The Racetrack – Canon EOS 5D Mark II
The Canon EOS 5D Mark II is the trailblazing camera for shooting Full High Definition video with a DSLR camera. In a similar manner Canon’s XF-series of HD camcorders offered a huge leap forward in the capabilities of Canon’s camcorder range thanks to a broadcast quality MPEG-2 4:2:2 codec and CF card recording. Richard Walch and Bryce Gubler used a combination of the EOS 5D Mark II and the XF305 camcorder to shoot the fast-action kart film, ‚The Racetrack‘. CPN editor Steve Fairclough spoke to them about the project and how the two cameras dovetailed during the shoot.
The script as a guide
After realising the best and most accessible option for shooting racing cars would be karts Walch and Gubler settled on the MK Circuit in Scientrier, France, as the venue for the shoot. After a recce of the track, which revealed a need to shoot kart action close to the ground to get a feeling of speed, and using the script as a guide it was quickly apparent that certain shots would lend themselves to either the EOS 5D Mark II or the XF305.
„The whole idea was to get a storyboard that really works and you have a need for two different cameras, so that’s why we picked ‚The Racetrack‘. It’s fast, challenging, you need to get really close with the race car and you need to show overview shots and long shots.“
The specific capabilities of the XF305 and EOS 5D Mark II dictated which camera would tackle what, as Walch reveals: „Once the script was laid out it was very obvious that we would run into situations where the EOS 5D Mark II would be ideal and there were situations where the XF305 would be ideal. In the beginning we questioned how to combine the two cameras but, in the end, we loved it because we were able to pretty much tick off all of the boxes on the shooting list with those two systems.“
Getting close to the track and the action to convey speed meant rigging three or four EOS 5D Mark II DSLRs to a shooting kart. Gubler reveals: „When we first came to this project we wanted to try to capture the intensity of these karts going at 140kmph. What we thought was we’ve got to mount the camera to the kart.“
Walch adds: „We took advantage of the EOS 5D Mark II, because it’s so small, and put it on the kart. Compared to other cameras you can put it almost anywhere – it allows you to shoot angles you couldn’t with a conventional video camera. There were three cameras mounted on the kart – the back one to show the other driver you’re going against; the one to the left giving you a 90-degree portrait shot of the driver while he’s in the action, and the front camera facing the point of view of the driver – it’s all shot at the same time.“
Shooting the karts
The desire to shoot karts racing at 140kmph had to be re-thought once Walch and Gubler realised the shooting kart would be vibrating far too much to get usable footage at such high speeds. Gubler admits: „We realised very quickly, after the first pass or two, that we had to slow the karts down. We went at an eighth of the normal speed of a kart to significantly reduce the vibration.“ In fact, Walch’s advice is: „For any rigging car shot, go slow so that you make sure the vibration is not too strong; then speed it up in post.“
Aside from deciding to shoot ‚on-kart‘ another key consideration was when to introduce the karts into the film. Gubler explains: „The biggest discussion about the film was the setup. When do we show the kart for the first time? For me the setup is probably the most engaging part of the film, and it’s the longest part. We talked extensively about how many images are we going to see before that car leaves the starting line? It’s about creating mystery and anticipation, so that everyone’s on the edge of their seat waiting for it to happen.“
„I think that’s where it becomes cinematic – that’s what cinema is all about; building a tension with pictures, letting them breathe so you start to think ‚what’s going to happen?‘. Then, ‚boom‘ it happens – that’s what you should do.“
With just a day and a half to shoot ‚The Racetrack‘, plus a behind the scenes ‚making of‘ film, the script became key to driving the shooting requirements. It was also essential to have a producer/director, Dani Kiwi Meier from Manamedia, on-board to drive the project forward, plus the award-winning Martijn van Beenen as DOP for the XF305 for ‚The Racetrack‘. Walch explains: „Dani kept everyone on track making sure that the four cameramen were capturing what they needed and that there was a good rhythm between us. With four cameramen on set, Dani had his hands full making sure that we were all working together. It’s super important to have one person who is not physically touching a camera and can concentrate on the overview of the project and to guide us all.“
Using the cameras
So how did the cameras dovetail on the shoot? Walch reveals: „There were many points where the EOS 5D Mark II was the ultimate choice. Think about the start sequence, full on to the kart – you want to see all of the steam in the background and then you want to see their eyes. I put a 600mm lens on and laid flat on the ground, so I could just ‚cut them out‘ of the background and have them so sharp. Another shot was when they come into the pit lane box where there’s an aerial view. I was shooting from the roof, with the camera a metre out from the roof – for this you need a light camera set-up and that’s what the 5D Mark II is. You just set it up with a wideangle lens – I had it connected with an external monitor, so I could see the image, and it was done.“
Walch adds: „Those split seconds in the movie where you go ‚wow‘, those are shot with the 5D Mark II because you have to really design the shot and then ‚boom‘ you do it. You can pick the lens – 14mm, 600mm, 300mm, macro or tilt and shift. All of these lenses have specific uses and you simply decide, execute and you have the effect you want. I used the EF14mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, the EF500mm f/4L IS USM, the EF600mm f/4L IS USM, the EF50mm f/1.2L USM to get the shallow depth-of-field and I used the TS-E24mm f/3.5L II tilt and shift lens. For the flag shot I used the TS-E17mm f/4L tilt and shift lens.“
Walch also employed a trick with his EOS 5D Mark II on a monopod – it was held upside down to shoot racing action moving around the karts from a shooting kart. He explains: „Because of all of my years shooting sports action if I set it to 16mm (on the 16-35mm zoom) I know exactly what it feels like, I don’t even have to look through it. Then, because I’m close to the ground, I’m close to the reference. If I hold it up two metres high I can’t see but if I hold it close to the ground I can see how it’s angled – part of it is feeling, part of it is training, but the most important part is just going for it.“
„It’s a dynamic that you create by going so close to the ground, with the speed difference your ground and the sky, it just works so well. In my line of work half of it is taking a calculated risk that’s going to show up in the image – it doesn’t make sense to take a risk that’s not going to show up in the image. Sometimes you have to take a calculated risk as it gives you that extra excitement.“
In contrast to the EOS 5D Mark II the XF305 offers a much wider depth-of-field and an amazing focal length with its built-in 18x zoom lens. Gubler explains: „The XF305 is extremely adaptable and versatile – it’s a full package in one box. You have a lens that has an enormous focal range, so you only need one lens and you can use it in almost any situation. I love working with zoom lenses, particularly the effect it has on the image. If you quickly move this zoom you get a nice fluid zoom movement into a subject which you don’t really find in cameras this size.“
He adds: „You have manual functions that are fully controllable and you have automatic features that are also extremely powerful. Then you also have customisation – if you want to have a specific look you can change the gamma, you can change the different colours – if you want to make it more red or make it more green – you can do that.“
Gubler reveals: „For this particular project where we utilised the XF305 the most was to get as many shots in a very short amount of time. You can do this with the 5D Mark II no problem, but with the XF305 you really benefit because it’s got the one lens with a wide spectrum of focal length so you can ‚jump around‘ all over the track, zoom in, zoom out, go telephoto, go wide and you get the shots. With the 5D Mark II it takes a bit more time to frame up and you’ve got to change lenses.“
Gubler recalls: „A lot of how we used the two cameras was we would essentially set up a scene – Richard would be behind the 5D Mark II and we would be in parallel, shooting with the XF305 for details just so that we had images, and the rhythm and flow that we wanted for the edit. All of the dolly shots were with the EOS 5D Mark II and then we used the XF305 to get quick details and cutaways.“
Revealing the thinking behind shooting with both the EOS 5D Mark II and the XF305 Walch says: „As a stills photographer I totally think in images whereas Bryce thinks in motion. If I shoot a film by myself it jumps around and I can get away with it because it’s usually action sports, but you cannot get away with it if it’s a normal situation. I also think it’s important that if one person is operating both cameras it’s not the same. The biggest benefit is to have both systems on the set working simultaneously.“
Key benefits of the cameras
So how would Walch pinpoint the key strengths of the EOS 5D Mark II for shooting movies?
„The EOS 5D Mark II has a full frame sensor that’s the heart of the camera, the low depth-of-field really makes it possible to get very creative, there’s the choice of EF lenses going from 14mm to 800mm, the compact body that you can make use of and do things with that you could not do with a bigger camera, and the light weight.“
He adds: „If you look at what film and production companies are doing, they are using the 5D Mark II for very specific shots. They make use of the form factor, they make use of the different types of lenses; they make use of the ease of mounting the camera, and they use it for special shots. That’s the same thing we do – the only thing is we didn’t connect it to a 35mm movie camera, we connected it to an HD camcorder.“
Gubler explains the benefits of the XF305: „With the XF305 one of the key features you’ll find is that it can shoot at 50Mbps with 4:2:2 colour sampling which is something you really don’t normally find in a camera this small – it’s broadcast quality. What 50Mbps, 4:2:2 really means is you have more information, you have approximately twice the amount of information you would find in an HDV 4:2:0 type of codec. Where you see the true benefit is when you are in post-production – colour grading, chroma keying, advance effects or compositing – you still maintain a beautiful image.“
He adds: „If you put HDV and the 4:2:2 codec together most people might not see the difference but where they will see the benefit is in post – that’s the huge benefit. Another note that cameramen should know is that a lot of broadcasters won’t accept cameras that shoot at less than 50Mbps and have 4:2:2 colour sampling, so it’s a huge benefit.“
Gubler continues: „CF card recording is another first for Canon in a professional camera – you can now record up to 160 minutes of HD footage on one 64GB card, which is really great. Also there are the professional manual and automatic controls, plus an extremely high resolution LCD screen that you can not only use from one side of the camera but you can swing it over to the other side depending on your situation.“
With the footage in the can for both ‚The Racetrack‘ and the ‚making of‘ video the next step was post-production and editing. Gubler reveals: „I always go back at the end when in post and start looking at the script to guide me through and put it back together. That also reminds you what you wanted to do at the beginning, the middle and the end. When you’re shooting a subject like this, when so much can happen in a day of shooting, it’s very easy to lose scope and perspective of what it is you wanted to accomplish. So, having a guide as a script is paramount.“
The benefit of using CF cards as the recording medium in both the EOS 5D Mark II and the XF305 is crucial, as Gubler explains: „Having the ability of recording to CF cards with both cameras really saves you a lot of time when managing media during post-production. You can now digitize your material five to six times faster compared to real-time capture using a cassette tape. That made it extremely efficient.“ The cameras have similar colour algorithms, which helps tremendously when trying to keep colours consistent between the two cameras.
Gubler adds: „The edit took approximately two weeks to do both films. Post-production was done exactly the same way we shot – streamlined. You want to be extremely concise because the more extra stuff you have the less focused your story becomes.“
„Post-production takes a lot longer than the actual shooting. People need to know this when they step into a project – don’t underestimate post-production. If there’s one critical shot missing, it’s very costly and time consuming to make it up in post. You want to make sure that you shoot everything you need the first time, so that you don’t break the bank later in post.“
He adds: „Also, limit yourself with what you film. Don’t do 20 takes because you’re not going to be able to handle all of that data in the post-production. Really focus, limit yourself, go with your script and then it’s going to be beautiful.“
The learning process
With the mixture of dolly shots, fast kart action, and a tight shooting and editing schedule CPN wondered if Walch and Gubler had learnt anything from ‚The Racetrack‘ shoot.
Gubler says: „You always have your key images; the key moments you’re trying to go for. For a project like this we had pretty much a one-day shoot. Hours were flying by and I felt I wasn’t really getting what I needed to make a proper story. It wasn’t until I ‚let go‘ of what I already had in my mind. I’m used to always having the ultimate control in post-production where you have your palette to work with and you can design it any way you want. On productions this is not the case – you have to be so adaptable to any situations that are thrown at you and that always makes it a learning experience to come back to. Just relax and accept what you have in front of you and get the best of it.“
„I learnt so much about how important it is to let the camera ‚breathe‘ which means – yes you can do the action, hang off the kart but there must be a moment where the camera is concentrating on one angle and one shot. I learnt that I have to calm myself down a lot more to be more efficient. Be even more professional in the setup and streamlining the work – otherwise you run out of time and the day is finished.“
The project was completed from the shooting days to a major public showing at Photokina 2010 in around three weeks. So, what’s next for Richard Walch and Bryce Gubler? They both look at each, laugh, and say: „Maybe, we’ll take a little break.“