DISCLAIMER: This post showcases a 3 camera car setup that is currently being used on a television series. In many states/provinces/countries it is not legal to record while driving, to block the view of the windshield, or to otherwise rig up your car for video and audio recording. If you choose to set up your car like this, please do so at your own discretion and be sure to check with local authorities to ensure that you aren’t breaking and laws or creating any violations by shooting this way.
A few weeks back I got together my friend and colleague David Thies of Tvacom so that he could show me around his custom rigged Mercedes ML350 SUV, which is currently being used to shoot a network reality TV show. While I don’t shoot a lot of reality work myself (since I’m more involved in the narrative/commercial side of things), I’m always fascinated with how different types of productions deal with car rigging, as shooting multi-cam in a car is never an easy task. Instead of just capturing some photos of the setup and then doing a written write up, Dave and I decided to actually jump in the SUV and drive around LA for a couple of hours to show how it all works – recording our entire conversation with his actual setup.
Over the course of the video we not only cover the car setup in depth, but also get into tons of other gear and industry talk – touching on trends in the camera industry, new equipment, production techniques, aerial work, broadcast requirements, and much more. The video is embedded at the bottom of this post.
It’s always great to chat with Dave as he is an extremely talented Director and DP that currently works heavily in the reality TV world, while also having a strong background on commercial/narrative/music video productions, which gives him a unique perspective on the industry. He’s directed and DP’d countless television shows (including MTV’s Fantasy Factory), and also owns a rental house that supplies his productions with all the gear that they need.
Before you watch the video though, check out my written breakdown of Dave’s car rig first as it will help to put much of our discussion into context. Even though many of the readers of this site are into narrative filmmaking (and this particular setup is for a reality show), I would encourage anyone interested in shooting car scenes on a budget to take a look at how Dave set up this car, as the general concept can be applied to any type of shoot. By simply swapping out some of the camera bodies used, and making some other minor adjustments this setup could work really well for narrative work too.
The Car Rig
The TV show that Dave is currently working on is similar (setup-wise) to Taxi Cab Confessions, however his camera choice and rigging is completely customized and fully unique to this show. Every episode takes place inside the car and captures a real conversation between 2 or 3 people as they drive down the road, which naturally makes for a challenging shooting situation. Not only is the space so small that no crew members can be in the car during the time of shooting, but the rigging (for both audio and video) needs to be rock solid as the entire show depends on the footage captured in this SUV. The vast majority of reality shows obviously don’t primarily take place in a vehicle, which allows them to keep a much simpler set up when they are dealing with car material. It’s fairly common for the average reality show to just stick a couple of GoPro’s in a car and start rolling – but as you can see with Dave’s setup, that certainly was not the case.
While Dave occasionally will use a GoPro or two on this show to capture speciality shots, he opted to use small Marshall SDI output cams as his main cameras since they work better with his intended setup and also don’t force the crew to rely on the non-professional and potentially unreliable HDMI output of a GoPro.
Over the course of the video below, Dave breaks down exactly what is being used in the car setup and why, but in a nutshell he has his three main Marshall SDI cameras mounted to the front windshield (with suction mounts), and has them running to three Odyssey 7Q recorders in the trunk. He then uses a fourth camera which just shoots a reference shot of the monitors in the trunk, and sends that signal wirelessly to his follow car which is always following closely behind. That reference image is solely used to ensure the cameras are still running and nothing has gone down. And as you can see in the photo below, everything is being powered by a car battery which actually gets charged as the vehicle drives. This prevents them from having to stop and replace batteries while shooting.
His audio setup also runs to a recorder/mixer in the trunk and captures multiple channels of audio including those from the wireless lav mics on each person in the car, as well as two hidden cub mics which are planted in the roof of the car. Also hidden along the roof and other parts of the vehicle are custom rope lights which bring up the general ambiance in the car. These lights combined with a heavy limo tint (all the way around the car) allow Dave and his team to control the light within the vehicle as much as possible, without having to use really powerful lights from outside the SUV. All in all it’s a pretty remarkable setup, and just goes to show that there is a solution for any type of shooting situations – sometimes it just requires that you think outside of the box and create some custom solutions.
As I mentioned at the top of this article, rather than just show you pictures of the setup, Dave and I decided to actually get in the car and drive around to show you what this rig can really do. Watching through this video will give you a really solid idea of how the rig works, however bear in mind that there are some differences in the overall image when compared to the actual TV show. For starters, I’ve colored this footage to black and white (to fit with some of my other videos), but more importantly Dave who is normally in the follow car monitoring everything, was actually driving the vehicle here. That of course means that he was unable to make adjustments on the fly, so over the course of this 75+ minute video there will be some occasions where things get a bit blown out or the lighting on us isn’t ideal. In a real shooting situation, Dave would be making adjustments remotely from his follow car, and in some cases he would have the camera car turn around and drive in a different direction.
The first 30 minutes or so of our talk is mainly focused on the rig itself. I wanted to know all about it – everything from why Dave chose the cameras that he did, to the lighting control, the audio setup and everything in between. But naturally our conversation drifted off after a while as we got into a lot of comprehensive gear talk… So if you have an hour or so to kill, grab a coffee, sit back and enjoy the ride!
Dave and I may be doing some more Gear Talk videos in the near future from a home-studio setup, so if you enjoyed this be sure to let me know if the comments below, and feel free to suggest topics for future episodes.
For more on David Thies, check out his websites: www.tvacom.com & www.gripgear.tv
I am about to self produce a show and this is the most helpful information I have found anywhere. I was at NAB and NCTA and looked at these cameras but no one could give me any info about actual use in a real life situation. Thank you VERY much!! – Liz
Thanks Liz! And best of luck with your show!
I really enjoyed and learned a lot from it. Thank you, Naom.
hey guys, are you filming a second part to this pls 🙂
Who knows! Maybe in the future…
Noam, Very generous of you and David to put this together. Thanks so much for sharing!
Any time Michael! Glad you enjoyed it.
deandre l williamsat
How was the cameras for taxi cab confessions set up
Not sure as I wasn’t on that show! But it could have been very similar to this…
Hi Noam, I tried to see the websites you mention at the end of your post, and it shows a network error.
I know this post is old, but how do you see this new turn at nab 2015 wher Black magic showed the prototypes of micro cameras with interchangeable lenses.
This will give a twist to the shooting of reality shows like this with better cameras, designed for production.
Luis Lara R
Hey Luis – I had that exact thought right as BMD was announcing the micro cameras. I think they are optimal for this type of shooting and personally I would opt to use them because I love Blackmagic’s color science and the fact that the lenses are interchangeable.
Fascinating and informative piece. As a matter of interest how did you ingest and edit the footage?
Thanks Dave! I just brought the footage straight into FCP X as the Odyssey recorders record straight to ProRes. As for editing, I simply sync’d the clips and stacked them on layers on top of each other, cutting from shot to shot as needed.
Really interesting stuff. Thanks.
In California it’s illegal to attach anything to the inside of the front windshield and if anything is attached to the inside window, or hood, it is considered unsafe to operate the vehicle without a tow and police escort. A cast (or more likely crew member) could be arrested, and the vehicle would be impounded if the camera rig is as shown in the above photo. I’m not saying it isn’t done, but it’s unprofessional and risky. Any officer is within their legal authority to get an unsafe vehicle off the road and the driver of that vehicle.
I’m not talking out of my ass, I personally engineered the multicamera car rig for one of the most popular (car based) reality shows of all time. We shot on the streets of Los Angeles and kept compliance with all laws and when stopped for traffic violations and sobriety checkpoints we were able to keep our cast and crew safe and out of trouble.
Noam, so you are not discredited as a source, or sited in reference when some knucklehead copies what David did from watching your video and has their Lambo impounded, perhaps find a genuine professional for this sort of thing, or at least look up the laws that govern such behavior and issue a disclaimer.
Thanks for the heads up Joe. This isn’t a show I’m working on and as such have never had to look into the legalities of this type of rig myself, but I will add a disclaimer to the article now as per your suggestion.
Very informative, I always enjoy some tech talk.
Glad you enjoyed it Xiong!