T.Stops Blog

Work Log: 4 Commercials.

Welcome back to Tstops!

About 2 months ago, I had the opportunity to work on five very different commercials, within about a 1 month span. 2x Fashion spots, 1 Toy commercial,  1 spot for Sesame Street and finally a sneaker commercial with a cross marketing twist. I found these five commercials very interesting as they were each so different.   Different styles, directors, locations and circumstances.  It was really fun to shoot with so much variety.


Lets start with the first fashion Spot.

1: “Ties That Bind” For Bradford and Young; Luxury accessory maker, directed by Jennifer Massaux.

Shot on Alexa Studio with Zeiss Super Speed MK I lenses.  This is the Alexa with the optical viewfinder and Spinning mirror shutter.  It’s wonderful having an optical viewfinder, feels so much better than a EVF.

This shoot really is a great culmination of many elements.   We shot in the Presidential suite of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, with Victoria’s Secret model Sarah Stephens.  How could we go wrong?  Beautiful talent, beautiful location, beautiful camera and lenses.  Jennifer, our director, is one of the fastest and best prepared directors I have had the pleasure of working with.   She got access to the location weeks before the shoot, and shot an Iphone previs with Artemis shot by shot, then animated it so it had a sense of pacing.   This meant that I had the advantage of being able to know exactly how long each shot needed to be.  Thus, we could focus on making each of those moments as perfect as possible.  The catch on this shoot was the fact that we only had 6 hours to shoot the whole thing, load in to tail lights.   Having concise shots, and frames already established just let us focus so intensely on exactly what we needed and nothing else.   I used the latitude of the alexa to its fullest using the natural sunlight, and shaping the contrast in the room with black floppies and a 1.8K ARRI M18 with a Chimera as selective fill.

Take this shot for example:

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 1.37.19 AM



The main ambient is sunlight, with a side kick from the M18.  Lighting Diagram from below. I rated the camera at 800, then dropped in an ND .9 and on some shots an ND .3 to keep the lens around a T2.8.  There was also a 1/8th Hollywood Black Magic Filter in play as well as a 1/4 Pearl Filter.  The HBM filter is a combination of 1/8th Classic HD Soft, and 1/8th Black Promist.  It softens the already soft highlights, and helps keep the models skin looking completely flawless.  The pearl filter is similar to the Blackmagic, but includes white diffusion, making it glow a bit.  The Pearl was used in the bedroom,  the HBM was used in the darker scenes.



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I am very happy with how this piece came out.  It goes to show, putting amazing things in front of the camera is far more important than the camera itself.

Tom Wong IATSE lcl600 DIT did the grade in DaVinci.  He is a stellar colorist, and really knocked it out of the park.

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In reality this was a fashion shoot, but it was 90% beauty, the direction I really want to go in.


2: “Fall Fashion” for HSN, directed by Little Marvin

This was more or less a classic commercial.   Big studio, big lights, crafty table, canvas chairs and 10 monitors….

Over the course of the last few years, the Home Shopping Network has been trying to freshen up their look while retaining their signature style.   The challenge on this shoot was time management.   We had three models, and 10 looks each, all shot in 60Fps 6K HD.  It worked out to about 15min per look, and we had 30 looks to get in the can. We shot 27 128GIG mags that day.  3 TB of footage.  The only way we’d make it out alive was to have our media work flow down packed.   I purchased a USB3 Redmag reader, and two 4TB G-RAID thunderbolt HDD daisy chained to my macbook.   I had to use my own computer cause i know it worked,  I had ample time to test it.  Each card was offloaded and double backed up in 21 Minutes.  It fit perfectly in the 10 hour day.   It worked out to about 3 cards per hour, and the loader was running cards back the instant they came out of the camera.  The RED mags were hot when they left the camera and still warm when they came back.

The director Little Marvin ( thats his legal name) asked for a contradiction…. He wanted a soft, yet hard light.   I knew exactly what he wanted.  He wanted a Briese light look.  However, there were none in Tampa at the time.  So i did my best to improvise.  I used a single source 10k fresnel, pushed it through a 4×4 frame of 250 Diffusion with a 1ft hole in the middle, and over that hole I had the gaffer tape a scrap of opal diffusion.   Then, that was cut into the vignette you see by taking two 4×8′ black foamcore boards with two semi circles cut into the center, when placed side by side it creates a circle about 6 feet across.   That was placed just out of frame, and the result is a small bit of hard light punching through the opal, mixed with the broad soft light of the 250 around it, then cut into a theatre spot light like circle by the foam core.  see below for a diagram.  You get the clarity and specular highlights in jewelry, while still being kind to the model.   In fact, i find hard lights on truly beautiful faces accentuates the features.  Just look to old hollywood.  Softer lighting is kinder to faces that are not “perfect”, though still looks great on anyone.

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I rated the V2 OLPF RED Epic Dragon at ISO 800 and used a Formatt 1/2 CTB filter in the Mattebox. (read more about why I used the Blue filter here) I also installed a Red Cine X replication of Juan Melara’s KODAK 2393 LUT.  We shot on a Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 and I allowed the image to slightly overexpose.  The dragon has so much dynamic range I was never in danger of clipping the skin tones.   I did this to help soften the skin.  As the lut compressed the highlights, it flattens out the brighter tones, in effect clarifying the variations in the models skin.   Plus since we were using a single source, it helped me get a bit extra light into the shadows to retain a bit of the information.

I find the RED Dragon sensor to behave much more like photochemical film than video.  Its much more “alexa” than MX chip.  Its dynamic range is way up top.  Especially with the new V2 OLPF.   Just like 35, the best way to get a thick negative is to open up a half stop or stop, then “print” down in development.  Or in the Dragon’s case, RCX.

The nearly 15 hours of footage boiled down to what you see. A :30 second spot.


3: “Come Play” – Sesame Street – Directed by Koyalee Chandra.

I have had the fortune to shoot a full on broadcast spot for Sesame Street.  It was for their new show in an after school time slot.

The main challenges on this shoot is that when working with the muppets, there are so many constraints to framing, camera height and special needs to the Muppeteers.   That said Koyalee our director envisioned a moving camera, and some “stunts”…..  This means special setups. My favorite thing in the world!!!  We built for the shots of grover a dual Dolley, that moved together, parallel so the Muppeteers can operate grover on one dolley, with their monitors and tools, while the camera was bolted to that dolley on a perfectly parallel track with speed rails, and the camera can maintain the appropriate frame.

We shot in Carroll Park in Brooklyn.   The day was sunny, and utilising the dynamic range of the Dragon ( I keep talking about it because its such an important and freeing aspect of the camera) all we needed was a bit of fill light bring up the character, without having to worry about a forest of flags and nets.  Outdoors in direct sun, a 4K par HMI with 1/4 CTO and some opal diffusion provided us with enough punch to lift the shadows against a back lit sun.   The highlight retention keeps the image looking natural, while saving us time and effort.   We planned the day so that as the sun moved across the sky, we shot the different pieces so all the scenes were back lit then filled in, maintaining a consistent look, despite a constantly changing sky.

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 We shot with a custom look, based on REDLOGFILM that I built in RCX to give the post team a nice starting place from which to work.  A simple 709 look.

I enjoyed the technical challenge of making simple camera moves cater to the complexity of working with the Muppets.


4: “TMNT Crossover Shoe” – FILA – Directed by the Diamond Brothers. Shot on RED Dragon V1 OLPF (for low light sensitivity) with Fujinon Cabrio and Duclos 11-16.


This was my first Shoe commercial.  Working again with the Diamond Bros, we had a very fun shoot, albeit short cause the final spot is only 15 seconds.  We needed the look and feel of Sodium vapor lamps, so we used a 9K Maxi Brute, placed relatively far from the set, at the same height as the actual street lights on the street we shot on.  This ensured the angle, and shadows would fall naturally, while giving us the output we needed to achieve the slow motion shots and wide shots equally well.  I skinned the Maxi in Urban Vapor 2, a somewhat green/yellow gel that matches Sodium vapor while maintaining a degree of color accuracy.  Roger Deakins used these gels on Tungsten lights for “In Time” to make the film feel like Los Angeles at night. It pays to read American Cinematographer, its full of great information.     For the Over head shots we rigged the camera to the Condor, and raised it up to the appropriate height with a “grip saver” offset.

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(Again, sorry for the lack of pictures of the setups, damn phone…..)

The Condor was then repurposed to a lighting platform after that shot was completed.  To prevent too many shadows from crossing the set at various intensities, we black wrapped the street lights selectively to build the ambient light level we wanted, and it really helped to balance the scene.

We also used the Low Angle Prism again, to get the camera appear to be nearly floor level for the dolly shots and shoe shots.

I love shooting night exteriors, sadly we had to buy stock footage of the city for the night aerials.   Budget didn’t allow for a chopper shoot….



All in all it was a crazy few weeks, but I got to try so many new tools, techniques and lighting styles.


Thanks for Reading!

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Thanks for reading!


Coming soon: A through assessment of the RED Dragon.


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9 years ago

Wow – what an truly informative and educational post. Thanks for this. Beautiful work, too.

Jesse Mickle
8 years ago

I read this article a while back.
I remember the part on the toy commercial/UFO spot. I know it was taken down for the client.
Any chance I can read that piece again?
Facing similar challenges in an upcoming shoot.

Jesse Mickle