One Perfect Shot Is All You Need

NOTE: Director Andreas Nilsson was kind enough to answer a few questions about the production of this spot! I’ve updated this post accordingly.

I’ve often said that a simple shot executed well is better than a complex shot executed poorly. Then again, a complex shot executed well can be absolutely riveting.

This Volvo commercial consists of a single, continuous shot. I wondered what kind of rig was used to support the camera for this kind of motion, and Andreas Nilsson, the director of the commercial, told me that he used a “Russian Arm. It’s basically a car with a techno-crane type thing on it.”

The camera work, the motion of the trucks, and the action of the actor (Jean-Claude Van Damme, for you youngsters out there who didn’t grow up watching “Bloodsport” and “Lion Heart”), work in perfect sync. Even though the scene is backlit by a rising sun, the lighting on the trucks and the actor is flawless. I had suspected that HMIs or reflectors were used, but Nilsson told me that, actually, it was lit only by ambient light! The spot was shot on an Arri Alexa, and graded by The Mill in London. I’m amazed that they were able to pull so much detail out of an entirely backlit image.

Really, really nice work!

Thank you again, Andreas Nilsson, for sharing the production details with us.

Oh Good! “Inception” DID Have A Happy Ending

Here’s a great explanation of why the ambiguous ending of Christopher Nolan’s terrific film “Inception” actually WAS reality, and not a dream.

To make a long (French) story short, DiCaprio’s character wears a wedding ring on his left hand in all the dream scenes, and in none of the reality scenes. Since he isn’t wearing a ring in the final scenes of the movie, the conclusion is that he is not in dream-land, and actually got his life back.

Finally, I can rest easy!

In Defense Of “Difficult Clients”

Almost every day, on Facebook or Twitter, I’ll see one colleague or another complaining about a client. Some people post their gripes on Tumblr sites or – even worse – public blogs. I’ve even seen designers create elaborate projects like this one to mock the people who pay them.

I have a few things to say about this.

First of all, it’s unprofessional. Venting, in person, to a friend is one thing; writing something snarky on the internet is something else. Even if the client you’re complaining about is not a Facebook friend, a Twitter follower, or a blog subscriber, you probably have other clients who ARE, and seeing you spout negativity does not give them warm, fuzzy feelings.

To put this in ad-speak, client-shaming hurts your brand. Branding, after all, is just another word for what psychologists call “conditioned response.” Like Pavlov’s dog, who learned to associate a ringing bell with a tasty meal, you want your customers to associate you with success, talent and integrity. Tweeting “Client hates the layout. Told me to make the logo bigger. #facepalm #fml” does NOT reinforce any of those positive associations.

Subtractive Lighting In Urban Areas

My previous post on using subtractive light to take great natural light portraits got a very nice response, so I thought I’d follow up with another tip.

If you’re shooting in a heavily built-up urban area, with lots of high-rise buildings and other looming structures, an incredibly easy way to get great portrait lighting is simply to position your subject facing the sun, but in the shadow of something. In other words, if the sun is in the east, the subject is facing east, but there’s a building in the way. Use a nice lens (my favorite portrait lens is the Canon 85mm 1.8) with a wide aperture to put selective focus on your subject, and you’ve got upscale-looking shots that work perfectly for corporate, editorial or fashion work.

Subtractive Lighting – The Secret to Outdoor Portraits

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Everyone struggles with outdoor portraits. Every once in a while, the light is perfect, but all too often either the sun is shining into your subject’s eyes, or it’s flaring your lens, or it’s directly overhead causing unappealing shadows, or maybe it’s hiding behind dark clouds and making everything look flat and dismal. Problems, problems, problems.

Most people use one of two standard responses to difficult outdoor lighting situations: either they use a reflector to bounce light where they want it, or they use a portable strobe to add light. The common denominator is, of course, ADDING light. If you’re working outside on a bright day, that’s a lot of light. It’ll probably make your subject squint, and feel uncomfortable, and it also probably won’t even look that good.

I prefer a different approach. Instead of ADDING light, I SUBTRACT light. This approach works equally well for either video or photography.

Dean Trippe’s “Something Terrible”

I really like creator-owned comics, largely because they represent the singular vision of an artist in a way that the technical and collaborative process of film and video really doesn’t allow. I just read “Something Terrible” by Dean Trippe, and I recommend it very highly. I have never read any of Dean Trippe’s work before, and I am very impressed.

“Something Terrible” deals with a serious subject (and it’s definitely not for kids), but it’s beautiful, profound and deeply moving. It takes a lot of courage to tell such a personal story, and it takes a lot work to tell it in such a gripping way. Dean is selling the digital comic for only 99 cents here – – and it’s hard to think of a better way to spend a dollar.

New Work “Lennar Choir” TV

This was a fun project. Not only was I able to reunite my favorite freelance crew members, I was able to bring in Robbi Kenney, a terrific music director, to compose, harmonize and lead the choir in this high-concept TV commercial showcasing a regional homebuilder.

I shot the project on my Panasonic AF-100 rather than a 5D Mk II because the goal of the spot was really to show off the house, and that meant deep depth of field at fairly wide apertures. Also, audio quality was critical, and with a very tight turnaround time, I didn’t want to deal with dual-system sound.

We spent quite a bit of time lighting each room, but there was still quite a lot of dynamic range. It would be interesting to shoot something like this on a Blackmagic camera in RAW. I’m saving my pennies for a Blackmagic 4K!

BTS – Goodwill TV Commercial

When you’re a big company like Goodwill, it’s natural to advertise on TV. But, when your whole public image revolves around being non-profit, it’s difficult to justify a big TV budget. So, when the Rawle Murdy agency brought me in to shoot two 15-second TV spots for Goodwill, I knew that I had to make a small budget look good, but not fancy.

The concept for the spot was that a series of children would, together, convey the message that “smart moms shop Goodwill.” To keep it real, we brought in children of actual Goodwill employees, rather than hiring kid actors, Goodwill employees pulled clothes from the store for the kids to wear. These measures added authenticity, and also kept costs down.

BTS – MMA Fighter Portraits

It’s always fun to photograph athletes, and martial artists are great subjects. Not only are they usually very interesting looking, they tend to be very serious about their sport, but not too serious about themselves. This makes for an enjoyable shoot.


I recently photographed UFC fighter Rafaello Oliveira and some of the local MMA competitors that he trains. To create a dramatic look for the photos, I used a single keylight almost directly over the subject’s head, combined with double backlights.


I used almost completely bare bulbs for this. I did put a layer of “tough spun” diffusion on the keylight to keep it from being too uncontrollable, but I wanted the lights to be as hard as possible, so I did not soften them in any way.

Color Theory and Subliminal Advertising

People talk a lot about color grading, but not very much about the color theory behind it. I recently saw this commercial for Bud Light, and I was struck by the conscious use of color theory in it.

At the beginning of the spot, the hero of the commercial is buying beer at sunset, and the imagery has a warm, “golden-hour” hue.


Almost everything in the frame is a warm color. The hero’s jacket is khaki, and his shirt is red. The only prominent blue element is the Bud Light carton.


“Continuum” – The Best Show You’re Not Watching


Thanks to Netflix streaming, I recently discovered the Canadian TV show “Continuum.” Rachel Nichols (previously of “Alias” and the “GI Joe” movies) plays a dedicated police officer from the year 2077 who, along with a team of terrorists (played by Sci-Fi channel veterans you’ll recognize from shows like “Stargate” and “Andromeda”) is transported to the present day.

The show was created by Simon Barry, whose career is unusual in that he started off as a b-camera operator, and managed to break into writing and producing. Simon’s healthy skepticism about the powers-that-be was first displayed in the 2000 Wesley Snipes vehicle, “The Art of War,” in which Snipes played a shadowy United Nations agent who is framed for murder by the FBI.

In “Continuum,” Barry challenges the audience – and narrative convention – by presenting a situation in which the “good guys” actually work for an oppressive, fascist government, while the “bad guys” use murder and terrorism to fight for liberty and justice. In so doing, “Continuum” creates incredibly compelling, thought-provoking, and immensely enjoyable entertainment.