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Kevin Macdonald <br class="br_visual" />and Franz Lustig  <br class="br_visual" />on shooting<br class="br_visual"/> ‘How I Live Now’ <br class="br_visual"/>with the EOS C300

Kevin Macdonald
and Franz Lustig
on shooting
‘How I Live Now’
with the EOS C300

© Nicola Dove/Entertainment One

October 2013

In an exclusive interview with CPN, Oscar-winning film director Kevin Macdonald and Director of Photography Franz Lustig explain how the Canon EOS C300 Digital Cinema Camera was an essential tool for their latest movie production, ‘How I Live Now’. CPN writer James Morris spoke to them during post-production for the movie in London about the camera's features and how it proved to be invaluable during the film’s shoot.

Kevin Macdonald's work has regularly spanned the gap in genres between fact and fiction, as befits a documentary filmmaker working in the same era as Nick Bloomfield and Michael Moore. But if there's a theme that links the documentaries ‘One Day in September’, ‘Touching the Void’ and ‘Marley’ with his fictional films inspired by real events, such as ‘The Last King of Scotland’, it's the close intimacy that Macdonald manages to create with the characters he brings to life on-screen.

For Macdonald's latest movie project, ‘How I Live Now’, the central plot revolves around a young girl's struggle in an unfamiliar environment, so it was essential to bring out her experience as directly as possible. But that wasn't the only way the Canon EOS C300 used for the film proved itself to be a worthy tool for shooting a big-screen production.

© Kevin Macdonald/Entertainment One

Please click the play button in the window above to view the trailer for Kevin Macdonald’s film ‘How I Live Now’.

Handheld convenience

"The first part of the film was shot mainly handheld, so this handheld camera [C300] was very useful," explains the film’s Director of Photography, Franz Lustig.

"During pre-production, before we actually started shooting, Franz [Lustig] went around and shot lots of little bits of birds, landscapes and details of things," adds Kevin Macdonald. "This is something you always want to do on films because you can see a beautiful sunset and have the flexibility to pull out a little tiny camera and shoot something. That stuff has all made it into the film. Franz could shoot this on his own."

"It was a one-man show!" continues Lustig. "Me, my backpack, three lenses, and maybe a tripod if needed. I could do images for the film and they cut in beautifully. You don't need a whole crew. We also tested some things in moonlight, although that didn't make it into the film in the end. That was the original reason we wanted to try this camera for its low-light abilities."

‘How I Live Now’ is set in England just as a fictional Third World War breaks out, and stars rising luminary Saoirse Ronan, best known for her roles in ‘The Lovely Bones’, ‘Hanna’ and ‘Atonement’, for which she received an Oscar nomination at the age of 13. The story may have a background of war, but is primarily about the relationships between the main characters, and how these are affected by the conflict. This is very much a cinema release, and the EOS C300 was used alongside ultra high-end ALEXA Plus and M cameras. However, whilst the Canon unit was primarily called upon for handheld shots, its abilities allowed it to punch well above the second or third camera role it had officially been ascribed with.

© Kevin Macdonald/Entertainment One

Please click the play button in the window above to view director Kevin Macdonald explaining how the EOS C300 was used during the ‘How I Live Now’ shoot.

Shooting quickly and in low-light

"We had this 10-year-old actress and you can't shoot all night with child actors," explains Kevin Macdonald. "So I was thinking about speeding up the process on set. Night shooting is always so slow because of the amount of light. We cranked the C300 up to ISO 10,000 and 20,000 and it was grainy, but still great. It's usable. There are some shots in the movie that are ISO 20,000. There are three or four shots we recorded in moonlight, and there was one shot, which was a crane shot, which we added all sorts of digital effects to. The Canon was an amazing camera for that; for shooting real night exteriors without having to do any lighting at all."

"We were using the PL mount with old size high-speed lenses, for the high-speed and for the look," explains Franz Lustig. "We did some shots for the later part of the film where we used a Leica lens. I was shooting mainly with an ALEXA M on an EasyRig with 20-60mm zoom, and we had an ALEXA Plus on the side. Then on action sequences we threw in the C300, which was really great because you don't need a full crew. It was one guy operating it, pulling focus himself."

"It was basically a great second or third camera," adds Macdonald. "We could get the second assistant cameraman to grab the C300 and get another angle. It was another thing you could throw in, and the amazing aspect was you could cut it in with the ALEXA and it was totally fine. We also shot whole scenes on it. In the ‘panicked section’ of the film when the bomb has gone off and the kids are all jittery, there was something about the tiny handheld [camera]. You use it handheld in a different way."

© Cowboy Films

Shooting an airport scene with actress Saoirse Ronan (as the character Daisy) for ‘How I Live Now’ with the EOS C300 handheld.

Lightweight and compact

"It was so lightweight you could almost see my pulse, when I was trying to keep it steady!" argues Lustig. "There was almost no weight with the little prime lenses. It was perfect for these action scenes." The C300 proved particularly ideal for very intimate shooting, too.

"We used it for a sex scene in the movie," adds Macdonald. "We didn't have to have lots of the camera department around, making the actor uncomfortable. You could also get into all sorts of strange positions that you couldn't have done with a big ALEXA. The intimacy of the camera really helped doing this film."

Franz Lustig didn't encounter any significant issues when shooting with the C300 and, in fact, only notes one area where it could be improved. “It could do with a power outlet. You can't power your remote focus gear, and I had to wear a belt with a battery for the motor and a battery for the transmission. That was the only downside, but we made it work. My assistant modified the C300 for our needs. I could operate freely and she was on the remote focus. Some of the shots I did focus myself, when I was alone in the love scene. It's do-able."

Another benefit of the C300's small size is that it can be easily strapped to an opticopter. It was used very effectively for aerial shots in this configuration. "We were a small-budget film; we couldn't afford a helicopter and we couldn't wait for the weather," admits Kevin Macdonald. "There were a few shots in the film which were filmed with these adapted toys, and they have to have a lightweight camera. The Canon [C300] is at the top end of the weight they can manage, but we got some great aerial shots, which we use quite often in the film. That was a real bonus that you couldn't have got with any other camera."

Footage, editing and grading

All footage shot on the C300 for ‘How I Live Now’ was recorded using the Canon Log Gamma feature. This much-praised facility tunes the image for post-production by providing latitude and a wide dynamic range that is closer to film. Franz Lustig prefers this to the RAW modes introduced by some manufacturers. He explains: "There is a real problem with leaving everything to post-production. You can make the creative decisions on set, not leave them to the editing. These video file formats are never standard, either. But the C300 was absolutely fine for editing."

If anything about the C300 stood out most for Macdonald and Lustig it was how well the Canon camera's footage compared to that shot on the much more expensive ALEXA cameras. “The 8-bit colour depth and whole latitude curve are not as good as ALEXA but the footage mixes in very well,” argues Lustig. “Anything up to ISO 6400 looks amazing. For grading, you need a different lookup table (LUT) because it's a different compression. Deluxe and E Film have this general lookup table that was modified for the C300 to match it with the ALEXA's. Sometimes you can't tell if footage is from the C300 or an ALEXA! In the highlights it clips more easily than the ALEXA, because it has something like four stops less latitude. But the ALEXA is as close as you can get to emulate film, so that's a pretty amazing performance for the C300.”

© Nicola Dove/Entertainment One

Still of a scene from ‘How I Live Now’.

Franz Lustig had not been a fan of the DSLR shooting trend before coming across the EOS C300. He argues: "They are photo cameras and not film cameras. I can't operate with them. It's fine for documentary [films], and certain projects wouldn't have been done without them. But you can't intercut DSLR footage with ALEXA. The C300 and C500 are not DSLR cameras; they are like film cameras. You can put in PL lenses, so you don't have to use photo lenses, which are different scale and, for focus pullers, a nightmare.”

Lustig adds: “This is a big step in the right direction for Canon. If you want to have the 35mm chip size, it's only Canon. It's really amazing what they did. I am lucky to have been educated with real film. I have a clear standpoint that digital is not there yet. But it has certain advantages, particularly with the size of the C300. It's amazing what you can achieve with these new tools so I'm embracing it."

Future projects

Franz Lustig is thinking of using the C300 as an ‘A’ camera in a future project. “It wouldn't really make sense on a dolly or crane, unless they [Canon] get the power and different outputs sorted. It's a semi-pro camera in that aspect. But for a documentary it would be perfect. The output is great; I love the look of it. It has its own look; it's really beautiful.”

"DSLR footage looks good on a monitor, but on the big screen it's not so great," adds Macdonald. "We shot whole scenes on the C300. The main thing is that you can pull the camera out any time, but also the fact that you can buy the camera relatively inexpensively. You can make a whole movie on it. It has a nice feel to it. There's something a bit like a 16mm-feel about it. Next to the ALEXA, which is like 35mm, it's like a Super-16mm camera. The next film I'm doing, if I do it, I've thought about using the C300 for the whole film. It will be shot on a submarine, with a tiny amount of space, so the C300 would be the way to do it. Now there's [also] the C500, which is the same kind of thing only better.”

Kevin Macdonald adds: “It's quite amazing what you can achieve with these new tools – it's a new brush for painting. I can use a different kind of brush to paint a picture. We really liked the camera; it was a big bonus for us!"

  • ‘How I Live Now’ was released in cinemas on 4 October 2013.

Biographie: Franz Lustig

Franz Lustig

Franz Lustig is a German cinematographer with two decades of experience. He has worked extensively as a director of photography in the advertising and music video industries. Acclaimed film director Wim Wenders hired Lustig as cinematographer for the movies ‘Land of Plenty’, ‘Don’t Come Knocking’ and ‘Palermo Shooting’. Lustig subsequently won the European Film Award for Best European Cinematographer in 2005 for his work on ‘Don’t Come Knocking’. He was Director of Photography on a series of high-profile promotional pieces for Intel, and has a wealth of documentary films in his portfolio.

Biographie: Kevin Macdonald

Kevin Macdonald

Kevin Macdonald is an Oscar-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 recently worked with Ridley Scott on the ‘Life in a Day’ project and completed the biopic ‘Marley’, about reggae superstar Bob Marley, in 2012. His film, ‘How I Live Now’, was released in October 2013.


Shooting an airport scene with actress Saoirse Ronan (as the character Daisy) for ‘How I Live Now’ with the EOS C300 handheld.