Creating An Action Plan For A Challenging Shoot

This is a master view of the area that I’d be spending a week shooting in. The goal was to record an engineering team fabricating and installing some new components underneath the bottom of a car. Note the camera mounted on a motion control slider and the single 35-inch Lantern light source.

I recently produced a shoot for a client that was definitely out of the norm for what I’ve been mostly doing since the beginning of the pandemic. I thought it might be interesting to examine how I approach a non-typical shoot scenario, both from strategy and execution. This was for a corporate client and the project/shoot presented an interesting set of parameters:

  1. I had to shoot alone as a one-man band (not my favorite way to shoot, but sometimes it’s what a project calls for).
  2. I needed many different camera views and styles.
  3. I’d be shooting for a week in a relatively “not great” looking location.
  4. I’d be shooting an iterative process of building up a system underneath a car.

The end output from this week of shooting would be a series of 5- to 10-minute technical/informational pieces for the client’s internal use only. I’d be shooting a few sit-down interviews but largely gathering informal sound bites from engineers and fabricators as they worked, as well as documenting their work as they pieced together the testing system.

Using the Fujifilm X-T3 for a challenging shoot
The Fujifilm X-T3 proved to be the perfect tool for this shoot. Its small size and weight, as well as its superb video quality recording UHD 10-bit H.265 footage, proved to be the perfect resolution for this project. The shoot ended up utilizing three of the X-T3s in various configurations.

The Workflow Strategy For A Challenging Shoot

I’ve shot similar projects for this same client, so I know that the end goal was for shooting the footage. There were multiple client team members running all over the facility, and my job was to try to capture as much of the multi-stage fabrication process as possible. I can’t get into specifics about the tech being developed due to NDA, but I can say that a large amount of time was spent shooting underneath a car up on a lift.

Based upon editing a previous shoot with this client that I did with a single camera on a gimbal, I knew that this time around I’d need more types of footage, framing and shots than I had shot for their previous project. For this week of shooting, I conceived that I wanted to bring three different cameras to the shoot as well as GoPros for quick POV shots and for time-lapse footage. While I’m not a fan of GoPro picture quality, especially for even well-lit interiors, I can’t deny that GoPros are the simplest, easiest way to shoot time-lapse footage out of any of the options available.

Fujifilm X-T3 mounted to my DJI RS2 gimbal
The Fujifilm X-T3 mounted to my DJI RS2 gimbal proved to be a good workhorse, allowing me to quickly and easily follow the talent all over the facility quickly and easily. Its ability to swivel upward allowed me to capture effective shots of the underside of the car and the work being performed on it.

Camera System One

This was my “A” camera. I utilized a Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless camera mounted to my DJI RS2 gimbal.

Camera System Two

This system was designed to capture “work in progress” sequences using my Rhino EVO Motion Control system with another Fujifilm X-T3 camera utilizing the Fujinon XF16mm f/1.4 WR lens.  

I utilized our Fujifilm X-T3 in a mini Cine rig configuration as our handheld rig for easily obtaining quick insert shots within the extremely space-confined recesses of the car underside. This X-T3, shown here with a Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 lens, utilized several different lenses in order to obtain a wide variety of framings and looks.

Camera System Three

I thought it might come in handy to have a small, handheld cine-style rig for grabbing shots up in the substructure of the bottom the car. This relatively small and light cine camera rig utilized my third Fujifilm X-T3 with various lenses, outputting its signal into my Atomos Ninja V monitor recorder. This rig would also serve as my interview camera for a few sit down interviews.

In the foreground, this shot shows my Godox VL-300 LED COB light with the Godox 35-inch Lantern attached to it. I don’t light with lanterns that often because they tend to spill light everywhere, but in this case, this ability proved to be helpful.

Grip And Lighting Challenges

This challenging shoot was to take place in a newly renovated car engineering and fabrication facility located in an industrial area of Southern California. I had seen some scouting photos of the location, and let’s just say that its appearance was decidedly “industrial” looking. Fortunately, the building had not only skylights all over the ceiling but also numerous newer LED light banks.

Granted, inexpensive LED fixtures sometimes have flicker and weird color temperatures for video shooting, but overall, having a reasonably well-lit facility would be a better starting point than a super dark, murky facility. I was working solo, so my options were pretty relegated to only being able to light the main working area underneath the car as I simply didn’t have the room and time to bring my full grip and lighting package in location to light up larger areas of the facility.

The other challenge I faced was the lighting angle. Normally, up lighting isn’t the most flattering light for people, often resulting in a ghoulish, horror movie kind of look, but it was of paramount importance that the bottom of the car be well lit and there would be engineers and fabricators walking around the underside of the car as well.

I ended up utilizing one of my Godox VL300 LED COB lights as my main under-car lighting source. Rather than using one of my 47-inch Parabolic softboxes with a grip as I often use when shooting in more controlled situations, for this challenging shoot, I ended up attaching a 35-inch Godox Lantern to the VL-300 via its Bowens mounting system. In most situations, the fact that a lantern radiates soft light 360 degrees is a challenge. As DPs, we usually want to carefully control and choose exactly where the light spreads, but since I needed exposure both on faces and the underside of the car being working on, the lantern worked quite nicely.

The facility itself was a bit grungy and dirty as most auto fabrication shops tend to be, so my strategy to give the underside of the car a bit of a look was to utilize a small Nanguang RGB-88 RGB LED light wand as a sort of rim and colored fill for the talent and the car. I find working in the cool end of the spectrum utilizing blue, purple, pink and magenta resulted in nice colored, reflective glints and highlights from the aluminum and steel surfaces of the underside of the car. When photographing technology, whether mechanical gear or computing, the cooler side of the spectrum tends to look “higher-tech” when there are some hints of cooler spectrum lighting. 

I found the Tascam DR-10L audio recorder to be the perfect tool for recording clean audio of the talent as they worked on the project. I upgraded the lavaliere mic from the stock Tascam mic to an OST 801 lavaliere to provide a little more precise sound quality from the talent as they worked with noisy machinery and tools.

Audio Strategy

I normally like to hire professional sound mixers. Even if I’d have had the budget to hire a sound mixer, there were issues with NDA and legal screening that would preclude me from doing so. I’m very focused on gathering and recording high-quality sound though, so I thought about which camera I’d largely be shooting with and trying to set up a workable audio workflow to record the best quality sound I was able to.

My main camera for this challenging shoot was undoubtedly going to be the gimbal camera rig. I attached a Røde VideoMicro to a monitor extension arm that was mounted onto the DJI RS2 gimbal. This provided a relatively low center of gravity. The small Røde mics are designed to mount onto DSLR and mirrorless camera hot-shoes but as you know, mounting a microphone on the hot-shoe of a gimbal-mounted camera means that at some point, with tilting and panning the camera, the mic’s location atop the camera was going to get in the way and restrict movement.

The Røde VideoMicro records surprisingly decent, usable audio if and when your camera is located within a foot or two of your subject. Beyond that, a camera-mounted microphone is close to useless. I did end up utilizing several instances of camera audio for ambient sound capture and, of course, the scratch track proved to be invaluable in allowing Final Cut Pro to easily sync the camera footage with the Tascam audio recording.

In order to mitigate the noise issues surrounding the talent (this was a working fabrication facility, so there were loud saws, noisy air tools and welding occurring constantly), I decided to mount a Tascam DR-10L recorder with an upgraded OST 801 lavaliere microphone. By positioning a lavaliere just a few inches from the talent’s mouth, you’d be surprised at how much loud ambient sound can be mitigated. The downside of stand-alone recorders is that you can’t monitor the sound as it records. This means if you don’t rig the lavaliere well if there are cable rubbing or mic rubbing noises, you’ll never hear them until it’s too late—typically a few days later in the edit bay.

Using stand-alone recorders is risky, but I’ve obtained usable and even excellent results doing this in the past. I didn’t really have much of a choice as there was no way I could attach and monitor a wireless receiver to a small and light gimbal system. Even if I could, monitoring the receiver with headphones as I shot with the gimbal would be awkward and potentially even dangerous as I needed to hear what I was near on the machine shop floor as I didn’t want to run into, bump into or trip over anything as I shot.

Unfortunately, NDA precludes me from including any samples from the shoot itself, but this represents a BTS shot of the Nanguang RGB-88 LED RGB wand being utilized to add some color to the metallic highlights underneath the car.

The Overall Game Plan For This Challenging Shoot

Luckily for this shoot, I had multiple days to capture everything I needed to. The process was not linear as we were bouncing around between meetings, 3D scanning, metal fabrication, conceptual design, etc., so it was challenging keeping track of what I had shot and what I needed to shoot more of in order to craft a narrative story about the process.

As far as camera system choice, I was very happy with utilizing a gimbal camera as my A camera and the slider camera on or near the ground to look up and capture the fabrication and fitting processes onto the car. I didn’t end up using the handheld cine rig as much as I thought I would, but I did use it to record our main sit-down interview, which saved me immeasurable time in not having to tear down one of the camera systems to work in a tripod-mount situation.

I’m in the midst of editing this project, and so far, I’m extremely happy with how the footage came out—as is the client team. For most of the projects I shoot, I tend to utilize larger, heavier, bigger, more “pro” camera systems like the Sony FX9, the BMD Ursa, the Canon C200 or 300 MKII, but for the special requirements of this project, having three small, light, mirrorless camera systems was a definite plus. I was able to record two and three camera angles of a lot of the more intense and interesting segments we filmed, and I never could have accomplished that working solo with bigger, heavier cameras.

I had to function as the grip/gaffer, DP, director and sound mixer for this challenging shoot, so figuring out the best ways to enable myself to fill all of these positions was challenging. But now that I’m editing the footage into the first finished edit, it was rewarding as well. The Fujifilm X-T3 is a very capable video tool, much more so than its cost and size would lead you to believe. The small, inexpensive Tascam DR-10L audio recorders functioned very well, so the sound I captured was usable, if not nearly as polished as the sound a pro sound mixer would have recorded.

Overall, it felt as if I set out with a specific game plan to make this challenging shoot a success and my strategy and execution, overall, was a success. That’s a nice feeling when faced with a shooting situation that is ripe for missed opportunities to capture the most important moments needed to tell the story well.