The last couple of years have been an incredible time for independent video producers. The digital-video revolution has taken the world of film and video production by storm, making affordable what was once prohibitively expensive. Now, people with a story to tell can produce broadcast-quality films without sinking themselves into heavy debt. Desktop-computer editing, such as with the Mac G3 and Final Cut Pro (as used in The Digital Journalist edit suite), is making editing easier and accessible to independents.
One of those companies leading the field in providing top-quality DV equipment is Canon, whose XL-1 camera, in my view, is the front runner in its class. In August 1998, when I decided to start working on my first multimedia film production, I approached Dirck Halstead and asked to check out his XL-1. I was so impressed with it, I promptly bought my own, which is now almost one trouble-free year old.
A few months after I purchased my XL-1, I realized I needed another camcorder as a reserve, since in the region where I was heading, the Balkans, there would be no possibility of obtaining a second camera in the case of equipment failure. I began to search for a second camcorder, one that would provide footage that could be intercut seamlessly with the XL-1's in postproduction. Since I had been shooting my entire film in the XL-1's Frame Movie Mode, the camera would have to be a Canon, as the progressive scan available on Sony models, Canon's closest competitor, was not even close to matching that of the XL-1. I began checking out the Canon Optura and was leaning toward this. Then, at the first Platypus Workshop in Oklahoma, in March this year, Canon's Mike Zorich placed into my hands a preproduction model of his company's new wunderkind, the Elura. I proceeded to get acquainted.
The first thing that struck me was how tiny it was. I wondered how I would be able to hold it and record a steady sequence of video, even with its quite effective optical-image stabilizer. To alleviate this problem I attached the optional DU-200 Docking Unit, which screws into the base of the Elura and provides extra weight and stability. The DU-200 also allows headphones and an external microphone to be attached to the camera. My test footage shot with the Elura, in normal movie mode, progressive-scan, and photo mode was startling, to put it mildly. How, I wondered, could a camera with only one 1/4" CCD provide images of such clarity and sharpness?
Mike Zorich pointed to the fact that the Elura utilizes an RGB primary color filter, which allows the single progressive-scan chip to maximize its color fidelity and sharpness. I was also impressed with the camera's other features, such as the option to override the shutter speed in auto mode and a low-light mode that drops the shutter speed to about 1/15th of a second. The Elura also features full manual exposure and autofocus override, as well as the ability to set the white balance manually. Unlike some of the Sony camcorders with a view screen, there is no need to open the Elura's bright and contrasty 2.5" screen every time one wishes to enter the main menu controls (Sony, take note here).
I decided to use an Elura as the second camera to my XL-1 while shooting my documentary film in the Balkans. In addition to the camera, I carried the DU-200 Docking Unit, three batteries, and the WD-46 wide-angle converter, which turns the Elura's lens into the equivalent of a 28mm or 30mm in 35mm still photography. I planned to use the Elura as my low-profile camera when I wished to film unnoticed, impossible with an XL-1, which draws stares from even professional news video shooters. The Elura would also serve as my playback viewer for checking my footage on a daily basis and as a digital still camera for recording photographs directly to DV tape. Lastly, the camera would be my backup in case of problems with the XL-1.
I embarked on my expedition with the XL-1 stored in its Porta-Brace case, and the Elura and a Leica M6 around my neck. Two of the subjects of my film were traveling with me, and I needed to film them without drawing attention to us. The Elura passed the test. Nobody around us cared what I was doing. I looked like a tourist with a tiny, unremarkable video camera. Exactly what I wanted.
Over the course of my three-week shoot, I used the Elura every day, mostly to review my footage but also on a few occasions as primary video camera. I even used it to film an interview, attaching the Sony UHF wireless microphone I carry as my second unit. It worked without a hitch.
While the image quality of the Elura is very, very good, it still does not match the performance of its big brother, the three-chip Canon XL-1. I found that it was often difficult to tell the two apart in good light. But the difference becomes apparent under low-light conditions. To compensate for the Elura's single CCD, a big boost in gain is introduced to allow the camera to make a recordable image. Still, this becomes secondary to being able to get pictures in situations where a camera with higher quality, but with more size and bulk, would be too conspicuous. On one occasion, I found it necessary to film inside a Bosnian nightclub, and carrying my XL-1 was simply out of the question. So I used the Elura, and instead of hostile looks and possible bruises, I had pictures.
The Elura performed exactly as I'd hoped. I am now using it as a dubbing deck by connecting it to my VCR and making time-code dubs to VHS tape, which I will use for viewing my footage instead of wearing out my DV masters. I will also use the Elura's analog line-in capability, making it a DV recording deck to capture old footage I obtained on a VHS cassette, an analog source. The Elura has many other features and functions that I have not mentioned here. For a full explanation of what the camera can do, visit Canon's website or obtain product literature at your camera store.
In my humble opinion, the Canon Elura is an indispensable partner to the XL-1 and an outstanding camera in its own right. I can hardly wait to see what Canon's new GL-1 camcorder will be like.
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