Interview: Laurence (Larry) Thorpe

Larry Thorpe - Senior Director, Professional Engineering and Solutions, Imaging Technologies and Communications Group, Canon U.S.A., pictured after an exclusive interview with Reviews Editor Barnaby Britton at the launch of Canon's new C300 HD video camera in Hollywood, November 3rd 2011.

Dpreview was at the Hollywood launch of the new Canon EOS C300, the first in Canon's new 'C' system interchangeable lens video cameras. During a packed evening we made some time to sit down with Larry Thorpe - Senior Director, Professional Engineering and Solutions, Imaging Technologies and Communications Group, Canon USA, Inc. and asked him about the new camera, and what it means for videographers.

Larry - one of the key points that came out of the presentation we've just seen was that the birth of the C300 followed the release and subsequent success of the 5D Mark II. Is that correct?

Yes. Well, let's say it was stimulated and put into high gear [by the success of the 5DII]. There had been discussions for some years that with our advancing technologies on all fronts, - sensors, optics, etc., that the time was coming when we should move into motion imaging in a more serious manner. The reaction to the 5D Mark II astonished us, and we had filmmakers all over us. There was a plea - 'if you've done this, can't you possibly make a full motion imaging camera with everything that we need, and none of the limitations of the 5DII?' And that triggered a very speedy program - less than two years - to develop this camera. 

We developed a new sensor specifically for motion imaging. That was already cooking, but we lifted the digital processor and the codec from our little camcorder, the XF305 [...] and that's why [the C300] has MPEG recording, 50 megabit, etc., and why we were able to bring the camera to fruition relatively quickly. 

So what is Canon trying to do with the C-system?

Oh we're very definitely trying - going - to enter the motion picture industry with a very sharp focus on movie making, on television production, on commercial production, and after that documentary, independent, corporate... government, military... anyone that wants motion imaging with a single sensor, large format, and all that comes with that in terms of the shallow depth of field, etc. There are a lot of people in many segments of the market today who shoot on film for those very reasons and we're offering a digital alternative.

At $20,000 the C300 isn't hugely expensive for what it is....

No, it's not actually. If you look at the hierarchy of the single-sensor cameras that are out there today, [the C300] is in the bottom tier in terms of pricing, but we said originally we weren't going to make a [potentially much more expensive] 4K camera as our first step - we want to step into [...] HD first. HD is used for moviemaking, and it is also used for television production and commercial production worldwide. So [the decision not to make a costly 4K model] was made to let us get a fast start, worldwide, on the back of a thriving movement in HD, and what we said to ourselves was 'let's make a very very good HD camera, at a reasonable price'. 

A lot of our readers are 5D Mark II users, and despite its origins as a camera born out of the 5D's success, the C300 is clearly a very different product...

It is a very different product, yes. The 5D Mark II is a hybrid - it is first and foremost a DSLR, and then we added video capability at minimal cost initially with people like Associated Press and Reuters in mind. Then the film people said 'can't you put 24p in there?' and we ultimately did, and then it started to be used as a B-camera in some movies, in certain scenes where they wanted that extreme depth of field, and so on, but the C300 [...] was developed to be a bone fide motion imaging camera for making movies and television, and commercials and whatever else people want to do.

But you can take still photographs with the C300?

You can, but only in HD - 1920 x 1080 pixels. So it won't be as good as a still that you'd get from the 5D Mark II, obviously. But it's a decent picture and you can record stills to SDHC cards, which slot in the side of the camera. You've got CompactFlash for motion imaging but you can record stills to SDHC. 

Who do you think will buy the EOS C300?

Well as you saw today (Canon's launch event featured a talk by Martin Scorsese and brief question and answer sessions with several filmmakers, including Vincent Laforet, who we interviewed at PPE) we invited everybody from the Hollywood motion picture industry and television, and we've had people from CBS television, ABC, etc., they were all there tonight and our message to them is that we're making this camera for their consideration. It will be interesting to see who comes and knocks on our door. We think we're going to get wide attention, because it's a lot of camera for the price, and [...] what we bring to the table in terms of lenses is just colossal. 

Frankly I think that the genius was to make two versions - an EF version and a PL, and recognize that we have a gigantic constituency of EF users worldwide [...] so they can play with their existing lenses, and then that other gigantic worldwide constituency of PL mounts uses. There's a huge inventory of those lenses out there that people own, and are held by rental agencies - people can just buy the C300 and use their favorite lenses on it. So we're really addressing two big constituencies.

The C300 is significantly deeper than a DSLR, but cab be fitted with a conventional DSLR-style grip. It is peppered with control points, including one for 'peaking' - a contrast-based manual focussing aid that we've seen and appreciated in recent cameras from Sony and Ricoh.
The C300's sensor outputs still and video images in the 16:9 aspect ratio. Its dimensions are 24.4 x 13.5mm - modelled on the 'Super 35mm' motion picture film standard. It is slightly larger than Canon's APS-C format sensors (in 16:9 capture mode), but significantly smaller than the full-frame sensor inside the 5D Mark II and EOS 1-D X.  And these are the new lenses, released alongside the C300. Two zooms, and three primes: the CN-E14.5–60mm T2.6 L S/SP, CN-E30–300mm, T2.95–3.7 L S/SP, CN-E24mm T1.5 L F, CN-E50mm T1.3 L F and CN-E85mm T1.3 L F.

Will there be a price difference between the PL and EF mount versions of the C300?

There could be, but at the moment it seems probably not. At the moment we're still working out the details. The list price is around $20,000 but it be another month or so [before details are finalized].

You mentioned earlier that the sensor in the C300 is totally new...

Totally new, yes. And I think it will cause quite a stir. The way this sensor works, we avoid the need to 'de-Bayer' the sensor output in camera, completely. We get extremely clean RGB output because we just read [the channels] out - we don't do any averaging between them at all. (The sensor in the C300 has 8.2 million effective pixels but a maximum output resolution of 2MP. The red and blue channels contain 2MP of data, and the green contains 4MP. The final RGB output is derived without the need for debayering algorithms.) We're able to dive in there and get all the red pixels and read them out, and then separately we're reading out the blues and separately the greens.

And at what speed is the data read out?

74.25 MHz, at either 30 frames per second or 60 fields per second. 

Are you seeing any demand for 60p video recording?

Yes - 60p is of high interest. Filmmakers like to go to the high frame rates so that they can do slow motion and the higher you go the slower you can play back at 24p. Our sensor delivers 60p, but the processor and the codec that we have [in the C300] can only do 30p so we're limited right now. Down the road... if we elect to develop new processors and codecs we can use this same sensor at 60p. 

Where do you see the C system in 5 years time?

In five years time the C300 will have brothers and sisters. We'll probably move in a number of directions. We think this is a very very good start but there's no question that 4K is coming, so we have to keep our eye on that. As for a lower cost model [...] that would make a lot of sense in the marketplace. We have a master plan and [the C300] is step one - into HD. We've stepped in, and we're never going to stop. We're in for the long term. Wherever the marketplace dictates that we should go, and wherever our technology allows us to go, we'll be there.