Behind the Scenes of an Iconic One-Shot Super Bowl Spot: 'We Put the Camera Through Hell'
We sat down with Jonathan Belinski, cinematographer of a particularly memorable Super Bowl commercial shot in one take.
Every year, just as many people watch the Super Bowl for the commercials as they do for the action on the field. This year, Fox Sports put in the extra effort to make the show opener as memorable as anything else we saw. Set to the classic Johnny Cash song "Ragged Old Flag," the spot intercut documentary footage with an elaborate one-shot showing us the history of Americans at war throughout the ages.
No Film School talked to Jonathan Belinski, the segment's cinematographer, about how the idea went from a complicated concept to a beautiful execution, the value of long-term collaboration, and more.
"I was putting the camera through hell."
No Film School: How involved were you with the Super Bowl this year?
Jonathan Belinski: We have been fortunate to do a lot for Fox Sports over the years, and we did several spots for their Super Bowl broadcast this year, including the intro to the entire broadcast, several feature pieces, player portraits, and Fox’s tribute to America, which aired close to the start of the game. It was called "Ragged Old Flag." The cool technical challenge was the one-shot take of the battle scene, which was by far the most difficult section of the piece.
NFS: The whole piece has a classic documentary style. And then you've got this big, elaborate set piece in the middle. It brings a nice balance.
Belinski: The director and I, Jennifer Pransky, a coordinating producer at Fox Sports, have done a lot of work together over the years. She's super talented and very collaborative. While in Houston on an unrelated Super Bowl shoot, she approached me with the project, and we were discussing ideas of how to tell these battle stories that are portrayed in the Johnny Cash song "Ragged Old Flag." It is a very literal song in many ways. It takes you through a history of the American flag and what it's been through, mostly from the perspective of different wars and major challenges in US history. Eric Shanks, President and COO of Fox Sports, came up with the initial idea, and Jen had very definitive ideas on how most of the piece should come together.
"There was no stage big enough in Los Angeles to accommodate what we needed to do."
After discussing it, we thought it would be really dynamic to try to tell part of this story in one shot through several of these different wars—the War of 1812, the Alamo, and the Civil War. There was no stage big enough in Los Angeles to accommodate what we needed to do, so we ended up renting out a massive warehouse space and built everything on it. We had lengthy discussions with our gaffer Chris Andrus and decided to bring in large generators, 6K space lights and lightning strike units, dry ice, fog, and haze, etc. Laurent Turlure, the art director who I've worked with a lot, was brought aboard to create the sets. He actually built a partial set of the Alamo from the US soldier's perspective that was created up on a ramp to get the correct elevation, where it looked like the American soldiers were shooting down at the Mexican soldiers as it actually occurred. There were a lot of technical hurdles. Then we added in rain bars and all kinds of pyrotechnics and atmosphere. The ACs had to figure out how to waterproof the gimbal without affecting performance.
NFS: Who was your gimbal operator? Do you operate your own?
Belinski: I operate my own, yes. It was my Ronin on that one. I go back and forth between MoVi and Ronin, but I used the Ronin for this one. In this situation, I was putting the camera through hell. There are explosions going off, mortars a few feet away from the camera, cannon fire coming at us, and then we’re running up a very narrow ramp, then coming back down a ramp, and then running through fog with rain, and I wanted a full camera/matte box setup. It wasn’t a situation to try something I didn’t use every day. I like both systems and am very excited to test out the new MoVi Pro. I feel like this technology is still in its infancy, and it’s amazing what can be accomplished already.
NFS: You keep them both in your kit?
Belinski: I don't own a MoVi currently but I’m looking into the MoVi Pro now. I already use a lot of Freefly’s secondary products currently. They are the first in this space, and I love how they are constantly pushing the envelope with the technology. I just need some time to play around and get dialed in with an ideal setup.
On the Ronin, we had one of our RED Dragons shooting in 6K widescreen, with my personal set of Leica Summicrons. I absolutely love this lens set. I have always tended to be a Master Prime guy and still love them, but I like the Summicrons on a gimbal system, particularly because they are very light and are barrel and weight matched, so when you want to change a lens, it’s instantaneous as opposed to having to rebalance the gimbal all the time. That's another practical factor as to why I chose those lenses: speed.
"The Summicrons have a lot of character and personality, but they are still very sharp and modern. They remind me of Panavision primos when I used to shoot film."
NFS: So, in addition to being barrel-matched, do you feel like they're reasonably-center-of-gravity-matched? Even if you're swapping from a wide to a long, it keeps about the same place?
Belinski: Yeah, I think it's a real feat of engineering. There is always a little readjustment, but it’s very quick. I also think the modern cameras, particularly the RED and the Alexa, capture so much information and the sensors are so good that I almost prefer a little bit of that creamy, buttery look that helps take the edge off while still being sharp. I didn’t want to go as far as the Cooke look on this one (although love that look, too, for certain projects). The Summicrons have a lot of character and personality, but they are still very sharp and modern enough to match with a multitude of other lenses that were ultimately going to be used in the rest of the piece. They remind me of the Panavision primos when I used to shoot film more often. I think the Summicrons are very close to that.
NFS: Is this really one continuous shot? It looks like there are two points where you could hide an invisible edit.
Belinski: It is, and honestly it's source of pride. We considered hiding the cuts because there was so much going on. Jen, the director, was adamant about making this one take and really wanted to pull that off without any shortcuts, and I think the whole crew wanted to make that challenge come to life.
"The director was adamant about making this one take without any shortcuts, and I think the whole crew wanted to make that challenge come to life."
Of course, there were many issues we anticipated, but some we had no idea on. For example, there were some issues with the weapons. Master Armorer Mike Tristano did an amazing job ensuring everything was authentic. There was also a tremendous amount of emphasis placed on safety for crew and cast. They had authentic guns from the era, so they weren't replicas—they were actual guns. So the older ones, particularly from the War of 1812, would misfire more frequently. Every time you're doing a take, it's a significant reset to get all those guns rearmed—the cannons, mortars, etc.—up again and reset actors and reset rain.
Every take was precious. You could shoot all day to try to get a perfect take, and in the end, you're never going to have a perfect take. It's gonna have some imperfections. I always thought it was cool to embrace the warts and all; it felt more real, almost like you were there with them. Almost like a combat photographer, just feeling like you are right in there with the action and there is some level of unpredictability.
NFS: Were you doing playback on set?
Belinski: There was a stopwatch so, yeah. We had to. We knew that this section had to be nine seconds at 48 frames. We knew this other section had to be eight seconds or whatever it was, and then we had to time out our speed and the action and coordinate all the actors to respond. My own speed with the camera was another variable. We had to make sure that the lightning was hitting at the right moments, nobody slipped on dry ice, or was in danger of pyro proximity, etc., all the while our key grip, Kevin Guild, was holding onto me as I'm running up and down ramps. He was a lifesaver. You have to have a lot of trust in someone for this and Kevin was not going to let anyone fall. We had to have it all timed out. It was an achievement, no doubt, and definitely the most complex shoot I've ever done, in terms of unknown variables.
NFS: Which lightning strikes did you go with? Were they the 70s?
Belinski: No, I opted to use a bunch of Paparazzis instead. I didn't want big, overwhelming lightning. They're 8Ks; they still put out a lot of power. But instead of having a handful of big units, I used a lot of little units to create lightning from different places. I didn't want it to overpower the scene. I didn't want to get that flash-frame effect, it was more of just subtle undulating lightning and then a big burst bounced near the end hero spot to fully expose our actor with the American flag. You also have to be careful with the RED in this situation, of rolling shutter and tearing and things like that, without global shutter.
NFS: How did you overcome that?
Belinski: Honestly, we didn’t 100%. There is a little bit of imperfection with rolling shutter, but I have quite a bit of experience with it and actually often like the look. It comes down to how long your lighting strike bursts are. If you're hitting them too often, and you're hitting them too quickly, you're gonna get broken exposures. Whereas if you just tap it, let it come up and then let go, you'll get a full exposure, if timed well. It takes some testing and a skilled electric to feel it out, and a little luck doesn’t hurt! I much prefer this to be done by feel manually than a DMX system. Had we wanted big, overwhelming lightning, I probably would have put in a global shutter (motion mount, etc.) or used a different camera system.
NFS: Did you shoot at 180-degree shutter or 360?
NFS: Okay, so you really put the Lightning Strikes through their paces.
Belinski: Yeah, I've done it a lot for NASCAR and for spots for the MLB All-Star Game, NFL, etc. I often shoot the intros and the player portraits and the shots with the athletes looking focused right before the game or race. I do a lot of that kind of stuff in our work, so I'm pretty comfortable with what they can and cannot do without a global shutter, and it really has to do with the exposure time of the strike. You have to play with the decay on the Lightning Strikes and will get different effects at different frames rates and exposure times.
I have recently been using LEDs for a similar effect with no shutter issues, but currently, I still prefer the organic feel of true lightning strikes. You can see an example of a mix of LED and real Lightning Strikes in the Player Portrait “Trophy Room” video.
NFS: Are you monitoring the image wirelessly over something like a Teradek to evaluate how it is looking in realtime?
Belinski: Yeah, all monitoring and camera control, everything had to be wireless. Bar-teks from Jim Bartel for focus. Teradek for monitoring.
NFS: How many people do you think were watching live while you were doing the take? Assembled around all the monitors?
Belinski: I was busy shooting, I'd say maybe 10-20 people, but really department heads and Jen that were mostly weighing in and making changes. Every department was, of course, watching monitor to see how they could improve upon their department. Nate Boyer, who is one of the lead actors in the piece and a US Army Special Forces veteran, was heavily involved in the process and would make suggestions to the principal actors regarding the proper military etiquette. John Hall, the 1st AD, did a great job calling out all the timings for the background actors, which was a key part of our success.
My AC, Carter Kovacs, was pulling focus on the go. We took some marks, but every take was slightly different with the camera motion, and the actors would be different every time, so Carter did an awesome job. We did 12 takes and there was only one take that wasn’t great for focus. And I didn't give camera department a lot of help, either. We shot this at a T-2/2.8 split to keep translight backgrounds out of focus.
"One of our biggest challenges was that our backgrounds were translights, and we wanted to shoot everything live and in-camera."
NFS: On what lens?
Belinski: A 35 millimeter.
NFS: Did you feel like you could accurately get a sense of the Lightning Strikes over the Teradek? You didn't feel like there was any interference?
Belinski: Generally you can, but you don't really know what you have until you check playback. And unfortunately, in this situation, the reset took so long that it actually behooved us to check playback multiple times after each take, so that we could understand our mistakes and decide what we wanted to do differently. Whether it was positioning an actor, changing the timing of the camera or lightning, or how big we wanted a mortar explosion to be, etc. We religiously watched playback. To me, that's a very smart way to go in this situation. I know a lot of people will want to re-rack right away and just keep going and keep going, but in this case, every shot is expensive. You're loading pyro every time. You're better off watching it and just seeing what went wrong rather than going and hoping to get lucky.
NFS: And then you did 12 takes. So this is the only thing you were doing that day?
Belinski: Yes, 12 takes. It was a day-and-a-half pre-light. We basically had to create a studio out of nothing. There was nothing in there—no power, no grid, nothing.
One of our biggest challenges was that our backgrounds were translights, and we wanted to shoot everything live and in-camera. We didn't want to do green screens and comping. We wanted it to feel as real as possible. So, I wanted to backlight the Duratrans, which looks better to me than front-lighting them. That became a challenge too because we had a bunch of 5K sky pans backlighting the various densities of the Duratrans scenes, and it all had to be shot at one F stop. So, you're lighting a night scene to the exact same F stop as a bright daytime scene. I didn't want to hide an iris pull. I didn't want to feel that change in exposure or depth of field. Also, as you're going through the various sets, you've got to make sure that you're not seeing a previous backdrop—once you're off the War of 1812 and you're now onto the Alamo, you can't catch a piece of the War of 1812 backdrop. We had to be very specific, and we built windows into the Alamo perfectly so it would help us hide the previous set from the camera’s perspective.
We were careful about choosing the lens that worked. 35mm felt the best to me because it was wide enough that you could see a lot of the action, but it was compressed enough that it felt cinematic; you felt like you were in there. And it also allowed us to have a tighter frame, and I think added some energy to it with the movement being a little tighter. Obviously, we could have just shot this on an 18mm and just ran through the scenes. But I don't think it would've have felt as kinetic or interesting.
NFS: How much computer pre-viz did you do?
Belinski: This was a big shoot, but pretty low tech by comparison to our other Super Bowl shoots, which used pre-viz. It certainly wasn’t a lack of planning, but the large scale nature of the sets allowed us to be a little more spontaneous in general. Jen and I spent a lengthy amount of time just sketching it out and brainstorming different ideas to make this work, and then we relayed that to the art director, who took more specific measurements about how high to build sets, how to build steel decks to get the camera up and down, the various angles we wanted to look at, etc.. It got more scientific as we went, but the original plan was effectively on a cocktail napkin.
Same thing with the lighting plot. We probably ended up using close to 500,000 watts of lighting, and we drew out the original plot on a white piece of paper with our gaffer Chris over breakfast one morning, saying, basically, "This is where we want 6K spaceflights, this is where we want a 20x overhead silk, this where the 4K HMIs should edge light the nighttime scene." It was decidedly low-tech at inception. Things were measured accurately to give us the desired look we were after, but we were more just taking rough notes of our power distribution and where we wanted things, and then once we actually got talent on set and saw how it was playing out, we made minor adjustments. Once everything was placed, we were able to de-click bulbs here and there, move a unit here or there. It was all smartly set up by the electric team to quickly make changes.
Belinski: This required a lot of planning, and it took a village to pull off; in total, there were 94 people on the call sheet alone. You think you have it all planned out, and then some little issue comes up that you just couldn't think of until it occurs.
For example, we had three distinct sets, with atmospheric elements that needed to be contained. The War of 1812 set we wanted clean, but a lot of atmosphere was created because it had the most pyro effects. In the Alamo set, we wanted a traditional sunlight shaft look, so we utilized DF50 hazers. And then in the Civil War set, we wanted exclusively low-lying fog, provided by dry ice. Figuring out how to contain each of these elements to their respective areas was a challenge. We didn't really know how that was going to work until we got in the space and saw how the wind current was going and how quickly things dispersed/ventilated. We had to keep moving fans to try to contain dry ice to the one set and contain haze to the other set.
FX Coordinator Roger Matsuo did an incredible job dealing with this challenge. In fact, during the entire production, we only had to stop once to ventilate the space. Really, there were just a lot of little things you couldn't know until you got there. There was certainly a lot of pressure. I think everybody felt that, but everyone was up to the challenge. We had an awesome art director, director, and line producer, Pepper Carlson, who worked tirelessly to coordinate with countless departments/vendors, and communicated extensively with Belinski Media’s Production Manager, Andres Carrillo. Post-production was handled by Mikey Carr of RED57, expertly colored by Braden Boe, and audio mixed by Fulton Dingley, all of whom did an amazing job, as usual. This was a very challenging shoot, but also a memorable one. It was an honor to be a part of this effort. It’s something we won’t forget.