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Screen test: Sundance filmmakers on their Canon camera choices

Lance DoP Nick Higgins films inside a bus using a Canon EOS C300 Mark II.
DoP Nick Higgins filmed the documentary Lance, which premiered at Sundance 2020, with a Canon EOS C300 Mark II camera. "For the interviews," he says, "we wanted to create a consistent look for the film that was both universally kind to people's faces and allowed us to function in a legion of locations across seven countries." © Nick Higgins / ESPN

The largest independent film festival in the USA, the Sundance Film Festival is part showcase for new talent and part forum for filmmakers to gather and discuss trends, techniques and technical innovations. Held every winter in Utah, it has long played a vital role in launching both films and careers on a global scale.

At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a raft of new indie documentaries, narrative features and short films made their debut – many shot with Canon cameras and lenses. Each project has its own kit requirements, whether that's compact, lightweight bodies for run-and-gun filming, robust cameras that will hold up in tough environments, or a wide dynamic range to shoot in low or high-contrast lighting.

Take for example the winner of the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography at Sundance 2020, director Radu Ciorniciuc’s poignant debut documentary Acasa, My Home. He needed easily-handheld, hard-wearing camera equipment in order to capture the daily lives of the subjects of his film, a family who were being forced out of their home in the Bucharest Delta into city life. He used both Canon EOS C100 Mark II and Canon EOS C300 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark II) cameras, with Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) and Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM lenses.

Here, more Sundance 2020 filmmakers share details of how Canon kit helped them bring their visions to the screen, from documentaries Lance and Mucho Mucho Amor, to stop-motion animation No, I Don't Want To Dance!

Lance Armstrong is interviewed by Marina Zenovich, a Canon EOS C300 Mark II filming him.
Nick needed a versatile camera capable of filming verité scenes on the road as well as formal interviews. "The Canon EOS C300 Mark II's light sensitivity and exposure latitude meant we could harness or augment the ambient light we were dealt with and still create a film that was stylistically coherent," he says. © Nick Higgins / ESPN
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DoP Nick Higgins opted for a Canon EOS C300 Mark II paired with a range of L-series prime and zoom lenses, including a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM and the then-current versions of the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM and Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lenses.

"There were two distinct types of filming to be done for this production – verité scenes with Lance and formal interviews with his friends and teammates in far-flung corners of the cycling world," explains Nick. "We used the Canon EOS C300 Mark II because it's super agile and it allows you to work at the speed Lance travels. With the camera being so light, I could muscle my way through a lot of the shots without any rigging, which was essential because we didn't have the luxury of being able to interrupt his routine for us to change setups."

The EOS C300 Mark II's compact size and portability made it possible for Nick to follow the action. "We had to keep our gear light on its feet," he says. "Lance doesn't like to sit around. We could be following him cycling down the road while filming from a minivan or piling bikes into a short-haul jet and jumping in with him. In neither of these situations does he want people carrying extra gear in the mix."

Marina Zenovich and Lance Armstrong sit in a private jet, Lance being filmed on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II.
The team filming Lance never knew when they might be required to jump in a jet at short notice, so they needed to be able to travel light. © Nick Higgins / ESPN
A couple embrace, in a still from Oscar-nominated documentary Walk Run Cha-Cha.

Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated films shot on Canon kit

The Best Feature Documentary category of the 2020 Oscar nominations was particularly dominated by productions filmed with Canon kit.

The crew also spent about three weeks travelling around Europe filming interviews. "We hopped on and off trains, buses and planes every day," says Nick. "I love the fact that the Canon EOS C300 Mark II and all my lenses fitted into two carry-on cases. Even if our checked baggage went astray, we could arrive on location and start filming because those two cases never left our sides."

Nick's go-to lens is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. "Set to an aperture of f/2 and positioned about six feet from the interviewee, it does a wonderful job of shifting the attention away from the space and firmly onto the subject," he says. "I like interview backgrounds to provide the illusion of depth, but I want them to melt away from the audience's attention and never distract.

"I've shot a few hundred interviews with the Canon EOS C300 Mark II, so I feel like I know how to play to its strengths. Filming in Canon Log, there's often enough latitude to be able to incorporate windows into the [framing] mix, which I like to do. It wasn't that many years ago that I had to avoid windows, because cameras couldn't handle the contrast."

Director Andrea Vinciguerra places plasticine characters into a paper-cut scene.
Director Andrea Vinciguerra preparing his characters for a scene in No, I Don't Want to Dance! He found the Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) a great choice for animators, with its high image quality, excellent Live View interface and wide compatibility with stop-motion software. © Andrea Vinciguerra
Characters being photographed in a swimming pool scene for No, I Don't Want to Dance!
No, I Don't Want to Dance! took around five months to make. That included three weeks building sets, props and puppets, a four-week shoot in a studio in Hackney Wick, London, and pre- and post-production. © Andrea Vinciguerra
A set from No, I Don't Want to Dance! is lit, a person reviewing the photographed stop-motion footage on a screen beside the set.
Like all stop-motion animations, No, I Don't Want to Dance! took painstaking work to produce, at an average six to eight seconds of finished footage per day. Andrea works freelance, so was able to forego other work to devote the time required to finish the project, which was almost entirely funded by him and his girlfriend. © Andrea Vinciguerra

"After a chat with the guy who was going to supply the equipment we needed – a lovely, old-school animator called Mark Swaffield – I found out that the camera he had in mind was actually used on Wes Anderson's stop-motion feature film Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). That was all I needed to know to go for it!" Wes Anderson stuck with using Canon EOS cameras for Isle of Dogs (2018).

"Our approach was quite standard for stop-motion," Andrea explains: "set up the lighting, connect the camera to Dragonframe [stop-motion animation software], then focus and shoot. On average we were shooting six to eight seconds [worth of content] per day, so it was quite intense."

DoP Peter Alton filming Walter Mercado on stage in an empty auditorium, using a Canon EOS C300 Mark II.
DoP Peter Alton relied on two Canon EOS C300 Mark II cameras for the majority of the Mucho Mucho Amor shoot, adding an additional camera for an event in Miami. © Joey Daoud

"In my opinion, the Canon EOS C300 Mark II is the best option for documentary filmmakers," says DoP Peter Alton. "It's so versatile, it has great audio inputs and controls, and its size isn't overwhelming for small crews. Not needing a large support team helps to foster more intimacy with subjects. The image is beautiful, and the low-light performance is incredible."

The camera perfectly suited the variety of shooting situations he encountered. "The shoot required a lot of flexibility," says Peter. "We would move between verité situations, in and out of cars, into sit-down interviews, then onto a slider – and all of this could happen on the same day. This camera works so well in all of these settings, and it can be reconfigured so quickly."

Using a Canon EOS DSLR as a B-cam not only helped the production team keep to their budget, but also gave them a smaller body practical for gimbal work, says Peter. When it came to lens choice, he opted for Canon EF L-series zooms, as well as a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM prime lens. "For documentary work with a limited budget and crew, the Canon EF L-series zooms are amazing," he says. "They are beautiful at f/2.8, and the stabilized Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens is especially nice."

Director Patricia Vidal Delgado sits beside a road with a Canon EOS C500 on a tripod.
La Leyenda Negra is a black-and-white film shot on location in Compton, California, using a Canon EOS C500 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C500 Mark II). © Marlena Ryan / Patricia Delgado Productions
A film crew shoot using a Canon EOS C500 handheld, as a woman kneels in a front yard at night.
The most challenging aspect was shooting on location at night with minimal lighting. DoP Matt Maio says the low-light capabilities of the Canon EOS C500 were critical. © Marcel Perez / Patricia Delgado Productions

La Leyenda Negra

When it came to filming Patricia Vidal Delgado's feature film debut, La Leyenda Negra, DoP Matt Maio relied on a Canon EOS C500 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C500 Mark II) for its low-light capabilities. The film is a black-and-white coming-of-age story, focusing on an El Salvadorian teenage immigrant in Compton, California.

"Our night exteriors were really difficult to shoot, because of the low light levels," says Matt. "We shot at real locations with minimal lighting because of the budget and because we wanted to showcase the environment, which was critical to the development of our characters. The Canon EOS C500 captures a lot of detail in dimly-lit environments with low noise even at high ISO settings. It was great to be able to just grab the camera and go. The camera gave us a lot of freedom to explore."

Matt also found the camera's light weight offered him an advantage when it came to storytelling. "The director and I decided that it was very important to capture the relationships of these characters in a very natural and unobtrusive way," he says. "The film needed to feel intimate, and one way we felt that was possible was to get the camera off the tripod. The Canon EOS C500 is much lighter than many other [cine cameras], so I was able to use it all day handheld."

Автор Marcus Hawkins


Matt Maio's kitbag

The key kit pros use to shoot video

A Canon EOS C500 Mark II with 30-300mm cine lens.

Cameras

Canon EOS C500 Mark II

New generation Cinema EOS System camera, with 5.9K Full Frame sensor packed into a newly developed compact and reliable Cinema EOS body. "The EOS C500 captures a lot of detail in dimly-lit environments with low noise even at high ISO settings," says Matt.

Lenses

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