Inspired storytelling, superior HDTV production values and prudent budgeting are essential elements in the competitive world of producing innovative programming—whether for today’s cable networks or local cinemas. For Varuna Entertainment, achieving these goals is made easier by using Canon’s XH G1 HD Camcorders to capture dramatic, challenging and often dangerous footage for two of their latest cable reality series.
“Canon’s XH G1 HD Camcorders represent a technology advance that has allowed us to improve both the quality of our work and our costs,” notes Prema Ball, producer at the full-service, Los Angeles-based production company. With a growing roster of acclaimed cinema verité, documentary and story-based reality programming to its credit, Varuna Entertainment has led the way in using HD technology to produce feature films, music videos and corporate media.
Capturing HD video of skiers in treacherous alpine conditions places unique demands on both people and equipment. For this reason, Varuna Entertainment chose the compact, fixed zoom-lens convenience of Canon’s XH G1 HD Camcorder to shoot its new series “Ski Patrol: Crystal Mountain,” which debuted on truTV this past October.
“It was a hazardous shoot,” Ball explains. “We followed and filmed a ski patrol as they rescued people and blew-up potential avalanche sites all over the mountain for the entire season. The XH G1 HD Camcorder really helped us out a lot because of its compact size, ease of maneuverability and its durability. They were absolute warriors on the mountain.”
“The XH G1 HD Camcorder worked out great for that series,” agrees Varuna Entertainment director of photography Chun Ming Huang. “The XH G1’s 20x zoom lens is fast. And you can start off pretty darn wide and go in pretty darn tight, so you get that good variety right there.”
“Choosing the XH G1 HD Camcorder was a great decision because it is light enough to be held while skiing and also produces excellent image and sound quality, even though we put them through a pounding for 12 weeks on the mountain,” recalls Bryan Stratte, Director of “Ski Patrol: Crystal Mountain.” “Shooting this type of show doesn’t give you the luxury of set-up times or second takes. It’s all in the moment, and you’ve got to have a camera that’s professional and fast, so the Canon XH G1 has been quite an asset for us.”
“Some of the skiing shots were captured by our camera operators holding the XH G1 HD Camcorders on monopods,” Ball elaborates. “Occasionally the operators would fall, and it was much better that they were holding the lightweight XH G1 than a heavier HD camera. A bigger HD camera could cause as much damage to an operator as the fall itself.”
From the heights of a snowy mountain to the depths of the world’s busiest shipping system, the latest creation by the team of Jason Morgan and Robert Zazzali is “In Too Deep,” a series for The History Channel documenting the hazardous world of marine salvage operations.
“We filmed a barge being lifted from the Mississippi River,” relates Ball. “That’s a very large operation. We have crews shooting several wrecks right now that were the result of Hurricane Gustav.”
“The XH G1 HD Camcorders are fantastic for the ‘run-and-gun’ shooting we’re doing on barges and tug boats, which have cramped spaces we wouldn’t otherwise be able to get into,” Stratte adds. “In addition to directing, I also shoot portions of these shows myself. The XH G1’s give me the flexibility to be able to shoot and still call the shots, which is awesome. These cameras do a wonderful job of capturing cinema verité moments and making them beautiful.”
Stratte cites another key advantage of using Canon XH G1 HD Camcorders that’s also crucial to the production of reality series.
“We’re shooting our shows to be as real-to-life as possible,” he confides. “The characters we shoot are not actors. We don’t want anyone ‘playing for the camera.’ The XH G1’s are not invasive. After a while they start to blend in. Not having a big, obtrusive camera pointed at their faces allows them to relax and be themselves.”
Time Code and Beyond
In addition to its Canon 20x HD zoom lens and Optical Image Stabilization, features of the XH G1 HD Camcorder also include three 1/3-inch native 16:9 1.67 million pixel CCDs, true 1080 HD image capture with a choice of frame rates, Total Image Control of more than 23 independently adjustable settings, and industry-standard connections for genlock, HD-SDI/SD-SDI output and SMPTE time code.
“There are a lot of benefits for the price,” notes Huang. “You can shoot HD or SD with the same camera at very reasonable cost. You can do a variety of frame rates. Workflow-wise it’s pretty straightforward; you record to tape. And most essential for post-production is the XH G1 HD Camcorder’s time code connector, which lets you sync it up with other XH G1’s so you’re good to go.”
“The XH G1 HD Camcorder’s time code connector is a life-saver for reality production,” explains Ball. “We shoot a tremendous amount of footage, and time code gives us the ability to jam-sync multiple cameras. On “Ski Patrol: Crystal Mountain” we had four camera crews spread out all around the mountain. In an emergency they’d all get a call over the radio to get to a certain location. If all the XH G1’s hadn’t been jam-synced at the beginning of the day, they’d all be on different time codes and it would have been a post nightmare.”
“Time code ensures that each camera is locked and ‘on the same page,’” echoes Stratte. “When the footage gets into post, we can group our shots a lot more easily and don’t have to go around chasing audio.
“We also like the functions [of the XH G1 HD Camcorder] that allow you to control and handle aspects of how the camera captures its images,” he adds. “That said, we usually straight-shoot with it. We just let the camera take its best image quality and if anything needs to be fixed we do it in post.”
“There were definitely times we played around with it [the XH G1 HD Camcorder’s Total Image Control] on “Ski Patrol: Crystal Mountain” to make sure the snow looked white and not yellow or gray,” agrees Ball. “But I think for the most part our aim was to get as clear and as crisp and as perfect a reproduction of what we were seeing as possible.”
Truth be told, the Canon XH G1 HD Camcorder wasn’t the only camera used on Varuna Entertainment’s two new series. Certain high-risk shots were captured with Canon VIXIA HV30 consumer HD Camcorder.
“We needed a very small HD camera to mount on people’s chests, on helmets, on the front of skis going downhill, and in underwater housings,” Ball reveals. “For this we chose Canon’s VIXIA HV30, and even though it’s only a one-chip consumer-level HD camera it performed pretty spectacularly. We used about 15 of those between the two shows. Its video also matches up really well with the XH G1’s.”
“They’re great cameras for the purpose,” concurs Huang. “They’re small and lightweight so you don’t have to do as much in terms of grip and tying them down.
Although tracking shots can shake because they’re so light, the HV30’s are still pretty darn good cameras, even when you shoot HD quality in the letterbox format.”
“Canon is really forging ahead in enabling Varuna Entertainment to compete with very large production companies,” Stratte says. “We’re able to cut costs and go places that other companies don’t want to go or don’t think they can go. As for me, personally, shooting mass quantities of material with Canon cameras helped me learn my craft and launch my career. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with film, which is so much more expensive. Today, using the XH G1 HD Camcorder to make high-quality HDTV shows is a wonderful experience.”
“Shooting in snow is a completely different challenge than shooting out on the open ocean, which is completely different from shooting inside a machine shop,” Ball concludes. “Regardless of the situation, however, Canon’s HD cameras give us incredibly crisp pictures with beautiful color reproduction. Overall we’ve been thrilled with the level of picture quality on all of our series.”