Real Life Cinematography: 2 car seat commercials in 1 day. / by Matt Mahoney

TL;DR
1. Shot two child seat commercials in one day.
2. White cyc + furniture had to appear seamless.
3. Black & Grey fabric materials eat light.
3. Commercials would not go through color correction prior to delivery.
 

Pre Production

I was hired to shoot two product commercials for some car seats made by a company called Nuna. The brief came in, along with some videos they had done before. Typical product on a white cyc, show off the features kind of thing. The director wanted me to shoot this more like a car commercial, showing off the lines and the quality of the seat. Cool, I can do that. I came in for a pre light day and designed a lighting scheme based on some car commercials I had done some research on, and jotted down all the settings from the DMX board. I used the lighting grid in the ceiling (Image 80's and kino 4 banks) and some ancillary Arri fresnels for kicks, fills, etc.

Shoot Day

Testing curve settings.

Testing curve settings.

I got to set early the following day and went over my boards. Cast and crew trickled in and I fired up the lights to get them to temp. On this job I had to use the RED Dragon, Canon L glass, and a trio of tripod/jib with motorized head/ and a tall underslung dolly system. My first AC arrived with the camera package and we got to setting it up. At some point in the morning the director came up to me and told me that the spots would not be going through color correction, and asked me to get it as close as possible to a finished piece in-camera.

Shit.

CAVEAT 01: No color correction.

While I generally prefer to make my own choices as far as camera and lens packages go, at this point in my career I'm sometimes at the mercy of the agency. I'm really happy that the Dragon was the choice camera of the agency in this case. I know that camera really well and I had to do some major tweaking to get these spots looking as good as possible in camera since they weren't going through color correction. I dove into the Dragon's menus and monitored all my changes on the Odyssey 7Q+ as well as a Dreamcolor monitor. I dialed in all the basics like white balance, tint, etc. and then got to creating the look.

CAVEAT 02: Black and grey eat light.

The biggest problem I had was that the black leather as well as the fabric of the seats which was black and dark grey. The cyc was painted pure white, and we had an actress who was interacting with the seats. This is an enormous range that had to be executed inside a rec709 color space. I needed tons of detail in the blacks and greys to show off the seats, I had the actresses skin that had to look good, and I couldn't  blow the highlights to oblivion.

I dug through the Dragon, creating a custom curve to accommodate all that information. I tweaked something in every single sub menu on that camera and finally arrived at my look, 10 minutes after we were supposed to be rolling.

Lock and load, here we go.

Here a silk is flown in with a solid to create the contrast needed on our actresses skin.

Here a silk is flown in with a solid to create the contrast needed on our actresses skin.

We were flying through takes, my first AC operating camera while I pulled focus from the Dreamcolor. Then we had to get this overhead shot where the camera was swapped onto the tall underslung dolly and we framed up our shot.

We've got another problem: Our image is flipped because the camera is underslung and upside down, shooting down onto the car seat. We had to do this to get the angle right, and to get as much light into the black abyss that was the internals of the car seat. The agency rep got super confused and couldn't picture the image flipped.

CAVEAT 03: On-set confusion.

Our rep was having trouble picturing the final image flipped. She couldn't determine if the type on the seat was going to be backwards or not. 10 mins, 20 minutes go by, they're still discussing everything. The rep is still having trouble, she's apologizing, she's embarrassed. I grabbed a DP7 and plugged it in to get a feed for her and walked over, and showed her the image from the camera. I explained that while this image was upside down, what we were going to do in post was flip it like this: I flipped the image with the DP7's display settings. The image looked correct. I showed her twice, smiled and told her that what I was doing here right now, the post guys are going to do later, everything will be fine. The director handled the issue with amazing patience.

She just wasn't certain. She couldn't picture it, and she was too nervous to give the green light on a shot she wasn't sure about. I told her it was okay and we scrambled to get the camera back onto a tripod and flip the entire set instead. This little piece of confusion took an hour to rectify. We flipped everything and now with the camera right side up, she could see that it was correct.

We ripped through the rest of the day, our jib shots were the last shots we did and we made our day. I would have loved to take these spots through color correction and fix all of the things I see, but the most important lesson I learned on this shoot was empathy. I think it is paramount that you exercise empathy to anyone who is struggling to see things the way you see them. You're getting paid to execute what has already cost a lot of time and money before you even showed up to set. You're also getting paid to make sure the agency reps, company reps, etc. all feel really awesome about your decisions and technical knowledge. And guess what happened? When the next round of commercials came around, I got the call to shoot them too.

Pulling focus from the Dreamcolor.

Pulling focus from the Dreamcolor.