TOKYO – It’s been two years since Canon’s high-profile launch of its Cinema EOS camera system at a massive event on the Paramount lot, which was attended by cinematographers, directors, press and other invited guests. Today, Canon’s execs still consider the company to be in its “embryonic” stage when it comes to serving Hollywood, but the imaging giant is enormously committed to growth.
That was the message that the company communicated to a small group of journalists including myself, who visited its Japan headquarters and factory during a recent press trip organized by Canon.
Kicking off the event at its Shimomaruko headquarters, where Canon’s R&D happens, managing director and chief executive of Canon’s Image Communication Products Operations, Masaya Maeda emphasized that the three “key components” of Canon — its lens, imaging sensors, and imaging processors — are all developed completely in house, a “strength we take pride in.”
This article will include plenty of talk about 4K—four times the resolution of today’s HD—and even 8K, a whopping 16 times the resolution. But Canon’s senior fellow and industry vet Larry Thorpe emphasized that while the company is looking toward the future, today it’s focused on its HD business.
To demonstrate its early activity in the Hollywood market, Canon cited productions that used various cameras in the line. For instance, the Cinema EOS C300 camera was used to photograph Cannes Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color, lensed by cinematographer Sofian El Fani; and portions of Ron Howard’s Rush, from Oscar winning director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle. According to Canon, the U.S. and Europe are the biggest markets for the C300 though it is seeing increasing use in China.
Canon’s highest end model, the 4K capable C500, was released roughly 18 months ago and had a shorter list of credits, though it includes use on portions of upcoming Need for Speed from cinematographer Shane Hurlbut.
Canon’s Thorpe said it was still “early days” for the 4K camera. “There was a reluctance to go with us until we could tell [cinematographers] it’s rock solid,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We spent a lot of the early days working with recording manufacturers—Codex, Convergent Design, AJA—and work only finished in the last six months that they were able to do everything we asked. Some couldn’t do 120 frames per second (at the start of the process); now they can. It’s only now that we really have a fully fleshed out system ready to do serious work.”
The C500, however, is already finding uses beyond movie making. For instance, the model was used at the 2013 Daytona 500 to create high resolution wide shots, allowing the broadcaster to zoom in on a portion of the picture and use that for the HD broadcast. It was also used by Japan’s Sky Perfect JSAT as part of an experimental satellite transmission of a soccer match in 4K.
Beyond sports, Japan public broadcaster NHK and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are moving forward with a plan to photograph the Comet ISON in 4K, using the C500, from the International Space Station before the end of the year. Execs said an astronaut would actually photograph the images, which would be transmitted by JAXA to earth for HD broadcasting in Japan. “We cannot transmit 4K between ISS and earth. So an astronaut will bring back the 4K [data] to earth at a later date,” explained Hiroo Edakubo, Canon’s advisory director and group executive for its image communication products operations group. Details as to when and where audiences might get a glimpse at this footage was not determined at press time.
In a recent story that appeared in THR’s Behind The Screen blog, I detailed an argument that has been made by Dolby and others who believe that 4K alone might not be enough to make a noticeable improvement to viewers. The belief is that it would also take improvements in other components of the image—including higher luminance, a wider color gamut and higher frame rates. Asked about this view when discussing the company’s development strategy, Edakubo agreed, saying, “just improving resolution would be insufficient.”
Another part of Canon’s continuing R&D involves “better coordination between the lens and camera; since we are a lens maker as well as camera maker, we feel that is important,” said Edakubo. “In Dual Pixel CMOS AF, we think we can utilize the assets we have accumulated through development of EF lenses. So we would like to use that and reflect that in our new models.”
During the visit, the company reported that in May, it reached production of more than 90 million lenses—a statistic that it claimed was higher that other lens manufacturers.
Following meetings at Canon’s headquarters, the next morning we were on a bullet train heading for a rare tour of its Utsunomiya factory, where its lenses are made. Here, we saw the meticulous work involved in creating Canon glass, with trained employees focusing on steps including grinding (pictured above), cleaning and polishing. We also learned about its educational program to teach lens making skills to students.
“Our lenses are an art and craft,” said marketing manager Len Musmeci.
Canon wants to share this story, and so it has commissioned director Michael Apted (whose credits include James Bond film The World Is Not Enough and theUp series of documentaries) to film a 4K documentary about the “journey of a lens” at Canon Optics. It is being photographed by cinematographer Maryse Alberti with the C500 camera and Canon lenses.
Plans are to debut the documentary in 2014, and according to a Canon representative, Apted will make distribution decisions, which might include film festivals.
Canon previewed some early documentary footage, included interviews with Canon employees and customers. It was photographed in various locations including Tokyo, London and Los Angeles. Plans are to include a look at the Canon lens that was developed for the Subaru telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Part 2 of this look at Canon will include its new 4K reference monitor, and its strategy for 4K and 8K.