Shooting slow motion with a robot and a Phantom (camera)

Shooting a commercial with the Motion Control Bolt system behind the scenes

There’s nothing I love more about my job than being given a real challenge. Most jobs have some kind of problem you have to solve, while others are very straightforward (how many interviews could you light in your sleep?). But once in a while, they push you way out of your comfort zone in the most unexpected ways. These are my favorite type of jobs. They might not be the sexy, moody films that we all love to brag about on Instagram, but I have a blast trying to solve problems, make the product look good, and above all else, make the client happy. Shooting commercials is often less about the art and craft of cinematography, but rather about delivering a product that the client asked for. But what if you can merge all of these things, maybe learn something new along the way, and on top of that have a great time with your team? Now that’s the type of work I live for.

Brian Neaman directs a commercial with the bolt motion control slow motion system phantom high speed

Working with Yonder Content and director Brian Neaman, we were tasked with delivering a series of comedic spots for the New Jersey Lotto. Sounds like a typical, unmemorable job, right? Not if you’re shooting with a robotic arm capable of shooting motion-control at high speed, all while precisely choreographing a room full of actors that had to hit exact cues during a shot that lasted less than 5 seconds in real time.

First off - the agency boards. When you’re shooting a commercial, usually before even the director or production company is hired, the agency and the client put together rough storyboards of what will be delivered. It’s then up to the director and production company to execute them. This is what we were given and asked to shoot.

New Jersey Lottery Board.jpg
Bolt   High Speed Cinebot

Working with the Bolt

The Bolt is a repurposed robotic arm that is typically used in automobile manufacturing, but has been modified to hold and move a camera at high speed with frame-accurate precision. It weighs a thousand pounds, requires 42 amps at 400 volts, and can move 6 feet per second. It’s absolutely terrifying and one of the coolest tools I have ever used.

It requires a 3-man crew to unload, set up and tweak. Each camera position is mapped out and programmed in to the software, and the move is built between the key frames. This is a time-consuming process, and it’s not uncommon for a single shot to take up the majority of a shoot day. However, the results are entirely worth it.

Bolt   High Speed Cinebot

Blocking

Our prep process included a significant amount of blocking. Since the ad plays out in one take, we had to be precise in mapping out all of the action. In addition, due to the significant risk of injury from the Bolt arm, actors had to be on their marks at all times, and could not move until given specific instructions. When you hear something described as having a lot of “moving parts”, this was literally the embodiment of that definition.

It’s amazing seeing everything come together. Below, you can watch everything in action.

Lighting for the Phantom

This spot called for slow motion in the realm of 400-1000 frames per second, so we shot on the Phantom Flex 4K and ARRI Master Primes, courtesy of Abel Cine in New York. Personally, I love the Master Primes - not only do they have a great look with beautiful skin tones and subtle focus falloff, but they are also tack sharp wide open. Knowing that I have the ability to open up a stop or two further than most other lenses without losing that sharpness is usually a must with Phantom shoots. Luckily the Bolt accurately controls the focus as well, so my camera assistant had a pretty relaxed day.

Gaffer Greg Tango had this to say about his experience lighting for high speed: "The challenge of slow motion is having enough punch from units while not flickering. We utilized an ARRI Skypanel 360 and a couple S60s for keys. These units all have a high speed mode that allow filming up to 1000fps. The key is never truly the issue when shooting high speed (just need enough punch), it’s trying to fill the backgrounds with the right intensity and shape of light. Our first choice was to use Quasar Crossfades but we found those to flicker at the higher frame rates. Instead we ended up using a mixture of ARRI L10Cs and Lite Mats to get the right background levels."

Creatively speaking, both the client and director were open to playing around with more colors and shape to the lighting than might be typical of a spot like this. The teal in the background really helped sell a nighttime look, even though we shot during the day and couldn’t use any practicals. Coincidentally, the color ended up being on-brand as well. I’m very happy with the look of this spot.

I’d like to extend a big thank you to Yonder and NJ Lotto for having me, and to my amazing crew that made my job easy. Check out the finished spot below!

As always, the conversation continues on my Instagram (@dkruta). Please feel free to send me any questions or comments. I love chatting about cinematography and I’m always interested to hear your thoughts.