Magazine article American Cinematographer

Defying Gravity in the Bonneville Salt Flats

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Defying Gravity in the Bonneville Salt Flats

Article excerpt

One of the last places you want to be during a violent thunderstorm is standing beneath a 40-foot-tall steel structure in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Yet that's exactly where director/cinematographer Craig Henderson found himself this past fall when he filmed a national Honda spot.

"Our three-day shooting schedule was extended to four because every day a lightning, wind and rain storm would roll in around three or four in the afternoon and stay for about two hours," recalls Henderson. "But then, one of the reasons you go [to the Salt Flats] is for the dramatic atmosphere and light."

According to Henderson, the area's very simple look made it the ideal location for this 30-second spot, which features a Honda defying gravity as it drives up and across a giant seesaw without lowering the other arm of the balance.

"We wanted a place that resembled a table's surface to shoot these big toys on," says the former art director/still photographer. "The agency wanted to reduce the complexity of this spot and keep it very simple and geometrical."

While the finished spot is dramatically simple, the actual shooting process was quite complicated. "We had to consider how much traction to put on the wheels to get the car up the seesaw," says Henderson. "We ended up shooting some of the footage backwards. The car actually ran down the hill, not up."

The 42-year-old Oregon resident, whose commercial credits include national spots for Lexus, Lincoln Mercury, Bank One and Alamo, claims to come from the old-fashioned school of cinematography. "Maybe it's because I went to an art school that didn't have any money, but I like to do effects in-camera whenever possible," notes Henderson. "We had many talks with the agency about how we were going to accomplish the illusion of defying gravity."

In the end, the illusion was created using an in-camera technique and several cameras. One camera shot the profile of the seesaw, while another camera and crew was positioned directly behind the seesaw, hidden from the first camera. In order to capture the same background and sky images, the same lenses, framing and film stocks were used for both cameras. This tactic provided the necessary footage needed to paint out the crane holding up the seesaw's arm in postproduction. "We shot simultaneously using the same heights, angles, filters and f-stops," says Henderson, who used a third Arriflex camera to shoot close-ups.

"This type of spot almost necessitates having one person be the director and cinematographer," observes Henderson, who has been shooting commercials for the past seven years. "It drastically reduces the amount of communication time. This business is so fraught with adjective wars that it make things easier any time you can reduce the number of people involved and the number of translations."

Henderson used video assist monitors to keep track of the footage shot. "The tricky thing about this spot was how to shoot it and not telegraph the ending," he recalls. "It had to be set up in a very methodical way so that the audience expects to see the seesaw go down and is surprised when it doesn't."

Henderson, who has shot four commercials on the salt flats, had the luxury of taking a trip to the area before actual shooting commenced. "One of the things we did to prepare was to take a six-foot model out on a prep trip and shoot storyboard pictures from this model. …

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