How Hard Can Automotive Filmmaking Be?

Before the BBC began broadcasting casually racist automotive pornography to millions of television sets and laptop screens across the world, automotive videojournalism was about as sterile as an old plow mule. The host was vividly tepid and the film work displayed the same level of creativity as an act of Congress.

Thanks to Top Gear, those days are virtually over and a new standard has been set to a profound effect. If you plan on presenting, a booming baritone voice and keeping what's left of your hair well-kept isn't going to cut it with viewers if you aren't going to make a single witty off-color remark about someone's sainted mother. Equally as important, if you plan on working the camera, you had better have a knack for making even something as abhorring as a Lada Riva with plastic wheel covers melt viewers' eyeballs within the confines of their sockets.

Well-funded names in automotive videojournalism such as Fifth Gear, XCar, The Smoking Tire, and Drive all take some degree of influence from Top Gear, either in the way they present their films or how they approach making a film itself, if not both. However, it isn't just the big players who owe a portion of their soul to the Beeb's highly acclaimed motoring program. Smaller fish who are confined to swimming in the seas of white noise on YouTube also try to ape Top Gear's particular flavor, occasionally and impressively managing to come within very loud shouting distance on an atom-sized budget.

But never mind whatever cutesy prose they manage to vomit on screen all over the front of their white v-neck t-shirts, I've always found it very intriguing that these proletariat YouTubers can shoot good looking films without the use of a camera that costs more than a small hatchback. So I did a little research and discovered that most low-rent car-centric videos use budget to mid-range DSLR cameras, such as the Canon T3i, a few different lenses and a tripod, and a computer with basic movie editing software.

I personally own a T3i, a few lenses and a cheap tripod, and a Mac with iMovie. And for me, that was incentive enough to take a crack at it. After all, if some teenaged kid in a Smurf costume can do it, how hard can it actually be?

Now, I'll openly admit to you that I'm not a filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination. I know just as much about making a film as I do cooking or speaking Latin. Again, I just own a camera with a few lenses and a cheap tripod. Still, at least I had the gear needed to conduct my little experiment, so it wasn't like I was going in completely naked.

Or so I thought. When I began researching how to pan shots, I discovered my tripod wasn't exactly a Swiss army knife. While it was certainly capable of doing traditional 180 degree panning and therefore most of the work, linear panning — which is where the camera sort of stays in a static position as it moves along a track that goes from left to right — was out of the question. To do that, I needed a sliding dolly.

So I decided I would buy one... until I discovered the cheapest one you can order from the internet cost about $175 dollars. That sort of price tag for what is, essentially, a sliding door's track with a quarter-inch bolt through one end of it gave me a bad case of what I like to call cheap-ass-itis, so I decided I would save some dosh and build one instead. After a few hours of deliberate research, I chose to go with a different sort of design I could make for the cost of two Big Macs out of some pipe and Velcro, and three electrical conduit boxes.

With my new dolly built and added to my arsenal of gear, I didn't waste much time and set out to do a little film work. I decided that the urban decay of Detroit would make for an excellent backdrop and the car I wanted to film would be a black Dodge Charger SRT8. Unfortunately, I live hours away from Detroit and Dodge wouldn't return my phone calls for a press car. So an abandoned warehouse in Central Kentucky and my own base model Dodge Charger would have to suffice.

I arrived at the old warehouse at 5 pm, strategically parking my car in a small lot just in front of it. When I stepped out and started unloading my equipment, I was greeted by a brisk wind that wanted to flash freeze my nipples to my shirt. After I had sat everything up, that's when a steady outpouring of traffic started to roll through the area.

That meant that every shot I made had to be done tediously and monotonously over and over again to keep the many passers-by out. It was during this process I discovered my budget-friendly tripod wasn't exactly the most fluidly moving outfit my money could've bought. Much of my footage wound up being either shakier than the CIA's policy on public privacy or, at best, twitchier than Charlie Sheen. On the upside, the cobbled together dolly worked fairly well once I had managed to get the hang of it.

For an about an hour I persevered through the clammy wind, the irritating traffic and my lacking gear, making shot after shot, only pausing once to re-park my car. It was a lot of work, yes. But was it hard work? At the time, I didn't think it was really all that tough. Looking back on it, I'm not entirely sure.

See, here's the rub. Later that night, I sat through the various clips I had made, selecting the best ones to edit in iMovie (no headaches here; it's a straight shooting program). Of out an hour's work, do you want to make a guess how much usable footage I earned? If you guessed a little over a minute, you'd be right.

I suppose an experienced filmmaker would tell me that's just part of the game, though. Regardless, I think the finished product, which you can view below, turned out fairly well for a complete novice. And that makes me eager to see what my next attempt will turn out like.

(Photo credit: Railrover.com, learn how to make your own slider dolly here.)


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