Shooting a Spec Commercial for BMW

Editor’s note: Today is a guest blog post by Markus Braun, a visual artist based in Germany who specializes in film. Shooting a spec commercial is the process of creating a commercial the company didn’t hire you to make. Usually it’s with the hope they’ll see it, like it, and what to hire you. But sometimes it’s just because you like the brand and want to practice your filmmaking. When Markus shared this spec with me, it was so elaborate, I asked if he’d share about the making of it.

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A few months ago I decided to shoot a spec spot for BMW, because I wanted to enhance my portfolio and thus give my work more attention.

The idea I came up with is based on a dream that the main character has about himself. He wakes up as usual, doing what he does every morning: breakfast, coffee, etc. When he gets to his car and starts the engine, the car explodes and the character wakes up, realizing it was just a dream. Instead of being terrified about dreaming to be killed, he is only concerned about his car. He gets up as fast as he can and immediately checks if his car is still alright. That’s it in terms of storyline.

Before the actual shoot I had to put together a (small) crew, find a car and a cool location.

The crew issue was no issue at all. My friend and cameraman Thorsten Hary was down right away to help me out. The actor, Jan Arnold, was willing to star in it, but didn‘t believe in his acting skills until he saw the first cut.

The car we used, was my cameraman’s car.

The question “where?” was also answered pretty quickly. I returned to the neighborhood where I shot my application film for film school. A very modern house. Perfect driveway. Just the right location for what I had in mind.

We shot this commercial on a Canon 5D MarkIII. This camera is the perfect choice when it comes to working in a small team. It allows you to be flexible and also provides you great pictures. We used almost all of the Canon L-series lenses. The full frame gives you nice shallow depth of field, although the 7D’s or 60D’s APS-C chip is a little closer to 35mm film look, on this camera you get the real focal length of the lens you chose. This was very helpful, because the shoot in my girlfriend’s apartment didn’t allow for any crop factor enhancement. There was no other special reason why we chose this camera for this spot. We did not shoot in low light or were facing any other situations that had made the use of that camera inevitable. No, the reason was way simpler: Thorsten got this camera two days prior to the shoot and so we decided to put it to the test. And it performed very well.

The post production process was the most time-consuming part of this film. After I had put together a rough edit, I started figuring out a way to make the car explode. I turned to Video Copilot’s Action Essentials 2 to get the job done. I got to say that it is a great tool for stuff like that. Although there is some tweaking needed to make it look realistic, it is a very powerful plug-in. After playing around with it, it gets easier and easier.

With the explosion done, I spent most of the time dialing in the look using Red Giant’s Colorista II. First I wanted to go for a desaturated kind of look. I changed my mind during the process and decided a blueish but still colorful look was going to transport the message and the mood, which is somehow funny and comedic, a lot better.

The most striking thing that happened to me while making this film is connected to the search for the right music. I got to the Free Music Archive, a platform on the internet that offers music under creative commons licences. I found this cool artist, named Carsie Blanton, who wrote the song “Idiot Heart”, which seemed to fit perfectly to my film and to the mood I wanted to create. So I downloaded it, tested it and figured I needed to shorten it. I was not sure if shortening was violating the terms of the creative commons licence, so I wrote Carsie an email asking her if it was okay to use that song in the way I needed it. She was the nicest person and said “yes” right away. She also posted the final movie on her FB page and in a few minutes the movie had hundreds of views. One of her fans worked with BMW and told them about this film and so it got to BMW USA. They did not call to buy the idea or anything like that, but this spreading of the film caused a lot more views. I also found the link to it on some car-related sites and on some people’s FB sites as well.

Three Key Lessons I Learned

  1. Have a plan. Preparation is a big part of a great movie. Preparation (in terms of shooting board, story board, scouting, etc.) will always pay off. But nevertheless things might occur you just could not prepare for: It starts raining, the camera angle doesn’t fit your imagination and stuff like that. You have to ask yourself, “What is the priority right now? Is this image important to explain the story or does it matter if the sun is shining?” – if the answer is “Yes,” you may have to move on to another scene and come back to that crucial scene afterwards. If the answer is “No”, try out and make it awesome in another way than it was planned. But keep your goal in mind and make sure that your plan and your adjustments are bringing your story forward.
  2. Delegate tasks. Although it is very easy and relatively cheap to make movies with a one-man-crew nowadays, that shouldn’t mean you have to do so. If you can put a qualified crew together you will have more time and space to focus on the important things. When you are on your own, there might be no room for experiments or new ideas. If your crew is working for the same goal, you will only find more ways to convey the story. That doesn’t mean you have to go for every idea that is coming up, but you can think about this or that.
  3. Feed your crew. You want a motivated crew. Plan for breaks and feed the crew. If they are hungry they won’t give all they’ve got.

Markus Braun is a 28-year-old communication designer with a major focus is film/commercial film. His background is in graphic design.  In 2011 he graduated from Mannheim University of applied sciences after spending his last semester at the California State University Long Beach, CA where he. majored in film & cinematography

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