The Cinema EOS Gambit: Report from the Canon/Adorama Presentation

Posted in Events, News, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on November 19, 2012

It’s easy to forget how recently film lorded over the Hollywood; how absolute, how unquestionable it’s dominance as the medium of choice.

Sure, digital was convenient, and certainly there was that mysterious theoretical crossover point at which image quality could uncannily pass the Turing test of a trained DP’s eye, for film. But there was a lingering denial in many hearts that such a day would come, and for so long, this held true. Nothing could match the latitude of a film negative, not to mention replicate that “look.” Video was confined to a “choice” for risk-taking filmmakers, eager to push the aesthetic envelope of audience comfort (think David Lynch or Lars von Trier) or by trigger happy directors prematurely convinced of its substitutability and advantages (Michael Mann comes to mind).

Yet Moore’s Law marches stoically forward, and with it, hearts follow minds into the future reality, which has finally become the current one. The all-caps opposites – staid, storied ARRI and its foil, the plucky upstart, RED – took an early lead in getting real films, indistinguishable from the namesake, into theaters. Notably, the gorgeous Skyfall was shot on the Alexa and the approaching Hobbit trilogy was EPIC shot. Sony, never one to be left out of seemingly any market, answered with the formidable F65, used on the forthcoming M. Night Shyamalan feature. A new oligarchy around the centerpiece of cinematic technology – the camera – was forming, as suddenly as the market came up for grabs. Canon, seeing a closing window, and with brand loyalty to spare among up-and-coming Indie filmmakers, seized the moment and ceremoniously launched, little over a year ago, an audacious push into high-end digital cinema. There was now a fourth major player jostling for share in this jewel of a market.

On Tuesday, Canon joined Adorama – a company making its own bold push into digital cinema through its rentals and sales arms – in a packed hall at the swanky Union Square Ballroom in NYC, to brief filmmaking professionals on its substantial progress in its new undertaking. Larry Thorpe, Senior Fellow of the Professional Engineering & Solutions Division at Canon and renowned pioneer of digital video acquisition, gave the keynote presentation. In it, he provided at once an overview, as well as detailed technical exploration of, the core technologies underlying its Cinema EOS line, now numbering no less than four cameras.

Mr. Thorpe started with some historical context, explaining some of the aforementioned motivations behind Canon’s movement into the space. The 5D Mark II’s video add-on – originally meant to give Reuters and AP photojournalists basic video functionality – inadvertently birthed an indie filmmaking phenomenon and provided a halo effect so benevolent and far reaching for the brand, that they could arrive to the Digital Cinema party a few years late and still be an instant player.

He extensively detailed the C300’s conception and unique sensor technology, which underlies both the subsequently announced C500 4K flagship and C100 entry-level model.

A persistent complaint leveled against the Cinema EOS line is that the cameras are underspec’d for their price points. Why choose a 1080p C100 when you can get 4K and Full HD super slow motion from a Sony FS700 for little more? Why go for the 4K, 10-bit RAW C500 for $26k when a 5K 14-bit RAW Epic-X brain can now be had for $19k?

Without directly addressing the competition, Mr. Thorpe devoted much of the presentation explaining why specs alone belie the advantages in the technology underpinning Canon’s lineup. He explained that, while the files from the C100 and C300 are 8-bit, the 4K sensor starts with a 4:4:4:4 readout, allowing for an extremely clean and flexible HD output, which is then small enough to allow for long recording times and easy post workflow. He spoke of the totally random grain structure which lends an organic, film-like humanity to the image and “usable noise” even at insanely high 20,000 ISO in the C300.

Mr. Thorpe also discussed the line of 4K-optimized cinema zooms (available in PL and EF mounts) and primes (EF only). Embracing the EF mount as a cinema standard is a tricky gambit for Canon, but an understandable urge. The company recently sold its 80 millionth EF mount lens. Native EF support would grant access to an already mature lens library, allow devoted Canon DSLR users to move up the line, and give Canon the ability to optimize its sensors to its lenses, a distinct advantage. But it’s also risky, as PL is a long-established de facto standard, and hedging its bets by producing cameras and lenses with both mount options (the case on the C300 and C500) risks diluting an otherwise unified family of cameras.

Only one year in, Canon has impressively fleshed out its offerings, with a plethora of compelling options at various price points. The C300 has already had huge success, especially among run-and-gun shooters and for commercial work, and the other cameras are due any day now. It will be exciting to see how the line develops in the coming year, and whether Canon can round out the big four manufacturers with a major Hollywood film of its own. Let’s watch.

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