March 29, 2023
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Producing the Car Commercial with Chris Ruiz

Chris Ruiz
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Not all commercials are created equal. Shooting a bottle of water against a white cyclorama comes with its own challenges, just like shooting a celebrity in a nightclub party scene does. But perhaps no type of commercial comes with as many challenges as knowing how to make a car commercial.

In some ways, a car commercial is a lot like other commercials. We have a director, a cinematographer, a camera team, grips, a lighting department—but there’s one crucial difference: our subject is a car. Cars often move at high speeds and require highly trained precision drivers.

Don’t worry.  We’re here to help take the wheel. Let’s learn how to shoot a car commercial.

Logistics

The morning of shooting a car commercial is the very definition of controlled chaos. Camera is getting built onto the camera car, car prep is moving cars, motorhome is parking, VTR is rigging the video van, and the 1st AD, police and drivers are discussing the run of day. 

That’s not even counting PAs, support vehicles, and of course, crafty. 

Staying abreast of the chaos and keeping all the teams moving along is an essential part of how to make a car commercial.

Shooting a moving target— we call it “running footage” when we’re producing car commercials — is no easy task, but when it’s done well it can make or break your car commercial. So if you’re trying to get the perfect shot of a car in motion, there are a few variables you’ll need to master.

Know your terrain

The frozen Canadian tundra, the dunes of Saudi Arabia, the concrete canyons of downtown Los Angeles. If a car’s allowed to drive there, someone’s producing car commercials there. By far, one of the most important factors in a how to make a car commercial is the location. But securing a location—and the requisite permits to film there legally—is no small task. 

It all starts with a location scout. One that considers a number of variables unique to knowing how to shoot a car commercial. Because a car moves so quickly, it’s not enough to find a beautiful stretch of road that only looks good from one angle—unless of course, you’re producing car commercials that are only two seconds long. 

Rather, a suitable location for producing car commercials needs to look good from almost 360 degrees. 

Plus, with a camera car, a trailer, several car haulers - each of which can require up to 110 feet of clearance - finding a location that can accommodate a large commercial crew is an additional challenge.

On top of that, car commercial scouts may have to be on the lookout for other elements requested by the director, producer, and agency. 

These include but are not limited to:

  • Pavement conditions
  • Number and width of lanes
  • Bike and bus lanes
  • Pedestrians
  • Traffic and rush hour conditions
  • Intersections and driveways
  • Safe places to pull over
  • Telephone poles
  • Tree cover for helicopters and drones

And that’s just the start. Once a location’s been decided on, permits have to be secured.

Secure your permits

Learning to secure permits ahead of time is a major part of learning how to shoot a car commercial. 

Oftentimes, before a job has even been awarded, the production company is already on the phone putting locations on hold. Urban areas, in particular, pose a logistical challenge.

Since production companies need to close down entire streets—or at least slow them down—getting permits to shoot in a major urban area can require as much as thirty days’ notice.

Given the speed at which commercials need to film, this is often impossible. But the more notice the production company can give to local authorities, the better their chances of getting the location approved.

Of course, while production companies tend to prefer a full shutdown of a street, most of the time this isn’t possible. Instead, a production company will rely on Intermittent Traffic Control (ITC) in which police stop traffic for a predetermined amount of time.

The production shoots only while the road is closed. Then police release traffic, the production sets up for another shot, and the process is repeated. 

Select the right crew

Like any production, hiring the right crew is key in knowing how to make a car commercial. Car commercial crews include many of the same roles as a standard commercial crew: producers, camera operators, assistant directors, grips, etc. But many of these jobs look a little different when a car commercial is being filmed.

Camera crew

The camera car is the beating heart of shooting a car commercial. The camera car comes in quite a few variations: a modified Porsche Cayenne, Toyota Tundra, Mercedes—there’s even a boat version. But all camera cars have few things in common. Camera cars:

  • Have a robotic arm with a high-end professional camera attached to the roof
  • Are fast
  • Can fit the key crew inside
  • Look really, really cool

Inside the camera car are your camera car crew. In some ways this crew resembles a traditional camera crew: there’s a director, a director of photography, a crane operator, and a 1st assistant camera. 

Of course, there’s also a driver, so everyone in the camera car crew has to do the jobs of a normal camera crew at sixty miles per hour. This is the most important factor in knowing how to shoot a car commercial.  How the speeding car affects everything.

How to Make a Car Commercial - Wrapbook - Camera Car
Want know how to make a car commercial? Hop into one of these. SOURCE

The choreography involved in getting a perfect car shot is an elaborate, yet dangerous dance. Every move of the crane shifts the weight of the car, every turn of the car affects the framing of the shot, and even one mistake can put lives at risk. 

If you’ve ever tried following someone on the highway, imagine doing it with a 50-pound camera mounted on an 18-foot crane swinging from the top of your car. Not so easy.

Art department

Producing car commercials require a different type of art department. Sometimes their job can be as simple as hiding ugly street signs with a rented tree or bush, or sweeping up a dirty sidewalk. 

How to Make a Car Commercial - Wrapbook - California Coast
Learn how to make a car commercial and you too can work in on the gorgeous California coastline. SOURCE

Other times, the job might involve dressing an entire street, or making it snow in Los Angeles, or rain on the side of a mountain. Need to drive through a wall of dirt or snow? Art department will build that for you. 

Car prep

Car prep is in charge of the picture cars—that is, the cars that appear in the commercial. Car prep operates as its own department, separate from the other production departments.

They transport the cars to set, keep them clean, swap wheels and tires, remove seats to fit a camera inside, and generally care for the cars during the shoot. An expert car prep team is integral in how to shoot a car commercial.

Police

Police play a huge role in securing a location when shooting a car commercial. Police control traffic and pedestrians, keeping everyone safe. If you’ve got a car flying through an intersection in downtown Los Angeles at 60 miles per hour, you could have as many as six police officers in motorcycles or cars blocking traffic for you. 

Not only that, police officers can help shuttle crew members through crowded areas and help get crew from one location to another.

1st A.D.

Just like on any other shoot, the 1st A.D. is the key communicator and liaison between departments. But this article is called “How to Make a Car Commercial”. In shooting a car commercial, the 1st A.D. is also responsible for communicating with the police to ensure the location is free of pedestrians and other vehicles. 

On a commercial shoot, before anyone yells “roll camera,” the 1st A.D. must get an “all clear” from each police officer, and another from the Key 2nd A.D.

Production assistants

On a car commercial, production assistants have some unique responsibilities, too—namely “lockups.” On a complex city street, even one car emerging from a driveway unexpectedly is a catastrophe waiting to happen. No one said learning how to shoot a car commercial would be without risk.

But police can’t be everywhere at once, so it takes an army of PAs to “lock up” each and every driveway and parking lot entrance along the route and keep everyone safe. This is non-negotiable. Safety is the CRUCIAL element in knowing how to make a car commercial.

Understand cars (at least a little bit)

While you probably don’t need to know what a spark plug is, knowing how to shoot a car commercial does require a basic understanding of cars and how they work. Otherwise, your car prep and camera ‌departments will talk circles around you. 

If you don’t know the difference between a tire and a wheel, for example, it’s going to be that much harder to communicate the director’s vision to the crew.

Not only that, a working knowledge of how cars work will help you anticipate problems before they happen. Filming an off-road vehicle? You’d better know the clearance. Want to run a vehicle through a river? Make sure the air intake valve isn’t going to be submerged.

You want to know how to make a car commercial? Take all the knowledge you’ve learned making commercials and apply to moving vehicles and open roads.

Wrapping Up

Shooting a car commercial is categorically different from other commercials. Toilet paper commercials are generally safer and don’t require police presence. 

But the same skills for all production shoots will help carry you through. ‌If you do your research, organize your shoot, and hire the right people, you’ll have a commercial that sells cars and looks awesome.

If you’re having trouble finding just the right person to drive your cars, learn more about how to hire drivers, or learn how to crew up your shoot!

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Chris Ruiz

Chris Ruiz has been working in production since 2001 and specializes in producing commercials.  He's worked with clients as diverse as underfunded universities to cash-heavy Silicon Valley tech companies.

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