Mark Benjamin used the Canon EOS C300 Digital Cinema camera and EF-series lenses for his latest project, Chicagoland, an eight-part unscripted CNN series examining public safety and education.
Chicagoland is a drama that explores how politics and policy meet in the lives of real people to generate change in social policy, education and public safety on the local level, as well as to meet national and local challenges. The executive producers are Benjamin and his Brick City Television partner Marc Levin, as well as Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Productions. Benjamin and Levin co-directed the series, which explores the efforts of Chicago citizens, police and government to improve public education and control gang violence.
Benjamin served as third DP on the series, along with Daniel Levin and Tony Hardmon, which gave him a particular appreciation for the ergonomic design and performance of the EOS C300 camera. He needed a cinema-quality HD camera that was adjustable to a variety of shooting situations and capable of large single-sensor cinematic picture quality. Other important requirements included high mobility, light weight, easy operation, compact size, extreme low-light image capture capability, long record times and battery life and compatibility with a wide range of lenses for creative shooting options.
“The EOS C300 camera addresses our immediate needs,” Benjamin said. “It’s inconspicuous thanks to its small form factor and user-friendliness. I have long been an adherent to the ‘one-man-band’ concept of filmmaking. The idea of making minimally invasive, observational documentaries makes it hard to use a crew, which can get in the way. That’s why we work under a framework of ‘no lights, no sticks, no crew.’ The grapefruit size and the curved edges of the Canon EOS C300 camera make it the perfect tool for a one-man-band. We shot more than 300 days – over 1,500 hours – to make eight one-hour episodes. We needed a camera that felt good in our hands for 12-hour shooting days, and the Canon EOS C300 was it.”
“You can’t be using a big camera when you’re jumping in and out of police cars at a moment’s notice or running around a high school,” noted first DP Daniel Levin. “You also need to be as inconspicuous as possible when you’re at Cook County Jail or filming important politicians at city hall. The EOS C300 was able to adapt to any situation. Obviously, when you’re doing cinema vérité people know you’re there, but a camera that enables you to move freely throughout a room without disturbing what’s going on – and ease into a trusting relationship with the people there – is a major asset.”
The Look and the Lenses
The C300 delivers 1920 x 1080 cinematic HD via its high-sensitivity Super 35mm CMOS sensor, along with the Canon DIGIC DV III image processor.
“The large Super 35mm CMOS sensor in the Canon EOS C300 puts the camera at the top of the food chain,” Benjamin said. “The way that sensor handles low-light fits right in with our ‘no lights, no sticks, no crew’ shooting style. The networks are spoiled now by the beauty of the Super 35mm aesthetic with its selective depth-of-field.”
The EF-mount version of the Canon EOS C300 Digital Cinema camera can be used with Canon’s line of more than 70 interchangeable EF Series zoom, prime and specialty lenses designed for Canon EOS digital SLR cameras, providing shooters with creative flexibility.
“Our go-to lens was the image-stabilized Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom,” Benjamin said. “That was our one-man, run-and-gun-jump-out-in-the-morning lens. Inside a fanny pouch we would typically also carry a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM wide-angle lens and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. This glass was great for when the action settled down a bit and you got a sense of where things were going. If things are getting calmer you could put them on and shoot wide open for an incredible, selective depth-of-field look. We also used the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom lens, which also fits in a fanny pouch. You could basically go out with the 50mm, the 70-200mm, the handheld EOS C300 camera, some batteries and extra CF cards, be gone for 12 hours and come back without feeling worn out.”
“Lighting was never a problem because we didn’t go out unprepared for shooting at night in dark streets,” Benjamin added. “With an f/1.2-1.4 lens in your bag, you can go up to 3,000/4,000 ISO if needed. You can shoot in a dark closet or in moonlight. We never had to go to ISO 20,000 because before you got that far, you could just take off the zoom, put on a prime and be at f/1.2. That said, you can still dig into the shadows in post, with or without Canon Log, because the EOS C300 camera is so sensitive that having a slower zoom lens on it is not the end of the world.”
Going After Dragons
Postproduction on Chicagoland required editing suites in two cities to handle the show’s massive amount of raw content. After ingest, logging and a selects cut at their 24/7 Chicago edit bay, footage was shipped twice each week on redundant drives to New York, where the final show was assembled.
“Workflow involved an enormous amount of observational material of the main story and the many satellite stories,” Benjamin explained. “They were all A stories for us. We built the show narratively even though it’s unscripted. It’s a dramatic non-fiction television series. We did the selects in Chicago and New York, bringing two hours down to ten minutes, and then that would go to an assembly process where scenes were built. There were hundreds and hundreds of scenes for Chicagoland’s eight one-hour episodes, each with six acts. It was an enormous effort, but Marc Levin is an amazing powerhouse partner in the edit room and we have an incredible post team in New York.”
“Our DPs, Daniel Levin and Tony Hardmon, not only understand cinematography and have an artistic feel for composition and coverage, they also have the heart needed to deal with the real people of Chicago, who opened their doors, their hearts, and their lives to us,” Benjamin confided. “Our work has always defaulted to the underdog, as we come from a tradition of social-political documentaries. Forty years ago when I was just starting out in this business I met the late Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow’s producer. Fred told us, ‘Your job is to use your cameras to go after the dragons,’ referring to challenging stories. The Canon EOS C300 is the camera that I want to use now to go after today’s dragons.”