Film and video cameras used for documentary production must be as inconspicuous as possible so that their presence does not influence the people and events being photographed. This is why Calamari Productions, a multi-faceted independent television and digital media production company with long experience in child-welfare documentaries, uses XH A1 HD camcorders from Canon U.S.A., Inc., a leader in digital imaging. Founded in 1995 by CEO/executive producer Karen Grau, Calamari Productions has obtained state Supreme Court access in several states to film inside America’s child welfare and juvenile courts, juvenile detention centers and juvenile prisons. The company – based in Indianapolis with satellite offices in New York – has won many awards for its groundbreaking programming, which has appeared on major broadcast and cable networks.
“We go into a lot of sensitive situations where we have to be as unobtrusive as possible,” noted Chip Warren, vice president, media and production, Calamari Productions. “The Canon XH A1 camcorder enables us to get into places – and capture footage – that would not be possible with a larger camera.”
Weighing 4.6 lbs., the Canon XH A1 HD camcorder measures 13.8 inches long by 7.4 inches high. Despite its compact size the Canon XH A1 is designed to shoot true 1080p HD video at 60i, 30F, or 24F frame rates. Engineered with a wide array of advanced, professional Canon camera technologies, the XH A1 captures light through a Genuine Canon 20x HD video zoom lens and directs it to three 1/3-inch native
1440 x 1080 16:9 CCDs with 1.67 million pixels per sensor. These sensors deliver outstanding picture quality, highly accurate color reproduction and wide dynamic range with virtually no color noise. Canon’s proprietary DIGIC DV II HD image processor further ensures optimum image clarity. The XH A1 HD Camcorder includes a range of professional user features (including Total Image Control for customizing image and color settings, programmable Auto Exposure modes, Canon SuperRange Optical Image Stabilizer and Canon’s Instant Auto Focus).
“I have been a Canon loyalist since I started in still photography years ago,” Warren recalled. “When it came time to look into buying an affordable digital three-CCD HD camera, we did our research and discovered that everyone had good things to say about the Canon XH A1 HD camcorder. The reputation this camera has in the video production industry is what sealed the deal for me. Anything better would require quite a jump-up in price. That is why I finally made the decision to choose the Canon XH A1. Its image quality speaks for itself. The pictures that we get in the field are excellent. Some of our camera crews will bring in other cameras, but when they get their hands on the Canon XH A1 they’re amazed at its functionality and small size. We shoot in a lot of tight and sensitive situations, which is why I’m hard-pressed to use other cameras.”
Dynamic, Realistic Shooting
“Small size is a big consideration when you’re shooting in court rooms or jail cells,” Warren explained. “A larger camera can be intimidating, especially when you’re shooting a documentary. The more obtrusive you are, the more aware people are that you are there. We would not be able to go into small cells to do interviews without the Canon XH A1. We also shoot live and move around courtrooms during active cases. The camcorder helps us respect the fact that the courts do not want a circus atmosphere. A shoulder-mounted camera with larger lights would be very distracting. But with our camera operators – who are very good at what they do – and our compact Canon XH A1 HD camcorders, we can be like the proverbial ‘fly on the wall.’
“We are always striving for the stealthiest production we can achieve, but make no mistake: We’re not invisible,” Warren said. “When you go into the courtroom people are hyper-aware of you at first, no matter what gear you’re shooting with. Eventually they will start to ignore you. That is because people’s lives are on the line in a courtroom, and that is much more important to them than cameras. What the Canon XH A1 HD camcorder does for us is shorten the window of time required for people to forget we’re there.”
“With bigger cameras in the courtroom, we pretty much have to set them up, take fixed, locked-off shots of the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the witness box,” Warren continued. “We can’t do very much dynamic shooting. You can’t really take a big shoulder-mounted camera right next to the witness box to get a good shot, because it could be disruptive. The thing with courtrooms is that unexpected things happen there, the most unexpected stuff of anywhere that we shoot. That is why shooting with the Canon XH A1 allows us to capture much more, both realistically and dynamically. With the Canon XH A1 we shoot with two locked-down cameras and two hand-held cameras moving throughout the courtroom. We tip-toe around, and if something really dramatic is happening we can get a better angle on it. We can zoom in and really capture the emotion. These smaller cameras give us a lot more options.”
Audio, Optics, and Overall Image
“The audio quality of the Canon XH A1 is fantastic,” Warren stated. “We usually use a fixed shotgun mic or we will wire people up with wireless lavs. That said, the ability for us to record production-quality sound right off the XH A1’s built-in microphone has enabled us to capture some wonderful little ‘nuanced moments.’ One example was when we were shooting in a detention-center classroom, where teenagers were working on simple skills in an uncharged atmosphere. Like any kids, they can get rowdy and excited when there are cameras around. But with the small, stealthy XH A1 HD camcorder we were able to capture intimate footage of them telling frank, honest, gripping stories of their lives. Had we gone in with bigger cameras and a sound man holding up a mic boom we wouldn’t have gotten that kind of footage.”
“Given the lenses on Canon cameras, I think the optics on the XH A1 HD camcorder are second to none,” Warren asserted. “The iris ring on the lens is a great help when shooting in varying lighting conditions. We may be following someone who goes from a really bright and harshly lit corridor situation, and then – in the same shot – walks into their cell, which might not be very well lit at all. Having all of that to deal with while also being able to control your focus and your iris with one hand allows you to move in between those conditions a lot more quickly and easily. In fact, the iris ring on the
XH A1 blows a lot of my camera guys away. They usually associate smaller cameras with less robust features, but as soon as their hands go to the XH A1 lens they’ll say, ‘Hey! It’s has an iris ring.’ ”
“Another thing I actually was not even aware of until I started comparing footage shot with other cameras is the picture. A lot of cameras ever-so-slightly over-saturate their color, which I think gives you a bit of a limitation in post in some respects. If you look at the footage from the XH A1 it is toned-down a bit. It gives you a lot more control in post and a lot more options. I think it sets a more realistic baseline. Our editors have commented on that, and I think that is a pretty nice thing.”
“We are not your typical news documentary production company,” Warren explained. “There is literally two of us and our work is a cause as much as it is a job. We are trying to bring attention to kids aging-out of the juvenile system. They make progress, but when they hit 18 years of age, many of their services stop, which is really hard on them. It is vital for us to be able to get every angle of their stories that we can. Having the smaller form-factor XH A1 camcorder enables us to shoot powerful HD video in the field that looks every bit as good as what you would get with larger cameras. And let’s face it, when it is on TV the viewers at home are not saying ‘Gosh I wonder what kind of camera that was shot on.’ They are concentrating on the story content and their realization that they have never heard these gripping stories of juvenile prisoners before.”
“We are also a business, and for the amount of money we would spend just renting larger cameras for a couple months, we can buy a three- or four-camera XH A1 kit,” Warren concluded. “That is another reason why the Canon XH A1 HD camcorder hits the absolute ‘sweet spot’ for us, which is gratifying. I’m a believer in this camera.”