Prior to the start of our interview at NAB 2012, I presented Masaya Maeda, Canon’s Managing Director and Chief Executive of Image Communication Products Operations, with a few small gifts (standard at a first business meeting in Japan). The swag included an ICG Magazine hat and t-shirt, and a pint of The Macallan, a 12-year-old, single-malt Scotch whiskey that I picked up that morning in my hotel’s gift shop.
Maeda, who has been with Canon since 1975 and spoke through an interpreter, smiled broadly as he held the bottle aloft. “Rolls Royce of Scotch,” he announced to the half-dozen Canon PR executives crowded into a tiny room behind the company’s mammoth NAB floor display. I smiled and nodded back. The comparison not only fits the perch Canon now occupies in the hybrid camera market, but also its ambitions for the Cinema EOS system, an extensive new array of cine-style lenses married to Canon’s highly publicized EOS C300 and C500 digital cameras.
Even though Canon is known for still-photography products, Maeda, an engineer by training, is no newcomer to motion imaging. He brought Canon’s first video camcorder to L.A. for the 1984 Olympics; it captured to floppy disks and offered roughly 380,000 pixels. A quarter century later, Maeda’s back in Hollywood with an 8.85-megapixel CMOS digital camera that resolves 10-bit 4K RAW and 12-bit 4:4:4: 2K files up to 60 p. While the Scotch never left the box, there was still plenty to drink in with this executive’s animated 30-minute Q&A.
How was the development of the C300/C500 tied to the success you’ve had with the Canon 5D Mark II? User feedback [from the 5D] played a key part, correct? Yes, definitely. The 5D was originally designed as a still camera, with the video function added on for news journalists and ENG-style shooters. The C300/500 has a completely redesigned sensor and image-processing engine, so any issues our users told us about in this area with the 5D have been completely resolved.
The form factor of the C300 reminds me of a classic Hasselblad still camera. How much did Canon’s long history with still photography impact these new digital tools? The first design concerns for Cinema EOS were its compact form factor and the ease of mobility of the camera. Another goal was its modular design that would serve the user’s shooting style – removable handle-grips and LCD control unit, for example. Both of these design concerns have a lot in common with 35-millimeter reflex cameras.
Canon does not have the same track record as an Arri, Panavision or Sony, when it comes to making motion-picture cameras. Will your background in still photography bring something new to imaging tools for cinema and television? Our core technology begins with the lens, and, of course, we have developed many still lenses over the years with cinema and video functionality. We have currently more than sixty lenses compatible with moviemaking, and more on the way. That’s really how we can bring our experience with still photography into cinema, having made and produced high-quality lenses for so many years.
Who exactly is the target user for C300 and the new 4K C500? Even we are not certain who will respond to these new digital tools. We are confident that we have produced the best optics technology in the industry, as I explained about our lens development. But where the camera ends up will depend on how the cinema industry starts using these products. Only then can we try to satisfy all those different needs as we move forward with [different iterations of the cameras].
Digital technology has forever altered the workflow for our Guild members. How much did you consider new issues, on-set color grading, data protection and integrity, workflows with the post house, et cetera when you designed Cinema EOS? In our NAB booth this year, we have a DIT system that was provided by Fotokem, which we used for the C500 4K demonstration. All of those Fotokem people came to the shooting site when we produced that 4K demo to speak with the DPs and camera assistants about the kinds of workflow issues you reference – image quality, file integrity for color grading, et cetera. Our approach is to create partnerships with the people using these camera systems, and with the post houses, like Fotokem, who are down the pipeline, to ensure the specs of the camera system are exactly where they need to be to produce the best possible imagery.
Cinematographers and directors are going to love the creative choices these cameras offer in the way of low-light sensitivity. When the sensor was stressed – in the blacks and highlights – the breakdown looked like textural film grain, not video noise. To achieve that filmic grain we worked hard on developing the sensitivity of the sensor, as you point out. That meant developing a large-format, Super 35-millimeter-sized CMOS sensor with a larger pixel size that would provide an increase in the dynamic range of the camera, resulting in a better noise-to-signal ratio. It really begins, in this case, with putting so much attention and energy into creating better sensor technology.
How did your background as an engineer impact the development of Cinema EOS? Canon has been involved in the consumer side of the video industry for many years, and we’ve always been confident we had the best image processing among consumer camcorders. My work as an engineer made this clear to me that even before we created the C300, we had worked many years to create the best imaging technology available. So when we developed Cinema EOS, we never had to consider going outside Canon and purchasing someone else’s processing technology because we have a legacy within the company, which is, in part, due to our engineering core.
The C500 was announced before the C300 has even been proven in the field. The form factor for both cameras is very similar, so why not just shoot with a 4K system and extract a compressed file for those who don’t need the full resolution? They are different cameras. For example, the load of the processing is much larger with the C500. That means a much higher rate of power consumption – less time on the battery charge and more heat, which can impact image quality and perhaps the application where a cinematographer would choose to use it. The reason why they were announced so close together is that the transition from SD to HD in the market came much faster than we expected. We knew 4K was coming soon, so we really wanted to get as much feedback as possible, from our user base, in the shortest amount of time.
My first impression is that these would be great B-cameras on large VFX and action features, as well as the A-cameras on independent films that go handheld. Do you envision either of these systems, particularly the C500 rivaling a system like the Alexa, which won the Oscar this year? Quite honestly, we haven’t mapped out an exact direction for Cinema EOS. As I mentioned, the cinematographers and directors who choose to use them will really determine the future of these cameras. We’re not in a position to say we’re aiming for any kind of level of ambition until we see how the market responds.
Arri couldn’t build enough Alexas to keep pace with the demand they experienced; and you were taken by surprise by the demand for the 5D Mark II. Has Canon learned any lessons in that respect? Demand-driven production has always been our strategy with regard to manufacturing [laughs]. I’m not going to give you a number as to how many units [of the C300/C500] we are going to produce, but let’s just say that we are prepared if the demand is very, very high [smiles].
As you mentioned, Canon developed an extensive series of cine-lenses for the Cinema EOS, while also releasing a PL-mount C300 so cinematographers could use lenses from established lens manufacturers, like Panavision, Zeiss, Cooke, et cetera. Which mount best suits these new digital cameras? Those decisions were driven by the feedback from 5D Mark II users who wanted the next digital cinematography system from Canon to include a PL-mount version. The optical design is the same, so there wasn’t a lot of extra work involved to create a PL mount version [of the C300]. But we are completely confident that the cine lenses Canon has developed can compete with those cinema lens manufacturers you mentioned. We’re very proud of the efforts we put into our lens development.
People like – Chivo, Ron Howard, and Martin Scorsese turned out to publicly support the launch of Cinema EOS even though we’ve yet to see any professional product. Was that based on the excitement created by the 5D Mark II? I think so. We did get a huge [amount of] communication from cinematographers after the 5D Mark II came out, and its success built up a lot of credit and reliability in that community. We’ve had reps in the field to handle the support for the professional customer, and I’ve personally met with DPs on the television shows who have taken the 5D Mark II into their workflows. The market was excited to hear about this new global announcement from Canon, and I feel, on the whole, we have satisfied all those people.
What expectations did you have coming into NAB 2012, and how do you see them playing out as both cameras come to market later this year? Of course we expected the high-end established side of the industry to be a big part of NAB. But a surprise was to see how many young creators were coming to our booth to look at our products. We started feeling we are opening up new possibilities to those younger generations at NAB.
Maybe that’s because the 5D Mark II has made Canon the “cool” company among a new generation of cinematographers. Of course, that was completely intended, right? [Laughs] Completely. I don’t know if it’s true. But thank you very much anyway for that observation.
Interview by David Geffner.