Director Zephyr Benson and DP Brandon Roots recently relied on Canon’s EOS C300 cinema camera to shoot the low-budget film Straight Outta Tompkins. A gritty, cautionary tale of a young drug dealer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Straight Outta Tompkins is 21-year-old Benson’s debut feature.
“Not so long ago, it would have been nearly impossible to make a movie of this quality, so quickly, as an ultra-low budget feature,” said Benson. “With the Canon EOS C300 camera, however, my vision became a reality. I think that any filmmaker with a powerful enough desire to tell a story can now just get out there and do it.”
The son of accomplished director, screenwriter, actor and educator Robby Benson, Zephyr Benson was introduced to filmmaking early on by accompanying his father to film sets and sitting-in on his lectures at various universities and film schools. Chief among the lessons he learned was that moviemaking is hard work.
“A lot of challenges can be thrown at you every day,” said Zephyr. “Many young filmmakers don’t realize this at first. You can spend hours just setting up one shot so it looks right and then everything can suddenly go wrong. Then you’ve got to brainstorm and figure out how to make it right, which is the challenge of filmmaking and one of the reasons why I love it.”
“I don’t think we would have been able to make this movie without the Canon EOS C300 camera,” said Roots. “From the very beginning we knew that we wanted to shoot the film handheld, so the lightweight body of the EOS C300 camera was quite important, especially since it was on my shoulder most of the time. We also knew we would be working in really tight interior locations, so mobility would be vital.”
The camera body weighs just over 3 lbs. and the C300 records 1920 x 1080 HD with a selectable ISO range up to 20,000.
“Our budget dictated minimal lighting, but the Canon EOS C300 camera has amazing low-light performance,” explained Roots. “A large part of the film takes place at night on city streets, and we used available light. We filmed in interior locations as well. We routinely shot up to 3200 ISO, which on some other cameras would have resulted in a lot of noise and an undesirable image, but not with the EOS C300 camera. The low-light performance of the EOS C300 camera also saved us from needing an electrical generator for extra lights. We were able to power the few lights we needed off the available power at locations or the outlets in the apartments we used.”
Benson recalled an instance when the low-light performance of the Canon EOS C300 cinema camera resulted in, what he described as, “the most incredible thing” he had ever seen. “One night we were shooting on a fire escape, looking down a poorly lit street that, to the naked eye, was barely visible beyond about 30 yards,” Benson recalled. “Brandon turned on the Canon EOS C300 camera and everything instantly looked illuminated and cinematic. It looked as if we had spent hours lighting the entire block. That was so important for this film because our ultra-low budget gave us hardly any time for lighting set-ups.”
“Brandon turned to us and said ‘I can’t believe what I can see through this camera,’” co-executive producer David Rudd added. “The Canon EOS C300 camera really digs down into the dark areas of light. It loves the low end of the spectrum.”
Straight Outta Tompkins was shot principally with the Canon CN-E24mm T1.5 LF, CN-E50mm T1.3 LF, and CN-E85mm T1.33 LF cinema prime lenses. Roots also used the Canon CN-E14.5-60mm T2.6 L SP cinema zoom lens and the CN-E30-105mm T2.8 L SP compact cinema zoom lens. “The Canon cinema prime lenses are fast and lightweight, and because we were shooting hand-held they gave us great flexibility for shooting in low light,” Roots explained. “More often than not we were living on the primes.”
“We used the Canon cinema zoom lenses more for daytime exterior street scenes,” Roots continued. “They gave us the greatest flexibility by enabling us to adjust our framing and move quickly from one set-up to another.”
Roots described the Canon cinema prime and zoom lenses as “incredibly sharp even when we were shooting wide open.”
The C300 records to two Compact Flash cards through dual slots with a choice of serial or parallel recording for backup, providing up to 80 minutes of recording time on each 32GB card.
Roots and Robby Benson also noted the advantages of the camera’s SMPTE time code capability. “It helped us immensely in post with syncing up all of the sound and picture.” Robby Benson noted: “Even if you shoot a ton of footage, if you play by the rules and know what you’re doing in post, the EOS C300 camera time code feature enables you to find anything you’ve shot.”
Straight Outta Tompkins was filmed in the EOS C300 cinema camera’s Canon Log gamma setting, which helps ensure capture of the full exposure latitude of the camera’s Super 35mm CMOS sensor. Canon Log gamma image data provides the film-style dynamic range between shadows and highlights that is essential for achieving cinematic subtleties in postproduction color grading. “It’s spectacular the latitude that the image gave us and how much detail we had in shadows and highlights,” Roots reported. “It was also great to know right from the beginning that we would be able to do a really fine color grade later on during post.”
“When we went to the post house to do a test on our material, Randy Coonfield, colorist from Shapeshifter Post, was amazed with the Canon EOS C300 camera and Canon lenses,” explained Robby Benson. “We were giving the film more blues and grit, and we had the latitude to take it to places no other project I’ve ever worked on could go. The blacks got blacker; not muddy – no noise, just rich – and the colors were so defined, with exquisite clarity. When we needed more illumination – again, no noise.”
“The Canon EOS C300 – as well as Canon’s entire line of EOS cameras – has democratized filmmaking,” said Roots. “It is amazing to see this footage projected on a big screen. The audience doesn’t know what format we shot it on, nor should it matter to them. It just looks great.”