In-flight movies have long been part of airline travel, but director of photography Doug Chamberlain gave passengers some additional entertainment when he shot the movie Departure Date onboard commercial flights using Canon EOS C300 digital cinema cameras. A 24-minute short feature written and directed by Kat Coiro, Departure Date was shot by Chamberlain over the course of nine days encompassing three continents, 28,000 miles, and a filming location moving at an average speed of 500 miles per hour at an altitude of 35,000 feet.
Departure Date tells the story of Jake (Ben Feldman), who finds and loses the love of his life (Nicky Whelan) on a Sydney to Los Angeles Virgin Australia flight, meets his depressing future (in characters played by Philip Baker Hall, Janeane Garofalo and Luis Guzman) on a Virgin America Los Angeles to Dallas flight, and is motivated to go get the girl on a Virgin Atlantic Los Angeles to London flight. Departure Date premiered, June 17 at the L.A. Film Festival and will be shown on all Virgin America, Atlantic, and Australia Flights, as well as online and at select film festivals.
“Virgin has a long history of groundbreaking firsts, and shooting the first film at 35,000 feet certainly continues that tradition,” said Huntley Ritter, head of commercial production at Virgin Produced. “We pride ourselves on the quality of the content we deliver in any medium, and the Canon products we utilized on this production and have used in the past have always exceeded expectations. We look forward to working with Canon for years to come.”
“Virgin Produced approached director Kat Coiro, who I had collaborated with on three features, about shooting a film while flying at 35,000 feet,” Chamberlain recalled. “She told me about it, and our first instinct was that it sounds like a terrible idea. Not only was the turnaround time on this project tight, but I knew I would be in for a challenge just in terms of controlling the lighting, working in a confined space and dealing with turbulence, limited electrical power, FAA regulations and airport security, not to mention that we would be doing all of this on working flights with real passengers. So the next day Kat had a fun idea for the script, we kicked it around and decided to take the project on.”
Chamberlain had shot one of Coiro’s previous films, While We Were Here, on location in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples. He chose a Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital SLR camera for that film for its compact size, which enabled him to inconspicuously shoot Coiro’s small cast in restaurants, beaches, historic ruins and other choice locations.
“While We Were Here was a different sort of film for us,” Chamberlain said. “We had just come off a 35mm feature film project and wanted to do something small, light and fast in a beautiful location. We shot the whole thing on a shoestring budget without permits. The 5D gave us that low profile we were looking for.” Impressed by the capabilities of the 5D Mark II and encouraged by reviews praising the film’s look, Chamberlain was eager to check out Canon’s newest digital cinema camera, the EOS C300, which became available after While We Were Here was completed.
A Production-Friendly Camera
“As I was looking for a camera for Departure Date, it was interesting to discover what Canon had done with the EOS C300,” Chamberlain continued. “Indy and micro-budget filmmakers were loving the 5D. It’s small, and affordable, and it has that oversized chip that got people talking about Bokeh again. But at its heart, the 5D is first and foremost a still camera. The C300, on the other hand, has all of those things that people were loving about the 5D, including compact size. In addition, however, it also has the things that independent filmmakers truly need, including proper audio inputs, improved image quality and dynamic range, real HD-SDI out, zebras, and the ability to zoom in and check your focus while shooting.”
“The C300 is a very production-friendly camera,” Chamberlain added, “and it was the right tool for this show.”
“Production-friendly” also applied to the passengers and crews of the Virgin flights, Chamberlain happily discovered. Captains announced the presence of the filmmakers at the start of each flight, and cabin crews introduced the actors to passengers. According to Chamberlain, “We were the in-flight entertainment that was making more in-flight entertainment. Some passengers seemed genuinely excited by our presence and took pictures and volunteered to be extras. The cabin crews worked with us to coordinate their food-service carts around our shooting and pilots did their best to keep us out of turbulence.”
Although the on-board environment was friendly, the space-saving design of airline passenger cabins was not. “It felt like I was shooting in a tiny bathroom the whole time,” Chamberlain stated. “As soon as one person would get up to help I would sit them back down to get them out of the way. It wasn’t very conducive to shooting and so the bigger production elements that we brought had to get cut back. We had to be light and fast. Fortunately, at under four pounds, the C300 is actually quite light. It proved to be everything we wanted in terms of the extreme mobility needed to shoot in such a small space. I was able to move quickly and efficiently, and back the camera right up against the bulkhead or the window and still get my shots. I don’t think I could have done that with many other cameras.”
Working single-camera for most of the assignment, Chamberlain preferred to mount his EOS C300 on a monopod equipped with a Kenyon Labs KS-8 gyro stabilizer. “The monopod not only stabilized the pitch and roll but gave me a really small footprint to work with,” he said. “The Gyro stabilized the yaw and the whole set-up really helped me maintain a consistent look even when flying through pockets of rough air. Fortunately, other than when we flew over Iceland, there was very little turbulence on all three routes.”
Chamberlain also revealed how he handled the challenge of recording audio amid the constant whine of jet engines: “We used a very directional boom mic. I lit the actors in such a way as to give the boom its sweet spot and we made sure to cover everything in tight close-ups with the mic obnoxiously close to the actors.” Sound was recorded double-system, both by the EOS C300 and an external audio digital recorder.
EOS C300 Advantages
Airport security rules prevented Chamberlain and his lighting and sound assistants from bringing many of the basic tools they usually need, such as screwdrivers and scissors. Unable to find a lighting package that he felt perfectly suited his needs, he built his own low-profile “soft boxes” using LiteGear LED Hybrid and RGB LiteRibbons on dimmers and attached them to the ceiling with pre-cut Velcro. All of them ran on battery packs.
“I never had any issues with needing more light,” Chamberlain affirmed. “I rated the C300 camera at ISO 850 and for the most part I was shooting at f/2.8 or f/4. The C300 gave me plenty of low-light sensitivity to work with, which meant I didn’t have to run the LEDs at full power, which would have left me short on batteries at the end of the long flights.”
The Canon EOS C300 digital cinema camera records to two CF (Compact Flash) cards through dual slots with a choice of serial or parallel (for backup) recording, providing up to 80 minutes of recording time on each 32GB card.
“I don’t remember ever running out of card space,” Chamberlain stressed. “My camera assistant must have changed cards at some point, but they ran long enough that I stopped thinking about it, which was great. We also brought ten batteries, which turned out to be more than we needed. The first flight lasted ten hours but we only changed the battery once.”
As Departure Date gradually took shape, Chamberlain continued to find that the Canon EOS C300 camera provided features and performance well suited to his needs. Among these were the camera’s removable 4-in. 1.23 megapixel LCD monitor/control panel, which rotates 135° left/right or 270° down, and can be mounted directly on the camera body or on its removable handle unit.
“The image looked great on that little flip-up LCD monitor, it’s really a necessity to be able to reconfigure it in any direction these days,” Chamberlain said. “I tried an external aftermarket LCD monitor but discovered it was more hassle than it was worth. I liked how the Canon LCD monitor interacted with the camera, and having the controls right on top in case I needed to get into anything quick made sense to me. I was able to confidently determine my exposure from the LCD monitor, and used the zebras to help me know when I was losing highlight information.”
In addition to its zebra bar feature, the EOS C300 can also display a waveform monitor, vectorscope, and other displays for adjusting picture quality. Visual focusing aids on the external LCD monitor include two peaking modes, a magnified focus-assist function and an edge-monitor focus assist.
Another feature of the Canon EOS C300 Chamberlain had special praise for was its Cinema Locked Mode, which enables Canon-Log gamma, a recording format designed to retain pristine image quality through the color-grading processes.
“With the C300’s Cinema Locked Mode it was nice to be able to set it and free my mind from the technical details and still be confident that I was getting as much information as possible for the final color correction,” Chamberlain explained. “As a cinematographer, I don’t want to be bogged down on set with things that are better left for post. I like knowing that the camera is simply capturing as much information as it can about the image, leaving me to concentrate on the creative aspects of lighting, blocking, camera angles, exposure and storytelling. That’s where your mind needs to be. We were working so fast, I didn’t have the opportunity to look at many of the dailies. With the C300, however, I never had to fret about what some stray camera setting was doing to the image. It gave me the freedom to work creatively with the director, and that kind of freedom is a lot of fun.”