Earlier this year, director Tom Augustine approached us with an idea for a music video he wanted to produce for his friends’ band, Violet Highway. The idea? A one-shot music video that follows a taxi-driver’s evening beat, repeatedly tracking between the front and back seats – each movement revealing a new passenger. At Chillbox, we are always looking for excuses to try new things. Tom’s idea seemed like a perfect excuse to jump in head-first and get stuck into something we had absolute no idea how to accomplish. So, naturally, we got on board.
As you can imagine, the shoot presented some immediate challenges.
Firstly, we were determined to do the whole thing in one shot. No ‘Okay Go’ hidden cuts – just one, pure, uninterrupted take, seamlessly tracking between the front and back seats. While ambitious, this decision did help narrow our focus. For instance, we immediately knew that we wouldn’t be able to pull this off outside a real moving vehicle. For one: getting this sort of controlled camera movement outside a real moving car on a real road would require a rig we simply didn’t have the budget for. Additionally, we were going to need passengers to seamlessly swap in and out of the car during a take – a feat most actors, (with the possible exception of Jean-Claude Van Damme), wouldn’t feel comfortable performing in a vehicle travelling 50km/h down an inner-city street – particularly where they’re only being paid in free food and gratitude. For these reasons, we decided early on that we would need to shoot under controlled settings in a studio environment.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a studio environment. However, Violet Highway’s bassist, Ant, had connections at Albany Tennis Park, who generously provided after-hour access to their indoor tennis courts. Like a studio, this afforded us a large, blacked-out space with plenty of power. Unlike a studio, we could work on our backhand in-between takes. Win – win.
While shooting in a controlled, “studio-ish” space solved our rigging and blocking problems, it created a new elephant in the room. We needed our taxi to move. Before jumping straight to shooting on green-screen, we considered some alternatives – again, always looking to try something new. First, we considered building a series of revolving vertical conveyor belts decorated with fairy lights and shadowy shapes to create a surreal (yet practical) background element. We only briefly entertained this idea before realising just how impractical a practical set piece like this would become. Next, we experimented with high-powered projectors to recreate a modern rear-screen-projection look. Again, we realised this would likely create more problems than it solved, so we passed. Ultimately, as the shoot day loomed, we decided green-screen would provide the most flexibility in post, giving us one less thing to choreograph on an already hectic set. However, creating a car in motion is more than just whacking in a moving background. There are practical on-set elements that are essential to selling the illusion.
Cars move in more than one direction while they’re driving. They drive forward, sure, but they also bounce, rumble, and shake as they move over grooves in the road. To simulate this, we had a dedicated car-shaker positioned on the front bumper whose job it was to gently rattle the vehicle. This moves the car and forces the actors to level their bodies, balance themselves, and react naturally to the vehicle’s vibrations. Combined with some subtle steering-wheel corrections from our driver, these added movements help to marry our real footage with our faux background.
Lighting was also critical to selling the illusion. First, our on-set lights needed to match with whatever background would be added in post so that the superimposition felt natural, and not too jarring. Secondly, because our car was supposedly ‘in motion’ and our scene took place at night, we needed to include some dynamic lighting elements. To simulate streetlights as they passed overhead, we rigged up a swivel – attaching one of our lights to the end of a long arm with a fixed pivot point at the top of a C-stand. We’d swing this light over the car, front-to-back, turn it off to reposition, then repeat. You can see this process demonstrated pretty clearly in the behind-the-scenes video found below.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of lighting was devising one fixed set-up that would work for all of our ‘scenes’ individually. As we were capturing everything in one-shot, we would not be able to adjust the lights between actions. This meant that wherever our lights were placed, they would need to work for each of our actors across several positions inside the vehicle. Not only did this require us to carefully position our lights, it also meant each actor needed to hit a very specific mark as they entered the vehicle to ensure they were catching the right light and not blocking anyone else’s. This was particularly challenging in scenes featuring two passengers, and took careful blocking to get correct.
It seems planning paid off. To everyone surprise, I’m sure, the shoot went more-or-less to schedule. We got started setting up around 6:30 PM on a Friday night, started rolling just before midnight, and wrapped at approximately 2:45 AM. It wasn’t the smallest of sets – we had a full cast of 14, and a crew of 9 – so coordination was key. However, once we got rolling, the night was relatively straightforward. We just continued to run take after take until we got something we were happy with. After 17 takes, we were finally confident with what we had captured – which is just as well, because the shot we ended up using in the finished video was Take 17.
All in all, I don’t think we could have asked for a smoother shoot. Everyone had a part to play, and I’m pleased to say that both cast and crew brought their A-Games. We knew it was going to be an ambitious shoot, and we are extremely appreciative of everyone that gave up their Friday night to help take on the challenge. Seriously, we couldn’t have done it without you.
If you’d like to see a bit of the shoot in action, check out the Making Of video below. If you’d like to see a real-time, side-by-by comparison of the finished video and the final take, check out the Behind-the-Scenes video as well.
Production, challenging as it may have been, was only half the battle. It stands to reason that once you’ve selected a single take that you’re happy with, post-production would be a piece of cake.
This was not the case.
As it turns out, finding a background that would work for an uninterrupted, 4-minute take was not as straightforward as we had initially thought. We had originally planned to find a nice, straight stretch of road, go out in the middle of the night, shoot 4 minutes of footage from a real car, whack it in, and call it a day. Unfortunately, we discovered pretty quickly that without some very expensive rigging, it was near impossible to get a shot steady enough as to not be distracting. When we had used this technique in the past, it was for projects that featured several cuts, meaning we could get away with just using the steadiest snippets of captured background plates and masking everything else between shots. However, for a 4-minute, uninterrupted take, we didn’t have the same luxury. The longer our captured background ran, the more its cracks started to show. We needed something more controlled – so we decided to fake it.
Digitally recreating a background from scratch had several advantages. First and foremost, it meant we could keep the background perfectly steady. Secondly, it meant we could match the movement of our on-set camera and create believable parallax motion between background layers in virtual 3D space, adding an extra layer of realism. And lastly, it meant we had total control of the background’s content – light placement, colour, shadows, etc – meaning we had a better chance of matching the background to our on-set footage. If there was one disadvantage, however, it’s that the digital option was considerably more labour intensive than its live action alternative.
A car travelling at 50km/h travels approximately 3.33 kilometres over the course of 4 minutes. Accounting for start-up and parking times, its safe to assume that our taxi travelled around 3 kilometres over the course of this video. This meant we had to recreate 3 kilometres of unique, non-repeating roadways, buildings, and traffic lights from scratch. If this was going to happen, we were going to need real-world reference. This is where our failed live-action attempts came in handy. I was able to pull still frames out of our shaky, otherwise unusable, footage and stitch them together into a series of extremely large Photoshop files (totalling 272,000 pixels wide when laid end to end). I then focused on getting my virtual camera movement timed up and locked in with our on-set footage. The resulting comp formed a solid, real-world base that I was able to build the rest of the background around, but it was still only two-dimensional – hardly convincing by real-world standards. The next step was to add layers to create some realistic parallax as the virtual camera tracked past.
In all of the reference I viewed, the element most prominent in footage take from cars at night seemed to be the out-of-focus octagonal bokeh of street lamps and distant buildings. So I began systematically generating layer upon layer of bokeh – which I faked using semi-transparent, multicoloured octagons. It was a relatively simple take, but effective – particularly in motion. These I layered behind my initial real-world stitches to act as distant lights, placing them at varying depths in 3D space so they’d interact realistically with the virtual camera. using the same technique, I generated layers of bokeh to use as reflection in the windows of passing buildings. To accomplish this effect, I simply created colour mattes over areas of my real-world stitches where I believed there may be a reflective surface (ig windows, glass doors, bus stops, etc) and then set my layer of ‘reflection bokeh’ to only appear in these spaces. In front of my ‘buildings’, I added the occasional passing street lamp for good measure.
None of these techniques are particularly advanced or complicated in small scale, but again, employing them across a 4-minute, ‘3 kilometre’ sequence was nothing short of a logistical and computational nightmare. However, after a couple hectic all-night renders, and several hours of rotoscoping, we managed to get the video finished. If you’d like a look under the hood – check out the VFX Breakdown below.
This entire project has been an incredible learning experience, and we are extremely grateful both Tom and Violet Highway thought to bring it to us. We relish the opportunity to cut our teeth on something new, and welcome the challenges of such an ambitious concept.
A great big thank you to everyone involved!