How do you make a commercial for a famous car brand without actually showing the car? How can you portray three cities in three different countries without really showing any of them? Most importantly, how do you photographically tell a story of three characters with sharp wit and a restrained cinematic style?
These were some of the exciting challenges of making Volkswagen Middle East’s “Recommended Retail Price”, a wonderful, offbeat commercial directed by Moe Najati, which I shot on the RED Epic camera and world-class Leica Summilux-C lenses provided by Asif Limbada of LFP.
Watch the commercial:
I had previously used the same combination of camera and lenses on WAY OF THE WARRIOR. While that film uses a very baroque look (low-light, rich blacks, strong colors), I had something different in mind for the Volkswagen commercial—a crisp, clean aesthetic with three distinct color palettes and contrast levels to represent the workshops/offices in Riyadh, Doha and Dubai (cities we never show or identify explicitly!)
Fortunately, director Moe Najati who is a great collaborator and lover of cinema, was totally on board with this idea from the very beginning. After scouting locations with him in the industrial area of Al Quoz (Dubai) and several back-and-forths via email, I had locked in the color palette for each character and city before a single frame of footage was shot.
We had decided earlier on that I would shoot everything wide-open at f/1.4 to isolate our characters; that it would be all done handheld to give ‘some life’ to each composition…and yet for the camera movement to be so subtle that you hardly notice it. (This was sometimes not easy at all because I like to operate the camera myself, and after 14 takes of a single shot, your shoulder can take quite a beating! Good thing I eat healthy and stock up on my vitamins!).
For the first character, a grubby storekeeper in Riyadh, I wanted to create a warm 70’s look to heighten the ramshackle state of his store. The director and I specifically chose this store and had our art director boost the ‘vintage factor’ by bringing in more old-school props in the pale yellow and brownish, earthy tones.
I left the overhead office tube lights uncorrected and bounced a 1K Open Face Fresnel into the ceiling for additional ambience. This also brought the color temperature closer to 3,000K, which is what I wanted, because I had set my camera to 5000K to ‘bake in’ a warmer tone. I then used a 2.5HMI Par (narrow spotted and shot through light diffusion, approximately 9 feet behind him) for his backlight and *did not* correct its temperature to preserve the “whiteness”. For the storekeeper’s key light, we stacked two Kino Image80s (tungsten tubes) about four feet away from his face, and they were diffused with 250.
For the second character, a bored lady in a parts store in Doha, I went for a cooler, bluish tone as this character’s work environment is—let’s say—more “upscale” compared to our grubby storekeeper! I relied on Image80s (daylight tubes) through thick 216 and light Opal for the lady’s key light.
I had also asked the art director to place a shiny chrome desk lamp next to her phone, and I then surreptitiously inserted a 1/4 CTO around the globe to warm the light even more. This results in a gorgeous orange-golden edge light on her face whenever she leans closer into the lamp. Of course, it also creates a nice warm and cool contrast around the all-important telephone prop for our close-up shot. Her hair light was essentially a tungsten fresnel fully flooded, pushed through 216 to take the edge off. In addition, on the camera, I employed a 1/8 BPM for the wides and 1/4 BPM for her close-ups.
For our third character, the loud mechanic in a workshop in Dubai, I wanted to color this scene with the nasty green spike you get from consumer grade fluorescent tubes. So I chose not to replace the fluorescent tubes, and in fact had our crew put long strips of Plus Green gels inside all visible fluorescent units in the frame to accentuate the green spike.
Our 2.5HMI Par was used as a strong side light (I purposely left it as “white”) to bring out the texture of his clothes and grease stains. I would also sneak in a 2×2 and 4×4 Kino for the mechanic’s key light and edge light based on need (these were all gelled with Plus Green).
The final scene takes place in the Volkswagen showroom. In terms of look, I wanted to make this to be as diametrically opposite to the previous scenes as possible. This scene is all about polish and finesse. The first order of business was camera movement: we put the camera on a Panther dolly to create a smooth Z-axis movement going towards the actor. Unlike the previous scenes, the camera was not handheld and instead lived on a fluid head, and I was subtly controlling the tilt on the 40mm as the dolly moved in closer.
I popped in a 1/4 BPM filter to make the highlights from the showroom windows bloom; it really gives this scene a lovely ethereal quality and the smoothness and “polish” I had wanted. During prep I had asked our art director to bring an assortment of primary color folders and monochromatic paraphernalia for the VW rep’s desk. The steely monochrome of the VW insignia, the colored folders on the table combined with the gently rolling-off highlights and elegant camera dolly movement scream “finesse”, and should make you believe that he is the only car guy you can trust!
Das Auto, indeed.