Getting the call to shoot a promo for a wildly popular video game, Dance Central 3, was exciting enough, but when The James told me that we were using Nicki Minaj’s smash-hit, “Starships” I did a little dance of my own! The song is so infectious that it would take a major blunder on our parts to make a bad commercial…
With a great song secured, we turned to the cast of “Glee” for star-power and the effervescent duo of Jenna Ushkowitz and Vanessa Lengies. The two couldn’t have been better cast as their on-screen chemistry is genuine since they share a day job.
We had an ambitious schedule and the only way that we would make our day was if I had a beefier camera, grip, and electric team than I normally would request for such a shoot. In a single day, we generated enough content for a two minute advertisement for the game, 2 behind-the-scenes ‘training videos’ that showed Vanessa and Jenna learning how to play Dance Central 3 from the game’s actual choreographers, and a short promotional interview with our actors briefly talking about themselves. In terms of location, ExchangeLA offered a nice variety for all 3 elements under the same roof.
By classifying the elements that wouldn’t appear in the primary video as 2nd Unit, I could freely roam between the two different sets and be sure things were moving efficiently and on schedule. Hiring Chun Ming Huang to operate B-Camera and supervise the 2nd Unit Photography bought me great piece of mind. I first met both Chun Ming and my A-Camera 1st AC, Ethan McDonald, back in December of 2004, so I knew camera department was in able hands.
The first floor of the venue became our intro and BTS set, which is a minimalist concrete walled bar. Our wonderful Production Designer, Bruce Ryan, had the task of making the cold space feel habitable for the girls. Some tall wall dividers and greens went a long way to giving it a more homely feel. In keeping with the modern look, he suggested that we rig some fluorescent lights on the walls. It was a great response to my request for practical lighting and we ordered six 4′-single Kino tubes for that purpose. The before and after shots are quite striking. Four individual units were arranged into an “X,” while two others were used to frame the 65″ Samsung TV that displayed the video game. All of our globes were K32 to match the camera’s tungsten white balance.
To light the talent, we rigged a few 4′-4-banks to the ceiling and floated around an Image 80 for a big-soft key. We raised the overall levels with a 1K Baby through a 12′ x 12′ T-Bone skinned with LiteGrid. I also had a 1K Mickey with a Chimera that marched around wherever I needed it (mainly for the product inserts). Behind the girls, we placed two Chinese Lanterns with 213 globes (250W) to give a little bit of a back light and spice up the background. A 1K Baby Baby gelled with 707 – Ultimate Violet was positioned behind two of the semi-opaque wall dividers to add some color. We selected one of the venue’s blue resin tables for the XBox/Connect and my gaffer, Josh Day, rigged his LED ribbon light to the back of it to give it some life. We went full daylight on it for some cool contrast. The final touch was a Tweenie rigged to the support tube of the TV stand also gelled with 707.
The dance floor upstairs is magnificent and features a giant LED screen. It is kind of remarkable that the former Los Angeles Stock Exchange building has transformed into a trendy downtown night club.
When we did the initial location scout, it appeared that the screen wasn’t going to be suitable for the video game playback because of a mirrored layer of glass protecting the distantly spread pixels. On the scout, we devised a plan where Bruce would put something matte over the giant screen and rent a large LCD screen for playback. In this less than ideal situation, there would be some distance between the two monitors and the venue’s screen would play interesting patterns to frame our TV. When we returned to the venue for the tech scout, our XBOX technician, Max Song, tested the resolution of the screen with “Dance Central 2” and we were all pleasantly surprised with it’s performance. Even with the lights above the stage turned on, the image was quite nice (I used my 5D Mk3 to confirm that it would photograph well).
We unanimously voted to use their 11′ screen and take advantage of the tremendous production design provided by the venue with their giant LCD and trusses filled with Colorblasters, Mac 575 Kyrptons, LED Par Nodes, Stripe Lights, PAR 64 Diode LEDs, Atomic 3000 DMX strobes, and hazers. The main adjustment that we made to the venue was construct an 8′ x 8′ plexi glass stage that extended the venue’s platform further from the screen to allow more room for the girls to dance with the game. Art department secured a layer of 216 white diffusion underneath the clear plexi to make the light evenly spread from the eight sets of 4′-4-bank Kino Flows that we laid on the ground below. The cameras were balanced to 5600K on the dance set and we utilized K56 bulbs for all of those Kinos at James’s request.
By far the most important element to the upstairs dance floor is the captivating lighting design by Hubie Tardiff. We called Todd Ortiz at ELS for a quote on lighting gear and to see who he would recommend to program Exchange LA’s GrandMA lighting board. Our timing was perfect as Hubie just happened to be riding his motorcycle by their office to say hello. Todd proudly announced that his ‘best guy’ was available and interested in joining us. We couldn’t be happier to have had the man behind the lighting of countless concerts and shows including Cirque du Soleil’s Iris! Hubie arrived at 5:15am in order to have enough time to give us something really wonderful and he did just that. James and I gave him very limited notes to maximize his creative freedom. We mainly wanted the energy of the lights to mirror the song and to place a slight limit on our color palette (we wanted to avoid green and focus on the red through cyan region of the color wheel).
Other than Hubie’s roaming lights and the nice soft light below from the dance floor, I employed a bunch of 750W Source-4 Lekos with 19-degree lenses to keep our actors well sculpted. We had 2 units high atop the stage in the A/C control room, which were great back lights when we faced the stage. We also placed units on both sides of the 2nd level balcony to give a 3/4 backlight on each of them. On the turn around, those same 2 lights marched back towards the entrance of the club to give the same effect. We hung two more Chinese Lanters in the entrance of the club to tie the two different worlds together visually. My favorite light of the bunch was the Jo-Leko 400 with 19-degree lens that gave a slightly cool spotlight on the girls/audience and caused some excellent flares on my lenses.
The main obstacle that we faced were the reflections of the actors in the giant 11′ mirrored screen. We had some debates on set as to how distracting seeing them reflected on the screen would be to the viewers at home. As a result, we did several different takes with varying amounts of front and back light on the shots facing the screen. Personally, I much prefer the fully lit versions, but in the final cut, very little appears mainly because the girls had very little practice time with the dance routine. As I kept switching off more of my lights, their performances vastly improved. I wish there were more time because I would’ve grabbed another fully lit take just before the turn around. Nevertheless, we smoothed most of the inconsistencies out in color correction.
To match the color palette of the game as indicated by the client, I settled on Lee Filters’ 707 – Ultimate Violet and 068 – Sky Blue as our primary elements. The two are prominently featured behind the stage on the building where we used four 1K PAR64 cans with MFL globes to give some architectural lighting for the very wide shots. Above the entrance to the club, a pair of 2K BJs gelled with 707 give some life to the upstairs wall.
Once James and I got the few shots to the intro of the main video in the can downstairs with two cameras, Chun Ming took over the set. He lived on the Fisher 11 and Angenieux Optimo 12x (24-290 T2.8) the entire day. Our C-camera operator, Tabbert Filler remained on the lightweight Angenieux Optimo DP Rouge 30-80 so he could go handheld for large parts of the BTS section and give it a slightly different aesthetic than the main video. Because we wouldn’t have time to color correct the BTS portion, we utilized the P3 LUT unlike the main section, which was in S-Log.
Having the large zoom range of the 12x was crucial to quickly getting everything that we needed. My initial thought was to go the ENG route and get some powerful video lenses, but James immediately resisted the idea. I pitched both him and the client on a concept that would more closely resemble an episode of The Voice than a music video. Because the dance set is a fantasy in the character’s minds, it is reasonable that their imaginations transported them into a network television competition. I suggested that we could even see our cameras and camera operators as part of the aesthetic.
I’m really pleased that my idea was rejected, because I know that the product that we have on our hands is exponentially better than it would’ve been had we rented shoulder mount cameras. All along James wanted something very cinematic. We flirted with the idea of getting 2 ARRI Alexas, but getting a third camera was worth the sacrifice in quality. I’m very happy with the Sony PMW-F3‘s performance, but wish we had full resolution high speed options at our disposal. We grabbed select shots at 60 FPS at 720p and uprezzed the footage to 1080p in Final Cut Pro. Rhyan Taylor at AbelCine was instrumental in getting us a robust camera package within our budget.
The game plan for coverage upstairs was relatively straight forward. We employed 3 cameras to maximize angles and coverage in the limited time afforded to the dance portion. We had less than 6 hours to get everything we needed on the main set. Having a 2-way wireless RTS system allowed James and I to communicate with and make adjustments on the fly to our operators because we wanted to utilize much of the spontaneity that comes with capturing a live event. Don’t get me wrong, we had many very specific shots in mind, but we also wanted to give our operators lots of room to find great shots without micro-managing. A-camera lived on a 15′ Jimmy Jib provided by Scott Acosta’s company, AnyPOV, with the affable Kevin Nolan operating and Kirk Fletcher teching. Outfitted with an Angenieux Optimo 17-80 T2.2 lens, they got us tons of great sweeping shots. B-Camera remained on the dolly and C-Camera started on the Rouge 30-80, but after a few shots swapped over to the second Optimo 12x for greater flexibility. In a perfect world, I would’ve had a second dolly for Tabbert so he could make adjustments more easily, but he was quite mobile independently.
The final set was just off to the side of the upstairs dance floor. Once we finished the coverage on Jenna and Venessa, Chun Ming broke away to get their interviews with my 5D camera package. The rest of us continued to utilize our 3 main unit cameras for a few inserts of the game playing on the giant screens as wrap-time quickly approached.
When James and I discussed visual references, I showed him Rodrigo Prieto’s stellar cinematography from a great film that you may have not seen, Biutiful (NSFW). The scene stands out in the film in numerous ways, but for our purposes, I love the energy of the lights and camera movement in the club. James brought this trailer to establish a look for the crowd shots along with the hedonistic dance sequence from Matrix Reloaded (NSFW).
In order to get everything that we needed and vacate the venue by 7pm as our contract/agreement required, G/E had a 5am call time. It was an early start to a long day, but we got everything that we needed within our parameters. None of it would’ve been possible without our talented crew comprised of many familiar faces and new ones alike. Hopefully, we can reassemble the band in the very near future…
In the comments section below, please tell me what your favorite video games are. I’ll always be partial to GoldenEye, Madden Football, Street Fighter 2, NBALive ’95, and NHL ’94.