Harnessing the spirit of the Wild West with Flex Zoom lenses

When DoP Jonathan Jones wanted to make a Western-themed movie trailer, Canon's two full-frame Cine lenses were all he needed.
A man studies the monitor on a large camera rig. A figure in a black cowboy hat can be seen in the foreground.

DoP Jonathan Jones (pictured) comes from a background filming wildlife for TV programmes such as Planet Earth, so is very familiar with modern zooms and how well they stand up to scrutiny. For his ambitious Wild West film trailer, he married Canon's Flex Zooms perfectly to a full cinema rig, allowing the focus-puller to keep everything sharp with ease. © Ember Films

When it comes to cinema, the Hollywood-style movie trailer is an art form in itself. The format generally includes action, drama, character introductions, special effects and a teasing glimpse of the plot – all told in a visually interesting way in three minutes or less. Of course, the team putting a trailer together usually has the luxury of all the footage from a full-length feature film to choose from in the edit. Not so for Ember Films' DoP Jonathan Jones.

The multi-Emmy Award-winning director and cinematographer, whose work ranges from natural history TV programmes to commercial projects, shot his own movie trailer from scratch to showcase what a creative filmmaker can accomplish in a very short time. Unsurprisingly, it proved a complex undertaking.

The project needed intricate planning plus equipment that could be used very quickly, with no compromises in terms of quality. Jonathan used the Canon EOS C500 Mark II, teamed with Canon's first premium full-frame zoom lenses for professional cinema productions, the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP and the CN-E45-135mm T2.4 L F / FP.

"It was a very tight shoot," he explains. "We had just two days to film everything, and literally every shot we took is in the trailer. And we didn't do any more than a couple of takes with each scene."

Although set in the Wild West, the trailer is not what you'd typically expect from the genre. Rather, it's a more nuanced, modern take on the Western, focusing on the characters and, of course, stunning visuals.

Using the trailer format as a creative showcase

"The original home of large format lenses and zooms was the Western genre – big filmscapes, large zooms into eyes, all those things," says Jonathan. "So we went and did a recce of a permanent Western film set that I used 10 years ago in the UK. I knew it could be perfect. Because we had such a tight schedule, we couldn't keep moving the unit to a new location. We had to find a project where we could tell the whole story without really moving more than 10 metres, and that's exactly what we did."

Goodbye Justice, the fictitious film the trailer is celebrating, is a love story set around the mid-1860s, just after the American Civil War. It's a time of unrest, slavery has been abolished and there are people with opposing views all living in the same place.

For what Jonathan wanted to achieve, the trailer format has certain advantages over a short film. "A trailer gives you an amazing opportunity to flex creatively," he says. "It's a great way of being able to show lots of different scenes next to each other without having to really justify why you've changed. If you shoot a short film, you've got to let it flow and consider the dialogue. You might find that after two minutes your audience is disengaged because they might have only seen one scene and one shot.

"A trailer gets a story across, it gets an emotion across, but it also shows multiple lighting setups, multiple camera positions and multiple camera styles, which you just couldn't do in a more traditional narrative piece."

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A trailer shoot also pushes equipment and lenses to their limits, as it's crucial every detail is captured in often-difficult conditions, such as harsh backlight, dimly lit interiors, explosions, fast action and the subtleties of romantic scenes. That's where the high bit depth codec in the full-frame Canon EOS C500 Mark II came in, ensuring accurate colours were captured and a range of frame rates could be used to match each shot.

A man wearing a suit and black hat stares straight into the lens of a large camera rig.

The Canon Flex Zooms delivered accurate colours and textures across a range of different skin tones and ages. © Ember Films

An overhead shot of a man pulling a tall camera rig down the street of a Western town set.

A purpose-built Western town was the ideal choice for the trailer shoot, as all the locations were in the same place, saving vital time when changing scenes. © Ember Films

Capturing accurate skin tones in an ethnically diverse cast

For Jonathan, one of the key things he looked for when using the Canon Flex Zooms was the way they captured skin tones. "Achieving accurate mixtures of skin tones is the holy grail," he says. "Skin has such minute details and amazing curves, and it reacts really interestingly to light. So if you're looking at multiple different skin tones, that's such a great test.

"Our male lead has black skin, our female lead has very pale, white skin, and our villain is an older gentleman, so has aged and weathered skin. That's a great space to set your lens look. How does it react? What is it like if we shine really strong light at it? What if we bounce light?

"You could see within seconds that these lenses just worked brilliantly. We didn't use any effects filters at all. The Canon Flex Zooms are going to be used predominantly in drama, movies and commercials – the high end of the spectrum. You could use them for literally anything, but really it's going to be aspirational productions."

The Flex Zoom advantage

Zooms are especially useful for quick setups and, of course, instant changes in focal length without having to reset cameras and accessories. Jonathan found they were perfect for his needs while making the trailer.

"I used zooms due to the setup and the speed at which we shot," he says. "To do what we did in two days, we had the timing down to five-minute intervals. It's that tight. You couldn't add lens changing into that. So I might be on the dolly and say, 'Right, let's look at a 50mm. No, let's go 85mm.' Within a second, you're there with the zoom. And optically, they are so close to primes now that you would have to nitpick, put them side-by-side, and really pixel-peep to notice the difference.

"Historically, zooms were almost like a secondary option. But what's great about these Canon Flex Zooms is between the two, they cover 20mm to 135mm. That's all you need. Even if the shoot is predominantly a prime lens shoot, I will always have zooms on set because if the schedule gets pushed I can put the zooms on so we can cover a scene incredibly quickly."

The Flex Zooms differ from other Cine lenses because they offer the same consistent and fast T2.4 aperture across the zoom range. "Although zooms don't have the incredibly fast maximum apertures like some primes, what's great about full-frame is that you actually get a shallower depth of field anyway," explains Jonathan. "You can achieve the same depth of field aesthetic by being on the longer end further away. And it's easier for the focus-puller."

Zooming during the shot to emphasise dramatic moments was pioneered by Western filmmakers, and it was something Jones was keen to do in his trailer. "It's really difficult if you're shooting a traditional drama, like a period piece that isn't a Western, and you start zooming," he says. "You just wouldn't do it. But on this Western trailer, we did it when it enhanced the picture or the emotion.

A close-up of the Canon CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP lens attached to a Canon EOS C500 Mark II camera.

Canon cine zooms: first shoot with the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP

DoP Ian Murray gets to grips with the Flex Zoom CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP, one of two new full-frame cine zoom lenses.
A large camera rig is filming a man on a white horse riding towards the camera, in the street of a Wild West town.

A Hollywood-style movie trailer lets a director flex their creativity and produce something visually stunning. Shot at a fast pace, everything needs to run smoothly so pro-quality equipment is essential. © Ember Films

A man lies on his back across a round table in a Western bar, looking injured. Another man leans over him, pulling open his shirt. Next to them a cameraman films the scene on a large camera and lens.

With the final grade in mind, Jonathan wanted everything to remain true to life when shooting his trailer, so exposed naturally and accurately. © Ember Films

Shooting in a range of environments

Jonathan says the varied shooting environments involved in the Goodbye Justice trailer were handled well by the two Flex Zoom lenses, which were easy to work with in a range of scenarios. "These lenses are quite clean, quite classic, and controlled in terms of flare," he says. "If you want it to flare and you bring the light in, they flare beautifully.

"I didn't have to light any differently than if we were using any other camera or lenses," he continues. "We had the directional hard sun outside, so we used a lot of bounce and diffusion. We did nighttime interiors where I used a lot of practicals. So I would do little candles, but then fill it with soft light panels, bounce light, reflectors.

"I kept it pretty simple because I didn't want to make this film over-stylised as it's set in the Wild West in the 1800s. What we really were looking at was texture. You need the best equipment to capture this, and that's where the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP and the CN-E45-135mm T2.4 L F / FP really paid off. They are so fast to use and the look is clean and natural, not overly 'digital' or clinical."

Working as director as well as DoP on this complex and demanding shoot was something that Jonathan is used to, and it helped that he could always trust his Canon equipment. It never got in the way of his creative vision and very hands-on dual roles.

"With all cinematography, there's no one rule fits all," he says. "It's all about the aesthetic. It's all about the direction and what the intention is in each shot. I looked at the monitor and knew my waveforms and everything were good – nothing burning out, nothing too dark. What worked well was a really naturalistic kind of exposure. My Canon kit delivered."

With total confidence in the speed and ultimate image quality of his equipment, and the natural look this combination helped him achieve, Jonathan could focus on getting the best out of the actors and scenery to create a trailer that Hollywood would be proud to produce.

Adam Duckworth

Jonathan Jones's kitbag

The key kit filmmakers use to shoot trailers

A man adjusts a large camera rig on the set of an old-fashioned Western bar.



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