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Sachtler Support Smooths Reality Show Production

DP Kristoffer May (L) and camera operator Kara Stephens capture the action on the “set” of “Inside West Coast Customs.”

CORONA, CALIF.—“Inside West Coast Customs” is a reality television show that takes you into the world’s leading custom car shop. Nothing is prearranged; we capture shots of the customizing work as it’s happening.

I think the challenge of every reality cinematographer is to keep the look of the show cinematic, but without loss of the show’s integrity due to missed content as equipment is being set up. You have to work like a documentarian to get the best shots and to tell the best story, but that’s the constant struggle when you’re running around trying to document something in a “run-and-gun” fashion. Incorporating a cinematic look such as narrow depth of field requires a long lens, which in turn needs stable camera support.

Sachtler camera support systems have really made a difference in the production of the show, allowing me to get exactly the results I’m looking for. Actually the show is an “all-Sachtler” production. (I even mount our time-lapse cameras on Sachtler fluid heads.)

For this season’s shooting I started using Sachtler’s Ace L tripod system and found that it offers a variety of advantages.

While it has the features of larger tripods, it’s physically small, helping me get into spaces where a larger tripod won’t fit. The Ace L provides just the right amount of controls too—three stages of pan-and-tilt drag, plus a zero no drag setting. I really don’t need seven or so settings—just heavy and light drag and the zero setting. (Zero drag is useful if I’m shooting someone who’s very far away from the camera and I’m zoomed in for a shallow depth of field. If that person should decide to walk around the car I’ve got to be able to follow them and still have a stable camera platform. The zero drag setting gives me a “handheld” look, but without the jumpiness that can accompany handheld shots.)

We mainly use Canon 5D DSLR cameras and the Ace L supports these very nicely. However, bigger cameras such as Sony’s EX3 are no problem as the head’s counterbalance range is quite broad.

I just started incorporating Sachtler’s artemis Handheld camera stabilizer into our production. We’d already incorporated handheld shots, tripod support for the cinematic look, and sliders for a dolly look, but wanted one additional look, the ability to smoothly walk or “swim” around the car. The artemis Handheld stabilizer now allows me to do these sorts of moves.

When we begin our shooting day I can take one of the 5Ds—usually with a Canon 16 to 35mm zoom lens—balance it out and have it docked on the table, ready to grab and go, as there’s no need for a vest with this stabilizer. It’s definitely changed the whole look of the show.

Now when I sit back and look at a finished show, I realize that there’s this “hyper environment” I’m now taking my audience into as I have the ability to go anywhere in the shop with smooth, steady, and floating camera shots.

Kristoffer May is director of photography for Inside West Coast Customs. He may be contacted

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