BESPOKE PLATE VEHICLE & PROCESS PHOTOGRAPHY
Shooting actors in moving vehicles sucks. Driving around on practical roadways with actors in some car in best cases is never easy. The rolling caravan of conventional car process trailers are costly, cumbersome and take forever. Not to mention dealing with turning that rolling parade around and contending with lighting and weather changes…. It’s, in a word, a nightmare.
For director David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter, the renowned perfectionistic wanted previously unrealized control over such problematic shooting scenarios. He envisaged ultimate control over the driving sequences for his show, where he could get the best performance from his actors and execute supreme control over the imagery.
Scenes with characters driving in vehicles have always presented both technical and logistical challenges to filmmakers. Having the actors actually driving on exterior roadways – while acting – certainly has been done, but it’s not safe and it can be difficult for the talent to both focus on the mechanics of driving and deliver a nuanced performance.
Add to that the complications of maintaining continuity on a roadway over repeated takes and varying lighting/weather conditions… you can begin to imagine the cinematographic and editorial frustrations these types of scenes present.
A tried-and-true solution to “freewheeling” it, is to mount the vehicles on a towed “process” trailer and leave the actual driving to a professional. While this solution seems like a no-brainer, it does pose its own set of problems and limitations.
First, as the car is not actually contacting the road, it does not “sit” at an appropriate height to other vehicles within sight.
Second, as the car is still being navigated on a determined route on actual roads, considerations of traffic, continuity, time of day, weather, avoiding police escort vehicles in shot, etc. all come into play.
Blue/Green/Rear screen projection… Another well-worn means to achieving driving material, also suffers from hindrances. We don’t need to bemoan the artifice of bluescreen or greenscreen processes, or going back further still, rear screen projection – although the latter technique at least affords a degree of accurate interactive lighting and possibly reflections (if utilizing more than one projection source, placing a screen on an appropriate angle for windscreen reflections, for example).
Either way, both methods posed significant limitations to the final image quality and in worse cases – like if a character had frizzy hair, wore eyeglasses, or in the case of Mindhunter, smoked incessantly – sometimes could be a deal breaker entirely.
Christopher Probst, ASC
For the hit Netflix series Mindhunter, the show’s designing cinematographer of the pilot block of episodes, Christopher Probst, ASC designed and fabricated the ultimate plate acquisition vehicle.
Based off a tricked-out Mercedes Metris minivan, the bespoke plate vehicle carried a dozen strategically-placed and rapidly adjustable cameras that were all tied to one master roll button. This elegant construction allowed the filmmakers to trigger all cameras with the push of a single button and monitor their respective angles within the comfort of the stylish Mercedes van.
This bespoke fabrication was performed by Probst and his grip team prior to the commencement of principal photography of the series. Probst’s unique solution was to incorporate camera slider hardware as the mounting structure to place each of the 12 cameras. Utilizing the core rails of Modern Studio’s 3’ sliders and carriage. The cameras were mounted to an “L” plate that was easily adjusted up or down using the slider’s locking mechanism. Adding further elegance to the solution, Fincher and Probst performed a camera alignment day with all of the show’s primary picture vehicles and predetermined each camera angle’s exact focal length, focus, height, pan and tilt.
Armed with this data, on the subsequent shoot day where performers would be shot in a specific car, the plate van’s cameras were quickly adjusted to those prescribed settings and the van was set loose to photograph the path the characters would “drive,” simultaneously capturing all 12 camera angles at the push of a button and in mere minutes.
Once that footage was processed, it would be called into service on an LED “car process” stage. The advantage of this method meant that the rolling caravan scenario of traditional process trailers was eliminated. The plate van captured all the angles at the precise height and position they would be if they were mounted to a free-driving vehicle. BUT, without the need to turn the caravan around and reset to “one,” all the while the time of day and weather would be changing.
Instead, on the process stage Fincher could direct his talent as many takes as he liked and the weather never changed! The filmmakers could blaze through six pages of dialog, shooting multiple angles simultaneously, all before lunch. And with the LED panels on the process stage providing the actual ambient lighting conditions onto the actors, the blend was seamless.
This trailblazing technique presaged by several years the mass-adoption of LED-based car process workflows for film, tv and commercials… and Probst’s custom plate vehicle has yet to be outdone.