Sitting in the client’s break room, I shoved a tea bag up my nostril, clinging to any moment of relief I could.
Filming on-location always has surprises, but getting a staph-infection in the tequila fields of Jalisco was one I did not anticipate. Fortunately, I had my trusty crew (aka Francisco) to provide moral support for my throbbing nose.
In contrast to filming in central Mexico, I can recall more comfortable memories of sipping Starbucks from a director’s chair under a shaded tent for a shoot at the University of Cincinnati. Although I didn’t have “Franny” Francisco, I had an all-star lineup including 10-15 of the Queen Cities’ finest film crew.
These two productions were not only a tale of two cities, but they serve as a great case study, showcasing the difference between small and large-scale production.
I CAN RECALL MORE COMFORTABLE MEMORIES OF
SIPPING STARBUCKS FROM A DIRECTOR'S CHAIR
UNDER A SHADE TENT.
Both projects have been generously awarded at the Cincinnati Addy’s — an American Advertising Federation organization. Their executions, however, were completely different. There is no right or wrong approach in filmmaking, there are only creative decisions that yield aesthetic results. The art is matching the right point of view and production value with the project to create something that is in line with the three B’s: brief, brand, and budget.
University of Cincinnati
The University of Cincinnati charged us with creating a broadcast TV commercial that would air on major sports networks. The ads were going to run during UC football and basketball events.
The size of these national events hosted in a stadium called for something equally as grand. We recommended a cinematic concept driven by aspirational copy. Each scene was carefully set up to create a sense of awe and wonder with the viewer.
Our approach required a robust crew that could film three set-ups in different locations each day.
To capture our creative direction, we chose to shoot on the Arri Alexa Mini with anamorphic prime lenses. This cinema-grade camera package required adding a camera assistant or AC to build/prep the camera, pull focus and swap lenses. By having an AC the production moves more efficiently and the director of photography can focus on creating a beautiful image.
Camera movement also impacted our approach. We decided everything would either be locked down or on a dolly. Dolly shots allow the camera to remain in a fixed position while moving forward, backward, left or right. The end result can increase the feeling of drama in a scene.
EACH LAYER OF COMPLEXITY IN PRODUCTION
ADDS A LAYER OF PLANNING.
But the choice to film on a dolly also ensured we would need enough grip and electric crew to move swiftly between locations.
Each layer of complexity in production has a direct effect on how many days you will need to shoot and how many crew members you need to execute your production. Filmmaking tools have become more affordable and efficient, but in most cases you can assume complexity will also increase cost.
Considering our creative direction, lighting was the most important factor. To create each unique scene, we needed total control of light. With locations ranging from a hospital operating room to a college stadium, you need every thinking light to be on the truck, if needed.
The power to shape and create light can be the difference between a project feeling premium or lack-luster. On this particular shoot, the most creative lighting set up happened when the crew set up a rig to simulate the flickering light of fireworks.
After aligning on our cinematography approach, we focused on the story. We needed to show students embracing “experiential learning.” With this in mind, we chose to remove them from the traditional classroom setting and place them in moments that were aspiring and relatable to prospective dreamers.
We decided to use real students from the university, but wanted them to match the aesthetic of our narrative approach. So we made their normal everyday looks pop on screen with full hair and makeup. We did want to keep it real, so our talent came wardrobe ready with their everyday looks.
THE POWER TO SHAPE AND CREATE LIGHT
CAN BE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A
PROJECT FEELING PREMIUM OR LACK-LUSTER.
Since we only featured one main character in each scene, we were able to get by with a single hair and makeup stylist. Typically, if you more than two people in a scene, you might want to consider expanding you glam squad to accommodate for all the hair and makeup. It never ceases to amaze me how long hair, makeup and wardrobe take.
With nine locations or setups, we had to think strategically about how to film all of the content in the least amount of time to control cost. Every production day has to account for the equipment and day rates of all crew and talent, therefore overtime or additional shoot days could break your budget.
We were able to capture three set-ups each day. Keep in mind, this often means your
project will be filmed out of sequence — your first shot could be the last scene.
THE GOAL IS TO CAPTURE THE HEART OF
THE CREATIVE DIRECTION
WHILE CONTROLLING COST
AND MAINTAINING QUALITY.
The University of Cincinnati project was a great example of a high quality, large-scale commercial production, which operated on brand, brief, and budget. All of the components discussed culminated to create a desired aesthetic. Any thing less or more would have altered the production value, which would have directly affected the creative direction. Anything less may have made it feel too pedestrian or commonplace. Anything more may have come off as too glossy or overdone. The goal is to capture the heart of the creative direction while controlling cost and maintaining quality.
Lunazul began with wanderlust. When a client asks if your wiling to travel internationally for a project, you always answer with a “yes.”
The goal of the project was to capture the heart of Tequila Mexico, the home of — you guessed it — Tequila. We were going to capture the basics of tequila production but the culture was just as important. For this project our approach to production was drastically different than the University of Cincinnati commercial.
The first differentiation to consider was the distribution channel. From it’s inception, the Lunazul branded content was meant for social media outlets and one, very important internal meeting.
The brand team wanted to bring the experience of visiting to the Lunazul distillery stateside. Considering the media buy would be limited, it didn’t make much sense to invest heavily into a production budget. Luckily, a scrappy production budget paired nicely with the documentary style creative direction. We didn’t want this content to feel glossy and polished, we wanted it to feel authentic.
Our camera / gear decision was simple. It had to fit in a carry-on flight case, it needed to be rugged and self contained. We chose the Canon C100 Mark II. Its Canon’s base level cinema camera fully equipped with built in ND (neutral density filters). This means when the sun is blasting in the Agave fields, we can put sunglasses on the lens to keep the image from being overexposed.
The camera also has a beefy internal fan with vent to keep it cool in the hot, Jalisco sun.
In the flight case, I was able to stuff three lenses. A 70-200 zoom, 24-70 zoom, and 50mm prime. This was the backbone of our production package.
To achieve a more realistic aesthetic, we decided on filming primarily with handheld camera support. Unlike the Cincinnati project where everything was on a tripod or dolly, the handheld shots make you feel grounded, as if you’re actually there.
In real life, things don’t magically slide from left to right. Things get a little bumpy. When telling the story of a premium estate tequila, however, we didn’t want everything to be handheld. So we packed a small, 3-foot slider (a small dolly) to capture some smooth camera movement with mainly the product.
WE ONLY BROUGHT WHAT GEAR
WE COULD CARRY ON OUR PERSON.
To show scale, we packed a small GoPro mounted drone. Whenever you are trying to capture a landscape, drones are a good way to set the scene. And the perfect balance of handheld cultural content, smooth product slider shots, and vast drone landscapes, combined to capture an authentic tequila experience.
Also unlike the University project, traveling the back country of Jalisco was an unknown factor. Along with the documentary production budget, we needed to stay lean, so there were only two of us. I served as the producer / director / director of photography / gaffer. “Franny” Francisco supported as the production assistant / grip / translator. We only brought what gear we could carry on our person. Each of us had a backpack and two carry-ons. I handled the camera, laptop and tripod. Francisco had the slider, drone and duffel bag. Both of us got production credits for Sherpa.
The purpose of our project was documentary in nature. This also worked out with our budget. We left behind the glam squad — there was no need for hair and make-up when we wanted to capture people authentically.
THE WARMNESS OF NATURAL LIGHT
SUPPORTED OUR CREATIVE DIRECTION
TO CAPTURE THE HEART OF THE PEOPLE
AND THE LAND.
Additionally, Not having to wait on hair and make-up allowed us to capture a significant amount of content over the course of three days. With our university project, we captured three locations each day. In Tequila, we probably averaged 5 -7 locations per day.
In addition, our run and gun production unit allowed us to have unlimited setups. We could just pick up our gear and move. On the Cincinnati project, we had to pack up an entire grip truck just to go up the street.
In comparison to the University project, we only had two lights. Eighty percent of the project was shot with natural light, only in the barrel warehouse where its dark did we use portable LED lighting for an interview and B-roll.
By leaning mainly on the sun as our primary source of light, we were able to travel light. But we were subject to sunrise and sunset to capture “magic hour” lighting conditions. The warmness of natural light supported our creative direction to capture the heart of the people and the land.
The Lunazul Tequila project was a great example of classic documentary filmmaking. Like the UC project, it too operated on brand, brief and budget. The two spots were miles apart, both literally and figuratively, but both worked for the unique creative direction set out by the creative brief. The end result yielded in two award winning videos.
I didn’t write this to post to boast. We’re not talking about winning a Canne Lyon or One Show Award, but they were both recognized as being excellent on some level, and I thought it would be a good exercise in understanding the range of film production.
As a director, I look at cameras, crew, and gear as instruments. Depending on how you select and mix these instruments, and their players, you can create Mozart or Metal, Hip Hop or Handel.
The tempo, framing, tone of a piece can shape an emotion. There are some conventions and rules for filmmaking, but rules are made to be broken.
The true tale of these two cities and projects is compelling content can be created with a spectrum of budgets, briefs, and brands. Or maybe there’s a less noble lesson, but one that is none the more true. Universities and Tequila are probably a lot closer than most parents ever want to imagine.