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“Digital has opened up making films...” <br class="br_visual" />DoP Danny Cohen

“Digital has opened up making films...”
DoP Danny Cohen

© Image courtesy of Koch Media

March 2015

As digital technology has filtered into filmmaking, the focus of attention has generally been on the high visual quality that is available for increasingly little money. But there are often indirect benefits as well, in particular the smaller size of the cameras and the reduced number of people required on a shoot, making the kit more flexible for different shooting environments. These were the benefits discovered by Danny Cohen when he employed a Canon EOS C500 for the cinematography of ‘X + Y’, a new comedy-drama movie about a mathematics prodigy, for which he was Director of Photography. CPN writer James Morris spoke to Danny Cohen about his experiences shooting ‘X + Y’ with the C500...

“One of the reasons the C500 caught our eye was that it's small and was good for running around doing hand-held stuff,” explains Cohen. “It's very light. Compared to that, an ARRI Alexa is a big old lump.” For the ‘X + Y’ shoot the C500 was used alongside a pair of RED Epics, and it stood up well in this company. Whilst the Epics were shooting in 5K, Danny Cohen took advantage of the C500's 4K facility.

He explains: “It [the 4K footage] had to fit in and look not a million miles away from the Epic 5K [footage]. What's great about the C500 is that, because you can shoot RAW, you're starting off from roughly the same image quality and resolution as shooting Epic 5K or Alexa. You're starting at roughly the same point, with similar dynamic range and performance, and a massive chunk of data for the image.”

The path to using digital

© Image courtesy of Koch Media

The character Nathan (played by actor Asa Butterfield) pictured running in a still from the film ‘X + Y’.

Danny Cohen explains what led him to using the C500: “Normally I shoot on film, and in 2012 I was Director of Photography on ‘Les Miserables’." Cohen has a rather illustrious track record shooting with 35mm film, with cinematography roles on ‘The King's Speech’ and ‘Johnny English Reborn’, amongst more than 15 other well-known movies. However, he had already worked with digital cameras for his TV productions, such as the version of Shakespeare's Richard II he shot for BBC Two's four-part series ‘The Hollow Crown’, and most of his commercial work has also been shot with digital equipment.

He reveals: "For ‘X + Y’ we chose to shoot digitally. I also wanted to shoot with a hand-held camera for documentary-style interviews that would fit in to the film's style. I had used a [Canon] C300 to grab some stuff on a hazy day, so this led to discussions of trying the next step up. The C500 was used for a combination of shots during the production. There were documentary interviews with the actors in character and, to make these look slightly different, we thought the C500 could work quite well. We also had the C500 on call to grab moments and cutaways, [whilst] freely roaming.”

The C500's flexible configuration options proved to be a major bonus for integration with the RED Epic footage. “We had the C500 set up to give the flattest response, using the Canon Log mode,” adds Cohen. “So the footage from the Epic and C500 can both have a massive range and will knit together really well.” The C500 was shooting at 24 frames per second with a 172.8 degrees shutter angle, to match the RED cameras as closely as possible. Danny Cohen didn't use any of the C500's high-speed shooting modes, though, as they weren't appropriate for this particular production.

Low-light performance & EF lenses

Cohen also found the C500 performed admirably in low-light. "The ISO range is huge," he enthuses. "It's not that noisy if you crank up the ISO. We were shooting 2.35 widescreen [format], so we were slicing out a rectangle from the centre of the frame. Because you're taking out a portion of the frame, this means you can move around the image in post-production. What you want out of all of these cameras is flexibility, and the C500 gives you lots of options. The C500 is ergonomic; it's small and, because we were shooting with the Codex [recorder] with the ability to shoot RAW, it ticked all the boxes… then there's the huge range of Canon lenses."

Danny Cohen used an EF mount version of the EOS C500 (above) for shooting ‘X + Y’, which allowed him to choose from the wide range of Canon EF lenses.

A variety of Canon lenses were employed during production, all using the EF mount. The kitbag included an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM for zoom requirements, plus fixed focus lenses – the EF24mm f/1.4L USM, EF35mm f/1.4L USM and the much-loved EF50mm f/1.2L USM. Cohen reveals: "Just the few millimetres of difference between these lenses gives you a huge range in angle-of-view. If you want to reduce the depth-of-field, you can always add in some neutral density, because the C500 has built-in ND. That was really handy for ‘X + Y’, especially when we were shooting in Taiwan, where it was really bright [natural light]."

The C500 was fixed into a shoulder rig with a Codex recorder mounted in the position of an external battery. “In comparison to the RED Epics, the C500 is a run-around thing, a single-operator camera,” argues Cohen. “Although we put the RED Epic on the Steadicam, we had the C500 on a little rig that had the RAW recorder, and this balanced it well. It was a small camera; that's what impressed me. It's compact and robust.”

The robust build of the C500 was an area where it proved particularly impressive. “The film is about a kid who has Asperger's and is a maths prodigy,” explains Cohen. “We filmed in Sheffield for two thirds [of the shoot], and Taipei in Taiwan for one third. This is not a huge budget film, so it presented the usual issues of an independent production. In Taiwan [when we were filming] it was typhoon season, but the C500 didn't have any problems with the horizontal rain. That was impressive. It was incredibly hot and very, very humid in Taiwan. Those are the conditions that electronic cameras don't usually like. It [the C500] didn't have any problems with the heat or humidity or rain.”

Codex recorders and workflow

The C500 was being used with a Codex Onboard S external recorder, which was connected via the camera's 3G-SDI port. The huge amount of data involved with this and coming from the RED Epic cameras meant that a Digital Imaging Technician was required on the production to ensure everything was safely stored and backed up. "We had two RED Epics and a C500 shooting all the time," explains Cohen. "That produced a lot of data to wrangle."

© Image courtesy of Koch Media

The characters Zhang Mei (foreground left, played by actor Jo Yang) and Nathan (foreground right, played by actor Asa Butterfield) pictured sitting on grass in a still from the film ‘X + Y’.

Anthony Bagley was the Digital Imaging Technician on ‘X + Y’, taking the 512GB solid state disk-based capture drives and using the Codex UI software to store the footage and transcode it to the lower-resolution format that is being used for the main editing on Avid. He also applied an initial level of grading to suggest the desired look.

"The files were backed up to a MobileRAID on site using the Codex UI software," explains Bagley. "We also made two archives, one on LTO tape for safekeeping, whilst another copy was sent to the production office or post-production facility. We then made QuickTime rushes for viewing on an iPad, and transcoded the footage to 1920x1080 DNxHD 36 MXF files with a custom 'one light' LUT applied using DaVinci Resolve.”

Bagley adds: “These transcodes are being used with the Avid editing system, which can also produce online rushes and assembly or playout DVD discs if required. The EDL from this edit will then be combined with the master 4K and 5K rushes and sent for final grading and colour correction. The grading will also use the original LUT files as a starting point. The end result will be output as a Scope Digital Cinema Package at 4K." This will give the final film a resolution of 4096x1716 and a 2.39:1 aspect ratio.

This is a fairly traditional offline-online workflow, with the Avid EDL used to refer back to and conform from original files. “We burnt in timecode and file details into the transcodes, outside of the 2.35 framing,” explains Bagley. “We made our lives a little more complicated by shooting [with] both RED Epic 5K and Canon RAW 4K, but if you didn't want the RAW quality you could use the C500's onboard Compact Flash storage card slots to make your life easier, although these will limit you to HD. The Codex puts up the cost of the equipment, but it gave us a closer match to the Epic 5K footage.”

Digital opening up filmmaking

The EOS C500's on-board audio capabilities hardly ever came into play during the shoot. "We had a separate sound recordist," explains Danny Cohen. "So we weren't putting a sound feed into the Epics, and only occasionally with the C500. We had separate sound with a boom most of the time, as is normally the case with a film production. The biggest issue was using the Codex [external recorder]. If we had had more cards for this it would have helped. The two cards we had gave us about 50 minutes of shooting time, so the Digital Imaging Technician was constantly busy downloading. If I did it again I'd use more cards. Downloading them takes time."

© Image courtesy of Koch Media

Cinematographer Danny Cohen (left) and director Morgan Matthews (right) pictured on-set working out angles during the shooting of the film ‘X + Y’.

Summing up, Cohen explains: “I've been shooting for a fair old time, and when you are shooting on film the cost is prohibitive. You need to factor in the price of buying film stock, processing it, and then tele-cine [transfer] as well. Digital has opened up making films to anyone down to an iPhone. Technology is changing incredibly quickly. You need to know what format works for what film. Every format has its own look. A new language has developed because the high-end digital cameras have a new look, whereas film gives incredible texture and grain."

Danny Cohen has clearly been impressed by the Canon EOS C500's abilities overall. He recalls: "We were never in a situation where we were left scratching our heads about how to do something. It did everything we needed to do on a feature. For me every camera has a situation where it has something going for it. For a project where I need a compact camera, it [the C500] produces really good images. I would use it again, definitely. For what it does, it's bang-on!"

  • ‘X + Y’ was released in UK cinemas from 13 March 2015.

Biography: Danny Cohen

Danny Cohen

Danny Cohen (BSC) is a cinematographer with over a decade of film and TV experience. He has worked as Director of Photography on film productions as diverse as Shane Meadows' ‘This is England’, the multiple Academy Award-winning and BAFTA-winning ‘The King's Speech’, for which he was also nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA; the Rowan Atkinson comedy ‘Johnny English Reborn’ and the film version of ‘Les Miserables’. He has also worked extensively in television, notably the comedy series ‘The Book Group’ and ‘Nathan Barley’, and more recently on the US mini-series ‘John Adams’, the biographical feature ‘Longford’, and a TV production of Shakespeare's Richard II, starring Ben Whishaw. Throughout a prodigious career, he has been nominated for over a dozen major international film and television awards, including four BAFTAs.


The characters Zhang Mei (left, played by actor Jo Yang) and Nathan (right, played by actor Asa Butterfield) on a park bench in a still from the film ‘X + Y’.