How to Light a Single Take Steadicam Shot of a Rube Goldberg Machine

Contra Cambridge Rube Goldberg Steadicam Lighting

The good folks at Contra, a UK video production company that specializes in cinematic work for corporate and nonprofit clients, are at it again. This time, they've teamed up with the University of Cambridge to showcase the prestigious university's enterprise program, which helps students and faculty members patent and commercialize their groundbreaking work in the sciences.

After receiving the brief from Cambridge, the Contra art department devised a Rube Goldberg machine to showcase six prominent projects that have received support from the enterprise program. To take it one step further, Contra DP John Ford decided to shoot the film in a single take.

Here's the finished project:

And here's the BTS video, which shows the work that went into making both the machine and the production run smoothly:

I had the opportunity to chat briefly with John Ford, the Contra DP who lensed this project, over email about how he brought this scene to life.

John Ford Contra DP
After coordinating with the art department about how to build the Rube Goldberg machine in a way that would facilitate a Steadicam operator — they went with a basic horseshoe shape — John went about figuring out how to light the shot so that the camera operator wouldn't cast shadows during the take.

We were shooting in a photographic studio so we didn't have much head room to rig studio lights, and I didn't want to have ugly harsh shadows so we needed a solution that would be in the shot and create a soft pool of light around each invention.

Our solution was to use practical overhead lights using affordable Photofloods. These 200w bulbs have a great CRI and produce really crisp pure light. When we decided to insert these into large industrial factory lights, the result was a soft overhead light source that brought out each of the main 'concepts/inventions', without casting shadows from the Steadicam.

Contra Cambridge Rube Goldberg Steadicam Lighting
Contra Cambridge Rube Goldberg Steadicam Lighting

In addition to the practical overheads, John and his team used several 2K Blondes — a term used for open-face tungsten fixtures — in order to control the light levels in the background. One other practical lighting effect was used in the production of this piece, and that's the "Enterprise" logo at the very end, which is triggered by the Rube Goldberg machine. 

We augmented these with 3 x 2k Blondes and bounced them off the ceiling to create a perfect mid-grey background which really helped the foreground objects stand out. The final trick of the invention is a switch which triggers a Source Four with a gelled gobo, creating a lovely — and more importantly practical — logo at the end of the film.

A big thanks to John Ford for taking the time to share his process with us. If you have any additional questions about how he went about shooting and lighting this piece, be sure to leave them down in the comments!     

Your Comment


Thank you so much for sharing with us, John. I can completely identify with you on the video when you spoke about how great it is when a client is willing to trust you to take a concept and run with it. You guys certainly earned the outcome. Kudos to you & your team!

November 18, 2015 at 4:10PM, Edited November 18, 4:10PM

Mauricio Tinoco
Videographer / TV Producer

Is it me or the steadicam looks like it wasn't balanced properly. Looks wavy at the end.

November 19, 2015 at 11:45AM

Jose Diaz
Video editor and Education Technologist

The float you see at the end could be attributed to a few things:

-Possibly Operator experience.
-Possibly Operator fatigue. (26 takes)
-The G50/G70 and older Master Series arms arms tends to float more compared to GPI arms.

November 19, 2015 at 4:27PM

Emre Tufekci

Woah...tough crowd. One of the toughest things to shoot is anything architectural without a human subject to focus's all hard lines in the wide shot. Look at most walk and talks...that steadicam is less perfectly level and bobble free than you probably think it is. He was tilted down and having to go into a wide shot with the camera more horizontal at the end. The range of most of these items is also in that awkward position between low mode and high mode, further making it a little bit more awkward. Do you really want to start the Tiffen vs GPI debate like the similar lame RED vs Arri or Ford vs Chevy bs? Come on...I'm sure they'd rather shoot with master primes for a slight better image, but maybe it was cost prohibitive for this. The GPI arms may be better...but if the G-series are good enough for Larry McConkey, I'm sure it is good enough for this operator who, assumedly, hasn't done any Goodfellas shots in his career yet. This is some great operating and I'm a little bit of a perfectionist.

November 24, 2015 at 8:35PM, Edited November 24, 8:37PM

Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op

Wow, such clever people and such an amazing result that is fun, charming and clearly conveys a thought provoking message!


November 25, 2015 at 9:32PM, Edited November 25, 9:32PM

Robert Ruffo