Video & Filmmaking

High Production Values and Drone Footage Elevate a Humble Video Commercial

October 5, 2015

By Jon Blistein

The local car dealership TV spot is a staple of American advertising. A salesman in a powdered wig promoting a President’s Day blowout; an athlete or hometown hero awkwardly reciting a pre-scripted pitch; an infectiously corny jingle and bellows of, “Zero percent APR and no money down!” They are big, loud, rife with gimmicks, and yet endearing—exhibitions of local flavor even a cynic can identify with.

But as the financial requirements for high production values continue to drop, local dealerships can now mimic the sleek, luxurious look of national car advertisements. Still, even with 4K aerial footage and the use of RED cameras, a spot is only as effective as the story being told—and for a local car dealership, the regional familiarity they convey. Kyle Doyle carefully considered both as he shot The Grandmaster, a short film assigned by a Long Island BMW dealership. The film and accompanying series of spots promoting the Competition BMW dealership in Smithtown, New York, is a prime example of brand promotion through storytelling, and its success hinges on footage of Long Island’s serene North Fork.

Doyle produced, directed and wrote the eight-minute film and the spots for Long Island marketing agency Morey Publishing, which counts Competition BMW as one of its accounts. Doyle’s short film centers on a father and daughter’s journey from the New York City borough of Queens to the edges of the rural North Fork in search of information about the father’s own father, who once beat a chess grandmaster in a local tournament.

Jon Sasala, Morey Publishing’s creative director, says the agency wasn’t interested in producing a typical spot touting prices and picturesque cars. “We wanted to generate leads through storytelling. We wanted to connect with Long Islanders and tell a story they would relate with, and hopefully get them to identify with Competition as a brand, as opposed to just thinking of them as another BMW dealer.”

The Grandmaster was Doyle’s most narrative-driven project to date. While chess — a symbol of competition — was always central to the project, Doyle retooled Morey Publishing’s initial idea (about a son skirting an awards ceremony in his honor to play chess with his father) into a road trip tale that more prominently featured the car.

The film has a classic, cinematic feel. Cinematographer William Babcock affixed re-housed P+S Technick Super Baltars to his RED Dragon, a concession he made after being unable to find any Lomo anamorphic glass (Super Baltars were used on the first two Godfather films, and more recently, the Ron Howard Formula One film Rush). Much of the footage between the father and daughter was handheld, Doyle says, with Babcock seated on an apple box. The look is gauzy and tranquil (several sequences are in slow motion), but the slight shake of the camera grounds The Grandmaster and reinforces the impromptu nature of the trip.

The footage of the car, however, is slick and grand. For a 3/4-angle shot of the BMW speeding forward, Babcock affixed a Ronin gimbal stabilizer to the back of a lead car using a DIY hitch mount built by key grip Keith Ferriera.

“We were able to have a remote head while doing these car shots,” says Babcock. “I was in a car trailing and was able to do this move where you could maneuver the camera while it was hitched up to a car, side-mounted, or on a hostess tray.” The hostess tray, too, was crucial in a standout shot of the car pulling into the lot of the vintage Silver Sands motel as the camera swerves out the window up towards its kitschy neon sign (“Everybody was Instagram-ing that,” Doyle jokes).

But The Grandmaster’s most stunning footage came from above. Until recently, a mammoth budget and a helicopter would have been required to film the BMW darting through the Pine Barrens, or out towards the tip of a peninsula, ocean surf crashing on either side of the road. Now there are drones.

Doyle hired Jake Salyers to operate his DJI Inspire 1. Neither Doyle nor Babcock had worked with drones before, and while Salyers had practiced all winter trailing the G and F subway trains from the roof of his Brooklyn apartment, this was his first serious gig as an operator. They planned the drone’s route and shooting angles during test shots without the car near the Pine Barrens and Orient Point, but they did not have a specific starting point or speed for the driver when they actually filmed.

“It was more, ‘Come along this stretch and I’ll catch you,’” Salyers says. The crew also battled cold and strong winds, and the Inspire 1’s batteries lasted about 20 minutes. (DJI batteries were backordered, and Salyers only had two). Luck, Salyers admits, contributed to the ultimate success of the aerial shots, but his rooftop practice came in handy during the run-and-gun shoot.

“It’s like maintaining composition on a landscape photograph, while you’re moving through it,” Salyers says of flying the Inspire 1. “There’s not such a tight, specific place that you’re trying to keep on the left third, you’re trying to maintain an elegant landscape photograph for a period of time.”

The stretches of road filmed from above were also relatively deserted, something Doyle—a native Long Islander who’s often explored the North Fork on drives with his wife—knew. Using his own familiarity with the area, and with the help of Google, Doyle was able to track down a number of quaint, quintessential Long Island locales.

“Long Island has a lot of beautiful scenery, but I think sometimes it can be overwhelming because it’s so big,” Doyle says. “And it’s not one thing. I wanted to highlight one area, not get overwhelmed with having them stop at multiple places along the entire length of Long Island, but focus it on one spot so that it felt like it was geographically centered.”

That specificity and familiarity has helped The Grandmaster, and especially its shorter spin-off spots, gain traction amongst Long Islanders. The film was also a component of Morey Publishing’s larger campaign with Competition BMW, which includes a bi-annual magazine, Checkpoint, and a website, Jon Sasala praises the film’s high-production values, and notes the film grabbed the attention of the higher-ups at BMW, impressed with the branch’s initiative.

“I wanted to make sure that it was familiar enough to say, ‘Oh I’ve been there,’ or ‘I’ve passed that place,’” Doyle says. “I wanted it to feel not too far away where the audience would feel, ‘Oh I’ve never been there,’ but not too close where it was overly familiar. I wanted it to be some place where they would aspire to take a road trip.”

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