Camera people go to great lengths to make the "Hero" of a TV commercial, the product, look appetizing, appealing or worthy of the task that it is supposed to perform. The seemingly easy product shot can become a nightmare because of lighting, support or back ground problems. Here are some examples of things to consider and some solutions that may help.

LIQUIDS in a clear container, or as a stream act as a lens imaging what is behind the liquid. The sides of a round clear liquid filled container may image up to 180 degrees of the scene behind the container. Playing around with pieces of foil, white cards, glasses of ice, etc. will give you an idea of what the problems are. I highly recommend that you do this before arriving at the shoot and even shooting some still tests on unforgiving transparency film. If there isn't time, a camcorder test is of some value though not as much can be determined about exposure. A spot meter is absolutely necessary. If a variable speed play back speed VCR is available you can get some idea about frame rate, although film looks different than an electronically slowed down 355 degree shutter angle video shot. Some newer camcorders have variable shutters, but the image at artificial frame rates is not what film will see.

There are variable speed 16-mm projectors such as the Bell and Howell Analyst that can help you determine frame rate with 16-mm tests. Many cameramen, even competitors, are quite willing to share information if you ask intelligent questions and have apparently worked on a problem to start with.

PROPPING. Often the environment or propping of a product shot will lend more "feeling" to a shot than super lighting. A good selection of antique containers and kitchen tools will make a supposedly healthy food look better than high tech and stainless steel. A cola for the kids may not lend itself to the same environment as a healthy celery tonic. Notice that the bottled water advertisers use green, blue skies and sunshine.

I find a tendency to over prop shots and feel that just a suggestion of the appropriate environment is better. For any creative discussion, tear out of samples that others have done from magazines for similar products. Now you will have concrete examples to begin a discussion of backgrounds and propping

LIGHTING. I sometimes light a background to find out what problems may arise before tackling the "hero" product foreground. Sometimes the" feel" of the background may dictate how the foreground is lit. Soft lighting a foreground can spill all over a low-key back ground. The direction of lighting can change for the foreground and background and no one notices.

If hands have to enter the scene, consider their shadows and will they be too bright, or too dark. Will the hand shadow the "hero"? It may really be O.K. for a flash. Outside, breaking up sun lighting with branches often makes a dull shot acceptable. The closer the branches the sharper the shadows and the slower the shadows will move with the sun. Re-lighting with 2 mirrors can avoid the moving sun problem. Real sunlight is hard to duplicate inside.

SUPPORT. Because the camera and product are close and small vibrations may show. Time is well spend devising solid and easily adjustable supports for the camera and product, especially when you get very close. The regular dollies and C stands usually aren't solid enough. Speed rail can help if enough adaptations are on hand to interface pipe and fittings to the real world. Here's where one must look outside of the movie trade to find devices to move and support cameras and the objects that you are shooting. Attaching the camera and product on the same support is wise. See "Steady Effects Stand/Grip Eliminator"

LEVERS can move objects very accurately. If many operations have to be done simultaneously, marks can be made on the lens, positioning levers, gear head, lights etc. and all hit on counts. A recorded count on audiotape can be useful for consistency. (Poor man's motion control.)

Motorizing motions is also very helpful for smooth moves. Gearboxes can move very large arms. Gear belts allow less accurate but easy alignment of shafts.

Turntables should be driven away from the center with friction, belts or gear teeth. It is easy for them to chatter if drive too close to the middle.

Motorized turntables can be made of plywood disks with a groove for a fractional horse power belt. A pulley on the gear motor drives the belt. Lazy Susan bearing will support a large load. Front wheel bearings from cars make good spindles for turntables and rigs.

Cereals and small items can be poured out of a box predictably on a small electric conveyor belt. This can be an aluminum channel with a belt made of cloth, 35-mm film or rubber. The drive wheel is at the back of the trough. We didn't use a roller at the front of the trough but let the belt slip around the edge. For high speed shots this rig saved a lot of takes and is worth the time making and rigging it.

To accurately position a hand and product in focus and frame, Cinematography Electronics has a laser that the camera doesn't see that can be a guide.


The prevailing wisdom is that the depth of field is the same for any length lens for the same depth of shot and longer lenses give you more working distance for lights etc. This may be true by the laws of optics, but I have always used as wide a lens as possible to get more apparent depth of field and a more realistic look. Relay lenses allow smaller and wider smaller format lenses. I used the 10-mm Schneider "C" mount blown up to 35-mm coverage with a relay lens a lot. It gave great depth of field and was small to light around, would get close to a surface and move through objects in the set. It was equivalent to about an 18 mm lens on 35 mm. The 16-mm Zeiss is also a great lens without blowing it up. Today there are a lot of relay lens systems to rent.

Some leading TV commercial table top people were known for their incredible lighting when it was really their choice of propping and camera moves. Some had rooms of tasty props that would make raw pork look good. Cutting out ads from food magazines is a good way to start a conversation about propping and lighting. Camera moves can become more difficult when considering shadows and light changes as the camera reveals different areas and different angles to the light.

With hot food there is also the problem of steam which lasts seconds. Grease coagulates quickly, lettuce wilts, real ice cream melts.

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.