Graceful movement and precise timing are not only essential elements of ballet, they're also vital to filming it. This was the challenge faced by cinematographer Cliff Charles when he shot the performance segments of A Ballerina's Tale, which documents American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland’s journey back to the stage after a nearly career-ending injury. Charles needed to capture close-up footage of Copeland, but do it from just far enough away to avoid interfering with her concentration and movements. His solution was to rely on the high mobility, film-like imaging, and low-light advantages of the EOS C300 Digital Cinema camera and cinema-series lenses from Canon U.S.A., Inc., a leader in digital imaging solutions.

Charles had previously used the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and EOS 7D Digital SLR cameras to shoot HD footage for a major network documentary, but felt that those cameras did not totally fulfill his needs. “I remember telling a Canon rep at the time that they needed to take the front of those cameras and put a real HD camera on the back,” he recalled. “And that’s exactly what Canon did with the EOS C300. It was just what I was waiting for: the next camera that could handle the kind of work that I usually do, where I needed a small form factor, full movie-style functionality, HD recording, and low-light shooting.”

Charles was an early adopter of the Canon EOS C300 camera, receiving shipment of one just three days before production was to begin on an important indie feature. “I got the camera shipped to me on a Friday, and on Monday I started shooting the film,” he explained. “To Canon’s credit, the camera is very easy to figure out and use. I didn’t even really get that deep into the manual. I just pulled the camera out, put it together, and immediately started shooting with it to prep for the film shoot in three days. That was my beginnings with the Canon C300 cinema camera.”

Quick and Low-Key
Charles’ next project was shooting the music documentary Finding the Funk with director Nelson George. “That’s where he and I first began working with the Canon EOS C300 camera together,” Charles related. “He was happy, I was happy – again – and so we moved on to his next project, which is A Ballerina’s Tale.”

The film tells the story of 31-year old Misty Copeland, who had no ballet training before the age of 13. Revealed as a prodigy, Copeland overcame great adversity and was accepted into the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company by age 17. In 2007, after years of dancing with the ABT, Copeland was made their first African American soloist in two decades. A stress-related injury, however, then threatened to end her exceptional career. The film follows her recovery process and the steely determination that eventually led her to return triumphant to the stage once again.

George and his team of shooters filmed interview portions of A Ballerina’s Tale, using Canon EOS 60D, EOS 7D, and EOS 5D Mark III Digital SLR cameras, Charles explained. “He also shot interviews and vérité footage, following Copeland around, going to her doctor’s appointments, and observing her everyday life,” he said. “What I was involved in was using the Canon EOS C300 cameras to shoot her staged performances here in the U.S., which is how those cameras were used for the bulk of this film.”

Charles used a total of three EOS C300 cameras to ensure ample coverage of Copeland’s performances for A Ballerina’s Tale. “Three EOS C300 cameras shooting at the same time was mainly because we couldn’t get her to repeat her dances too many times,” he noted. “These dances are complex, difficult, and wearing on her body. She gave us two or three passes and we would shoot them with three cameras each to maximize our coverage.”

“Having the ability to strip down the EOS C300 camera was excellent,” Charles added regarding the camera’s highly mobile three-pound body. “Its low profile is great because I needed to get close to Copeland but didn’t want to distract her or adversely affect her movements with a cumbersome camera package. I had to quickly get out of her way at times, and the compact form factor and ergonomics of the EOS C300 camera helped us do that.”

Charles also utilized the high ISO range of the EOS C300 camera (capable of up to ISO 80,000) to avoid distracting Copeland with traditional bright movie lights. “It was great not to have a big instrument in her face or spotlights shooting at her from a distance,” he explained. “I wanted a lighting environment that didn’t have the same feel as a ballet performance,” he said. “I wanted it to be more cinematic, more lyrical. With the ability to shoot with a high ISO, my gaffer and I built a soft box of 16 tungsten-balanced bulbs, only 12 of which we needed. We lit from above and provided a big soft-lit area for her to dance underneath. It was very cool; she wasn’t sweating under our lights, and we had plenty of stop. We were very happy with the image quality. I’ve seen it projected and it looks great. I love the fact that the EOS C300 camera has high ISOs without making an ugly, video-noise look. I also really like the way it renders skin tones; I love the way the colors look. It’s a very filmic camera, even though it’s digital.”

Camera set-ups varied frequently, Charles explained. “We needed to be quick and never wanted to make her wait,” he said. “The ability to switch the camera into different configurations quickly was very important. While I did some hand-held shooting with one of the cameras, and we mainly had one EOS C300 camera on a slider that we would alternate positions with – sometimes higher, sometimes lower. We had the second EOS C300 camera on a tripod that we filmed from a balcony looking down, and then we had the third EOS C300 camera also on a tripod with a long lens.”

User Benefits
Charles shot A Ballerina’s Tale using mostly Canon Cinema lenses, including a CN-E30-105mm T2.8 compact Cinema zoom and the CN-E 24mm T1.5, CN-E50mm T1.3, and CN-E85mm T1.3 Cinema prime lenses. All Canon Cinema lenses share highly visible engraved focus scales and other motion picture style features for convenient operation by digital filmmakers. “It’s great to have such a diverse range of cine-style lenses, because they enable you to go ultra low profile hand-held if you want,” he noted. “You can also build the camera out with a wireless follow-focus, matte box, filters, a big battery pack, and an on-board monitor if you want to do a studio-style shoot.”

He also likes the fact that more than 103 Canon EF series photographic lenses can be used with the EF-mount version of the EOS C300 camera. “That option lets you be truly low profile,” Charles said. “There aren’t any cinema lens options that are as compact as throwing on a Canon EF 24-105mm zoom or a Canon EF 70-200mm telephoto zoom. Obviously the optics are a bit different, but when the call is to be extremely low-profile, this is the camera and lens combination to use.”

With a body weighing just over three pounds, the Canon EOS C300 Digital Cinema camera can be operated using a removable rotating side-mounted handgrip or an also removable multi-function top-handle unit, which includes a detachable 4-inch, 1.23 megapixel monitor and control panel. Overall, the camera offers a mobile-core design geared to one-person operation. Features supporting that design are many and include buttons for instant image magnification to check focus and a built-in waveform monitor to check exposure.

“I love the ergonomics,” he praised. “The buttons are well-placed and the entire camera is incredibly intuitive. I kept keep my finger near that magnification button and just popped-in whenever I need to check my focus really quickly. When you’re filming a moving target such as a ballerina with the shallow depth of field that a large-format single-sensor camera gives you, it’s great to be able to snap-in live while you’re recording, quickly check your focus, and snap out again.”

“The waveform feature is great too, especially on a multi-camera shoot,” he added. “I’ll generally check it just to see if all the cameras are landing in the same place. When you’re using different lenses – sometimes even at the same stops – things don’t necessarily translate as well. Being able to adjust exposure via the waveform is an excellent thing to have.”

“If you’re doing sustained shots for eight, nine, ten hours a day with heavy cameras you might hurt your wrist. Charles continued. “That’s what I like about the Canon EOS C300 Digital Cinema camera; I can hold it all day long. It’s like a glove. So I was very, very happy with it for shooting A Ballerina’s Tale. I just don’t see any camera that can give you all the user benefits that the EOS C300 can give you.”

SPW Editor's Note: A Ballerina's Tale will have its world premiere screening Sunday, April 19, at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in lower Manhattan as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. 

About A Ballerina's Tale
At age 13, Misty Copeland was attending the Boys and Girls Club of San Pedro, California, when a dance instructor asked if she’d be interested in participating in a ballet class. 

At age 15, Misty was one of the top ballet prospects in California and was being profiled in a PBS documentary on a state wide arts competition. 

At age 17, Misty was in New York City and a member of the American Ballet Theatre, one of the world's leading ballet companies. She danced  the title role of the Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera House, making her the first black woman to play that signature character in a major ballet company. Making this accomplishment that much more impressive, she performed this part with six stress fractures in her shin. 

This journey would have been unique in the world of dance on its own. Learning ballet at such an “advanced” age and making it to a premiere company made Misty an anomaly. But Misty was also a black woman with womanly curves which, based on the standard popularized by the father of American ballet, George Balanchine, meant she didn’t have the body for ballet. The skinny, long-limbed swan with a thin neck and European features has been the ballet standard for half a century.

Misty’s career is a challenge to every stereotype of what the ballerina symbolizes and should be. 

A Ballerina's Tale  will look at the values of a European cultural expression that has tried to maintain its values in the face of an aging audience base and its increasing irrelevance to mainstream culture. Misty’s life embodies a number of themes that speak to the larger culture and her personal challenges. Race, body image and Euro-centric perspective are mixed in with her own physical challenges. 

Misty will narrate the film, bringing us intimately into her world. Several of Misty’s favorite ballets will be filmed in multiple camera shoots that will bring us close to dance in ways less frantic and more realistic than the popularized Hollywood film, Black Swan.

About The Filmmakers

Nelson George, Director/Producer
Nelson George is an author, filmmaker, television producer, and critic with a long career in analyzing and presenting the diverse elements of African-American culture. Queen Latifah won the Golden Globe for playing the lead in his directorial debut, the HBO movie Life Support,  the critically acclaimed drama looked at the effects of HIV on a troubled black family in his native Brooklyn, New York. He recently co-edited, with Alan Leeds, The James Brown Reader (Plume), a collection of previously published articles about the Godfather of Soul that date as far back the late '50s. Plume published the book in May '08. Nelson has been on a roll since 2013 with completed documentary projects: VH1's Rock Docs, Finding The Funk, Showtime's Brooklyn Boheme (which was supported by Kickstarter), ESPN's The Announcement, the short All Hail the Beat, for the Focus Forward campaign. He hopes to continue that success withA Ballerina's Tale.

Leslie Norville, Producer
Leslie Norville is a documentary producer from Toronto, Canada. Her films have screened at film festivals including SXSW, Hot Docs and IDFA and on various networks including VH1.

Malika Weeden, Editor
Malika Weeden is a published filmmaker and editor with a background in art and dance. Her most recent projects include two short documentaries about Grammy and Tony Award winning artist, Markéta Irglova (Once), and two music videos for critically acclaimed Irish singer-songwriter Marc Carroll (Björk's One Little Indian Records).  

Cliff Charles, Director of Photography - Dance Performances
For nearly 20 years Cliff Charles has served as a Director of Photography on projects ranging from Chris Rock’s Sundance winning documentary, Good Hair, the Spirit Award nominated film, Jellysmoke and the Jamaican Gangster film,Shottas. He’s earned two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Cinematography on Spike Lee’s multi-award winning documentaries, When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.