I recently had the pleasure of shooting two commercials for the graduate studies program at The Citadel – the military college of South Carolina. I was hired by the good folks at Cognetix, who wrote and produced the spots.
This was an interesting project, for a number of reasons.
First of all, the scripts were funny, and the actors were great. In fact, I’d worked with two of them before – Mark Szlachetka had starred in this Piggly Wiggly commercial, and Meredith Jones had starred in one of the web videos I shot for Phillips Electronics’ “Dead Battery Anxiety” campaign.
The Citadel has never advertised on TV before, so the budget was limited and the stakes were high. I brought in my frequent collaborator Michael Fischbach to assist (and act as background talent) on what would have otherwise been a crew-of-one shoot. When you have scenes with multiple actors reading lines, and you want good audio, there are only two ways to do it: have an intelligent human being hold a shotgun microphone on a boom, or put wireless microphones on everybody. I don’t particularly care for wireless mics (although I do use them when necessary), so I’d rather go for a boom operator whenever possible. In this case, Michael also assisted me with lighting and moving things around.
Why Two Cameras?
Although we shot everything on Citadel property, the concept was to show a contrast between the Citadel environment and the professional environment in which the characters are introduced. To support this contrast visually, I decided to shoot the “office” scenes on the Panasonic AF100, and the “school” scenes on the Canon 5D Mark II. This decision made sense to me for a number of reasons: the AF100 has far superior audio capabilities, so it’s much more well-suited to dialogue scenes; to my eye, the 5D sensor is inherently punchier and more flattering than the AF100 sensor, which makes it better suited to beauty shots; the 5D allowed me to capture shots with shallow depth of field easily, which helped to differentiate the classroom interiors from the office interiors (which were shot in the same building).
With two commercials to shoot in one day, and a crew of two people, I knew that I wasn’t going to have time to set up moving camera shots, so I focused on creating interesting compositions that would hold the viewer’s interest without additional motion. Very often, video shooters tend to fetishize camera moves, often at the expense of other elements, and I think these spots are good examples of how engaging shots can be, even if they’re totally stationary.
I used available lighting as a foundation, and augmented it as necessary. In this scene, the windows on camera left lit the background actors beautifully, and gave me a nice backlight on Adrian, the actor in the green shirt. However, there was no existing light in the room to act as his keylight, so I set up a 1,000 watt Tota light out of frame on camera right, shone it through a diffusion panel from my reflector multi-kit to create a nice, soft key, and then brought up the luminance on his face a bit more in post, using Colorista II.
For this wide shot of the cubicle farm, I set up two Totas with umbrellas, out of frame on camera left. This was just enough to bring up the ugly shadows cast by the overhead flourescent lighting. In post, I brought up the area around Mark, to make it the brightest part of the image. This helps the viewers eyes to be guided to the part of the screen I want them to look at.
While color grading, I deliberately kept the office footage fairly drab, just bringing up shadow areas as necessary. For the Citadel footage, on the other hand, I pumped up the color and impact of the shots as much as I could.
I used the Tota-through-umbrella setup for this classroom shot as well. Just a little bit of soft light from the front of the room gave me the modeling I was looking for on the actress’s face. Because the library lights were a bit of an odd greeenish hue, I had to clean up the color in post.
For this shot, I bounced a 600 watt Smith Victor lamp off the ceiling, just out of frame on the right, to fill in some of the shadow areas. Because the stairway – the focal point of the shot – was still a bit darker than I wanted, I brought it up a bit with Colorista II.
All the outside shots were taken without supplementary lighting of any kind. The Citadel buildings are all painted sort of an eggshell white, so I had to underexpose in order to retain detail in the facades. Then, in post, I went back in and brought up the luminance in the areas I wanted to brighten.
As you can see, aside from the last shot, in which I turned a rainy sky into a dramatic sunset, I didn’t do a lot of drastic grading. For the most part, I worked with the natural tendencies of the cameras, rather than against them.
Overall, I was quite pleased with the performance of both cameras: the 5D2 effortlessly gave me the kind of gorgeous campus shots that make the client happy, and the AF100’s built-in audio connectors and decent-sized sensor allowed me to capture images that compare favorably to those in productions with much higher budgets.