On Set: Commercial Cinematography Series – Acura

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On Set: Commercial Cinematography Series – Acura

Welcome to our commercial cinematography series. The commercial that I’m talking about was for Acura. Here’s the spot. 

(The Acura Spot)

I met with the director and immediately, we were in sync. I was hired based on Need for Speed.

The car race through Mt. Kisco in Need for Speed

The car race through Mt. Kisco in Need for Speed

He brought me in and asked me, You know, what was your secret recipe for that?

I said, well the secret recipe was shooting with a camera system that owns the night. I shot with the Canon C500. Something happens with the sensor where it electrifies light. It energizes it by creating tons of contrast. You can see blocks on end.

The C500 and the Codex recorder on Need for Speed

The C500 sensor added depth and dimension and electrified light

On Need for Speed, I ended up turning more lights off than turning them on. We would kill whole banks of street lights to be able to create contrast. The director was really loving that whole idea for this LA Acura spot.

On Need for Speed I turned off lights for the racing sequence

This Acura spot was a 2 day shoot. The director wanted these wide vista shots of downtown Los Angeles. If you look at them, they are all slightly moving.

Our wide shots were slowly creeping

I had a guy from the city with us who would turn street lights off, which gave us that darker feel in the foreground, and gave the shot lots of depth. This is all just from turning lights on and turning them off. No big condors with lights or any of that. You can create mood with your available light just as well.

Turning off lights helps give the shot more depth

Here, the alley had some lights that were already in it. We added a little sodium vapor “dusk to dawn” fixture that you could pick up at Home Depot. Very lo fi. We were walking around with a putt-putt generator and some stingers.

We added a few practicals to this alley shot

This was a security camera shot. We used the C500 in mono mode and did this weird stutter frame. I thought it was genius. It was all done in camera.

The stutter frame effect and mono mode were all done in camera in the C500

A gif of the stutter frame

The actor goes into this space and this was the interior that the team was prelighting. What’s funny is the fact that there was actually no car there. This car is completely CGI and I thought they did a damn good job on it.

The interior of the garage. This car was completely CGI

This was a funny story. So we ripped out of this alleyway here and camera really close to the Acura car with the Russian Arm.

As camera car was driving backwards, the Russian Arm car drove forward

The Russian Arm camera car system

We’re going with the Russian Arm and the Acura is driving backwards. The Acura sped up and we slowed down in the Russian Arm car and the Matte Box just slammed into the car. The head stayed totally rock-solid as it always does on the Russian Arm, but it was a close call.

The Matte Box slammed into the picture car and exploded

Sequence of the Acura driving backwards

To be able to pull this off in 2 days of shooting is crazy. To be able to see this deep in downtown Los Angeles is crazy. I’m seeing detail in the side of this dark building. I’m seeing through it, I’m seeing all the way down maybe 20 blocks. I’m seeing enough detail in the clouds in the sky way in the back that are silhouetting the buildings. This is where the C500 really owns the night. And this was an awesome drone shot.

Our hero car in the driver’s visor reflection

The C500 allowed us to see into the shadows much more

Now we go to our Russian Arm. When I heard we were going to be shooting a car with available light, I turned to the Leica Summilux Cs.

Leica Summilux C lenses

They were a T1.3 which was great for if I had to do a big wide establishing shot. I could suck that wide shot to a T1.3 and suck in as much light as possible. I knew it was going to enable me to see the silhouettes of buildings by going to a T1.3 on wider lenses.

Shooting wide open and digging into the shadows

The other thing that I noticed is that the Leica is a very flat piece of glass. This makes them great for cars. You don’t want to distort the lines. With cars, the whole idea of really seeing the shape of the car with that sheet metal is to not really distort them. You never really want to go wider than a 21mm or a 27mm. It just really starts to bend the car and doesn’t make them look as good.

Flatter glass just works for car commercials so well

Flatter glass just works for car commercials so well

You don’t want to go too wide with lenses on car commercials

I stumbled upon this by testing for Fathers and Daughters. I did side-by-side comparisons of a 21mm Leica vs. a 21mm Cooke. The Leica background feels like it’s right behind the guy. Everything is more compressed. He’s wider, not so skinny. The background on the Cooke feels like it’s a million miles away.

Our camera test from Fathers and Daughters

I was thinking at the time that the Leica Summilix C would be so good at shooting cars. They’re sharp, nice and crisp, they’re a flatter piece of glass, and they’re going to make that Acura look amazing. It was all based on doing these tests and seeing the difference. If you’re shooting car commercials, and you want to use the correct lenses, the Leica Summilux Cs are some great lenses to use.

Summilux C’s are perfect for flattening the background

We went with Codex for the C500 as well as the Gemini.

C500 with Codex recorder

C500 with Gemini recorder

Our recorder and MōVI

This was our MōVI M10 setup with a Redrock Micro wireless follow focus system at the time.

Our run and gun MoVI setup

Now, it’s one thing to come up with the vision and to decide what lenses and what camera you’re going to use, but your job as a cinematographer is to also be the most efficient. You need to really understand scheduling.

You do this by embedding exactly what you’re going to use for every shot in the storyboards.

I add my information to the storyboards

Some actual storyboards from the spot with my added information

This is your recipe for success. Everything is communication. Everything is about boiling it down. I literally gave my electric and grip teams, camera team, and assistant director this playbook of mine.

The AD embedded it into his schedule so that everyone knew exactly what was happening.

This was what was planned. We had A-Unit and B-Unit. A-Unit was our arm car. Our director, Jonathan Brown, went out with the arm car to get a lot of the shots.

Storyboard for A-Unit / Alley

A-Unit arm car

Our B-Unit was me running around with a MōVI, me running around with some locked cameras, and making sure the drone shots were done properly. I had to make sure they were exposing properly and that the correct lenses were put on them.

B-Unit MoVI

B-Unit sticks shots

B-Unit drone shots

This was where it really came down to the scheduling. Again, it’s working with your assistant director and your director to get through this kind of idea.

Some more storyboards

I went through the storyboard and I labelled what lens we were going to use, which unit it was, and what camera support we would be on. When the drone guys knew they were doing an overhead shot, they knew that it would be on a 24mm L series, they knew it was a C500 with a Gemini recorder, and they obviously knew it was a drone shot.

Example storyboard frame for drone shot

Back in the day, no one was flying C500s on drones. I had to give the C500 and the Gemini and the L series glass to Vortex so they could balance the whole system for a few days so it would work perfectly on their drone. They came up with this secret recipe to fly with that drone and the camera system.

We weren’t working any of those things out on the day. It’s your job to reach out to that drone company in pre-production and have a discussion with them.

Some shots from Vortex Aerial’s 2017 demo reel

Some shots from Vortex Aerial’s 2017 demo reel

Some shots from Vortex Aerial’s 2017 demo reel

All of these storyboard frames are labelled so that your team knows exactly what’s going on.

Now, how are we going to pull this off? We’ve got to shoot all across a city with 2 units, multiple cameras, multiple support systems, some pre-rigged setups, some run and gun type stuff, hard mount rigs, floor board rigs, and hood mount rigs. How are we going to do this?

We had to do so many things in just two days

It all comes down to planning. On this day, I brought a rigging team in. All the rigging team did was rig cars. They were not on our shooting schedule.

Rigging team doing their thing

Rigging team doing their thing

They had a full day to rig the cars. All these hard rigs from the spot were done. We had 5 or 6 camera bodies. One was on a card mount shooting through the windshield.

Hard mount on the hood of the car looking through the windshield

One was on the floorboards.

We rigged a camera to the floor in the car

One was rigged on the front bumper.

Our bumper-mounted camera

All these hard mounts needed to be rigged. That was the only way I felt I could pull off what the director wanted in that time period.

Okay, so we get to the traffic light.

At the traffic light from the Acura spot

This is the last thing that we did on day 2. The reason being is that everyone was pretty sure that once this car jumped over the lip in the road, the engine was going to fall out of it.

Our car jump stunt

Sure enough, the engine fell out of the car and we called a wrap. That was the end of our shoot.

All I did for our end car shot in the room was take 8’ single Kino Flos and surround the whole area like a box. They circled the room on the floor.

Our car pack shot at the end of the spot

The light that flew up and hit the ceiling gave us a really nice edge, defining different areas of the car. It defined the beltline, added some great reflection in the quarter panels, and really did something wonderful to the windshield.

Our Kinos were perfect for the space

Here, it’s all about seeing the shape of the car

You could see underneath the car a little as well. It gave everything depth and dimension. At the end, there’s this nice little push in.

All this is from a few 8’ and 4’ bare 5500K Kino tubes.

5500K Kino Flo bulbs

This concludes our Commercial Cinematography Series: Acura breakdown. Let’s summarize what we’ve learned in this!

  • When shooting at night, try to pick a camera sensor that’s going to see deep into the shadows to give you as much flexibility as possible
    • Know how the strengths of a camera can enhance your shot and project as a whole
  • A lot of times, it’s more about turning lights off then turning them on
    • Shaping natural light can be just as effective as shaping with artificial light
  • Select a piece of glass that is going to compliment the shape of the car
    • We found that the Leica Summilux Cs flattened out the image and made it look sexy
  • Create a plan of attack for your shoot
    • Work with all of your departments and production to implement a plan that will help you accomplish your goals
    • Communication and preparation are two of the most important aspects of any job
    • Do stuff ahead of time to prepare for your shoot
    • Know exactly what you want and how you’re going to get it

All HV video edited on HP Z840 workstations and HP Z24x DreamColor monitors.

Equipment List:


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