Every once and a while, we get a chance to sit down with cinematographers and content creators to geek out over glass. DP, Dan Levin, spoke with us about his experience being one of the first crews to shoot with Canon’s 18-80 Compact-Servo lens on his project Inside the FBI:
I definitely look for versatility [when choosing lenses] and gotta have a range so that when you’re stuck behind a police line and they tell you that you can’t go any further you can still come in and get the shot
TCL: Daniel, tell me about your experience as a DP.
DL: I’ve worked with my father for years, and his partner at Brick City TV, Mark Benjamin, is a DP as well so I really learned the trade under him. I’ve always been interested in photography, I’m a very visual person. Coming in to the documentary world is usually best if you have a trade… I picked up a camera as soon as I could and learned the ins and outs of that trade from Mark Benjamin and he just sort of threw me into the fire.
The series that we usually do are long documentaries which are a lot of hours, trying to catch real moments and be in the moments and let it unfold in front of you. It’s a lot of patience and a lot of waiting, but when the gold unfolds in front of you, you’ve gotta be ready and prepared and you’ve gotta know how to move and how to react and I pride myself on being able to do that.
TCL: Tell me about your recent project: Inside the FBI.
DL: It was the brainchild of Dick Wolf, the godfather of TV. He had a relationship with James Comey, who we all know was recently fired. James gave Dick access, and Dick came to us knowing our work in the documentary field and said “run with this”. That being said, once they said “you have access” it wasn’t like it turned over night, it was long relationship building…gaining the trust of the agents, trying to figure out what the parameters were, what we could do and couldn’t do. As with any sort of documentary initially people are hesitent, especially in law enforcement, I mean the FBI’s default stance is “no comment, we don’t talk to press” and all of the sudden here we are in their offices with cameras and microphones… it’s a little bit of a shock to them. Eventually we stared getting in to cases with them, and going out with them into the field. We went down to Quantico for training and graduation. Each episode has a take down, so with each unit we tried to follow a case that ended in an arrest or a take down.
We were in principal photography for a year, and during that time a lot happened in the world and in New York. [Shooting] actually started when the Pope came to New York, that was sort of the first test… hanging with the FBI there with the pope. It was one of the biggest security moments in New York history because you had the pope coming in to town, you had Obama in town, the U.N. general council and the U.S. Open all happening within the same few days. New York was on super high alert
[budget] lenses giving run and gun doc shooters the option to have cinema lenses that can be carried and shot with handheld… it’s exciting.
TCL: What lenses do you normally shoot with?
DL: In the documentary world, and for us especially shooting thousands of hours, you have to be really stripped down. I’ve been shooting Canon for a long time, C300 mk I & II. Basically all the Canon EF lenses in a back pack; I try to go with Zooms and Primes. For this it was the Canon C300 mk I & II and EF Lenses. We got our hands on the Compact Servo when it was just released, an early look at it. We were one of the first productions to shoot with it in the field, which was fun.
I definitely look for versatility [when choosing lenses] and gotta have a range so that when you’re stuck behind a police line and they tell you that you can’t go any further you can still come in and get the shot for example… Some of my favorite lenses are the 16-35, the 50 prime I always have for low light, 70-200 is a beautiful lens. I really try to run the spectrum of the EF lenses.
TCL: What lead you to choose the Canon Compact Servos for this project?
DL: The lenses were not officially released, and to be honest I don’t know if we were even officially allowed to be using the one we had, but we used it. I’m not sure I can reveal my sources, but a rental house in New York had one and we decided to take it for a ride.
It’s sort of become a movement now with…[budget] lenses giving run and gun doc shooters the option to have cinema lenses that can be carried and shot with handheld…it’s exciting. If not for that focal length I would have been using a 24-105 or 24-70 and to have something with superior optics that you could use the servo zoom… was a refreshing moment after using EF lenses for so long. I could still keep the versatility, still be able to move quick and fit into small places. The goal is to stay compact and versatile and it was great to use that lens.
TCL: Did using such a new, hybrid lens present any hurdles during production?
DL: I think it was a welcome breath of fresh air. Sometimes due to lack of resources [when shooting documentary] it will get dark and you have to got to prime lenses. It was a great day-time lens. There’s some specifications I would change. Overall it was great. I know they’re coming out with more and with [other brands] catering to this market, I think it’s great for run and gun docs.
TCL: Were you able to achieve your artistic vision with these lenses?
DL: Definitely. Brick City as a company has had a style, keeping it very cinematic so you feel like you’re watching a narrative but it’s all real. I think we continued our style with this series.
TCL: If you have to change anything about these lenses, what would it be and why?
DL: The 18-80 handle, the power function, is a little awkwardly placed. If you wanted to place the camera with the lens on the ground, as we often do, it could damage the servo. That was the biggest thing for me, figuring out how to build the rig and not break that little servo power cable. I ended up just taking that handle off because we don’t really do a lot of electronic zooms. That was the only in the field thing that I noticed.
TCL: Do you see yourself using these again on future projects?
DL: I think for the documentary series lane that we’re in, where you are self contained, getting a cinematic look with these lenses is great. Its a great place in the market, we’re moving into the C300 mk II and we’re going to stick with the 18-80 and whatever lenses they come out with. I think Canon’s budget cinema lenses are great. The Lens market and camera market are changing so rapidly you have to keep up.
Share your thoughts, comments and questions with us! Happy Shooting.