Documenting the Fight for Survival in Chicagoland

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Wed, 11/19/2014 - 12:10 -- Nick Dager

ChicagolandEarly in his career as a combat cameraman Mark Benjamin covered the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and he’s been chasing challenging stories ever since. For his latest project – Chicagoland, an eight-part unscripted CNN series examining public safety and education – he needed a cinema-quality HD camera that was adjustable to a variety of shooting situations, and capable of large single-sensor cinematic picture quality.

Other important requirements included high mobility, light weight, easy operation, compact size, extreme low-light image capture capability, long record times and battery life and compatibility with a wide range of lenses for creative shooting options. The production’s needs were met using Canon’s EOS C300 Digital Cinema cameras and EF-series lenses.

Chicagoland is a riveting real-life drama that explores how politics and policy meet in the lives of real people to generate change and innovation in social policy, education and public safety on the local level, as well as to meet national and local challenges. The series is executive produced by Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Productions, and by Benjamin and his Brick City Television partner Marc Levin, an award-winning independent cinema vérité filmmaker. Benjamin and Levin also co-directed the series, which explores the efforts of Chicago citizens, police, and government to improve public education and control gang violence. Benjamin served as third DP on the series – along with Daniel B. Levin and Tony Hardmon, respectively – which gave him a particular appreciation for the ergonomic design and outstanding performance of the Canon EOS C300 Digital Cinema camera.

“The Canon EOS C300 has everything going for it, it’s the zeitgeist camera of today,” Benjamin said. “I use the word zeitgeist for several reasons. One is because the EOS C300 camera addresses our immediate needs. It’s inconspicuous thanks to its small form factor and user-friendliness. Second, I have long been an adherent to the ‘one-man-band’ concept of filmmaking. The idea of making minimally invasive, observational documentaries makes it hard to use a crew, which can get in the way. That’s why we work under a framework of ‘no lights, no sticks, no crew.’ The grapefruit size and the curved edges of the Canon EOS C300 camera make it the perfect tool for a one-man-band. We shot more than 300 days – over 1,500 hours – to make eight one-hour episodes. We needed a camera that felt good in our hands for 12-hour shooting days, and the Canon EOS C300 was it.”

Mark Benjamin, left, and Daniel P. Levin“You can’t be using a big camera when you’re jumping in and out of police cars at a moment’s notice or running around a high school,” noted first DP Daniel B. Levin. “You also need to be as inconspicuous as possible when you’re at Cook County Jail or filming important politicians at city hall. The Canon EOS C300 camera was able to adapt to any situation. Obviously, when you’re doing cinema vérité people know you’re there, but a camera that enables you to move freely throughout a room without disturbing what’s going on – and ease into a trusting relationship with the people there – is a major asset.”

“The large Super 35mm CMOS sensor in the Canon EOS C300 puts the camera at the top of the food chain,” he said. “The way that sensor handles low-light fits right in with our ‘no lights, no sticks, no crew’ shooting style. The networks are spoiled now by the beauty of the Super 35mm aesthetic with its selective depth-of-field. You can forget about anything but large-sensor cameras for documentaries today. That’s the look the networks want.”

“The designers of the Canon EOS C300 camera certainly got it right,” Benjamin continued. “The way its removable top handle works, the way its flip-screen LCD monitor rotates, the long life of the camera’s Canon batteries, and the long record times that CF cards provide. You can put the camera on the dashboard of a car, hold it in place with a little sandbag, aim it through the steering wheel, and shoot back at the driver. I don’t think there’s another large-sensor camera that can do that. And the EF lens mount is fantastic.”

“Our go-to lens was the image-stabilized Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom,” Benjamin revealed. “That was our ‘one-man run-and-gun/jump out in the morning’ lens. Inside a fanny pouch we would typically also carry a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM wide-angle lens and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. This glass was great for when the action settled down a bit and you got a sense of where things were going. If things are getting calmer you could put them on and shoot wide open for an incredible, selective depth-of-field look. We also used the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom lens, which also fits in a fanny pouch. You could basically go out with the 50mm, the 70-200mm, the handheld EOS C300 camera, some batteries, and extra CF cards, be gone for 12 hours, and come back without feeling worn out.”

An eight-part documentary series on CNN“I carried my Canon lenses and EOS C300 camera body in a backpack,” added Daniel P. Levin. “This gave me as small a presence as possible on the streets of the South side. Having a variety of lenses is essential for cinema vérité. The Canon EF 24-105mm zoom, 70-200mm zoom and the 50mm basically got me through any situation necessary. The 24-105mm zoom was great for running around outside in bright sunlight. The Canon Image Stabilization on that lens is hugely important. It sorted out camera shake and truly smoothed out the picture. It’s a very versatile lens that lets you get into situations where you also want a shallow depth-of-field. With the 70-200mm you can sit back and ‘float around’ at a long focal length capturing different characters and expressions. These lenses hold up great when you push the ISO, which is helpful when you’re shooting on the street at night and you don’t want to shine lights at people. With the 50mm f/1.2 you can basically see in the dark if you open it all the way up. If there is any grain it’s beautiful and reminiscent of film.”

“Lighting was never a problem because we didn’t go out unprepared for shooting at night in dark streets,” Benjamin said. “With an f/1.2-1.4 lens in your bag, you can go up to 3,000/4,000 ISO if needed. You can shoot in a dark closet or in moonlight. We never had to go to ISO 20,000 because before you got that far, you could just take off the zoom, put on a prime, and be at f/1.2. That said, you can still dig into the shadows in post, with or without Canon Log, because the EOS C300 camera is so sensitive that having a slower zoom lens on it is not the end of the world.”

“The Canon lenses provided beautiful images that are definitely sharp,” added Daniel P. Levin. “The depth and detail is great. You can get as shallow a depth-of-field as you’d like, but at the same time it looks beautiful and holds up great because of how much data the Canon EOS C300 camera records.”

Post-production on Chicagoland required editing suites in two cities to handle the show’s massive amount of raw content. After ingest, logging and a selects cut at their 24/7 Chicago edit bay, footage was shipped twice each week on redundant drives to New York, where the final show was assembled.

“Workflow involved an enormous amount of observational material of the main story and the many satellite stories,” Benjamin explained. “They were all A stories for us. We built the show narratively even though it’s unscripted. It’s a dramatic non-fiction television series. We did the selects in Chicago and New York, bringing two hours down to ten minutes, and then that would go to an assembly process where scenes were built. There were hundreds and hundreds of scenes for Chicagoland’s eight one-hour episodes, each with six acts. It was an enormous effort, but Marc Levin is an amazing powerhouse partner in the edit room and we have an incredible post team in New York.”

“Our DPs Daniel B. Levin and Tony Hardmon not only understand cinematography and have an artistic feel for composition and coverage, they also have the heart needed to deal with the real people of Chicago, who opened their doors, their hearts, and their lives to us,” Benjamin confided. “Our work has always defaulted to the underdog, as we come from a tradition of social/political documentaries. Forty years ago when I was just starting out in this business I met the late Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow’s producer. Fred told us ‘Your job is to use your cameras to go after the dragons,’ referring to challenging stories. The Canon EOS C300 is the camera that I want to use now to go after today’s dragons.”