Notes from the Track: Shooting Promotional Car Footage with Sony’s NEX-FS100

by Tom 10/25/2013, in Sony Professional

With only a two-day window to shoot a promotional documentary for limited edition car from a major auto manufacturer, cinematographer Christopher Webb chose Sony’s NEX-FS100 professional compact camcorder for its compact size, image quality and performance.

Webb and the production team shot hours of content over two days at the historic Lime Rock Park racing circuit, using 21 Sony NEX-FS100’s.  Because of the camera’s efficiency and the fact all the footage matched perfectly, the production team was able to edit and deliver the project within a tight two-week timeframe.

“This shoot was the perfect illustration of ‘the right camera for the right job,” said Webb, who directed the production. “This camera is more efficient, higher quality and is more reliable than anything in its class. With its size and mobility, we could be much more creative in setting up the shots we wanted. For this type of project, anything else would have been exponentially more expensive.”

The content captured was produced into a variety of elements: 4:30, :30 and :16 spots as well as a 10-minute documentary.

The production only had access to the track and driver for two days, so they had to capture all the angles, shots and sound bites in a very short period of time. To accomplish this, the team estimated that 21 well-placed cameras would do the job, while avoiding a patchwork of cameras and workflows. The FS100 provided a truly all-in-one solution, helping reduce the amount of specialty vehicles and camera mounts required and allowing the team to be more creative because expensive equipment was less at risk and fewer grips and specialty personnel were needed to staff each position.

According to Webb, the unique nature of the car appeals to a very specific segment of the auto enthusiast and racing fan population. The production team also drew inspiration from classic racing films, like Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans,” which was important because, as Webb noted, the track itself presented some very unique challenges.

The next step was a series of meetings with the camera teams to get them to understand the different varying shots and angles that were needed, for example, a shot through the birch trees up a hill or down low on the corners right next to the car and other perspectives.

They wanted a camera that could adapt easily to all these shots, whether it meant putting some on tripods or in a chase car, or having a high-zoom lens attached to others, while others were set-up for interview capture.

“It was amazing to find a camera that would just do all of these things rather than having to configure and learn a new technology every time we had a different set-up,” Webb said. “Our producing team was amazed because all of the filters were the same, all the tripods were the same; it was just the same thing all across the board. Usually I have four different cameras running on a job like that.”

The Right Camera

Before production started, when camera choice was still undecided, the question of using other competitive video camera models, as well as DSLRs, was raised.

“We said no way,” Webb said. “The FS100 was just the perfect fit. It allowed us to get a much better picture, a much higher quality video recording that we could easily color grade. To use the clients’ words, ‘capture a premium image in the car.’ We were doing things with the FS100 that you just could not do with others.”

For example, because of the versatility of the NEX-FS100, Webb and team we were able to simply extend two cameras on monopods off of another vehicle to chase the car around the track and get car-to-car shots.

“It was two of us with the FS100s on monopods,” he said. “The car would come screaming by us and we would be under the bumper with the camera while someone else in that same vehicle had a camera mounted on the bumper. So we were getting all the same details, all at the same time.”

No small feat, given the nature of the course. Over the two-day shoot, the teams dealt with sunlight, shadows, dirt, dust and more.

“Lime Rock Park is completely unique,” Webb said. “It truly is a park, so it has grass, trees, rolling hills. When you drive a car like this on that track, it’s like being strapped to a jack rabbit running through the woods. You’re up a hill, you can’t see what’s around the corner, you’re down through a bridge, then there’s a short straightaway, then there’s an S curve, it’s just one continuous immediate emergency after another. It’s just really hard to cover. You cannot have a camera on a tower, spin it around, and have it follow the car. You can only see the car for a few seconds and then it’s gone.”

The NEX-FS100’s image capturing capabilities and color space truly proved to be a life-saver.

“We were outdoors, in bright sun, clouds, plus the car was bright orange,” Webb said. “When we got all the footage back, most of it was perfect, but some was way over-exposed. The car was just completely milked out, but we were able to pull the color back out easily using the AVCHD workflow to match up all of that orange. And of course the M3 had to be that exact same orange in every shot. With the FS100, making that happen was no problem.”

One unique perspective that the teams tried was a motion collage. They set up nine cameras, with each capturing a certain design detail of the car.

“We backed the car out of that composition,” Webb said. “And then our editor was able to run those in reverse, so the car appears to be driving and stop in its perfect exact spot for every one of those nine individual compositions. You can see in the finished piece how she collage-cut them all at the same time. This is something that the client really loved and something that we never could have done with another camera.”

High-quality Audio

While compelling footage of the car was critical, recording interviews with the drivers completed the story-telling. The team used the camera’s XLR inputs to get not only audio associated with that picture, but supplemental audio so they could run a microphone down a hill under a bridge and run it back up with a transmitter to channel two on that camera.

“So, we could, for example, get an awesome Doppler effect sound,” Webb said. “Or one camera in the car could record the driver’s intercom and the other could be getting sound in the cockpit or sound from the exhaust. Our sound guys loved that, having the quality of the preamps and the XLR input.”

He added, “we needed a really controlled, high end interview set and in that situation, we had two FS100s side-by-side doing a medium and a close up. I was able to walk onto that set as soon as the talent was mic’ed and ready, and operate one of those cameras. As soon as that interview was done, I could just go onto the next set with the camera.”

The production teams also were impressed by the e-mount camera’s lens flexibility.

“I can put any lens on there, I can do crazy shift and tilt things, that I could never do on an Epic, on an Alexa, on a 5D, on any other camera, at any price point,” he said. “So we were able to use cinema lenses, unique still lenses, macro lenses, tilt lenses, all kinds of things, on just one camera.”

A Safety Net

Using 21 cameras on a shoot might normally sound technically challenging, but the camcorder’s efficiency made the end-to-end workflow simple and efficient.

“It was unbelievable,” Webb said. “It’s all the same size, it’s all the same codec, sorting through the data and looking at the creation date was easy, just all kinds of benefits. This camera gave us a major safety net, from a dollars-to-delivery perspective. Every time, we knew we had the shot and we knew we weren’t going to get hurt. We felt very safe with it. We didn’t have a single malfunction or error or failure with any one of those cameras in all of the pretty risky circumstances we were putting them in. This camera is just like a little wonderbox that we could configure in any mode we needed to at any moment.”

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