for the most part.
There was a problem or two though. The increase in cost was obviously a factor, with more money needed for post and storage. A big issue for me would be time needed to offload the material. Knowing how long offload takes as it is, shooting in 4K would add a lot more time to the day (I will be covering this aspect of production in a future post.)
The other big issue was with the b-cameras. Most likely the Sony A7s was going to be used by myself for certain stuff and also one of CNN’s Canon C300 or C100s. We actually ended up with the C100, which is actually a bloody good camera. I reviewed it a while back, and with its price tag of $4000 now, it’s a bit of a bargain. It has the same gorgeous image as the C300, just with a lesser codec, screen and EVF. Add a Ninja Blade onto it, and you have a killer combo. I haven’t used the C100 II yet, its improvements are there for sure, but it’s not a world away from the Sony FS7 price, whose features eclipse the C100 II by a huge margin…still if all you want is HD then it’s a great camera.
The plan was that there would be a main second shooter in the team. That person would also be the producer for the episode. Two producers alternating episodes. Because of these cameras being used, making a 4K episode would be practically impossible. The Atomos Shogun has only been out about a month…I, like most, expected it to come out much sooner. Without it, or the recently released Convergent Design Odyssey 7q+, then 4K out of the A7s would be impossible.
So with these problems it was decided that we would shoot in HD. I actually shot quite a few times in 4K on the F55 and FS7 on the series for certain magical times that I simply couldn’t bring myself to shoot in “just” HD…it just meant they had to be transcoded for editing.
One of my big pros for shooting 4K for an HD program is the ability to crop. I knew the footage would be ingested as HD by the post production house, so that benefit would be lost. The biggest loss in doing so would be if I had shot the interviews in 4K. I didn’t, knowing this would be a waste of data and time.
We actually had 3 cameras on most of the interviews. A wide and two dirty singles. This meant three cameras, three DIFFERENT cameras on each interview. My A7s, the C100 and the F55. Matching this is fine if you are a good colourist. If you aren’t a good colourist then best to keep all the cameras the same. What would most definitely help would be using an X-Rite passport below. Shoot this for a second or two on each camera in each lighting environment saves a huge amount of work when colour correcting. I cannot recommend them enough!
Codecs and bit rates
Normally for HD productions you are told you cameras need to be a certain bit-rate and colour space. The minimum is generally 50mbps and 4:2:2. The Canon C300 fits this….just. The C100 does not, with its 24Mbps and 4:2:0. The A7s is in XAVC-S mode 50Mbps and 4:2:0. The F55 and FS7 in XAVC-I is 100Mbps 4:2:2 and something I feel is more important that colour space is bit depth…it’s 10 bit rather than 8 bit, which all the others are. Even when connected to an external recorder, none of the cameras other than the F55 and FS7 output 10 bit, they are uncompressed and 4:2:2 but still only 8 bit. Whilst this is not the end of the world, it’s often a big consideration when choosing which camera.
Interestingly, there were no guidelines set by CNN for the show, but that didn’t stop me wanting to shoot in a decent format. The A-camera was sorted out, as I mentioned the F55 is of a very high quality internally. To improve the B-Cameras, external recorders would need to be used. For the C100 and A7s that generally meant the Atomos Ninja Blade. An affordable monitor/ recorder combo. It can record in various forms of ProRes or avid DNxHD. I do very much recommend it. Although the A7s XAVC-s codec is actually pretty damn good. If you shoot in S-log 2 though, I would really recommend using an external recorder as it needs more treatment in post, so the better more robust codec is preferred.
GoPros would also be used heavily on every episode. They are great to put anywhere and of course essential for underwater filming unless you go down the whole underwater housing route for the main cameras. Also for use with the DJI Phantom, where using one was permitted. I will talk more about these and using the Inspire One later on in the series in a future blog post about the actual day-to-day shooting.
Why the A7s?
The Sony A7s is an incredible little camera. If you follow me on my various social media platforms, you will have seen me sharing quite a lot from this camera from the shoots.
My original idea was to use this as B camera to replace the F55 when the F55 was too conspicuous or too awkward, and of course for any real low light situations. What actually transpired was that I brought the amazing Movi M5 with me to a get together for the team before we started filming,
I wasn’t planning on using it for the series, but after using it for a few pre-shoot shots, it had to come with. Throughout the shooting of the series it became absolutely essential and it features heavily. I will be covering how I used it in a separate future Wonder List blog post soon.
That’s it for post one! The second post is about which accessories I used. Which monitors, mics, after shave. All the essentials. Then the next post is about how to travel with it all. The need or not need for carnets, packing, excess baggage etc. Then we get onto the actual shooting part both the creative decisions and practical realities. Lots of posts to come! Brace yourselves!!
Until then, here is the teaser that went live on New Year’s Eve on CNN, shot with a pre-production Inspire One back in November!
“The Wonder List” premieres on Sunday March 1st at 10pm EST. I don’t know how it is being broadcast internationally yet.