The key to its success was its modular design, which
was revolutionary for the time. Rather than produce one die-cast
unit, the Canon engineers created a design that could take full
advantage of the company's prowess in making lenses. They already
controlled a large share of the production of broadcast and film
lenses. So they wanted to be able to have full interchangeability of
the optics. Not only did they create a wide-angle lens, but followed
with serious mechanical lenses for filmmakers who wanted to be able
to more precisely control their shooting. These lenses were followed
by adaptors for standard motion picture film lenses (or primes). The
original cameras also offered sophisticated audio controls, and such
features as bars, which are essential to broadcast camera operators.
Canon knew they had something big when suddenly the XL1 became the
camera of choice for one of the biggest film industries in the world
- the adult entertainment industry. They shipped these cameras by
the thousands to California's San Fernando Valley.
Noted film directors such as Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle began
to use the cameras to shoot theatrical features. What this did was
to enable a whole new generation of would-be Steven Spielbergs to
actually make a major motion picture on a budget.
It was with this fact in mind that Canon decided to fully enable a
new generation of the camera to allow for many sophisticated
techniques that are necessary for big-screen moviemaking.
A TOUR OF THE CAMERA:
A casual glance at the XL2 would probably draw shrugs. It looks very
much the same as both the XL and XL1S. The familiar red and white
chassis is still there. It weighs a pound more than the earlier
versions. This is because Canon has introduced more magnesium alloys
into the body, to make the camera more robust. The first difference
you are apt to notice is that the viewfinder is almost twice as
large. You can also swing back the eyecup on the viewfinder to
reveal the 2-inch LCD. Unlike earlier models, you no longer have to
dial in "near and far" to sharpen the image when the camera is not
mounted on the operator's shoulder.
The main control wheel is also bigger, and made of metal rather than
You will then note that a new and more comfortable shoulder pad,
which has the built-in balanced XLR inputs with Phantom power, has
replaced the shoulder pad that most people took off in favor of the
optional MA100 or MA200 XLR adaptor, which allowed you to connect
professional audio accessories such as wireless mics, and is now a
standard, built-in feature.
You will also immediately notice that the supplied lens is
considerably bigger. The old 16X lens has been replaced with a new
20X fluorite lens. Canon will start selling body-only components
later in the fall, if you want to stick with your old lenses. We
tested the new lenses, and the sharpness and contrast are
And that is about all that looks different at a casual glance.
But it's what Canon did inside that is truly remarkable.
Remember I started out by saying that Canon has filmmakers targeted
as their prime market for the camera.
As readers of The Digital Journalist have seen over the past year or
so, the name of the game is changing from the old broadcast standard
of 4:3, 60i,to the world of film and high definition. So it was
clear to Canon, as it is to almost all manufacturers of high-end
equipment, that new products must be optimized for these formats.
So, to start, the key difference is that the XL2 features a native
16:9 aspect ratio (wide-screen format). Earlier cameras had the 16:9
feature available but it was really professionally useless, because
it electronically squeezed a 16:9 image onto a 4:3 ccd chip. In
other words, the image was being degraded. What this meant was that
if you were serious about producing a wide-screen film, it was best
to continue to shoot in the standard 4:3 format, and leave the
wide-screen part to the postproduction process. In technical terms,
the XL2 uses three 1/3-inch, 680,000-pixel chips to create its
progressive scan image. So, what Canon did was to reverse the
process, and make the XL2's native format 16:9, using a target area
of 460,000 pixels, which is also known as 962x480. Canon now gets a
full 16:9 without having to crop the top and bottom of the image. To
get the old 4:3 format, the sides of the image are cropped, which
results in 350,000 pixels, aka 720x480.
The XL2 displays a full 16:9 image in the viewfinder without any
cropping or distorted squeezing that was common in the past.
Once the aspect ratio was taken care of, the next step to a "filmic"
look was to offer 24fps. To understand the significance of this
step, you have to understand that most video cameras record to tape
at 29.97 frames per second; the industry standard. Also, the 29.97
frames are "interlaced," meaning that each frame is made up two
fields even and odd. This results in the smooth pictures that we are
used to seeing on our TV sets.
Movies, on the other hand, since the 1930s, were shot at a rate of
24 frames per second. This slower speed actually causes a jitter in
the picture that we filter out of the brain in the movie theatre.
Nevertheless, we have gotten accustomed to that, and that is why we
can so easily detect the difference between tape and film. So, if
you really want to make a movie, you either use film (which costs a
fortune), or monkey around in post creating artificial jerkiness and
grain. The XL2 offers not only 24fps (progressive), but also 30fps
progressive and the normal 60i (at 29.97 frames per second). You
will see how all this comes together as we continue.
The custom keys that used to be inside the door of the XL1 have been
repositioned below the handle atop the camera. It makes things like
the EVF button easier to hit. All controls can now be activated from
the handle, and what a set of controls they are.
These buttons control the presets that are selected by the operator.
There are over five menus of presets that can be programmed. Why,
you may ask?
Well, it goes back to the filmmaker. A good director of photography
on a movie wants to control many aspects of the picture. They are
crucial to his or her "look." Therefore, the XL2 allows some of the
following choices in what they call the "cine settings":
GAMMA: The gamma curve of the image can be adjusted independently
for a normal video look or a "film look."
KNEE : The highlight area is adjustable.
BLACK: Controls the depth of the black in the dark area of an image.
You can emphasize contrast in the video's dark area by selecting
"stretch" to deepen or enhance the dark area.
COLOR MATRIX: You can change from a normal video look to a film
VERTICAL DETAIL: There are two settings, "normal" for detail
optimized for playback on an interlaced monitor, and "low" for a
progressive scan monitor like a PC. This feature is very useful when
doing aerial or architectural photography.
SHARPNESS: Will change the amount of detail in the image. Images
that do not require a lot of detail can be softened, such as
imperfections and close-ups. What this means is that you can throw
away your "soft-warm" filter. You can now select the area you want
to be sharp, such as the eyes, and selectively soften the rest of
CORING: Helps reduce image noise in highlight areas.
NOISE REDUCTION: Removes video noise-non-picture artifacts such as
those commonly found in low-light photography - without hurting
image detail or creating motion artifacts.
COLOR GAIN: Adjustable in 13 stops, from off to over-
saturate. This adjustment will let you shoot in B&W or color.
COLOR PHASE: Adjust the color phase of the image towards red or
green for exact control (see the example of the dancers in the red
FILM GRAIN: Simulates the graininess normally associated when you
If all this sounds like overkill (or Greek), remember once again
that there are people out there who need all of this. Up until now
this was only available in a camera that cost more than $20,000.
To take a look at what the camera is capable of, look at our video
presentation, in which Canon shot five different scenarios - from a
commercial to a crime show - to see how all of these options work.
Other features include SMPTE time code from elapsed time to time of
day. When a reporter, for example, covers a press conference, he is
using his watch to note important moments that he wants to air. He
has no way of knowing what the time code on the camera says, so he
notes his watch time. Also, you have "force-run" options in which
you can use multiple cameras on a shoot with the same time code. You
can also use the "record-run" feature to continue a time code with
multiple tapes on stories (i.e:, tape 2 would show up in the time
code as 02:00;00:00). Obviously this would be of great benefit on
stories for which tons of tape are used.
One of the cool features is the "preset focus or zoom preset,"
commonly known as "rack focus." You can set the camera to focus on
an initial point, such as 10 feet, and return to that point at the
touch of a button.
The audio section, which was one of the XL's strong points to start
with, has been refined even more. Now the four audio controls behind
the door can be adjusted for four separate channels of stereo.
One of the features that endears the XL series to professionals is
the "open architecture" design, which resulted in a cottage industry
of companies that made accessories for the camera.
What is amazing is that this package is going to sell for $4.999.
That's steep for a prosumer camcorder, but for a professional
camera, it's peanuts.
The big problem for Canon will be stocking the stores. It is
supposed to be available in early September. My guess is that there
will be long lines and a lot of E-bay overpricing.
So, if you are interested in a professional system that will allow
you to do some serious work, I would suggest you get to the camera
Dirck Halstead is the editor of The Digital Journalist at