In this post I will provide a detailed breakdown of a 30-second Public Service Announcement (PSA) I made in 2005 for a competition.
We shot the spot on a bitterly cold night in November 2005 in Oxford, UK. The spot is set in an exterior night location and we therefore had no choice but to wait until sunset to start shooting. It was of course completely worth it, but the shooting conditions were quite challenging. It was so cold that a few hours into the shoot, the Focus Dolly we were using was covered by a thin layer of ice.
The camera was the Canon XL1 — this was in the bad old days when independent filmmakers were forced to choose between the unaffordable expense of shooting on film and the barely acceptable quality of DV. Big HD cameras offered all the ugliness of video for the high price of 35mm camera rental, and were therefore completely out of the question. This was all before the RED camera.
We used one large HMI lamp (4K if I remember correctly), a couple of blondes (essentially 2K incandescent lights) and one or two smaller lights.
The HMI light was powered by a generator that we hired as part of the grip package. The generator did not have to be particularly silent because we did not record sound, but I remember that it was pretty quiet and generally well-behaved and easy to use.
For demanding night shoots in which you will be shooting dialogue, you will need the quietest, most high-end generator that you can procure.
If you compromise on this, I guarantee that you will regret it when it comes to editing a clean soundtrack in post-production. On my very first film we purchased an ultra-silent generator that we carefully placed as far away from the microphone as possible, and it generally worked quite well, but in some shots you could hear a faint hum in the distance and I had to work very hard to clean up that sound. I hate to think what it would have been like if we had used a cheaper, louder generator.
There were three tracking shots in the spot. We used the Focus Dolly, which is quite convenient because when packed it resembles a large unwieldy suitcase, but to this day I’m not a fan of these creaky, lightweight dollies; heavy-duty dollies with two solid seats on them are the way forward. As a general rule, if a dolly can be lifted off the ground by one person, I don’t like it.
Achieving the blue look
The blue hue for night scenes is a tried-and-tested classic and it works like a charm. We achieved it completely in-camera by setting the camera’s white balance to tungsten, which made the camera read the daylight-balanced light as blue. In those bad old days it was one of the most reliable ways to make digital video footage look halfway professional.
The HMI light was natively daylight-balanced; the blondes were corrected with blue gels.
Absolutely no further color correction was done in post-production, although I might have tweaked the contrast and gamma.
These days, ambitious filmmakers would be mad to use anything other than a RED camera or Arri Alexa. 35mm film is too expensive and everything else is too ugly. In these cases you will not need to achieve the look in-camera, because these cameras capture plenty of data to enable you to achieve far subtler looks in post-production, assuming you have the services of a super-talented colorist.
Colorists are not just button pushers; they are real artists and you would be well advised to secure the services of a good one.
The diagrams below show the approximate lighting set-ups we used for the shot depicted in the corner.
Lighting set-up for the actor walking towards camera:
Convincing, deep lighting for night exterior shoots requires HMI lights
To obtain the sort of depth that makes the blue lighting convincing in night scenes, you need a very powerful light placed far into the distance, which means you will need HMI lights.
Do not think that you can get away with using a smaller light close by, because you will not get the deep lighting you hope for. In any case, as I always remind newbies, you really shouldn’t be doing any of this yourself — work with a competent cinematographer. You will get better results and you will also learn a lot by watching the cinematographer work.
The dappled light in the shot above was achieved with a large piece of cardboard with many holes punched in it placed a few feet away from a 2K blonde. No HMI light was used for this shot.
Looking back, the holes in the cardboard really should have been more numerous, but all in all the effect worked quite well. Dappling light is all about achieving mood and texture. Can you imagine the shot above without dappling? It would have been flat and non-cinematic.
I remember that boring those large holes into the cardboard with a Swiss Army knife was time-consuming and not at all enjoyable. You can save all this hassle and get better results by using cucoloris, which are essentially thin metal plates with a variety of shapes cut into them that you can place in front of a lamp to dapple the light.
Panning shot ending on over-the-shoulder shot
To introduce the concept of the woman being spotted and targeted by a thief, I designed a panning shot that ended on an over-the-shoulder shot of the actor.
I instructed the actor to exhale smoke when the actress reached a certain position, so that the smoke would appear in the frame at exactly the right time (after the actor was framed).
The actress was lit from the left with the HMI light. I made her wear a very pretty light-colored coat that would reflect light and provide some contrast, in addition to having neutral colors that would not compete with the blue color scheme. I think it worked reasonably well.
I first framed the over-the-shoulder shot and then simply instructed the actress to walk backwards to establish her first position. She then simply walked and the camera panned with her, stopping on the over-the-shoulder shot that was originally set up.
Tracking, panning and rack focus
I wanted to provide a stark and sudden contrast between the police officers and the thief, and I designed a shot in which the camera tracked and panned with the police officers with the foreground actor close to the camera but out of frame, until the panning camera ended on the tight close-up of the actor in the foreground.
The two schematic diagrams below illustrate the camera and actor positions of the two salient points in this shot.
Later in the shot:
“Superior continuity” in film editing
“Superior continuity” is the effect whereby the particularly smooth and well-matched editing of shots gives the viewer the illusion of watching a continuous scene instead of a sequence of shots.
In the cut shown above, I instructed the actor to take the cigarette out of his mouth at exactly the same point in each of the two shots, and then cut from one shot to the other on that particular action, enhancing the illusion of continuity.
Learn editing — you will not regret it!
Dealing with neighbor rage on location
We did everything above board on this shoot, including securing the endorsement of the local police station, obtaining permission from other relevant local authorities, buying employer’s liability insurance, and so on.
Nevertheless, about three quarters into the shoot, a local pub owner decided that he would make a big fuss about the generator being placed on the sidewalk opposite his property, even though it was well before midnight and the generator was not an inconvenience to anyone. It quickly became apparent that they had an ongoing feud with the folks opposite them and for some reason they decided to take it out on us. We were stuck in the middle of a neighborhood row, at sub-zero temperatures, with hard-earned money on the line, a moderately complicated shoot and a 1a.m. deadline.
There was no point in arguing — the grip rental company was going to send its truck at 1 a.m. to collect all the equipment, and we absolutely had to get all the shots we needed before then.
We quickly abandoned that particular street and relocated to another street around the corner, which forced me to redesign the remaining shots in my head.
Do you see why I always recommend that filmmakers completely master the art of film editing? I knew exactly how I was going to edit the spot, and therefore it wasn’t very difficult for me to redesign the shots to suit the new circumstances. If I had been clueless about film editing, I would not have been able to redesign those final shots under the atrocious pressure of strangers shouting and a looming deadline, with so much money on the line. There are no second chances with this kind of shoot.
As a director, if you have serious film editing skills, you are unstoppable.
Directors shouldn’t write their own scripts for TV spots
“You are an awesome director, but this doesn’t feel like a TV spot”
That is what I was told by one TV commercial veteran in Los Angeles when I showed her this spot. I was younger and less experienced back then, and I insisted on writing my own script because I am a film director and think in terms of narrative, not in terms of advertising, and back then the idea of letting an advertiser into my world was unacceptable. I essentially wrote a little film with a message at the end, but that is not enough for the TV commercial industry.
For the record, I wouldn’t even consider endorsing the message at the end of this TV spot these days, but as I said, I was wet behind the ears back then. I made this spot for a competition, gave them non-exclusive rights, and never heard from them again.
If you are serious about directing TV spots, you must shoot scripts written by professional copywriters.
The TV spots on my current reel were all written by professional copywriters, and it was worth the hassle.
I will tell you right away that TV spot copywriters can be difficult to work with — in all honesty many of them simply do not understand film directors — but it is a sacrifice you will have to make if you are serious about directing TV spots.
The TV spot world is an incredibly awkward interface between film directors and advertising creatives. Film directors are not advertisers and advertisers are not directors — we quite simply do not play on the same team. It is a bizarre relationship at best.
However, it is worth gritting your teeth and doing it anyway, because directing TV commercials is good filmmaking practice, and you might even get paid – shock horror!
Summary of key tips
1. To achieve this sort of look at night you will need serious film lights. There is no way around this, unless you find a way of relaxing the laws of physics. Big film lights cost money.
2. If you are an ambitious filmmaker, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to get your act together with film editing. The quality of your projects will improve immeasurably, and it will save your bacon in emergency situations in which you have to redesign shots under high pressure without messing up the editing process. I guarantee that it is only a matter of time before that happens to you (if you are an active filmmaker).
3. Even if you have correctly obtained all the permits you need to shoot on location, it is a good idea to give the locals a heads-up before the shoot, to avoid the sort of crisis I had to cope with that night. You should also have a backup plan — alternative shots that you can get if certain shots on your shot list become impossible to shoot for some reason.
4. In the bad old days of 2005 we really had no viable choice but to shoot on a DV camera like the Canon XL1. The quality was just barely acceptable, even back then. These days you don’t have to put up with it – shoot with a real camera like the Red One, Red Epic or Arri Alexa: it will age-proof your work and it also has some immensely significant but little-known advantages that I will discuss in a future post.
5. If you are serious about achieving success in the TV commercial industry, do not even consider writing your own spec TV spots — they will fail to impress the right people. Collaborate with professional copywriters instead. It is worth the sacrifice.
I hope you found this useful!