Jonathan Yi Talks About The Canon C300
Last week Jonathan Yi posted a video on the web: “Canon EOS C300 = Awesome”. The video, shot with a prototype of the new Canon C300, pokes fun at camera tests, while also demonstrating many of the capabilities of this camera. Though it was originally produced for Canon’s launch event, the video was not posted at that time because, as Jonathan said “Canon, not thrilled with my sense of humor, does not credit or condone this video.” Canon may have underestimated the charm of the video, or the interest in anything related to the C300; to date, the video has over 250,000 plays.
In this interview conducted last week, Jonathan talks about his background, the C300 and how it compares to other cameras he uses.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I am originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, but moved to New York over 10 years ago to attend NYU Film School. Originally, I was a failed musician and saw myself working in the sound department. The moment I shot my first roll of Kodak 16mm Black and White Reversal stock on an Arri-S, I fell in love with cinematography.
I worked as an editor to pay the bills while I occasionally shot music videos and some pickup shots for low budget commercials. I then leveraged my knowledge of HD and digital workflows to work as a technical director at a big ad agency. I was then promoted to Director of Animation and Editorial, and started hiring myself out occasionally to shoot things, but ended up having to direct most of the stuff I shot. This all led to eventually becoming a freelance director and cinematographer. I mostly direct and hire myself as the DP these days. Funny how things work out like that.
Q: How did you come to make this video?
I actually got contacted by Canon to work with them on the release of their cinema products earlier this year. I started working with them on a contact basis, just advising them on the C300. Their education department wanted me to shoot some test footage for a week and write an article [Canon: EOS C300 for Cinematographers] and possibly create a video as well for the launch.
They told me a list of what they wanted, but I wanted to have fun with it because camera tests are pretty boring. But they didn’t really know me at all; anybody who knows me personally, would have been like, “Yeah, of course this is what you’d come back with. Why would they trust you to do something like that?!”
Q: What was the reaction to the video?
I came back with this video and I thought it was hilarious. They got all excited because I was excited, and we went to the screening room and we played it back and it was just dead silence in the room. They had the big bosses from Japan there and they were already very nervous about the reception of the C300 as it was, and there was just not a peep in the room.
Some people admitted afterwards they thought it was actually helpful because it was the only video that showed certain characteristics of the camera. But in the end they decided that it was quote “inappropriate for the web,” just because they were really worried about public perception if this went on the internet. Which is fine, but I’m like “have you seen the internet?”
Q: Looking at the video, you could have changed the narration to tone it down.
Actually the narration was even more toned down when I showed it to them. They didn’t have narration problems really. They did have issues with the skin tone tests and I had to change the names of the cameras I compared it to, I couldn’t call it the brand name. I had to call it HDSLR because they thought it was cannibalizing a certain department.
Q. So can you tell us what HDSLR you used for the test?
Every comparison that we did was with the 7D. The reason we chose the 7D is because the field of view was very similar. I was going to compare it with the 5D, and I did some shots with the 5D, but I thought that that was kind of unfair because the focal lengths change, and I needed it to be in the exact same spot.
Q: But you thought it was important to compare to an HDSLR?
These are the questions I always get. Is this camera a 5D Mark III? No it’s not, it’s completely different. Is this an HDSLR in a different body shape with XLR inputs, because they’re not going to pay $20,000 for that; well that’s not what it is. I just wanted to make sure that people understood that.
Q: How did you to manage to post the video?
That happened because my producer changed the contract because the money wasn’t really there to do this. They paid us a very low amount of money and a lot of my friends did favors, but my producer wanted to make sure that we were allowed to post it on both my reel and his reel when it was done. So the contract was adjusted before we got going, and it said we are allowed to post this on our personal web sites.
I quietly posted it earlier this week, just updating my website for another job that I’m up for right now, and just to put up new stuff. I also wanted it up for my friends who worked on it for a fraction of their usual rate, just to see it and laugh, as it’s an inside joke, Most of what I do, I just assumed that the viewership is so low, so I didn’t care.
Q: Did you promote it in any way?
My friends who worked on it pushed it out through their Facebook and Twitter, because they were like, “hey camera people, this is funny.” Planet 5D got a hold of it and they were really instrumental in blowing this up, and it kind of went from there.
I underestimated the power of those blogs; I don’t generally sit at the computer much. Now I’m familiar with all these venues, but I’m still not the best versed in those.
Q: Have you heard anything from Canon?
I haven’t. I posted it around 3:30 in the afternoon, and it got over 10,000 hits and I’m like, “holy crap, they are going to be upset.” The next morning, when we were starting to approach 100,000 or whatever it was, and all the comments are fairly positive, from some important people too, I thought “well they’ll probably just ignore this,” because even if they told me to take it down, they can’t; it’s in the contract that I’m allowed to have this on my personal site for my reel.
A sales rep contacted me saying that they saw the video and they said “good job.”
Q: Just to go over the logistics of how it was made. You had the camera for a week?
Q: Did you spend a couple of days playing with it before you started shooting?
I’d seen iterations of the camera before. I would see mockups and different things, so I was pretty familiar with how the camera was supposed to work on a conceptual level, but it did take me a couple of days to see the real benefits of the camera.
I felt very defensive when people were trash talking it immediately after the event. I was working the event in Hollywood, and I could convince people, as long as they could play with the camera with me, and I could show them the ISO and the noise, and the certain aspects that excited me, but I think that Canon were focusing on the wrong things,
Q: What was your perception of the reaction? It seemed to me that the biggest negative reaction was to the price?
Here’s what’s funny about the price; the price is still not determined. This is the 1.99 vs 2 problem, which I think is a PR nightmare. Even if they had said it was going to be under $19,000 that would have been different than then saying $20,000.
I was always, always told, from the beginning, that the price is much lower than that, and I still think that the price will be lower. But at the very last minute, seriously it was about 30 minutes before the announcement happened, they decided to be very conservative, because they were worried about the Yen to Dollar conversion and what might happen.
RED did the opposite. RED’s like, “oh, the body of our camera is $9,700,” but to get it out the door it’s at least $14,000. But the first thing people hear is $9,000. They go “oh man, that’s half the price!”
So it was two very different approaches on the same day, and there’s so much information for people to absorb that they weren’t listening carefully, and I think that Canon didn’t clarify their position enough. I think that the cameras are going to come out at about the same price, and I think the C300 will eventually be a very popular camera, I just think that it was a PR mess.
Q. What settings were you using on the camera?
Video settings have always been confusing for people like me that come from film. When you shoot film, you know the film stock and you just expose for it, you know what to expect and you make all your image decisions in post. With video cameras, historically you had the paint box, where you could do all these things with black level etc., on set, in a not ideal environment. The C300 has this really quick setting called Cinema Lock, and when you do that it automatically optimizes all your image settings to give you the most information for post-production and color correction. With that simple switch you can just start shooting like you’re shooting film again.
I was just using a light meter and using Cinema Lock mode for the most part. Of course, when you’re shooting at 20,000 ISO you can’t use your light meter any more because it doesn’t read up to that!
Q. Were you mainly shooting with Canon EF lenses?
I was using the EF version of the camera. The cinema EF lenses they introduced were not out yet. I used all still lenses.
Q. How much ahead of the introduction did you have the camera?
I think over a month.
Q. What state was the camera in?
There’s pictures of it online [on the Vimeo page], the one that we were using. It was all P-Touch labels and the body was colored in different ways. It didn’t look as it ended up looking, and also the pieces were a little more crude than the final production line was. For the most part it was very, very close.
Q. What rigs were you using?
I didn’t use any rigs. That’s the beauty of the camera. It comes out of the box with everything you need to hold it.
Q. So you were mainly using it hand held?
Yes, other than the tripod stuff. For example the gondola shots, that’s all just with the handles on the camera. It feels very good to hold, I think.
Q. The shape is a bit unusual. Some have compared it to a Hasselblad.
It does, especially when you break it down and don’t use the LCD and stuff, it just looks like a medium format camera. And also the thing about the form factor, it’s actually very light, especially compared to an EPIC. So it feels better being in that shape.
If you remember the Panasonic DVX100, it felt really good in your hand, and then the HVX200 came out and it got fatter and heavier and it felt weird. But this shape really works for the C300 I think.
If you look at the specs on paper it just really seems not inspiring comparatively, but something happens with everybody once they put this camera in their hands and they start playing with it.
Q: Other than the C300, what camera have you been shooting with recently?
I shoot with the Arri Alexa mostly.
Q: How would you compare the C300 to the Alexa?
The Alexa looks great, I love the interface because I come from a background of motion picture film. I go with the Alexa most often, rather than RED products, because of my specific needs: I need a really good looking 1080p camera, and I need the people to look good. I also need a camera that never goes down, and it’s a very robust camera system.
The C300 ISO performance destroys every camera out there, including the Alexa. Skin tones can hold their own with the Alexa, which is a big deal.
I do a lot of documentary work and we actually started doing a lot of those on HDSLRs just because we needed to be fast and small, and be able to walk around with it. But there’s a lot of problems that went along with that, and I think the C300 will replace HDSLRs on all the documentary work I do for sure.
Also, the problem with shooting a documentary on the Alexa is, it eats batteries like crazy, and those batteries are huge. The same thing with the RED. The C300 has long battery life and I can just fill my pockets with batteries and cards and I’m good for the day, and I can have a smaller staff.
Q. So you think this camera would be great for documentary work?
I think this is the camera I’ve always been waiting for. There are things I’d like to change about the exterior of the C300, certain buttons like priorities and things like that, but all in all [it’s great…] I’m not going to own an Alexa. I use the Alexa but I’m not going to own one. I could own this camera, and it will cut together great. I could go out and just shoot pickups, and I think that’s going to be a really big deal. I never saw myself owning any of these digital cameras, because first of all I didn’t want to carry it to the set because it was so heavy and big, but now I see myself using this and liking it for a lot of things.
For example, I was shooting this documentary for years in Napa,,CA. We looked at a lot of HD cameras, but all the cameras that gave us the look that we wanted had a lot of problems dealing with the environment, the heat and cold. When you’re shooting in Napa it’s really cold in the morning and really hot during the day. We actually ended up shooting that on Super 16 because we had long battery life on the camera and the camera could deal with the weather conditions, and I couldn’t bring another camera out there to deal with that stuff. Now with the C300 I think I could shoot something like that; be in a real bad weather environment and be fine, and have long battery life, and be able to carry everything in a backpack.