On Assignment: new car launch, part II

30s cut – for air

Continued from part I.

Right after the last file was returned from the retoucher, checked and sent off, I packed myself up to go on the tech reccie for the next part of the job: the TV commercial. Unusually, I wouldn’t be behind the camera this time: instead, I’d be occupying the folding canvas director’s chair. (I was surprised they existed, too). Read on to see life behind the lens from another angle…

Teana 2014 boards Ming Thein 10Apr14.pptx
Final storyboard – at least, that’s what we shot… Full size here.

The process began slightly unusually: rather than having an agency present a board and either also supply a director, or allow the client to supply one, the director supplied the board and there was no agency involved. Personally, I believe it’d be much easier to direct your own board since there’s also a clarity of vision that goes with it; every single line and scene makes sense to you because you had to imagine the flow and the way it looked before being able to work with a storyboard artist to make it happen. In short: the board was mine, and so was the job to convince the client, together with my production house partners: Adam Lokman and Farid Yusof of Shpice Pictures (here, here and here. Some of you may recognise the Sunway Medical video – I was also heavily involved in that one).

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After several rounds of refinement, we arrived at a board that I believe had a solid human story around the theme given by the client (“What defines success?”) – built around the idea of professional recognition, balance, mastery of skill, and of course the analogous application to the car with all of the appropriate voice over and visually associative cues. We went into preproduction – location, talent scouting, locking down shot angles and perspectives – with the intention of minimising the possible number of variables on the day. Weather would of course play a big part, especially since an extended sequence would be shot on a mountain pass outside Kuala Lumpur on the way to Genting Highlands.

I don’t think it’d be that interesting if I just told you we went from location A to B and shot scenes X-Y; it’s the outtakes and unexpected things that make On Assignments a bit more interesting. So, here goes:

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Day one:

  • We got chased out of the first location by bodyguards of a local big shot who owns the Genting Highlands complex because one of the family members died two days earlier, and we happened to be filming on the day of the funeral – good thing we had a backup location handy;
  • One of the sequences called for a very wet road to form a backdrop to reflect the car, which we would then film from the tracking vehicle; after dumping 500+ gallons of water on the road, we found it still wasn’t enough. Fortunately, it rained – except it rained so hard that there was an accident that nearly affected the bit of road we wanted to use.

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  • The more challenging part was keeping the hoardes of angry, impatient motorists at bay as we closed the road for repeat takes, especially whilst it was wet. Ensuring that the car stayed looking ‘fresh’ between the takes, our art department must have performed what were the fastest car washes ever – averaging about three minutes each.

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  • During one of the cooperative windows in weather, we managed to get the octocopter in the air for a couple of quick aerial sequences. I’ve heard that thing fly before, but it still unnerves me because it sounds like an enormous swarm of angry hornets.

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  • Ironically, in a country of flash floods and poor maintenance, we actually had to construct our own puddle for another reflection shot – with a trench dug behind it for the camera to move at just above the height of the water. It was of course done in the rain…

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Day two:

  • Actually, the second day was pretty uneventful – weather turned out to be a moot point as all of the filming was done indoors. We not only ran to time – a rarity in the industry – but also managed a crew photo at the end on our green screen (to be a bank vault).

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  • The metal briefcase our hero carries reflected the green screen too well; we had to dull it with a matte spray, but that landed up having funny blotching and melting effects on the case. I couldn’t figure out why until our art director said he actually sprayed a black case silver because it was cheaper…

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Day three:

  • Today would be money shot day: we closed one of the major bridges in Putrajaya, the nation’s capital, for the tracking vehicle shots that would close the videos. Fortunately, the weather cooperated right until we completed the last shot. Dawn, as you can see below, was spectacular.

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  • Half an hour of intense shooting across the bridge later, we’d got the shots in the bag. I have to admit that sequence gave me quite a rush: I was on top of the tracking vehicle coordinating the movement of the car (precision driver) with the movement of our tracking vehicle, the DOP and his camera angle – envisioning your shot, giving coherent directions to three different people and playing out the entire thing in your mind simultaneously is not the easiest thing to do. Especially not before coffee.

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  • Mid-morning came with a location change, outside the Putrajaya Convention Center. It has a very interesting balcony; I saw a long, elegant reflective shot composed with the foreground stone features, which wasn’t in the board but we shot anyway – I’m glad we did, because it replaced one of the other shots that didn’t look as nice because the clouds were just coming out. The DOP (Eric Yeong), AD (Prinz Joseph) and I had a bit of a deja vu moment: we’d worked together shooting from the same location, in the same direction, for another production four years earlier.

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  • There was a lot to pack into the afternoon: a happy family park scene, some driving cutaways and ‘the splash’.

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  • I made my art department rake up leaves from the park, not to clean the set…but so they could be blown into the scene. It turned out they were considering doing that anyway, but wanted to see if I’d ask. We should have charged the council for clearing up their park, instead of the other way around!

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  • The ‘splash’ was a shallow pool with the camera bagged and mounted at one end, constructed so that the car would deliberately send a wave over the camera to act as a transition and a metaphor for wet handling; it was set up at a separate location whilst we knocked out the other frames.

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The thing under plastic near the car’s right wheel is the camera.

Final day: studio time

  • There were a lot of product-feature cutaways requested by the client, which meant scheduling a day in the studio. If you’ve ever wondered how we get certain angles with those enormous cameras, the answer is simple: a lot of the car is removed in order to get there. At one point, we had the doors, seats and steering wheel out so we could light and get the jib arm inside the rear door to support the camera move to film the front console.
  • Studio days generally feel a lot more relaxed because the various elements are fully under control; you can control light perfectly and the shot lists are usually managed (though this is not always the case with stills, because studio rental can often be one of the most expensive portions of the shoot).

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Some notes for the technically inclined: with the exception of the aerial sequences (5DIII), we shot all of the footage in 4k or 5k on a Red Epic-X, with Zeiss Superspeed and Master primes; the former when we thought flare would enhance the shot, the latter when we needed extreme angles not available in the Superspeeds, or didn’t want the flare for a more clinical feel. There were also a couple of longer shots made with a Canon 300mm zoom (I forget what the wide end of the range was).

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Although the Red is theoretically handholdable – it even has a DSLR-style grip, and an enormous detachable EVF – it isn’t something I’d want to do for any length of time, as the most stripped-down rig still weighs a hefty 5kg+, and isn’t really that ergonomic. It also has a heater (not so good in the tropics), because the vents for sensor cooling blow straight up and into your face. Needless to say, pulling focus while keeping it stable isn’t easy at all – I’m glad we had the various dollies, jibs and cranes. Speaking of which, for the motion tracking shots, we used a remote crane with pan/tilt attached to a Hilux tracking vehicle; I’d have liked a Russian Arm, but a) there aren’t any in Malaysia, and b) budget wouldn’t have permitted, anyway. For framing confirmation/ checking camera moves and as a director’s finder, I used a Nikon D4 with the 24-120/4 VR – and was thankful for the weather sealing on more than one occasion. I also used the camera for production stills.

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That’s probably enough of the commentary: time for the long version. There is of course a huge amount of production that happens outside of the shooting days – voice overs, cutting, client comments, offline revisions, censorship approvals etc – but that isn’t quite as exciting, nor does it have any b-roll visuals. I doubt reams of email would be of interest to the readership here.

Long cut, for launch and promo materials

At this point, you’ll notice two things: the 30s video bears no resemblance whatsoever to the board; that’s normal, because it was cut down per client instructions to focus on the product and less on the storyline (there’s not much storytelling you can do in 30s, anyway). Once you watch the 60s cut, you’ll realise that there are some significant differences there, too. Part of this is normal: on the day, due to uncontrollable variances in talent, weather, location etc. we have to be flexible enough to alter the shot to take advantage of these conditions; part of this is because the client inevitably sees things they decide they want in, or out, or needs to make adaptations to market events or research that happen between board sign off and final delivery. And of course what the client wants, the client gets. The whole process from end to end takes a couple of months; in an industry as finely balanced as the automotive one, there are a lot of things that might change. This goes for both the visuals and the VO – and in the end, the client is just as responsible for the final cut (perhaps more so) than the director or producers.

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In hindsight, there are a few things I’d have done differently. The biggest thing would be to set up the scene as intended, then take a few reference stills to color grade into final form; this would save time in the edit suite and ensure visual consistency throughout (recall the whole argument of color vs psychology vs influencing mood). Secondly, I think I actually need to be less hands-on and let the crew do their jobs; the problem is I’m so used to working solo that if I see something that needs adjusting…I will tend to jump in and do it myself. Finally, I’d also have a handy supply of cigars or cigarillos – I can understand why people in this industry all tend to smoke; the ups and downs and intensity of the whole thing does tend to make you a bit edgy. But given that it was also one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve done – there’s no question I’d do it again – and I’m pretty sure that there’s definitely  more directing in my future. But lastly, and most importantly, I have to say an enormous thank you to all of the team for making it happen – unlike even a large stills shoot, there is simply no way you can shoot a production like this solo, or with even a small team – I think in the end we had close to 50 crew. MT

The full ‘making of’ album is here on flickr.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Michael Matthews says:

    Although these efforts always look incredibly top-heavy in expensive equipment and manpower, I’m sure your client gets more quality for its dollar through you than it could hope to find elsewhere. The detailed behind-the-scenes images and storyline are most appreciated.

    By the way, if you haven’t seen them already, ask Roger Wojahn for a show-and-tell on the Jack In The Box fast food spots introducing the Mini Sirloin Burger and the Mini Buffalo Ranch Chicken Sandwich, for which he provided the music. Top those off with a look at The Meaty Cheesy Boys and you will laugh till you feel like you’ve had a vacation.

  2. LOVE the long version, even though I get the need for the short version. Great job!

  3. Tom Hudgins says:

    See you at Cannes anytime soon?

  4. Wow. Very interesting to read about all the background of making such a video.

  5. The On Assignments and other behind-the-scenes articles are my favorite posts! Thanks for posting these two articles.

  6. Incredible insight into what goes into making a commercial like this. I have to agree with Roger about the “over lighting”. I don’t have TV so don’t see commercials but I feel lighting is overdone in photography in general.

  7. I love these car adverts. Everyone stands up to cheer him, because he has a Nissan 🙂

    • It’s an advertisement. Nissan are hardly going to commission one in which the protagonist really wants something else…but he wasn’t being cheered because of the car, though unfortunately that doesn’t come through in the client’s final edit of the board.

  8. Gibran Hashim says:

    Great post! Always wondered how they did those splash shots. Hope you put up more “behind the scenes” features like this!

  9. This new NISSAN looks like a direct 100% copy of the OPEL Insignia!

  10. Paul Jeyaraj says:

    Well done Ming, might even be tempted to buy the car 🙂

  11. Awesome viewfinder on that Red Pro.
    Thanks Ming letting us have a look and the story behind the final outcome.
    I admire those big companies film adverts, why I often just open the Mercedes and Audi home pages just to watch their intro spots each model. Makes me wow.

  12. Ming, fascinating read and wonderful video. I really like the first scene. I prefer the long version of course. However the 30 sec version is still really cool. Great to hear all of the details of the shoot. Well done! – Eric

  13. Fascinating. And wow, talk about your toys! Copter drones, cranes, zeiss cine lenses…sounds like Christmas and Birthday all at once! Who owns all the kit (or is it rented?). Has the campaign run yet then? How did it fare? How was the client feedback? Whenwhat is the next MT Production?

    • Something like that – except I couldn’t take any of it home, of course. Oddly though my DOP was more interested in my Otus… 😛

      Kit was a mixture of production house and rental. Campaign is running/ has run. No idea how it fared, I haven’t had time to check. Client was happy but we did have a lot of changes between initial board and final…no idea when the next production (other than my own teaching videos) is. I’m currently in the middle of a very large shoot for a construction and development company in Hong Kong – nearly a month of ground shooting time total in 3-4 trips, helicopters and more time in tunnels!

  14. Steve Jones says:

    Fascinating read, many thanks for sharing all this for free. My only thoughts, after buying that car, you’ll be lucky to be able to drive it anywhere faster than a bicycle if you live anywhere around K.L. You’ll always be sharing the road with hordes of motorists. Lets see a realistic commercial in real traffic! ha ha! i think that’s the very moment you would appreciate having a nice watch to look at. You can wear a good timepiece anywhere but you can’t drive a great car anywhere, not these days! Sad. Wonder if there are still stretches of open road in Malaysia where you can enjoy the ‘feel’ of driving a car at cruising speed (as in this shoot) without closing off roads?

  15. Nice reading your perspective of the world I live in! The spot looks tremendous. I’m so fed up with the “over lighting” of most commercials these days. My one visual complaint is about the family picnic scene which seems a tad Disney in my opinion. But the rest of the spot is classic Ming and exceptionally good. By the way, I love the soundtrack. Who did I lose out to? 🙂

    • You do know that we don’t have that much creative control over the board/ storyline, right? 🙂 Just the shot angles and lighting…

  16. Link at the top for Part 1 is broken… feel free to delete this comment when it’s fixed 🙂

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