Video & Filmmaking

How to Shoot Better Car Footage

April 24, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Cars are challenging subjects for still photographers, but when it comes to capturing them on video, the challenges only increase. In workshops and seminars, Bill Bennett, the veteran cinematographer who has shot numerous car commercials, always tells aspiring cinematographers that shooting cars is all about managing reflections.

A car is a mirrored ball—a large one. Whether it’s the center of attention in a commercial or a prop in the middle of a scene, its sheet metal exterior can bounce light back at the camera, creating a hot spot. When a scene moves to the interior of a car, it’s a tight fit for actors, lights and gear. Gaffer and cinematographer Adam Richlin observes, “Shooting cars is much slower than other types of shoots because there is so much micro management of lighting and actors and equipment positioning.”

Richlin has worked on web videos, music videos and documentaries as well as commercial shoots for Chevy, Audi and Mercedes Benz. As the managing partner of a rental house, Lightbulb & Grip Electric Co, and the co-moderator of a filmmakers’ Facebook group called Grip & Electric, Richlin often answers questions about the proper gear and techniques for shooting footage inside and outside cars. Here, he shares some of the tips he’s learned from cinematographers.

Block the Reflections

To avoid unwanted reflections of gear or crew, Richlin says, “You often have to block out the world around the car.” When shooting a car inside a studio, he’ll bring sheets of fabric to hang vertically on frames. After hanging two sheets side by side, he explains, “You poke the camera lens through the seam between the two of them.” The fabric can be black or white, depending on whether it’s needed to bounce some light back onto the car.

If crew members need to be near a car during the shoot, they’ll also dress in the same color as the seamless, “head to toe, no logos.”

For each camera shot and movement, the car has to be checked and rechecked for reflections or hot spots—especially when shooting a commercial or video highlighting a car’s contours. Crews typically rehearse a camera move by starting and stopping it in increments. At each pause, Richlin says, “Everyone’s looking at a monitor trying to see if they spot anything reflecting or shining out of place.”

© Adam Richlin

Tungsten lights on Ultrabounce fabric create a strong, soft light source. “Bounced light is often better than sharp light when you’re working in a studio,” says Richlin. © Adam Richlin

Bounce the Light

Indoor productions offer more control over illumination. “Bounced light is often better than sharp light when you’re working in a studio,” Richlin notes. On big-production car commercials, crews might build high white walls. On smaller productions, “You point the light away from the car, bounce it into a piece of white foamcore, and it’ll bounce shapes back into the car,” Richlin says. “Then you can place them to catch just a piece of the car or accentuate a curve or highlight a window.”

When lighting a whole car, Richlin says it’s helpful to light the side of the car that’s furthest from the camera first using a broad source, “like a big HMI through a big piece of silk or similar diffusion.” Once this is done, the front side of the car is lit with light bounced into boards or foamcore.

To illustrate, he describes a shoot with a gray luxury sedan. “On the far side, we had a 4K HMI high up on a stand and coming down at about a 45-degree angle on the car through 12×12-foot silk or light grid diffusion. It edge lit the car from the upper left back corner.” Before hanging a grid or frame, the edges are covered with a frame scarf, so no ties or joints will be reflected in the car. “On the front of the car, we used a group of small 400- and 800-watt HMIs reflected into bounce boards.”

Shape the Highlights

Richlin says he got his most valuable lesson in lighting beauty shots of cars when a veteran cinematographer showed him how to create a highlight manually, using a piece of foamcore cut into the shape of the desired highlight. While holding a large piece of foamcore or beadboard near the car, he uses a Sharpie to outline the shape of the highlight, then makes the cuts using a sharp knife to make sure the edges are smooth and clean. “That way, when we put that foamcore in place, it bounces the light to get exactly the shape of reflection we want.”

Make the Light Your Friend

The classic car shot is taken just after sunrise or just before sunset: Light breaking over a low hill creates a long, bright seam on the side of the car. When the timing isn’t right, the sun can still be used as a hard but distant source for bounced light. “Instead of fighting the sun, bring in reflector cards and bounces to use the sun against itself,” Richlin says.

Direct light can reflect off smooth sheet metal. “A great piece of advice I got from a cinematographer a long time ago was to use the creases in a car to your advantage,” Richlin notes. The gap around a car’s door, for example, won’t bounce light back. By positioning and angling the lights so they hit at these junctures, hot spots can be diminished. Richlin also notes that spots of glare can be hidden by an actor.

When You Can, Dull the Shine

If the shoot doesn’t involve a pristine, one-of-a-kind luxury car, Richlin sometimes uses Streaks ’N Tips, a temporary hair dye that can be misted on a spot of shiny metal, then wiped away with a soft cloth. “It’s a version of dulling spray,” Richlin says, “but do not use dulling spray. That’s literally spray paint and it will adhere to a car.”

Diffuse the Lights Inside

Car windows also show reflections. “If you’re shooting dialogue in a car while [it’s] stationary, remove the windshield or roll the side windows down if you can,” Richlin says. When that’s impossible, a rotating polarizing filter on the lens can sometimes cut down on the sunlight reflections visible from inside the car, “though they don’t always work perfectly,” he notes.

In the cramped space of the car, lights need to be diffused. Richlin often uses Rosco LitePad panels, which are less than a foot wide, or larger LiteMats. These thin panels can be fixed to the dashboard or taped flat to the outside of a window, creating a wash of light inside the car. He also uses Kino Mini Flo and Kino MicroFlo lamps. LED and fluorescent lights “give you the most output per watt,” Richlin notes.

LED lights tend to deliver a lot of power while using minimal wattage, which is handy when the most convenient power source is the cigarette lighter. By using an inverter in the cigarette lighter, Richlin says, you can get 300 watts of power. Then, he notes, “You run the wire along the seams of the car and into the back seat, so everything stays out of sight.”

He cautions, “Don’t use gaffer’s tape inside a car.” When pulled off, the adhesive will almost always damage the interior.

Shoot Safely

An actor’s job is to act, not drive. Says Richlin, “You should try to put a car on a process trailer. That way, someone separate from production is driving.” Process trailers can be rented for the day from rental houses or, in smaller markets, towing companies.

The director of photography leads the crew and is responsible for their safety. Before any shoot involving a moving car and a moving camera, Richlin says, “You should have a safety meeting to discuss how this will happen, what’s moving where and what could go wrong,” Richlin says. Experienced cinematographers and directors of photography with good safety records are happy to share the industry’s best practices. These can help minimize the risks on car shoots.

Clean the Smudges

“Find an auto detailer that you like and hang onto them from job to job,” Richlin says. “Over the course of an eight-hour shoot, dust lands on a car, or the car was driven to the set and here’s dirt on the tires, those need to be cleaned up. Or you’ll find smudges where the actor put a hand on the door.” Like a great makeup artist, good auto detailers have expertise in fixing problems. “Find a good one who will come join you for the day. It’s worth the investment.”

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