Canon’s New Digital Cinema Camera

It’s been a busy day for cinema camera techs, especially for camera techs like me, who picked today of all days to be away from real internet. Canon and RED have announced new products and new details about old products at back-to-back conferences in Hollywood. I’ve had to glean the details from various livebloggers on my phone, but I do have a basic summary. The Red event was basically just new specs and pricing for the long-awaited Scarlet camera, first announced more than three years ago, so I’ll start with Canon’s announcement.

Canon's EOS C300

The Canon EOS C300 is an all new digital cinema camera in the $15-20,000 dollar range. It’s meant to compete with the Arri Alexa and Red Epic, but in many ways is most similar to the Sony Cinealta F3. There are technically two versions of this camera, one with an EF mount, and one with a PL mount, but otherwise they are identical. Both cameras will be shipping worldwide by January 2012.

The C300 uses a brand-new 4K Super35 sensor, which resolves an incredibly clean 1080p image, with a particular focus on color reproduction. There isn’t much raw technical data on the sensor yet, but everyone who has had a chance to experiment with it reports far greater low-light performance than anything from Canon or Arri previously on the market. Unlike Canon’s video-enabled dSLRs, this sensor is built specifically for HD video, so there are no aliasing or moire artifacts.

Essentially, this is closer to the fully video capable version of the 5D MkII that most shooters were hoping for, but at a higher price tag and much higher capability. Key features include heavy-duty weatherproofing, genlock and sync (required for broadcast and 3D), full XLR ports and audio tools, waveform and vectorscope, live magnified focus and peaking, hot-swappable CF card slots, uncompressed HD-SDI output, and flexible framerates, all in a package weighing less than four pounds and compatible with professional cinema lenses.

Canon's EOS C300

Despite the new form factor, the C300 does live up to its inclusion in the EOS family with compatibility with various other EOS camera modes and accessories, including the new WFT-E6 wireless adapter, which will allow for full wireless control and viewfinder streaming to computers, tablets, and phones.

Of course, a Canon video camera release wouldn’t be the same without a new Vincent Laforet film, and also the trailer for a new Ron Howard film apparently being shot on the C300. Vincent Laforet offered a number of technical insights during a panel discussion, and he has also posted some thoughts on the camera at his blog. Other speakers at the event included Felix Alcala, Sam Nicholson, Masaya Maeda, Martin Scorsese, and Canon’s Chairman and CEO, Fujio Mitarai.

As soon as the Canon event ended, RED began theirs, which consisted of Jim Jannard and other RED staff speaking over a video link on a projector screen. This was a far cry from the lineup of live industry professionals at the Canon show, but the newly adjusted Scarlet-X and C300 seem to have a lot in common, especially at first glance. They are similar sizes, weights, and each is available with a EF or PL lens mount.

Underneath the surface, however, there are major differences. Each camera records to a 50mbps 4:2:2 codec, but Canon uses the widely accepted MPEG2 MXF format (subsampled upon compression), and RED uses its own efficient yet proprietary wavelet-based REDCODE (subsampled at the sensor). The C300’s gargantuan 4k Super35 chip downscales to 1080p, while the Scarlet’s 4k image is picked up raw on a smaller area of the sensor, apparently pulled from rejected Epic chips.

RED's New Scarlet

At only $9,750, the Scarlet-X comes in at less than half the retail price of the C300, but at an estimated $16,000 street price Canon also includes a viewfinder, 4” HD monitor, rotating detachable handgrip, dual CF card writer, and a bunch of other stuff that RED (and other manufacturers) tend to charge a lot extra for. To get these two cameras on more of an equal footing, I predict that you’ll spend about the same money.

And you can probably have them at about the same time, too. The Scarlet can be ordered now, theoretically shipping next month, and Jannard gave his word that cameras would actually be in stock by February, only a month after the C300. Of course, with Canon we can expect that all purchased cameras will be fully functional. I don’t mean to pick on RED, but the Epic shipped eight months late, and it is still missing extremely basic features. Features like playback.

All in all, I think that the C300 is a much closer competitor to the RED Epic than the Scarlet, and the amount of preparation that went into each product launch is revealing. It’s also worth noting that the C300 has no automatic focus and no automatic iris settings. It is not a prosumer video camera, or even a professional video camera. It is a professional digital cinema camera, built for skilled camera operators working on features, TV pilots, and high-end documentaries.

Canon's EOS C300

Now, we filmmakers live in a wondrous age, an age where we don’t really have to make do with technically inferior cameras any more. If in funds, we can pick between a pretty wide selection of completely competent cameras. The “best” camera is no longer defined by “most resolution” or “fewest workarounds in post” because we now have so many high-powered camera options that we can pick based on image quality or pipeline compatibility.

The Red Epic claims to record the most raw pixels, but many claim the Arri Alexa records better-looking pixels. The 1080p Panavision Genesis is getting pretty long in the tooth, but still pulls its weight on hundreds of movies a year, even big-budget VFX films like Captain America. Sony’s ubiquitous F35 and brand-new F65 still integrate seamlessly with the CineAlta pipelines developed a decade ago for the F900. They are all pretty amazing cameras.

I think Canon’s EOS C300 should be able to hold its own in that group, especially considering that its price is a fraction of what operators pay for similarly spec’d gear. If it shoots well, is utterly reliable, and fits into existing production workflow as easily as Canon’s current still and previous video cameras have, I predict that it and its successors will do very well.

Oh, and Canon had another announcement as well. It’s more of a tease, but apparently a new dSLR prototype exists in the Canon Labs. It will be part of the “EOS Movies” family, shoots 4k footage on a Super35 sensor, and records to a M-JPEG codec. I’m hoping that it’s the 5D MkIII.

Canon's EOS Movies Prototype

  1. My dad and I were talking about Sony’s new Alpha65, to use for film making and still photography. It’s only in the $1000 price range. Would this camera work too? Anything above $4000 is kinda out of the price rang, and the SA65 looks good, but I’m still researching. We have a Sony 500 handy-cam, but it doesn’t have “true black” or alternate lenses. I’m working on a short film over the next year, so we need a new camera. :/


    - Natalya
  2. Is it just me, or does the Scarlet and C300 make the 1Dx now look like a bargain? Sure, you get far more flexibility with the C300, and especially Scarlet, but if you’re simply shooting 1080/24p projects without bizarre framerates or the highest resolutions, then the 1Dx fits the bill perfectly with a nice, big, intra-frame codec option, forensics-level ISO performance, proper down-rezzing without line-skipping, and significantly reduced rolling-shutter.

    I don’t know, but if I had $20k to spend on camera gear, the 1Dx and a bunch of lenses would make more sense to me. Hopefully the 5D Mark III will do everything the 1Dx does with video for $3,000 or less… Wondrous age indeed!

  3. Natalya, I don’t actually know much about the Sony Alpha cameras or their SLR lenses… While they have been the gold standard for pro cameras, still and consumer offerings are a bit less respected.

    Robert, I personally think that EF glass is starting to look like a bargain, or at least a good investment! The codec on the C300 is the biggest disapointment in my mind, but it will sell lenses, and so will the EF-equipped Scarlet. Canon introduced new zooms and primes specifically for cinema use, but I didn’t really have time to cover them.

  4. This camera seems to be ideal. Thanks for the post!

    - Daniel

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