The dream of most documentary makers is to create a visually stunning and engaging film that opens people’s eyes or changes perceptions of an issue that’s not getting the attention it deserves. For the film to uncover a huge global conspiracy, make headlines around the world, and then be the catalyst for real change would be a dream come true. And for that film to then pick up an Oscar… That's the kind of thing that never really happens outside of a Hollywood movie.
Yet that’s exactly what happened to director Bryan Fogel and DOP Jake Swantko with Icarus, their Netflix documentary about doping in sport. Their plan was to make a film in the style of Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, but dealing with performance-enhancing drugs rather than fast food. Bryan, a keen cyclist, wanted to prove the ineffectiveness of cycling's drug-testing regime by doping himself, not getting caught and finishing in the top 10 of the Haute Route, a gruelling seven-day amateur bike race through the Alps. Instead, he uncovered a global conspiracy that led to the involvement of the police and the International Olympic Committee, and resulted in Russia being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
When work started on the documentary in 2014, Jake knew he'd be filming fast-paced cycling race action as well as low-light footage. The Canon EOS C300 and later a Canon EOS C300 Mark II were chosen as main cameras, supplemented by a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (which has been succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV), for its shallow depth of field, and for wide shots during interviews. A Canon LEGRIA HF G30 camcorder was added as a second or third camera when needed.
Bryan enlisted Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov to help him administer his drugs. Halfway through shooting, the doctor revealed that he used to do the same for Russian athletes competing in major international sporting events, as head of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory. Not only did he claim to have worked on a programme designed to dope athletes and get away with it, he also offered to take Bryan and Jake to the lab in Russia so they could document it. This turned the team's plans upside-down and took the project in an unexpected direction.
The compact Canon LEGRIA HF G30 camcorder, minus accessories to keep it as small and stealthy as possible, was pressed into service for covert filming. "The Canon LEGRIA HF G30 was the best in its class in terms of portability and that kind of consumer-style camera that we were looking for,” says Jake. "It has the right aspect ratio, the right definition, and automatic exposure and focus. It gives you that fly-on-the-wall feeling, which is what we wanted for certain parts of the film."
Bryan and Jake flew to Moscow's most notorious anti-doping lab, not quite sure what they were getting themselves into. "Grigory has a disarming personality," says Jake, "which can sometimes mask the risk level that you're at. He made it sound very casual at the time. When we rolled through the lab gate, he just said: 'It's probably best to put your camera down'. He pulled out a garbage bag from his dashboard and we threw the camera in. The metal detector beeped as we went through security, but because of Grigory’s position they didn’t stop us. Then we started shooting. We didn't really understand the risk at all."
It was inside the lab that Grigory really opened up about the scale of the doping. "At that moment I was like, 'Whoa, what is this guy saying?' We thought he was telling the truth, but we didn't know. Later, when I filmed the first independent investigation [The McLaren Report in 2016, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency], which corroborated his claims beyond reasonable doubt, that was the moment I knew this was really big."
The revelations culminated in The New York Times running a front page exposé, the US Federal Government issuing Grigory with a subpoena to testify before a grand jury, and the involvement of leading Russian political figures. Grigory is now living in hiding under the protection of the US Government.
With such a great story to tell, it would have been easy to focus on the narrative, but it was Jake’s job to make the film look good too. He mixed the run-and-gun style camcorder footage with the more cinematic images from the Canon EOS C300 and Canon EOS C300 Mark II, and the B camera, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
“We wanted to show people that at times this film was very homemade, and at other times it was very cinematic,” he says.
The Canon HD CMOS PRO sensor in the Canon LEGRIA HF G30 and its precise autofocus helped Jake to get the shots he needed when he only had one chance to shoot them. “We had lots of people handling the LEGRIA HF G30 who didn't know how to use a professional camera, so it was important that everything was in focus," he says.
He was also pleased with the distinctive look of the LEGRIA HF G30's footage. "The first scene I ever shot, of Bryan getting out of his SUV when he first moved to Colorado, was on the Canon LEGRIA HF G30. A lot of the editors said they didn't like it at first, but towards the end of the film they were searching for more scenes filmed with the LEGRIA HF G30, because it had that certain feel."
The team used a range of Canon EF lenses: the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM (which has been succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM in Canon's lineup) and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM zooms, and a Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM prime. Jake’s own Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM (succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) and Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM primes also came in handy.
"The great thing about the EF lenses is that they're lightweight and compact and they produce really good images. I like the way the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM breathes a little as you focus; it's a nice element. The wider lenses don't really show breathing."
Jake also praises the optics for their consistency of colour, and he loved the look of the flare from the lenses, too. "We had a great colourist who worked with me for about a month, and every picture we shot in that film, he was able to really match in a sequence. All the pictures and all the shots from the EOS cameras were easily matched in.
"The only time we saw a lot of flare was with the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, and we were able to control it," he says. "With action shooting, specifically the bike races, if the camera was in a position where the lens flared, it was a very nice flare. It was never like a fogged lens look; it always provided a nice rainbow kind of colour into the lens, and then moving to the side it kind of falls off."
The Canon EOS C300 was used for everything from interviews to action footage, and Jake says it’s the only camera he trusted for such a variety of tasks. "It literally went from racing in the French Alps to being put in a garbage bag and carried through security in Moscow," he says. "It was lightweight enough to do all of those things. It can be big or small, depending on how you configure it, but it's mostly made to be a camera that moves in your hands, which is really cool. It's one of those cameras that packs a big punch."
The Canon EOS C300 was particularly useful when filming Bryan racing, which Jake captured from the back of a motorcycle. "It was really the only [cine] camera that could fit on a motorcycle. I put it on a Glidecam 2000 stabilisation device, which is not supposed to take that much weight, but it worked fine."
Jake chose the all-mechanical Glidecam instead of a motorised unit because of the potential for the electronics to fail in the rainy conditions. The wet weather was far less of a worry for the Canon cameras, although Jake did sometimes put a bag over the camera while it was on the Glidecam. No external monitors were used for this part of the shoot and no recording devices were necessary, as the camera records at high quality to its internal cards.
For the first cycle shoot, Jake used a manual focus cine lens. "I'd shoot at f/16 or f/22, turn the LCD towards me and then shoot from the right or left side of the bike, depending on where the action was. There was no way to pull focus, so I'd just kind of eyeball it. It was trial and error to begin with and then I got it down pretty well."
As shooting progressed, Jake upgraded to the Canon EOS C300 Mark II with Dual Pixel Auto Focus (DPAF). He used autofocus lenses to help him shoot a wider aperture for a more stylised look. "I pointed the camera in the right direction, shot at f/5.6 and got a much better picture. A lot of people shy from autofocus during important moments, but you can select it and deselect it with your hand on the lens and it's very responsive. Canon has become the leading voice in autofocus."
The support crew used their third camera, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, to film scenic shots of the Alps. Because the menus across the three Canon cameras are relatively consistent and share many settings, the transition from one camera to another was fairly seamless.
Icarus was shot in 2K, with the Canon EOS C300 and Canon EOS C300 Mark II shooting C-Log for maximum dynamic range, and that footage was outputted to an external monitor to help gauge exposure. C-Log is also available on the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV via a firmware upgrade, making the footage easy to marry with footage from Cinema EOS cameras. A base ISO of 800 was used across all cameras to keep any noise at bay.
The ability of the Canon EOS C300 Mark II to shoot at 60fps in HDS was ideal for the slow-motion cycling footage. "Shooting in slow motion with the EOS C300 Mark II is exponentially better, in terms of picture quality and the lack of artefacts. It's become a much more viable slow-motion camera,” Jake says.
"There's a lot of great things about the camera, such as the colour rendition, and the ability to shoot slow motion and at 4K, especially now so many platforms are asking for that amount of definition," he says. "The camera's still very affordable, and you can either build it up or hold it in your hand, which is an amazing asset. In so much of documentary filmmaking, the less you can see of the camera, the more viable it is to use."
Jake's choice of Canon cameras and lenses helped him and Bryan make a film that not only packed a huge punch in terms of message, but also looked great. The world took notice, and the rest is history.