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Kevin Macdonald & Christopher Ross on <br class="br_homepage" />shooting ‘Black Sea’ with the EOS C500

Kevin Macdonald & Christopher Ross on
shooting ‘Black Sea’ with the EOS C500

© Universal Pictures

February 2015

In an exclusive CPN interview Academy Award-winning film director Kevin Macdonald and Director of Photography Christopher Ross discuss how they shot the recently released submarine-based thriller movie ‘Black Sea’ with Canon Digital Cinema Cameras. CPN writer James Morris spoke to them during post-production of the film to discover why the EOS C500 and EOS-1D C proved to be the perfect tools for working in confined shooting conditions...

Kevin Macdonald is no stranger to working with the Canon Cinema EOS system. After using the EOS C300 camera in the making of his last film, ‘How I Live Now’, Macdonald found the C500 was a natural progression for his latest feature, ‘Black Sea’. Set almost exclusively in a submarine, it posed some considerable space constraints for cinematography…

© Universal Pictures

The character Morozov (played by actor Grigory Dobrygin) in the submarine in a still from the film ‘Black Sea’.

“We shot it on a real submarine, in part, down in the River Medway for about a week-and-a-half,” explains Macdonald, “and then about another five weeks in a studio out at Pinewood [Studios], where we built certain elements of the submarine. I had been really impressed with the look of the C300, the feel of it, and the flexibility of it on ‘How I Live Now’. It's so brilliant in low-light and it's one of those cameras you can just ‘grab and go’… it's very attractive to a director like me.”

“But the film I've just worked on [‘Black Sea’] is actually very different,” he continues. “There's not a lot of spontaneity, it's all set on a submarine, or underwater. Every shot has to be planned, arranged and set up, so you wouldn't have thought that the Canon cameras [the C500 and EOS-1D C] would have been as useful. But, in fact, they were even more useful on this film because space was at a premium. When we were shooting, particularly on the real submarine, there's absolutely no space at all and having the smallest possible camera was excellent.”

Testing camera options

The EOS C500 wasn't the only contender for the shoot, however. Macdonald and the Director of Photography on ‘Black Sea’, Christopher Ross, tested a range of options before making the final decision. “During the test process we took an Alexa [camera] shooting to a Codex recorder, and then put that up against a C500 and a RED Epic, also shooting to the Codex [recorder], and the Canon EOS-1D C using its own 4K,” explains Ross.

© Universal Pictures

Submarine captain Robinson (played by actor Jude Law) in the submarine in a still from the film ‘Black Sea’.

He adds: “We shot day exterior and night-looking interior scenes. We took the shots in to DaVinci Resolve [editing software] and chose the C500 and 1D C as small-rig cameras because of their abilities to capture the contrast range and the colour range. We were going for a deep, saturated, look and were able to match colours with the Alexa perfectly. In hindsight we didn't use the C500 in quite the way we intended, though. We wanted to use the 4K resolution in case we needed the extra pixels to re-frame, but in the end this wasn't necessary.”

“We found the C500 to be really fantastic, and [it] had a beautiful depth to the image,” adds Kevin Macdonald. “Slightly annoyingly was that it has an umbilical [cable arrangement] that goes to a backpack – that's the price you pay for 4K. But the camera itself is very small, flexible and easy-to-use. So, we used that as a ‘B’ camera throughout the shoot, and in certain scenes where we didn't have very much space. We also used the 1D C as a ‘B’ camera. You could really put it anywhere in the submarine – behind some pipes; above a door – and it would blend into the industrial look of the submarine. So, you could get away with it being in [the] shot and nobody would see it. That was why we used the Canons.”

“The 1D [C] was used in very small spaces by the second unit, such as the engine compartment of the submarine,” continues Ross. “It was particularly useful with explosions. We had five explosions, with water bursting through pipes, and we wanted as many varied shots as possible because you can't just re-do those scenes!”

Building a special backpack

Ross also explains the umbilical arrangement with the C500: “We built a special backpack for the camera which allowed us to remotely operate it from up to 20 feet away. The camera body could have a single lens and a single motor cable. This allowed us to squeeze into places [that were] four inches by four inches, inside the submarine. The umbilical was a loom of four cables: power, two SDIs, and one for operating the remote focus. So you could pull focus remotely, and lock off remotely.”

© Universal Pictures

Submarine captain Robinson (played by actor Jude Law) in the submarine in a still from the film ‘Black Sea’.

He adds: “We were able to put it [the C500] in the submarine conning tower, using a Towercam with an ability to move the camera up and down, going from low height up to 20 feet. This allowed us to get a tracking shot up the staircase to the periscope room, and then up from the periscope room to the hatch.”

“The main camera was an Alexa,” continues Macdonald. “We were shooting 2.35 [aspect ratio], non-anamorphic, using spherical lenses. Part of the reason for not going anamorphic was to be able to use multiple cameras at certain occasions, and to use the smaller Canon cameras with spherical lenses, which were obviously much easier to come by than the anamorphic lenses.”

The Alexa and C500 cameras were actually able to share lenses. “We chose a C500 with an EF mount, to use stills lenses if needed,” explains Ross. “But we also had a Panavision adapter, so used Panavision PVintage primes, which are essentially the Vintage Ultra Speed USZ [lenses] from the early 1980s with contemporary mechanics. We could use the same lenses for the Alexa.”

“The Alexa has a slightly different quality, which is not always so pleasant,” adds Macdonald. “You get a little bit of greasiness in people's skin. The Canons are really good at reproducing a still 35mm ‘photographic feel’ of the human face. That is very nice. I would say maybe one downside of the Canon is that its reproduction of saturated colour, particularly red, was not as strong as the Alexa, and we had a lot of very saturated lighting in this film.”

Getting a claustrophobic feel

However, it was the C500's image quality in combination with its small size that were the key factors. “We were shooting on the submarine and also on a set that didn't have any floating walls to it; and we were always within the set,” continues Macdonald. “That was one of the concepts: we wanted it to feel claustrophobic. Using the cameras in there was often quite tricky, but it would have been tricky using any camera. Finding a place where you can put the camera and for it not to get in the way, with actors rushing by, was often very difficult.”

He adds: “The restrictions in space also meant that every shot had to be lit very specifically, and we always found it hard to hide the lights. The great thing with the Canons was that they weren't taking up yet more precious space, they were freeing up space for the lights.”

© Universal Pictures

Director Kevin Macdonald pictured on-set during the making of the film ‘Black Sea’.

So, Kevin Macdonald's use of Canon cameras was for a different reason than that for his previous feature film: “With the first film that I made with a Canon camera, ‘How I Live Now’, a large reason for using that camera was to be able to catch spontaneity, because it was a very ‘documentary-style’ film where we wanted the actors to be completely free to move wherever they wanted; to improvise dialogue. We wanted really to shoot rehearsals. It hasn't been the same on ‘Black Sea’. It really was to do with space, and the smallness of those cameras. This was a much more tightly-scripted film, with much less room for improvisation, because of the nature of the set and the fact that it's a thriller. In a thriller you really need to be strict to the plot.”

However, the flexibility of the C500 was still supremely useful. “We could use the C500 handheld,” explains Macdonald. “A lot of the film is handheld. But we also used it on a dolly and on the crane, in one or two instances. So it was perfectly easy and flexible to use in that regard. There are a few shots in this film that Chris Ross and I took on a ‘recce’. We went to Ukraine; to Sebastopol, which is the Russian naval base that's in the Black Sea. We just really went to have a look, because we were hoping to go back and shoot there for real. But we ran out of money and weren't able to go back.”

He reveals: “Luckily Chris and I had taken the Canon C500… really just because we wanted to have a play around with it, as an opportunity to test it together. We took some shots out of the window of a bus and some landscape shots, which actually we've used in the final film. Chris was operating it on his own – he found that relatively straightforward, even with the Codex 4K recorder. It does eat up memory like you wouldn't believe but we shot some really beautiful images on the Canon. So that's one of the great advantages.”

Macdonald reveals: “It's a camera that you can take along on a ‘recce’ with you; a camera which can just sit in a backpack and, if you suddenly see something and think 'ah that's fantastic; I'd like that in the film. I'm never going to see that again' – a sunset, an animal or whatever it is – you can whip it out and there you go; you've got it.”

The benefits of being small and unobtrusive

“I think the key benefits of the C500 are very straightforward,” adds Kevin Macdonald. “It's a camera that is very small and unobtrusive; you can carry it with you wherever you go. It's a great thing to have on a ‘recce’ to be whipped out – put a lens on it and you can shoot something spontaneously. It's lightweight; you can run with it; you can do an awful lot of things with it – all of that is fantastic, but it also has the ability of giving an astonishingly good picture. So those are the key benefits of the camera for me.”

Christopher Ross is bullish about his appreciation of the C500. “I would use it as an ‘A’ camera. One of the difficulties with this production, in general, was that we needed to shoot to the Codex [recorder] as the best file format for VFX. As soon as we shot Alexa in a RAW format, the logical choice in terms of workflow was to record the C500 footage to Codex to keep [the] workflow streamlined. But using a first generation Codex recorder isn't the best way. A better way would be to record on an SSD recorder, like the Gemini, which would be more than adequate, but it wasn't quite ready for this shoot.”

“I really enjoyed using the C500,” concludes Kevin Macdonald. “It came in very handy on this shoot. I can certainly foresee using the C500 again, particularly if there was not an umbilical. It has incredibly high resolution, and is very simple to use. On the kinds of films I generally make (not necessarily ‘Black Sea’), where we are looking for spontaneity – for a documentary feel – I think the cameras are wonderful.”

Kitbag for shooting ‘Black Sea’

EOS C500 (EF-mount)

EF-Panavision adapter
Panavision PVintage prime lens collection

Codex Onboard-S recorder

Biography: Kevin Macdonald

Kevin Macdonald

Kevin Macdonald is an Academy Award-winning film director from Scotland. His film about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, ‘One Day in September’, won an Academy Award in 2000 for Best Documentary. His next documentary ‘Touching the Void’ won a BAFTA for Best British Film in 2003-4, whilst his subsequent feature, ‘The Last King of Scotland’, won a Best Actor Academy Award in 2007 for Forest Whittaker's portrayal of Idi Amin. Macdonald’s other projects include working with Ridley Scott on the ‘Life in a Day’ project, directing the biopic ‘Marley’, about reggae superstar Bob Marley, and directing the films ‘How I Live Now’ and ‘Black Sea’.

Biography: Christopher Ross

Christopher Ross

Christopher Ross (BSC) is a cinematographer with over a decade's experience in film and television. He worked on the TV series 'Collision', 'Misfits', 'Youngers' and 'Top Boy'. He was also director of photography on the films 'Eden Lake', 'London to Brighton', 'The Cottage', 'United', ‘Get Santa', ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’ and ‘Black Sea’. He won Best Cinematography in a Television Drama in the 2012 British Society of Cinematographers awards for his work on the thriller series 'Blackout', which also garnered him the Best Photography: Drama award at the Royal Television Society in the same year, as well as a BAFTA nomination in 2013.


Submarine captain Robinson (left, played by actor Jude Law) and the character Blackie (right, played by actor Konstantin Khabenskiy) at a pool table in the submarine in a still from the film ‘Black Sea’.