Birns & Sawyer "Master Series of Filmmaking" Series
"XL1S Tips, Tricks & Basic Operation" Tutorial DVD
a review by Ken Tanaka

The XL1 system has arguably become one of the mainstays of videography and amateur filmmaking since its introduction during the late 1990's. The XL1's system of interchangeable lenses, its excellent imaging, sturdy construction, viewfinder options and modular audio system enable the camera to perform nearly any job that a skilled operator might ask of it.

cover scan -- frontBut becoming a "skilled operator" of the XL1/XL1s can be a challenge. The XL1 system features many options that can bewilder a newcomer. Although the camera's documentation is not sub-standard, the "standard" for camera documentation is not very generous (an Adobe Acrobat .PDF copy of the XL1S owner's manual is available for downloading at the Canon USA instruction manual downloads page).

An instructional DVD by Birns & Sawyer (1026 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, CA. 90038; tel. 323.466.8211) titled "XL1s: Tips, Tricks & Basic Operation", offers to help accelerate the XL1s newcomer's skill curve. Birns & Sawyer is one of Hollywood's oldest and most respected equipment rental and sales operations. As such, they have a great deal of experience in sales and rental of the XL1s.

The 80 minute DVD is organized into six chapters:
- Introduction (4 min)
- Introduction & Lens Operation (17 min)
- XL1s Basics: Tape, Viewfinder & Conrols (8 min)
- Audio Menus & Inputs (20 min)
- Video Exposure Modes & Menus (28 min)
- Birns & Sawyer History (3 min)

The general introduction is presented by John Schwartzman, ASC, a cinematographer who used the XL1s to shoot a broadcast commercial. Frankly, the four minutes could have been put to far better use, as noted later.

Overall, the DVD is a mixed bag. The production and design quality is, at best, only fair. The core instructional material was shot in what appears to be a Birns & Sawyer class. When I say "in" I mean "IN"! The primary camera position appears to be towards the back of the class and students' heads form the foreground of many shots. The lighting of the footage is not very good, although frequent detail cut-aways to specific parts of the camera partially compensate for this.

Greg Salman, a veteran XL1 shooter, conducts the class. Mr. Salman clearly has a great deal of experience with the XL1/XL1s. He seems very comfortable with the material and shares several off-road tips and tidbits he has learned from his experience. (I didn't know that the space shuttle astronauts take an XL1 up on each mission!) Unfortunately, he also appears just a bit bored and mechanical in his delivery, as if he's given too many of these seminars.

The first section covers the camera's basic operation and the XL1's lens options. Mr. Salman's coverage of the basic topics was good and was sprinkled with some practical tips, such as how to avoid accidentally pressing the camera's "Photo" button. His coverage of lenses and lens options was mainly adequate although it omitted mention of the EF adapter option or the Mini 35 adapter. I was a bit surprised at these omissions since the class was being given in movie town. Mr. Salman mentioned the 3x wide-angle lens but did not have one on-hand to demonstrate.

Mr. Salman's coverage of the XL1s' audio configurations contained much useful information, addressing some of the most common matters of confusion for new XL1s shooters. Unfortunately this coverage lacked some key detail cut-aways that would have greatly helped to illustrate the various jack locations to which Mr. Salman was pointing during his discussion. This will surely lead to many replays of this section, one advantage to viewing the class on DVD.

Mr. Salman's presentation of the XL1s' various exposure modes in the final section of the class was direct and very practical. For example, he strongly, and correctly, emphasized using a 1/60 shutter speed in the absence of a specific to do otherwise. He also directs students not to use shutter speed as an instrument to achieve proper exposure. This was also the only section in which a large plasma monitor, connected to the XL1s throughout the class, was really used to good advantage by showing the actual image from the camera to illustrate the effects of various shutter and iris settings.

Unfortunately, Mr. Salman's delivery of this final section became very rushed towards the end. Apparently he was trying to adhere to a rigid schedule. Consequently he completely omitted some important topics such as how to use the zebra display and the exposure bar. This is where that four minutes devoted to Mr. Schwartzman's vacuous "introduction" could have been reallocated to great benefit.


As I noted at the beginning, this DVD is a real mixed bag. Its production design leaves much to be desired as a self-paced instructional work. Birns & Sawyer basically filmed one of their XL1s classes, added some b-roll footage and burned the disc. The overall presentation is very reminiscent of a public access cable television show.

cover scan -- backBut, that aside, this disc contains some very good information that could be quite helpful to someone just becoming familiar with the XL1s. It occurred to me that the material might also be very helpful to someone considering using the XL1s. I should note, however, that in either case the viewer is assumed not to be a complete novice to photography and videography. Some of the concepts and terminology used by Mr. Salman are just at the boundary of intermediate knowledge in these subjects.

I would love to see a well designed and well produced instructional DVD on the XL1s that really used the DVD medium to great advantage. I think the subject deserves such treatment. Until then, Birns & Sawyer's product may have to suffice.

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Written by Ken Tanaka
Thrown together by Chris Hurd

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