Field Test: Down and Dirty Filmmaking with the Canon C700
How does the Canon C700 hold up on guerrilla-style shoots?
Since I shot my first feature film Layover for $6000 in 2013, I’ve developed an approach to filmmaking that allows me to shoot with very little infrastructure. When I was lucky enough to get my hands on the new Canon C700, I applied this to a five-minute narrative film called Throwaway. I wanted to use this opportunity to answer the question: Can I use this camera to shoot a film guerrilla-style with very little crew or equipment? Below you’ll find the finished product and my takeaways about the C700 from this informal field test.
“For me, a new camera is always measured by how it looks on the street with nothing beyond what’s already naturally there.”
My filmmaking approach is often dictated by budget (or lack thereof) but it’s also by design: I’m actively searching for simplicity and not being bogged down by the limitations of a large footprint. By and large, I’ve been able to accomplish this by using natural light or, in the case of night shoots, existing artificial light and in-camera adjustments. Rather than adding light, I adjust the ISO.
I put this into practice on my feature film Negative, shooting at 6000, 8000, and 12,000 ISO on the C100mkII and even going up to 25,000 and 100,000 ISO on the Canon ME-20H. So, for me, a new camera is always measured not by how great it looks with perfect lighting and perfect sets but by how it looks on the street with nothing beyond what’s already naturally there. When I heard about the new Canon C700, I couldn’t wait to put it through my test.
Thanks to the generosity of Alex Sax over at Canon, I was able to get my hands on the camera for a day and quickly gathered up some actors (Katia Winter and Amy Manson) and a short script to shoot a five-minute narrative film called Throwaway, which you can watch below. The goal was to stage scenes that could really help test the limits of a camera when you don’t have the standard controls you would on a large production.
We shot the night scenes in the beginning of the film using only a 1x1 LED panel light and the light from the screen of a laptop. For the daytime scenes, we shot under a bridge on a sunny day to test dynamic range. We had no bounces, fill lights or equipment of any kind beyond the camera and the sound equipment.
The film had a crew of three people: Alex from Canon, my buddy Travis Oberlander who helped wrangle sound, and me, acting as director, DP and camera operator. We shot ProRes 422 HQ in 4K, recording everything to internal cards. That’s the backstory. Now, without further ado, here is the short film Throwaway, shot on the Canon C700 with CN-E prime lenses.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this film isn’t perfect. It was thrown together quickly with very few resources and I had never used the camera before. There are definitely things, specifically cinematography wise, I would have done differently. That said, as I mentioned, I was most interested in the question of whether or not this camera could be used to shoot a film guerilla-style with very little crew or equipment.
The answer is: yes and no.
Native low light
One of the things that has always impressed me about Canon cameras is their low light sensitivity. I’ve said previously that while everyone is fighting over resolution, the real mark of a camera’s ability to help you on a low-budget shoot is its low-light sensitivity. Resolution costs you more money the higher go. A camera’s ability to shoot in low light, however, will save you money and time. You require less equipment and less time to set up that equipment, which in turn gives you more time shoot more takes with your actors and get better material. The low light capabilities of the C700 are impressive.
For the night scenes in the house we shot at 6400 ISO and between a 2.2 and a 2.8 (sometimes wide open but rarely). As mentioned, we shot this scene with one 1x1 LED panel light. No fill, no other lights but the city of Los Angeles behind Katia.
As you can see from the footage, the shots of her on the phone were a bit noisy. I didn’t quite get enough light on her and as a result, had to boost her face in DaVinci. Normally, I probably would have run it through a Denoiser but I wanted you to see what it looked like without any noise filtering software. This is what you get natively out of the sensor. It’s not bad, and Neat Noise would clean that right up.
“The real mark of a camera’s ability to help you on a low-budget shoot is its low-light sensitivity.”
For the scenes on the street, we were able to shoot at 3200 ISO and an F/4. I used a higher aperture because I was worried about nailing focus on some of the shots and I felt safe setting the ISO to 3200. In the case of the scenes on the street, we had no additional light beyond what already existed in the space, so it was about finding those spots for each shot and controlling it in camera.
One other thing to note, as you can see in the pictures, I had an Atomos Shogun on the camera. The reason for this is that I shot the film using a LUT (overlay, not burned in) and because the camera doesn’t allow you to load LUTS internally, I wanted to be able to see approximately what I was shooting with the LUT applied. I also knew that this LUT crushed the blacks and by and large most of the noise would disappear once I graded it hence shooting at higher ISOs.
I spent the entire film with this camera on my shoulder and I have to say I loved it. Its certainly a bigger package than the Canon C300 Mark II but finally we have a non-ENG Canon camera designed for the shoulder. I’m sure all users of the C100, C300 or C500 line know how Frankensteined those cameras can look once you’ve built them out. With the C700, we have a perfectly streamlined camera.
As I mentioned above, I attached the Shogun so I could preview my LUT. If that isn’t a requirement for you, then there is nothing needed on the camera beyond a lens, grips, follow focus and a mattebox.
“This is a simple, cohesive unit that is easy to pick up and shoot with without a whole ton of extraneous prep.”
I’ve often seen pics of Steven Soderbergh holding his RED camera and I’m like, “Where are the wires?” That’s what this camera looks like: streamlined. It is a simple, cohesive unit that is easy to pick up and shoot with without a whole ton of extraneous prep.
It’s also pretty lightweight considering its size. Like I said, I had this thing on my shoulder for most of the day and I never really felt worn down or uncomfortable. That being said, it’s still a bigger camera than the C300mkII and that might be the only reason it wouldn’t be your first choice for a guerrilla shoot.
For information on how we graded the film, I'm going to turn it over to Jesse Glucksman, who colored both my feature film Negative (shot on the Canon C100mki, C300mkII and ME-20F) as well as Throwaway.
In utilizing the C700 on Throwaway, Joshua Caldwell shot with natural & available light in a variety of conditions that presented me with interesting challenges, having me explore the camera's capabilities and limitations.
We started with one of Resolve's built in Film Look LUTs, the Kodak D65, which Caldwell had used for viewing during production and gave the footage a contrasty, gritty feel that suits the mood of the film.
In nighttime scenes at the beginning of the film, I was happy to see that raising the brightness did not overwhelm the image with unaesthetic noise. I only had to use noise reduction on one or two of the shots. The noise that was there I found to be pleasantly film-like, subtle and organic. I was somewhat limited in how much I could lift the shadows before the dark areas went in a milky direction, but I attribute that more to the high contrast nature of the LUT than a limitation inherent to the camera.
I was impressed with the latitude available in the under-the-bridge scene. With the LUT attached, the outside areas were blown out but by lowering the gain overall, avoiding even pulling keys or using power windows, I found great definition in the background that left the main focus well-lit. The actor skin tones were warm & had a natural feel, which stands out against the cool, bluish stone of the bridge around them.
Overall, I barely used keys, qualifiers or power windows and simply let the footage with the LUT speak for itself. In its rawest, pre-LUT form, the C700 has exactly the feel that colorists look for in straight camera footage, a very bland LOG that allows us the ability to draw out the colors, contrast and textures contained within. I look forward to working with C700 footage again.
A few more details
I love the control panel. It's a little out of the way for a single user but for first and second ACs, it’s going to be a dream. It’s easy to control, to find what you’re looking for, and to see your settings. Others have covered it more extensively but from a practical on-set scenario it’s incredibly user friendly.
The EVF is also amazing (despite its inability to preview custom LUTs) and feels very comfortable against your eye for long periods of time.
“For an indie feature looking to improve on its short shooting schedule, this might be the camera to beat.”
This is a pretty awesome camera. If you look at some of those bridge shots, you can really get a sense of the dynamic range of the sensor (up to 15 stops). We were in the shadow of a bridge with bright sunlight all around us and, yet, when you look at the wide shot, you’d never feel like we had to choose between the shadow and blowing out the background. The info was there for us to bring back when it came to color.
Again, I only had it for a day and it was a very unscientific experiment, but I would say this is definitely a camera to consider on your next indie project. I don’t know if it's the ideal camera for guerrilla filmmaking—it’s pretty hard to hide so I think that distinction still goes to the C300mkII—but for an indie feature looking to improve on its short shooting schedule, this might be the camera to beat. I am certainly going to try and get my hands on it for my next film.