Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In Car and On Car Filming...

Last night, André and myself did some camera testing of the in-car shots for our next feature. I thought i would share what i've picked up about the subject along the way...

At some point during making most films, you need to shoot an in-car scene. In 'Shoot The DJ', there was loads of in-car scenes...because it was a road-movie. I learnt pretty quickly what kind of shots work and which ones don't.

Shooting handheld in a car is possible, but it's not ideal. You get some very shaky footage and it doesn't look very professional. The only time shooting handheld in a car seems to work is when the camera man is in the back seat filming over the shoulders of the people in the two front seats.  You still get shaky shots, but for some reason it looks acceptable.

There's a few car shots which really add production value to your film.. the first is the camera on the bonnet facing the windscreen. You need a polarizer on the lens to see through the windscreen without all the reflections, but the shot looks great. Second is the profile shot of the driver or the passenger. This often involves getting both the driver and the passenger in the same shot. In times gone by with big film cameras, you used to use a 'tray' type mount which hung on the door. These days you can mount a DSLR on the window without encumbering the car in anyway...which means you can still drive it.

To, me driving the car for real really makes a big difference to the feel of the shot. Sticking the car on a trailer ruins it for me. The driver never looks convincing when it's on a trailer.

Shot last night using a 550D with a Pentacon 50mm prime at F1.8 on a window clamp mount.

So, the best mounts for the job when mounting a DSLR to your car? Well, it's getting easier all the time thanks to the inventiveness of the various grip manufacturers, but these are my personal favourites:

The window clamp. This is a basic tripod head mounted on a clamp that just grabs onto a half-open window. The shots from these clamps are great...and if you mount it right, you won't need IS to get a steady shot.

  The bonnet mount.  The ones you buy are usually based around a suction cup with a mounting point on top. Sometimes they have multiple suction cups for a more rigid fix. In my experience, these tend to wobble about a bit and give a slightly shaky shot...and i'm never confident enough in the safety aspect of sticking my DSLR to a car with a sucker! So...i always use a ratchet strap and loads of bungy straps to hold everything in place securely. And this leads me to the following question...  why bother with the suction mount? In the next few weeks i'm going to make a mount which is basically a small frame with rubber feet the sits on the bonnet of the car and then attaches using the ratchet straps and bungy straps. It will be rigid and best of all....safe.

The beanbag mount. Beanbags are great for mounting cameras in odd places. The beanbag car mount can be used anywhere... on the bonnet, on someone's lap or even on the roof. You use straps to secure the camera, but the beanbag ensures the camera is safely held and easily positioned. The only issue with these is that it's sometimes tricky to get the height required to see into the car properly when shooting from the bonnet.

Another angle you should look at is the Go Pro cameras. For under £300 you can buy one of these amazing little HD cameras and mount it anywhere. The footage they give is pretty good and can easily be cut with most DSLR footage if you're clever in the edit.

 For our next feature we're trying to cut down on shooting time so we're aiming to rig the cars so that they can shoot several shots all at once. We'll mount one DSLR on the bonnet looking through the windscreen, one on the passenger window shooting the driver's face in profile and and Go Pro on the front of the car low down shooting the road. They can all be adjusted so as not to get each other in shot and we'll get 3 shots in the space of time usually allowed for one.

Tips for successful in-car / on-car shooting:

1. Batteries... bring plenty and have a charger handy.

2. Plasitc bags and padding material..and PVC tape. You need to rain-proof and keep the crap on the road off your camera.

3. Don't go too mad with your shallow depth of field. The driver will rarely keep his/her head still enough for a very finely focused shot if you're not pulling focus on the fly...which most of the time, you won't be.

4. Invest in a long HDMI cable and a portable HD monitor... then you can check your shot as you drive. (hide in the back seat if you're not in the shot)

5. Allow much more time than you think... it takes ages to rig a good car shot and then you have to review the shots regularly.

6. Car shots at night? Don't over-light the inside of the car! It looks crap if there appears to be a 100watt lightbulb on the driver's lap! Use LEDs or fluro tubes...or both. Remember to keep to dis-used roads or back-roads if you're shooting at night with cameras mounted on the car AND lights on inside the car... it will just attract the attention of plod...and you don't want that.

7. Safety first. Don't be stupid...don't do anything that will impair the driver or could harm anyone on the roadside.

8. Data management. Get the footage from the camera onto your hard drives quickly.....don't leave a day's worth of good shots on a data card which is balancing on the bonnet of a moving car.... it's just not clever. Back-up...back-up....back-up...and back-up again.

EDIT:  I forgot to mention a really important point - You don't want to add any kind of 'shock absorbing' to the camera. I know it would seem to be a good idea, but you only need the slightest bit of padding to stop the camera or the car getting scratched. It doesn't matter how bumpy the road is, if the camera is fixed absolutely rigidly to it...the shot will appear not to wobble.  In the tests we performed yesterday, the non-IS lenses performed as well, if not better than the one with IS. (IS = image stabilzation)  It's worth looking out for car shots on Hollywood movies of the 80s...most of them are terrible!


  1. Hi, a little question here! I have a 550d and recently purchased a M42 adapter and a Pentacon auto 50mm 1.8. I heard the lens won't work on the 5d wich has a fullframe sensor because the lens will hit the mirror. I noticed you are using a 550d with the exact same lens. Are you having any problems with it? I don't want to ruin my brand new camera. Thanks in advance

  2. Hi

    I use the Pentacon auto 50mm with an m42 adapter with no problems at all. It comes nowhere near the mirror on the 550d. I don't see how it would be any closer to the mirror on the 5d. It's my favourite lens by far.