Earlier this year we got a call from a producer friend of ours with JWT, the agency of record for Ford Motor Company, asking us if we'd like to bid on an upcoming Ford truck commercial to be filmed out West. We've done a lot of Ford work over the years and frankly were just happy to see them stepping back into the advertising game after a rough year for automobiles. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity.
It was to be a series of spots called "Stampede" where about a thousand Ford trucks race out of the countryside, through a series of landscapes and towns towards a city near you. It was ambitious. I had done a Stampede job about six or seven years ago in Texas and this was a chance to work with some old friends. It was a challenge back then. We had 10 trucks and 10 stunt drivers (Chuck Norris' son being one of them). We locked the camera down in various locations and ran the trucks through different parts of the frame on a series of takes. Then the special effects guys (and gals) would composite them together and make it look like a stampede. It worked pretty well, although after piling five or six passes on top of one another the scene admittedly started to look a little muddy. It was still cool and I expected this job to be about the same.
But times have changed.
For starters, we were told we wouldn't be shooting any trucks. None. Nada. Zip. They had all been 360 degree modeled in a computer and the effects people could color them any color they wanted, spin the tires, bounce the suspension and move them in any direction they chose... and oh yea, don't worry about the dust... they'll create that too... right down to the reflections in the sheet metal. I started to feel small. During the first phone call we got a look at what they had in mind through a rough set of wireframes Green Grass Visual Effects had done. It was impressive.
Apparently, we were to shoot dramatically moving backgrounds and reflection passes... sweeping moves up over and around invisible vehicles through farms, ranches, towns and cities. It was a tall order. For starters, it's always hard keeping bogie vehicles out of the shots for a car commercial. Ford does not take kindly to a Dodge or a Chevy in their shots. And this one required sweeping clean the downtown streets of Dallas and Austin, a small town nearby and anywhere else the stampede would have to run through. Plus, the camera basically needed to "fly" through those locations uninhibited. We had some money... but not anything on an Oliver Stone level.
We decided to incorporate friends of ours into the job whom we had worked with in San Diego. Pursuit Camera Systems. I could go on and on about it here in print, but watch the video and you'll get the idea. They're "the deal" when it comes to shooting moving vehicles and after working with them in California I vowed to never do another running footage commercial without a camera vehicle like theirs. So we got them on board. Now I'd love to say I could operate the Pursuit Camera Vehicle... but it's not something you just jump on and do. In fact, it may be easier flying the space shuttle. So we brought in Brooks Guyer, a DP who can run the camera gyros like nobody's business. We used Brooks in California a couple of years ago and got some great looking footage. Fortunately, he was just coming off a movie in Pennsylvania and was available.
Long story short. We got the bid and I headed to Texas, where the job was to be shot, to scout locations. It was going to be a multiple joint effort. We would be the production company, 3008 in Dallas would be the edit/ composite house and Green Grass EFX would be working on the vehicles. For a while, my part of it seemed pretty easy.... just drive down deserted streets and sweep the camera around. To get those streets swept clean, I brought in my friend and trusted AD, Garrett Freeberg, from San Francisco. If anyone could lock up the city of Dallas... it was him and a handful of Dallas' finest.
It was on the location scout that things began to change. For one, I got a call from Green Grass saying that the deadline on the spots was carved in stone and not all that far away. As much as they loved the Pursuit shooting dramatic sweeping shots of Texas, they were concerned about having the time to track our moving shots. So as delicately as they could... they told us what they really wanted were locked down shots. I swallowed hard. we had just sold the agency on this fancy camera car system. Well, if we were going that direction... we certainly didn't need hot shots like the Pursuit team on this any longer. So the decision was made to drop them. Which I hated. Then, if we were going to be shooting locked downs... and these guys really wanted sharp crisp images to work with.... why were we shooting film? So I suggested HD, maybe something like the RED... or better yet, let's shoot it with one of the new Canon DSLR cameras that everyone is raving about. We owned several. It was a sell that needed some explanation. One minute we were showing up with the fanciest camera car on the planet with a big 35mm motion picture camera on it... and the next.... we're standing there with what looked like a 35mm still camera in our hands.
But it didn't end there. As I looked at these locations, nothing moved in them. There were no blowing trees, no people, no birds, no flags, no movement. Why were we even shooting motion? So in went another call to the agency.
Those of you who know me, know that I am also a still photographer and have a gallery here on the east coast. The marriage of high definition video to the new era of still cameras really excites me and is right down my alley. In retrospect, my background came in really handy because by the end of the day it was decided that we'll just use stills for the background plates. If I was not also a still shooter I would have had to brought someone else in... or maybe the agency would have. We decided to shoot with the Canon 5d MK II so if the need to shoot motion arose (and it did) we could handle it with the same camera. The resolution would be 5 times greater than High Definition video and give the animators plenty of room to work with.
It also gave us another opportunity... HDR. High Dynamic Range photography is somewhat new. Basically you put the camera on a tripod and take a series of photographs at different exposures. Then you feed those shots into a computer and magically it takes the best parts of each shot and blends them together into one very cool image. It was a perfect way to deal with the bright skies and dark "canyon's" a city can create. And since we would now be working with one still image... 3008 could build the perfect background plates for the vehicles to drive through... and even erase any stray vehicles that we may not be able to get off the street legally on the shoot day. Plus, if we shot them some blowing flags and flying birds... hell... they'll stick some of that in there as well. Things were coming together nicely.
I still had a hard time getting my head around how they were going to take my 2 dimensional still shots and wrap them around a 3 dimensional environment but let's just say that the guys at Green Grass are magic. Or at least that's what I want to believe. Sometimes you just have to have a little faith... which is what I resigned myself to.
Now that we were shooting stills... and on some occasions high definition video with the Canon, it opened up other possibilities as well. For starters, I had just returned from shooting beautiful landscapes in the Palouse region of Washington State... America's breadbasket, the summer before. We went through some of those pictures and pulled together enough elements to bring some real life to the farms and ranches that otherwise were going to have to be made entirely in a computer... something the agency was a little concerned about. We kept hearing the phrase... "photo realistic". So that really helped put their mind at ease.
The shoot was scheduled for Texas... but before we left for the Lone Star state we mounted a little shoot of our own in downtown Charlotte and Atlanta. We figured if we were going to just shoot background still plates... let's throw a few more cities into the mix. We kept the crew small and wandered around those cities on early Sunday mornings before there was any traffic. Now we were really building a backgrounds library to work with.
Then the FBI showed up.
OK... back up....a little explanation. We were downtown in Charlotte photographing the street in detail. Shooting a shot... moving 20 feet and shooting another and so one. We were building detailed panoramas that the computer generated vehicles would eventually drive through. It didn't occur to me that we looked like we were on a recon mission. About half way into it I heard someone walk up behind me and say... "can I ask what you are doing?" I told him. He looked like a normal guy, nice guy. He asked me if I had a business card. I did, but it was 9 blocks away in my car. Then he asked me if I had any ID. I did, but again... in my car. That's when he pulled his ID. FBI. He suggested we take a little ride down to my car. Who was I to argue. When we got there we were met by a police officer with a computer in his car. He ran a background check on me. I guess it turned out OK because no guns were drawn. Apparently, I was taking too many pictures around the Bank of America and Wells Fargo HQ buildings. I didn't think I looked like a terrorist, but apparently I did. They took my camera... and eventually the shots I took of the banks. I didn't argue and consequently I didn't end up in jail... but I was strongly encouraged to stay away from the banks. It's always something.
Anyway... long story short... the spots are now finished. One of them is going to play on the new jumbotron in the American Airlines Arena and others are coming to your TV all over the country. You can check this Texas version out (below). If you look closely you will see the vehicles drive through Dallas, turn a corner into Charlotte, pass through a small town Bonnie and Clyde once drove through, race into Atlanta and bounce around Austin. Along the way they'll hit Washington State and the Idaho panhandle. And if you take into account the sky replacements... the palette wides still further.
So this is what it has come to. It makes me wonder how long it will be until we no longer shoot talent... or anything real for that matter. I mean, the players in the 2010 Madden Football video game look pretty good to me. How long will it be until that game looks like a clip from SportsCenter. And a friend of mine told me the other day that there are audio guys working on technology that can turn anyone's voice into whatever they want it to sound like. I'm glad I was alive during the time that we actually staged things and photographed them. It was fun. Because pretty soon, those nerdy kids that you and I made fun of in high school computer class ... they are going to be doing all of the cool stuff, making all of the money and monopolizing all of the cute chicks.