DoP Harvey Glen and Eye Squad Productions prove that a low budget and a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera are no hurdles to producing a sophisticated TVC.
When ad agency Impact BBDO approached Dubai-based production house Eye Squad Productions to make a TVC on the Mercedes E Class to showcase the new blind spot assist function on the car, it had a few additional requirements.
It wanted to experiment with an unconventional concept for a car TVC while also keeping budgets down.
The narrative, therefore, was unusual. Instead of filming a car in motion (which would have sent costs soaring), this TVC involved a young frightened female rushing down stairs and through an eerie basement, past snakes and body limbs to the finale of nearly being maimed by a chainsaw, if it isn’t for help from the ‘blind spot assist’.
Set in the 1950s, the story was to be shot in black and white and was meant to have the look and feel of a conventional horror film from the 50s era.
Producer Sami says that as a fan of horror films, he was excited by the concept as soon as he heard about it.
“We don’t get such briefs everyday so it immediately got our creative juices flowing,” Sami says.
DoP Glen says he was just as intrigued and excited when he was roped in to do the project by Sami.
“I am always very keen to avoid the obvious literal approach and so, I was naturally intrigued when I was told there would be no cars involved in the commercial,” says Glen.
When he walked into Eye Squad’s studio at International Media Production Zone, he was even more impressed.
The set, built and designed by Eye Squad’s in-house art department headed by production designer Matt Kruh, was dressed to replicate an eerie basement complete with a 3.5 metre high staircase replete with rats, a snake and a mannequin’s body parts.
The surprises did not end there. Glen was told he’d be filming the TVC with a Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR camera rather than a high-end HD CAM or RED.
The request was unusual. The Canon 5D Mark II is a DSLR camera primarily designed for still photography. It also works on a CMOS chip with a full-frame 36mm x 24mm sensor as opposed to CCD, which most traditional broadcast camcorders use. The CMOS chip helps achieve a shallow depth of field and a cinematic look.
“Producer Omar Sami from Eye Squad Productions did not immediately convey that he wanted to film the whole thing on the Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR camera. I had previously shot some dramatic reconstruction with the 5D for a BBC production when the camera was first launched. I was pleasantly surprised by the image quality and shallow depth of field, although at this stage, the firmware for manual exposure control wasn’t released until half way through the production. This made lighting and operations for the first part of the shoot challenging but interesting.
“With the release of the Canon firmware including manual exposure, which is absolutely essential, I was keen to give it another crack, although I did suggest that shooting on the ‘old faithful’ RED camera might be the better option. Everyone, however, wanted to give the DSLR a shot so we decided to embrace it and push it to the absolute max,” Glen explains.
The DoP worked closely with gaffer John Berro to create high-contrast lighting on set. This was achieved with a range of lights mainly comprising small tungsten fixtures, 2Ks, 1Ks, Dado heads, dimmers, a hazier and practical lights on set.
As the final project was to broadcast in black and white, I wanted to light high contrast to give distinction and create depth to the image.
Producer Omar Sami clarifies that setting the movie in a basement in dim light conditions also helped the team keep a tight rein on budget.
“One of the major costs on any production is lights. Depending on what camera you are shooting with, your lighting requirements could go up significantly. For instance, the RED camera needs a lot of light. This, in turn, means additional crew and that immediately hikes up your costs. We chose to shoot on the Canon 5D and that immediately meant our lighting requirements would go down. In addition, the ambience helped to keep these requirements at a minimum,” Sami adds.
Despite this, the production crew included about 22 people, of which 12 were freelancers, Sami explains.
Once the set was lit, the next step was to switch the camera to Live View mode.
This makes the 1920x1080 HD video function on the camera operational and allows the cameraman to see the image on the back of the camera’s three-inch (76mm) LCD screen.
“With the 5D Mk II, you cannot operate through the viewfinder as it is disabled once you are in Live View Mode and have a monitor plugged in. You also won’t want to operate via the LCD screen as it’s incredibly small.
If you use an additional viewfinder like the Zacuto Z-Finder, it’s much better because it magnifies the image. However, don’t use only this to judge lighting, contrast, focus or exposure. That will not give you an accurate picture,” he says.
The team fed a composite feed out of the camera to a Panasonic eight-inch HD monitor which Glen used as his monitor. They then fed a second 18-inch HD monitor for the agency and the client.
“This is not the ideal setup but it was the best option we had,” admits Glen.
“If you have the correct cables, you can take an HDMI feed out of the camera.”
An important part of this shoot was recreating the ambience of a 1950s thriller. To do this and perform smooth tracking moves, the team mounted the camera on a Pee Wee dolly.
“This was a rather funny and unconventional setup as there were more cables than camera with the DSLR on the Pee Wee dolly,” says Glen.
The next factor on the checklist was lenses. In this case, the team was armed with a range of lenses including the Canon EF 1.8 Primes, the F2.0 135mm and an EF 2.8 16-35mm as well as the 24-70mm Zoom.
“I had the focal length diversity that I would expect from any set of PL mount lenses and a very pleasing shallow depth of field,” explains Glen.
“I personally think this film-like depth of field is the main selling point in the Canon 5D Mk II for those attempting video. You cannot get a shallow depth of field this close on any other camera in this price range. With a B4 mount camera, you would have to use a 35mm adaptor with primes to achieve the same effect,” explains Glen.
As part of his efforts to create the right exposure and look, Glen also set the ISO at 400.
“People claim you can take the ISO as high as 1600. Personally, I wouldn’t want to raise it any higher than 400 to avoid a grainy image. We also set the shutter to 60 fps, which is double the 5D Mk II native frame rate of 30fps. Canon has now released 24 and 25fps. This wasn’t available when we shot. Even if it was, I would still have shot at 30fps to slow down the action a bit and take the ‘edge’ off,” says Glen.
As this camera is primarily designed for still photography, Glen also decided to light the set almost exclusively from his Seconic light meter.
“I set my meter to the camera settings with an F Stop of 2.8 and lit almost entirely from it. It was quite refreshing to light from the meter. It almost felt like I was shooting on celluloid. In order to get the high contrast look, I also had a five-stop ratio from the darkest areas to the correctly exposed, with some areas slightly overexposing at around 1-2 stops. I was quite impressed at how well the Canon 5D MK II captured the detail in these dark areas while maintaining the highlights remarkably well,” adds Glen.
Perhaps one of the challenges for people attempting to shoot with this camera will be to keep their shots steady. This wasn’t a problem on the Mercedes shoot, as it was shot completely from the dolly and all movement very smooth.
“A lot of people are intimidated by the movement and the ‘jello’ effect that can be created if they don’t shoot carefully. Using the camera as a handheld might cause a lot of shake but on a dolly with smooth tracking, we personally experienced no problem,” he explains.
The DoP reckons that some additional accessories could have helped maximise the potential of the DSLR. However, the team had to make do with a follow focus unit.
“Alexandro Martella, my focus puller was amazing keeping sharps, especially on the close up shots i.e. a quick dolly into the aggressively shaking door handle. Unlike a 35mm prime lens, there are very small increments between each focus point. This means that 5ft to infinity is actually only a mere few centimetres on the lens. This can make precision focusing much more tricky than with traditional 35mm primes,” explains Glen.
As the team got into the thick of the plot, however, Glen claims the team forgot they were working with a camera designed primarily for still photography.
“We played a few clips back on the 18” monitor and they looked fantastic in black and white.
Essentially, cinematography is all about lighting, framing and how you capture the mood, atmosphere and action of the scene. Technology enhancements don’t change this basic principle.
“With this camera, you can shoot clips up to 4 GB in size, which is approximately 12 minutes of 16:9 HD (1920x1080) or 24 minutes of 4:3 SD (640x480) footage for those still stuck in the stone-age. The camera also imposes a hard maximum clip length of 29 minutes 59 seconds if the 4 GB limit has not already been reached. The video clips are recorded as Quicktime MOV files with H.264/MPEG-4 compressed video and uncompressed PCM audio at 44.1 kHz. HD and SD bitrates are approximately 38 and 17 mbps respectively,” Glen explains.
While many more cinematographers may be tempted to attempt shoots on the Canon DSLR camera, the DoP warns that shooting with the camera is not without its challenges.
“You still need the same amount of time for lighting, much of the same equipment and time to change lenses. This is just a more affordable option, and makes remote access filming much easier and lighter. Besides that, it also gives photographers the opportunity to experiment with video and expand their own horizons. Photographers shooting video have actually even sparked a new term called Cinephotography,” explains Glen.
Although the initial plan was to shoot only in black and white, the ad agency and the director decided to do a second colour version of the TVC as well.
Although DoP Glen was not as impressed with the colour version, he says they were much better than expected.
“I lit it solely for black and white and as a result, the colour had a much higher contrast image than I would have normally gone for, which looked punchy and very strong. The DSLR camera reproduced the colours incredibly well and looked more cinematic than I would have imagined,” explains Glen.
The whole footage was edited on Final Cut Pro although some tricky bits were edited on Flame at Blackstone Studios, explains producer Sami.
Following the success of the Mercedes TVC, which can be viewed on www.harveyglen.com, the DoP has now been approached to do several more TVCs with the DSLR.
“I can see this camera catching on in the future. That is until RED releases Scarlet. When that happens, I believe cinematography, photography and cinephotography will merge even more. It’s a changing world, you can‘t stop it, so it’s best to learn, experiment and embrace,” he says.
Agency: Impact BBDO
Production: Eye Squad Productions
DoP: Harvey Glen