Real Life Cinematography: College Football Hall of Fame / by Matt Mahoney

In this fast paced world we live in, time is the ultimate commodity. Each one of these will begin with a TL;DR: Too Long Didn't Read. If the TL;DR interests you, you have a whole blog to read. If not, that's okay too.

1. Shot on a real football field, couldn't use the field lights.
2. Only had 4 hours to shoot the entire spot.
3. Had to use mismatched cameras and slow L glass.
4. Two out of the five lights I ordered didn't work on shoot day.
5. Couldn't move lights once placed.

Pre Production

The creative brief comes in. The idea is to shoot a love letter about the progression of football showing how synthetic turf has revolutionized the game. And it's going to play on a loop at the College Football Hall Of Fame. My mind floods with all of these ideas about how badass this is going to look. Huge actor/athletes battling each other on a football field at really high frame rates. Super cool lighting. I'm thinking of the Gatorade ads, the Under Armor ads that are just so cool.

This was going to be my Gatorade ad. This was going to be my Under Armour ad. This was going to be the ad that opens doors for my career as a cinematographer and I'm excited as hell.

I speak with the director who tells me the look he's going for is this.

I can't find the exact image, but this is close. Basically a nighttime look with the players illuminated and the background falling off into darkness. I thought: Cool, I can make that look pretty sweet. I'll turn off half the house lights in the foreground, and I'll fly a slug over the players, and kick them with strong 3/4 rear side lights that will flare, these guys are going to look like the cast of 300. There was one caveat. We couldn't use the stadium lights. At all. We'd have to provide all of the light ourselves.

CAVEAT 01: No Stadium Lights

I got to work storyboarding. I boil down the spot to 2 plays that don't really complete, but are designed to show off as much turf as possible. I'm told the camera/lighting/grip budget is limited, and that I need to spend carefully. I put together a list of what I want: A slug to fly above the players, a couple of 4k's, 20x bounces, flags, 2 Alexa's and Angeniuex zooms. There's no way I can get all of that for the budget. I'm told I can either have the cameras with the glass or the lights, but not both. I go back and modify everything a few times, and finally end up with A RED Dragon, a Sony FS7, Canon L glass, 3 Arrisun 60 HMI's, a 12x12 bounce, and some M18's. Not ideal. I wanted to have matched cameras, but I needed a Movi to pull off half the shots and the FS7 didn't fit at the time. So the Dragon sat on the Movi. We also had a visual effects shot to pull off where (in post) the ground changed beneath a players feet.

My boards get approved, I've got 17 shots, and I'm told there's another caveat: I have 4 hours total to shoot this.

Beautiful sunset before we roll.

CAVEAT 02: 4 hour shoot time

A 4 hour shoot time meant that due to the complexity of the spot I didn't have time to do different lighting setups. I had to place the lights and leave them. All my camera angles needed to avoid the lights so I had to flip half of the angles. I made a playbook for the camera ops. Their AC's would have the playbook and help get them into the different positions on the field for each shot. I wish I still had copies of it but it was basically X's and O's for the players and then Triangles for camera's A and B, with direction written for each camera. The idea was to treat every shot like a coach treats plays, calling them out and everyone getting into their positions. Turns out that would be invaluable on shoot day.

I reached out to Matt Workman on Facebook. I wanted to talk to someone with more experience in the commercial world. He was kind enough to take some of his time to talk to me about the spot and the limitations. I sent him my boards and he gave me advice. It was really cool of him to do that, thank you Matt. Check him out if you haven't already.


Fast forward to the shoot day. I want to say this spot was shot in Georgia. I could be wrong. I meet with my grip team, go through the location which was a high school football field, and block the action. I get the lights into position, start running the cable to the genny, and go over my shot playbook again. The players begin to arrive and I do a double take.

They aren't the muscular man-child high school players that we're used to seeing in the south. It's the freshman JV team. My heart sank. It sank because I had a totally different vision for this in my head. But the sun is setting and we spark the lights to get them warmed up. And we've got another problem...

CAVEAT 03: Arrisun and M18 down.

Two of the lights I rented didn't work. I lost a Arrisun and an M18. Now I only had 12k watts instead of 18k going into my bounce, and I'm limited to f/2.8 with the glass. We also lost an M18. I really wanted to use two of these as rim lights deep in the background. The staccato shutter I wanted to use to really embellish the chaos of football up close goes out the window.

Time to improvise.

My grips told me we couldn't raise the bounce any higher due to the wind. I spotted the remaining Arri's into the bounce to get every last bit of power out the lamps, set the M18 a lot closer than I wanted now that I was down to one and we had to start rolling. The director is yelling, the AD is yelling, the kids are well...being 14 year old kids who aren't actors. They are kind of walking through the plays rather than really bringing it. I'm running in and spraying fake sweat onto the players arms between takes. We're having some kids do pushups to get their arms swelling a little bit. I gave the AC's Mag Lights to shine into the lenses to get a little more interest into the frames.

 2 Arrisuns into a 12x12 ultra bounce.

2 Arrisuns into a 12x12 ultra bounce.

We go through take after take and finish everything down to the wire and then the players have to leave. It's 9pm and a school night.

It's done.

I'm disappointed. We pack up and all the way to the hotel I'm wondering how in the world my gatorade ad disappeared from under my feet so quickly. How my Under Armour ad vanished before my eyes. I was so prepared, and in a chain reaction of events I couldn't control, it was gone.

The client loved the spot and in the end that's all that really matters. I'm really happy that against all of those challenges on the day, we were still able to execute what the client wanted. My job as a cinematographer is to execute the directors vision, and make client's happy. I'll get my gatorade ad someday. but for now, back to work.