Editor’s Note: This week’s blog post by our good friend Hunter is actually more relevant today than ever – with many states and cities under partial or complete lockdown due to Covid-19 – filming a stationary car inside your garage might just be a good option! 😉 

Visual effects have always fascinated me. Especially the practical effects performed by the pioneers of cinema. While growing up, the wonder of watching a good effects sequence and then trying to find out how they pulled it off, was a big part of what fueled my passion for filmmaking. Recently I had been wanting to experiment with some rear projection and when I heard about this short film competition, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try it out.

If you don’t know what rear projection is, it is essentially filming a screen with a pre-recorded background plate placed behind live action foreground elements. The projector is placed behind the screen instead of in front of it.

The classic example (and the way we use it in this project) is having the actors “driving” a car while the background scenery is projected onto a screen behind them. Back in the early days before blue screen and the sodium vapor process, rear projection was the only way to film actors in a car and still record clean dialogue. It was also used for visual effect shots like a crop duster diving down on Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchock’s film “North by Northwest.” Projected backgrounds were also used as recently as 2013 in the movie “Oblivion” – shot by Claudio Miranda – to create an entire set. Even though Oblivion was shot using a front-projected background and not rear-projection, the concept is the same.

A behind the scenes still from “North by Northwest”.

My goal was to make a mildly convincing car scene that didn’t have to be 100% realistic. For me, part of the attraction of rear projection is how stylized it can look. I wanted this film to have just a little bit of the magical, not-quite-realistic feel while still being believable. This fits in nicely with the story being told and hopefully we pulled the look off for people watching it.

To keep costs down, I wanted to use gear that I already had available or could borrow on short notice. What we ended up using was:

  • A Sony A7III with Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 lens.
  • SmallHD Focus Monitor
  • Three Switronix Bolt bi-color TorchLED lights.
  • A battery powered LED work light for simulating traffic lights
  • Background stand.
  • Clear plastic painters drop-cloth for the screen.
  • A projector (borrowed from a DJ friend of mine)
  • LED string lights for the light coming from the dash.

We also had some C-stands, light stands, some duvetyne, foam boards for bounce fill, white fabric and a shower curtain for diffusion.

The only expenses were gas, an LED light strip, a shower curtain and the plastic drop-cloth which was our background screen. Also Chick-Fil-A – a necessity!

I came up with a quick script and asked my three nieces if they would like to be in the movie. I had recently mentioned that we should make a movie together and they were excited about the idea. I thought this would be a great project for them since the film could only be 2 minutes long based on contest rules. The perfect length for a couple of high energy girls!

I secured a garage in an empty house and borrowed a projector and stand from a DJ friend. I then talked with my two brothers, Parker and Landon and my friend Adam Terrell into helping out. These guys generously donated their time and made the film better in every way.

Pre-flight check of our setup the night before the shoot.

Setup from the front.

We arrived early in the morning to set up. First, we blacked out all the windows in the garage using trash bags. Using the sheet of painter’s plastic for the screen, we clamped it to a background stand and stretched it as tight as we could. The drop-cloth worked perfectly! It was larger than we needed it to be so we had a lot of screen space to play with. I placed the projector as far away as I could so that we could fill up the screen as much as possible.

A few nights before the shoot, I had recorded footage for the background plate by driving up and down the main street of my hometown with the camera pointed out of the back window. The camera was on a gimbal to get the smoothest footage possible. Any shaky footage in the background plate is an instant giveaway that the background isn’t real. Although this can be the desired effect if you are trying to emulate old hollywood movies.

For the police lights, I used stock footage which was downloaded the morning of the shoot. The footage was played back on a constant loop from my laptop using VLC player.

Overhead of our setup

While Landon and I were setting up the set, Parker, (the writer in the family) took my script away and immediately started working his magic on it. About 30 minutes before filming, he wrote new and better dialogue and changed the ending.

Adam arrived shortly after we did and started rigging the car for sound. He taped the mic behind the rear view mirror, routing the cable along the inside of the car to his mixer. We then ran an output from the mixer straight to the A7III. Even though we recorded dual system sound, I ended up just using the feed from the camera to save time by not syncing audio and video in post.

When our star talent arrived, Parker began coaching them while I called my sister and asked if she could come over and play the role of the mom – an important role that, because of Parker’s changes to the script, needed to be filmed that day. She agreed to come over on short notice and help us out before heading to work. If I remember correctly, I think we had a 30 minute window with her.

The first challenge faced during filming was controlling the reflections and light spill.

In the first scene we shot (2nd shot in the film), you can see the reflections from the ceiling on the windshield. I didn’t catch this until later. We fixed this by draping duvetyne over the top of the car which eliminated the reflections. This was the first lesson I learned: when filming a car, watch your reflections very carefully! Something I knew but didn’t pay enough attention to. Anything can look good on a small 5 inch monitor so you have to look closely.

See how dirty this window looks? It’s actually a reflection of the garage ceiling.

Adding Duvetyne above the car eliminated the reflections.

The next challenge was to make the rear-projection screen look as good as possible. We were getting some reflections showing up on the screen from our lights and we had to find a way to flag the lights off from the screen. This wouldn’t have been a problem if we had better lights and grip gear but, since I had been determined to use what we had, we made it work.

Another problem we ran into were scan lines that the camera was seeing coming from the projector when it was dimmed. I tried everything I could to get rid of those but we ended up keeping the projector at its brightest setting and I adjusted the lighting and camera settings to compensate.

But the number one challenge, by far, was working in a garage during a hot, sunny Texas summer day.

The girls experienced the worst of it since they had to be in the car with the windows rolled up (for better sound). We made sure to film only a few minutes at a time, taking frequent breaks. This slowed us down a lot but of course it was better to be safe than sorry. The girls did really well despite the conditions and we wrapped that afternoon.

While we didn’t win the competition, I was pretty pleased with how the rear projection turned out and we definitely made some memories. The best part of the entire project was showing my nieces the finished film and seeing their excitement and pleasure as they watched it.

I hope this inspires and challenges you to go and make something cool! Or to just make something. Even if it’s something like a short and silly video made with family and friends. Filmmaking is mostly a hands-on experience and the more I do, the more I learn.

Hunter Starnes

Hunter Starnes

Hunter Starnes is one of the 3 brothers behind Take 4 Films - an amazingly talented wedding and commercial film company based out of Fort Worth, TX. Check out their site: https://take4films.com

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