A few months ago I received an email from the director of integrated production at Tierney describing a project to create a stop-motion ending for a new series of television commercials for their client, TD Bank. This was the beginning of one of the most intriguing and technically challenging projects that I’ve recently produced.
Tierney was in the final phases of filming a series of new TV commercials, and they wanted to end the 30-second spots with about 8 seconds of panning time-lapses cut together featuring the exteriors of multiple banks in different cities…and they wanted to shoot it within a week of reaching out to us. After a few conference calls to discuss the creative approach, as well as a decent amount of time researching the possible technical approaches, Philadelphia-based photographer Bill Cramer and I ultimately decided that a few test shoots at local TD Bank branches were in order. Not only did we need to determine what sort of equipment would be necessary, but we also had to figure out the frame rate, shooting duration and panning speed in order to acquire the agency’s desired results.
There are a lot of great articles and DIY techniques to capture time-lapses, and after a few phone calls, more test shoots, and a couple of trips to local (and online) equipment retailers, we were ultimately turned on to the Syrp Genie. This device seemed to be able to accomplish our goal of shooting about 2 frames per second over 4 minutes while panning exactly 60 degrees to produce a final video that was 4 seconds in length. While we planned to keep experimenting, these parameters gave us a starting point to work from. I should mention that Tchya (a New York-based video editing company) was going to be handling the post-production, so they were able to also weigh in on our approach and offer additional technical support on the back end.
With our approach dialed in and our fancy new toys in hand, we were ready to get on the road. Tierney pinpointed 17 bank locations throughout Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Miami, and time was of the essence. Fortunately, we were able to use Google’s Street View to pre-scout the locations and get an idea of what was ahead of us:
While the footprint of the production would be bare bones (just our photographer, a tripod, minimal gear and an assistant) I wanted to make sure that we procured any necessary permits that might be needed in each city. In Philadelphia, permits weren’t required for a shoot/crew this small, and in New York they offer an “optional permit” for shooting on sidewalks. We did pursue the permit (which was free) in New York, just in case any issues came up, and a few calls to the film offices in Boston and Miami revealed that traditional permits were indeed needed for a few locations. While I didn’t foresee any issues with the locations, I was glad that we made the effort to cover our bases.
Once we had the pre-production elements accomplished and made all of the travel arrangements, it was off to the races to shoot all of the branches in each city as quickly as possible. Within a week, Bill had photographed 17 branches in four cities, driving 700 miles, 1 round-trip flight, 3 hotels were slept in and a hard drive with 3,000+ images was hand-delivered to Tchya.
A few days after delivering the files, the scope of the project expanded to include one last shoot. This time, rather than shooting a panning exterior time-lapse, Tierney hoped to shoot the inside of a bank location. Additionally, rather than a stationery camera panning from left to right, they wanted to achieve a shot that began outside and moved in through the doors and up to the teller counter while people were interacting inside.
Our first challenge was to figure out exactly how we’d achieve the same aesthetic of the exterior time-lapses and determine the frame rate and shooting duration to now capture this inside. Additionally, we needed to determine how we’d physically move the camera from outside of the bank, through the doors, and up to the counter all in one smooth shot. We initially toyed with the idea of laying down dolly tracks (they even make flexible ones that can accommodate curves rather than a straight line), but since we’d be moving forward and shooting wide that would mean the tracks would be in the frame and therefore need to be removed in post production…no small task. Another option was to use a built-in feature included with the Genie that would allow the device to actually pull itself along a rope. The downfall to this option was that the path to the teller counter wasn’t linear, and we didn’t have the luxury of additional prep time to rig up such a system. Additionally, we’d still have to remove the rope track in post. Plus, the shot would need to start at waist-level and gradually rise to eye-level.
Ultimately, we decided to hire a Steadicam operator to walk the path while shooting a series of images. Thankfully, Tom Wills was up to the task, and his years of experience really paid off. We met for a test shoot to dial in the technical details and determined after many attempts (some involving a giant tricycle) that we could achieve good results by using an intervalometer and shooting 2 frames per second as he moved along the path. Since the final video would be sped up dramatically, this meant that Tom needed to move VERY slowly, and very smoothly, covering only about 20 feet over the course of a couple of minutes. It doesn’t sound difficult in retrospect, but it was physically exhausting to do this with many pounds of equipment strapped to him (including a custom mounted gyroscope for added stability).
Once we were all on the same page with the approach, it was a matter of pulling the rest of the production together. Within a day I was able to wrangle our crew consisting of a grip and a gaffer (to set up lights), a director of photography (to direct the grip/gaffer), a few assistants (to lend a hand and support the photographer/director) and a digital tech (to facilitate on-site review of the content). I also placed an order for a grip truck with a laundry list of gear, arranged catering and compiled a production book laying out call times and the schedule for the evening shoot. In addition to working with TD Bank to accommodate an after-hours shoot, Tierney was able to provide professional talent (along with branded wardrobe) who would be acting out a scene of customers and bank tellers interacting.
Our schedule was on the fast track, and just a day later we were all on-site and ready to shoot. Despite the tornado warning and extremely high winds outside, the shoot went incredibly well. After only a few takes, we had the approach and all of the technical details dialed in, and it was just a matter of directing the talent appropriately and capturing a variety of options. A few hours later, we had nailed the shot and were ready to strike the set.
It was a whirlwind of a week, but it proved that anything can be accomplished with a talented and hardworking crew along with experienced and very kind agency and client counterparts. Check out one of my favorite versions of the final commercials here: