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Spotlight: Cliff Charles, Cinematographer, ‘A Ballerina’s Tale’

"I love the ergonomics. The buttons are well placed and the entire camera is incredibly intuitive," the DP says of the Canon C300.

Graceful movement and precise timing are not only essential elements of performing ballet, they’re also vital to filming it. Cinematographer Cliff Charles embraced the challenges in capturing the performance segments of director Nelson George’s A Ballerina’s Tale, which documents American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland.

How did you approach shooting the performances?

Cliff Charles: [We used] three Canon EOS C300 cameras shooting at the same time—mainly because we couldn’t get her to repeat her dances too many times. 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.

Canon EOS C300 camera. Photo by Oskar Landi.

We needed to be quick and never wanted to make her wait. The ability to switch the camera into different configurations quickly was very important. While I did some handheld shooting with one of the cameras, it was mainly 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 the third EOS C300 camera was also on a tripod, with a long lens.

I love the ergonomics. The buttons are well placed and the entire camera is incredibly intuitive. I keep my finger near that magnification button and just pop 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.

Cinematographer Cliff Charles

I wanted a lighting environment that didn’t have the same feel as a ballet performance. I wanted it to be more cinematic, more lyrical. With the camera’s ability to shoot with a high ISO, my gaffer and I built a softbox 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 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.