Camera Review: Canon XL H1

It was over a year ago that Mike Curtis, Chris Hurd, and Adam Wilt organized the Texas HD Shootout that pitted the JVC GY-HD100, Panasonic AG-HVX200, Sony HVR-Z1 and Canon HL X1 against each other in a battle for ultimate supremacy. Of course each camera had its own strengths and weaknesses, so there was no clear winner, but from all the data collected on the Big Four I decided that Canon’s XL H1 was the most powerful and flexible option for the widest number of uses. Well, for my uses anyway, which are pretty wide.

And now that I’ve been using XL H1 cameras for several months on several different types of projects, I thought I’d put together a review on its many features and what I feel are its strengths and weaknesses in production. I’ve been using Canon’s XL cameras for years, and from the XL1 to the XL1s, I never liked them much. Sony’s DSR-300 and 500 were DV cameras that offered much better control and imaging. The XL2, however, was much closer to being a usable camera, and adopted a number of pro features.

Now, with the XL H1, Canon has created something that feels and performs like a real professional camera. Also, it’s black, so it even looks professional.

The Camera Body
The chainsaw shape of the XL cameras has taken some getting used to. The XL1 was a bit too small to be comfortably used as a shoulder camera, but the XL2 worked much better. With a professional v-lock battery and two wireless receivers on the back, it balanced like a proper ENG camera should. The XL H1 is nearly identical in size and shape to the XL2, so all the cases and accessories are usable, but it is considerably heavier. Also some of the controls for newer functions have been moved around a bit, and it might be my imagination, but everything seems more ergonomic and more accessible than on the XL2.

Camera wobbles are much more noticeable in HD than on SD, so it is more vital the camera be held steady. This is another area where JVC and Canon cameras beat their handheld counterparts from Panasonic and Sony. To get the same motion control and stability that you have with a larger, longer, shoulder-mountable camera, handhelds need accessories and attachments. After years of also using very bulky broadcast cameras and looking down on anything less, I never thought I’d be defending a Canon camcorder’s size and stability as superior to other cameras, but in its price range, the XL H1 is one of the most solid and controllable form factors available.

First Look at Magic Bullet Looks

As we all know, Red Giant Software makes some great tools. Since they first released Magic Bullet in 2002, it has been a ubiquitous part of the low-budget filmmaker’s effort to make video look more like film. There have been some improvements along the way, but the Magic Bullet Suite is getting a major overhaul, and now includes three individual products: Magic Bullet Colorista, Magic Bullet Frames, and Magic Bullet Looks.

When I first heard about Magic Bullet Look’s workflow, how you can apply different effects to the subject, matte box, lens, camera, and post slots, I was a little skeptical. In my mind I pictured either a gimmicky toy for users too inexperienced for regular color correction tools, or a complex optical simulator that would to be tricky to manipulate and time-consuming to render. Fortunately, it’s somewhere in the middle, combining the best features of each extreme.

After watching Stu Maschwitz‘s video tour on Studio Daily, it’s now clear how it all works. It’s only logical to apply gradient and diffusion filters to the matte box, faux DOF effects and flares to the lens, and film processing effects to the camera. It’s impossible for amateur colorists to apply effects in the wrong order, and the light calculations behave realistically and are adjustable using real-world controls. Furthermore, it renders like lightning, and all the previews, even with half a dozen stacked effects, are snappy.

I also really like the easy management of custom filters and effects, and the management of combined LUTs. The interface is clean and intuitive, and from within the After Effects effect panel you can see at a glance what the settings are. Another nice touch is the interactive library view; rather than showing a generic picture for each of the stored settings in the library, it calculates a thumbnail of what each preset will do to the footage you have selected. Magic Bullet Looks will run as a plugin for After Effects, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, Vegas, and various Avid NLEs, or as a standalone program.

The Cineform Digital Intermediate Codec

For the past few months, we’ve been running all our HD projects using the CineForm codec rather than native HDV. Obviously, if we are capturing on HDV, converting to another codec doesn’t add any visual quality or extra information to the image, but it makes the editing process much faster, and since CineForm is a true digital intermediate format, any recompression of clips that have had effects or color adjustments applied to them stays much cleaner. There are a number of tests of CineForm that carefully document its impressive quality, and I’m on the road today, so I’ll just stick to the workflow issues.

You can get this “Visually Perfect” Wavelet codec in a number of flavors, each of which has different options, ranging from a simple 720/1080 all the way up to 2k, and colorspace from 8-bit 4:2:2 video to 12-bit 4:4:4 to a full RAW version, designed for camera capture. Also, rumor has it that 2k is by no means the limit of the codec, just the limit of the available products at this time. Obviously, it has abilities far beyond Apple’s new ProRes codec, which is why there will soon be Mac support for the CineForm codec. You can get a beta version to play with here.

But CineForm is more than a codec; it comes with an application called HDLink, which can be used to batch convert video files from one format from another and capture from any HDV camera with full control over the video and codec, with full support for P2 files and Canon’s 24f framerate. It can upscale or downscale on the fly, from 720 or 1080 or back again, adjust for lens adapter flip, deinterlace or remove various pulldowns and change framerates to create true 24p video. It also has one of the most accurate scene detection features I’ve seen for HDV, and an option to capture native M2T transport streams from the camera and CineForm-encoded AVIs side by side.

However, we generally skip that, and take advantage of Aspect HD’s seamless integration with Premiere Pro when capturing, since HDLink does not retain the tape’s timecode data on each clip in the same way that Premiere does. Because our production pipeline requires that we store all the timecode so we can rebuild projects from our server backups, we use HDLink rarely. However, Premiere’s capture options offer most of the same controls through a Cineform control panel.

And within Premiere the difference between CineForm and HDV is incredible. Even without using a RAID array, our Opteron 170-based edit box can simultaneously play back three video streams fading in and out of each other at full res without dropping frames and without rendering. There are also a number of Premiere video effects provided by CineForm that provide render-free color adjustments and image panning/scaling, and several real-time transitions. The performance increase is phenomenal.