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