Thanks to a maximum ISO in excess of 4 million, the Canon ME20F-SH cinema camera can see and shoot in almost complete darkness, offering filmmakers unprecedented creative possibilities. The camera's innovative technology has this year been recognised by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, who awarded it a 2020 Technology & Engineering Emmy, a fifth win for Canon.
"We are grateful to receive this esteemed recognition for our revolutionary ME20F-SH camera," says Kazuto Ogawa, President and COO of Canon USA. "This award is a testament to the company's commitment and vision for developing imaging tools that help creative professionals see what was previously considered impossible."
Building on the legacy of Canon's EF-mount cinema cameras, the Canon ME20F-SH has an ultra-high sensitivity 35mm Full Frame CMOS sensor that can shoot Full HD video in light levels less than 0.0005 lux at the maximum 75dB gain setting, which is the equivalent of 4.5 million ISO. These incredible low-light capabilities were the reason BAFTA and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle chose the Canon ME20F-SH to film the underwater scenes in his film, Kursk: The Last Mission (2018).
Based on the true story of the 2000 Kursk Russian nuclear submarine disaster, the film depicts the crew's fight for survival after an on-board explosion. Here, Anthony and underwater camera operator Wim Michiels explain the challenges of shooting underwater and in the dark, and why they chose the Canon ME20F-SH to bring the film's dramatic scenes to life.
"Most of Kursk takes place in complete, or almost complete, darkness and Anthony wanted to film that in very subtle light," explains Wim, owner of Lites Water Stage, a studio that specialises in underwater shooting. "He wanted to test different cameras and lenses to find a unique look for the underwater images. We tested different setups and Anthony said we should try the Canon ME20F-SH in an underwater housing. I rented a Canon ME20F-SH with the EF mount and we used a small Canon photo lens [to fit in the housing]. Out of all the tests we did, Anthony really liked that camera, especially because it's so sensitive."
Anthony, who won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for Slumdog Millionaire (2008), had previously used the Canon ME20F-SH to film low-light scenes in Danny Boyle's T2 Trainspotting (2017). "In both cases I had great experiences with the camera and sensor," he says. "I felt I managed to create something original.
"In the case of Kursk, it was about creating an underwater scene in a submarine where the set was so dark that it actually contributed to the fear and anxiety for the divers and actors. In T2 it was about de-illuminating the existing lights of a Scottish metropole to such a degree that the seagulls flying at night would seem visible to the camera sensor over the darkened urban cityscape. In both cases sensitivity was critical, illumination minimal, and we deployed substantial digital noise reduction in post-production."
Although at maximum gain the camera can see and shoot by starlight, when it comes to high-end movies, some restraint is necessary when choosing the maximum sensitivity. On Kursk, after extensive underwater testing, Anthony and Wim decided not to push the camera beyond ISO44,000 with the lighting they intended to use underwater. For VFX workflows, very large, soft, low-level, bi-colour LEDs were used to simulate sunlight on the surface of the sea and for the interior lighting of the submarine. "We had them floating on the surface and underneath in the submarine," says Wim. "They were very thin, and gave thorough lighting everywhere, and then the rest was lit with diving torches."
In one scene, two of the surviving crew members are forced to swim into a flooded compartment with only one torch each strapped to their elbows. It's a harrowing scene, which the film crew called the 'long-swim', involving a free-diver and someone trained especially for the scene. "When the first diving torch was lit, it was filling the room with light at this sensitivity," explains Wim. "We had to use ND filters because the light was too strong."
Above the water, the movie was shot on digital cinema cameras and a set of vintage Canon K-35 primes, lending the footage an analogue aesthetic in keeping with the time. "Anthony knew some engineers at Canon in Japan who modified two cameras with a PL mount so we had access to PL lenses. And as it's a large sensor, we needed large format lenses."
The team used a set of vintage photo lenses which were rehoused and remounted, but most of the underwater footage was shot at just two focal lengths, primarily 35mm. "They added softness," explains Wim. "It's not easy to get a soft image underwater but with the camera and lens together at ISO44,000, they gave the right image for Anthony and he was very, very happy."
Wim adapted an existing underwater housing to accommodate the Canon ME20F-SH and lens, complete with a large, high-quality underwater monitor and two-way comms to the surface. "We had two sets," he explains. "Two housings, two cameras, two remotes, two focus remotes – I had to adapt the lot. We had two focal lengths, so it was quicker to switch housings rather than lenses – and you also have a back-up."
On the surface, Anthony and an assistant each had a Canon RC-V100 Remote Controller and monitor. They also used a Codex recorder to save footage to a DPX file for flexibility and optimum results with VFX workflows in post-production.
Wim believes it was the testing at the start of the shoot that ensured the team had the right camera for the job. "Anthony does terrific work. He doesn't just test cameras and lenses, but cameras and lenses with lights and props. I was really amazed by the amount of prep – and it was the right tool for the film."
The groundbreaking sensor on the Canon ME20F-SH has also enabled filmmakers to capture rare footage of Africa's nocturnal predators. Two years after the camera's release, it was used to film National Geographic's incredible documentary, Earth Live (2017). Live footage shot in remote locations in Africa on the Canon ME20F-SH showed predators' nocturnal hunting habits. To avoid disturbing the animals, ultra-low light scenes such as this usually require infrared lights, which are difficult to position in the right place and only film in monochrome. The sensor on the Canon ME20F-SH and the ability to record Full HD video in colour, with lower noise and without the need for additional lighting, meant the filmmakers could capture footage that would otherwise have gone unseen.