Some people settle, but not us: The making of a commercial, from start to finish

As a cinematographer, you’re usually only involved in the creative process immediately prior to, and during, production. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you’ll also be brought in to work with a colorist on the final DI, which these days does not happen often. It almost never happens that you get to be involved in the entire process from start to finish, but as I have stressed before, filmmaking is a collaborative art, and having creative collaborators that you trust as much as they trust you, although rare, is truly an extraordinary thing.

Director Mike Pecci (@mikepecci) approached me at the very beginning of this project. Before he knew what the story would be, who would be cast as talent, or what products would be showcased, he called me up and told me that Dalstrong had given him a budget and to make something cool, and wanted my help. Mike and I have worked on an extensive list of projects together, and one of my favorite parts of collaborating with someone I trust is that ego is left at the door. If he asks me for creative suggestions, it doesn’t mean I’m trying to take his job. If he suggests a way to light or shoot something, it doesn’t mean he’s trying to take mine. This is entirely about coming out of this process with something that we are both incredibly proud of.

We started discussing ideas and one aspect we explored immediately was casting. The chef we had worked with previously on a different Dalstrong campaign had since moved out of state. Another chef that we both admire (and local to the Boston area) was so slammed running three restaurants that we would never have been able to schedule the shoot in a reasonable manner. But it just so happens that I had an incredibly talented chef in the family: my brother Philip, chef/owner of Brassica Kitchen in Jamaica Plain (@brassicakitchen).

The Talent

Chef Philip Kruta of Brassica kitchen shoots a food commercial with the Arri Alexa Mini and Cooke Anamorphic lenses

We called him up and he was immediately in to the idea. A former filmmaker himself, he was familiar with the process and excited about all the ways he could help. As we started talking about the ways we could portray his food and knife work, another exciting creative opportunity showed itself - his woodworking. Phil is an incredible woodworker, and built a lot of his restaurant by hand. The overarching elements of the story were there, but we needed to unite them in a way that would tell a story and portray the brand positively.

In the spirit of collaboration, we reached out to another person that I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with numerous times: writer, director, and former (always?) creative, Patrick Biesemans (@patrickbiesemans). He didn’t hesitate to say yes, and within days had written the first pass at the voiceover, which would ultimately become our guideline for what we would capture on camera.

The Idea

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Patrick’s outline focused on the abuse our hands take from the daily rigors of working with wood and with food. It portrayed perfection as something born from abuse, hard work and diligence. It looked at taking rough, raw materials and turning them in to a thing of beauty.

I found many parallels between that and my own work with Mike. We spoke for hours over numerous phone calls about how to create the visuals for this spot, because we wanted to touch on all these aspects with the images you would see on screen. There had to be rough, chaotic, contrasty scenes, mixed with energy, refinement and beauty. We have shot extremely stylized spots in the past, as well as more subdued and polished ones, but this was an opportunity to show both what we could do, while holding true to ourselves as filmmakers.

The Execution

Having decided on building out three different worlds, with a single thread in the form of lighting cues to tie them all together. These would be the workshop, the restaurant, and the void, where our chef would be cutting, cooking and plating against a black background. We started by passing visual references back and forth, from which I could build out our lighting plots.

planning a film shoot camera references

Due to time and talent availability restraints, the location work had to stay minimal. We lit mostly with a set of Astera Titan tubes, supplemented with a Joker 400 and some canned haze. This lent itself well to the “real life” look of the locations, and allowed us to focus our efforts on the stage work. Gaffer Ruben Alves and his crew set up a box of 20x20 solids, a Skypanel S30 on a menace arm, and the Titans so that we could jump from one setup to another with ease.

When lighting food, I like to use a large, soft source either from above or off to the side to mimic a window. Not only does the size of the source allow for it to wrap around the food and fill in the shadows, it also creates a reflection. A light glaze on the food emphasizes this, and these two qualities together make it look lively and appetizing. A lot of us in the field of cinematography love to use darkness and shadows, but this is an instance where softness and fill can work to your benefit.

We shot on the Alexa Mini with Cooke Anamorphic/i lenses, a departure from the Lomo Square Fronts that Mike and I usually shoot on together. The reasoning behind this was that we wanted to retain our style that usually involves anamorphic lenses and aberrations, but to bring some modern polish to the rest of the spot. The Cookes are a wonderful set of lenses that retain some of that vintage character, especially wide open, while being much sharper and mechanically forgiving than the Lomos.

Post Production

As the spot was being edited, Mike was inspired by the sound design and voiceover from the Avengers: Endgame trailer, and used that as a rough track to cut to. He sent me the first rough cut, and we agreed that we loved the simplicity of it.

Although Patrick had written a beautiful monologue to accompany the spot, we had to go back to the drawing board. This is where ego could have easily come in, but again, with great, trusted collaborators, there is nothing but a desire to create the best work we can. He agreed with where it was headed, and rewrote and reworked the voiceover until it became what you hear in the final spot.

We were lucky enough to have one more collaborator in the room (literally): Rob Bessette (@robsbessette), colorist at Finish Boston, who threw himself into the project with an enthusiasm that gave us the energy to finish the piece with a bang. We pulled a single marathon session and went through each frame, building a color palette that would evoke different emotions in each scene, while guiding your eye to the relevant parts of the frame and taking you through this journey of craftsmanship, passion and perfectionism.

Although I wasn’t able to work with him directly, the music by Code Elektro tied the whole piece together. Check him out on Instagram at @code_elektro.

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.

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.

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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.