Damon Live Action's Customized Toolkit Includes a Porsche, a Hummer, and Some High-Speed Lighting Gear

Lots of directors are good at wrangling automobile action, but Tim Damon’s dedication to the craft is impressive. Unhappy with merely renting the gear he needs for any given automotive shoot, Damon has amassed a purposeful collection of proprietary gear – much of it modified to exactly suit his preferences during a shoot – that’s meant to make sure he never has to tell a client, “We can’t do that.” His equipment includes a specially outfitted Hummer H2 camera car, a Porsche Cayenne with a stabilized crane arm, and even a Polaris ATV with a spring-mounted camera arm that tends to work as a second unit. Damon has a deep background in still photography, including his own production company for print work, but it was only last year that he decided to strike out from working as a director with production company Millennium Pictures, hiring colleague Caroline Von Weyher as executive producer for his new company, Damon Live Action. He plans to bring more directors on board as his business grows. Watch some of the footage Damon shot recently for Toyota (with cinematographer Bill Bennett), then read our Q&A.

FILM & VIDEO: How did you transition from still photography to directing?

TIM DAMON: I was doing a lot of jobs out of Asia, and they would bundle productions up. In a six-month period I went to Australia, Portugal, Spain, Okinawa, all with the Japanese. And they wouldn’t send us to these places just to do one thing. If they shipped the cars, they wanted us to do both – we’d shoot live-action and print at the same time.

Do you still do print work?

I don’t do the volume of print that I used to, but the print that I do is stuff that I get really excited about. I just shot the new Nissan Z print. Last week I wrapped a combination job for Goodyear that was print and live action. In January and February, I shot a combination of print and live-action for Chevrolet. Right now, I’m on a multi-brand General Motors project – Saturn, Chevrolet, Pontiac, and GMC – that’s print and live action. I’ve got a lot of jobs that are both, but if it’s just a print job, it’s got to be a job that I really want. I used to do a lot of middle-of-the-road print jobs, and I don’t do those much any more.

You like to have a lot of specially modified and proprietary gear at your disposal.

I picked that up from my experience in print. We have to do so much with so little that we naturally built our own lighting equipment, camera mounts, and camera rigs. When I went into live action I re-tooled my company and we built our own turntables and camera rigs. In the last three years I’ve built four camera cars that all do different things. My studio has turned into sort of a machine shop. I have two full-time welders and fabricators on staff. We’re really into it, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it.

To me, it’s like brushes. If a painter had to go out and rent all his brushes, he wouldn’t paint as much. It would be like a writer having to rent or buy words every time he wanted to write. That was my frustration.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to Mojave Airport and I spent a whole day doing a test shoot. If I were at a traditional production company, the day probably would have cost me $80,000. I did it for, basically, a location fee, because all the gear was my gear. We had a really fun day and it cost us nothing. That was always my end goal. If I’m on a production and I want to use my Hummer with the 45-foot-high crane, it’s right there. It’s nice having everything at your disposal and not having to feel like it’s going to be a logistical problem or a budget problem.

Porsche Cayenne with crane

The Hummer is outfitted with big, horizontal light panels.

Yep. And we’ve also got a [Porsche] Cayenne with a stabilized arm and a stabilized head, and light panels and lights that kick a lot of light back at the car. The car is reflecting what’s in its environment, so when you have a light source that’s traveling with your car, it gives the car that extra presence, that extra little glow. Some of the camera gear I’ve built is just for lighting cars. It’s very specialized – my focus is the car. To me, the car is the painting and everything else around it is the frame.

Why is it so important to you to have all that customized gear on hand?

When I was in print, I never said no. There’s “no” people and there’s “yes” people, and I built my still career around whatever my clients wanted every day. It was a great way to build relationships and loyalty. Earlier in my career, when I was at bigger production companies, everything had a price attached to it. You’d say, “For this campaign, I want to do two of these ads at night.” And you’d hear, “Oh, you can’t do it at night. All that lighting equipment’s going to cost a fortune.” I own my own lighting gear now. I own my own camera rigs. I spoil myself that way. Going to live action, the bar was raised. The gear costs way more money and is way more complicated. It’s at a whole different level.

Do you rent supplemental pieces of equipment for individual jobs?

We do. On the GM project we’re prepping right now, we’re using the Technocrane every day. And obviously I’m not going to go out and buy a Technocrane. I go out and buy stuff and modify stuff that we can maintain, operate, and work on in house. A Technocrane, we can’t take that on. There is a limitation to what’s reasonable to take on, and I deliberately don’t get into gear that’s super-technical. I don’t want my eye to suffer.

Can you give an example?

We did a Toyota spot via Intertrend last year [for the Asian market], and the boards were all motion control. I met with my effects guy and I said, “I don’t want to do this motion control. I want to do this whole job with a Steadicam.” And he said, “Why?” Well, I want to have freedom if I see something evolving during the day. I don’t want motion-control to be this thing where you choreograph a move and you’re kind of stuck with it. I want the camera to drive the day. I don’t want the equipment to drive the day. The camera has to come first. I don’t like gear if the camera is secondary. When you do motion-control, that gear drives the day.

On the Toyota “Night Out” shoot, I wanted to shoot it all Steadicam because I wanted the spot to feel like a hummingbird was flying through it. With motion control I wouldn’t have gotten that playful feel, that randomness that happened during the day. It was a little more work in post later on, but it worked.

What do you usually shoot? Do you shoot HD?

Every day is different. The job we’re on now is all film, but the job I wrapped yesterday is all HD. I own the Red, which is a great platform for HD. I’m not down on HD because for me, coming from a print background, the transition to HD has been really easy. Other people struggle because every shot has to be perfect. Things you could get away with years ago on film you can’t get away with now. Your eye has to be very refined and sophisticated. And even if you’re shooting film you’re finishing on HD, so everything you do still has to be perfect.

Have you finished a commercial shoot using the Red?

I wish I could say I have, but I haven’t. We’ve used pieces of Red footage, but we haven’t made a full-blown spot with it. We’ve used it on some Internet shoots. But this year we’ve had decent budgets and we’ve been shooting film.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prefer shooting film over HD. I like to shoot into the light. I backlight things a lot and come in with a lot of auxiliary lighting as fill, and HD still has some issues. It’s tricky. I know how to light, meter and set up for film. I’m not saying that I don’t know how to do that with HD, but you can lose detail that you can’t get back later on. With film, there’s so much information there that I’ve never had an issue. The Red is right for certain things, but it’s not right for everything.

Is the Red the only camera you own?

For about a year, I’ve had a Panasonic HD camera that records to P2 cards. We just shot Goodyear with it. It’s a great little camera. We have two of those, and we shoot with that all the time for stuff that’s not for broadcast. For non-broadcast stuff, HD is perfect.

Polaris ATV

What’s it like to be a specialist in automotive photography?

You know, for years car photographers were almost second-class citizens in our own industry. What’s happened over the last few years is that I’ve stopped apologizing for being a car shooter. I’m proud of it. What you do is take a soulless product and give it a story, give it a soul. It’s a big challenge. For years I saw non-car shooters come and go through our industry and get really plum jobs. But I feel that the pendulum has swung back, and the industry is embracing us again as specialists in shooting cars. That’s been a nice renaissance.

There have been a lot of really good car spots recently.

There have. The clients have become much more discerning, and the locations we pick are more special. We were on a scout today here in Denver. This is my third trip here and I have one more trip to do. That’s scouting a city four times for a running-footage package, because we’re trying to pick the perfect time of day, the perfect location. Back in the 1990s, on some of the brands, we were playing hide-the-car. We were looking for locations that were absolutely magnificent because the car wasn’t. But it’s not like that today. The cars we’re shooting today are beautiful. They look great. The designers have gained a lot of ground over the last few years, and the cars are really pretty.

I’ve talked to some people who were on shoots where the car’s designer showed up on location. Have you had that experience?

I’ve had that happen with Japanese car accounts, but never with domestic accounts. It’s helpful. I did a job two years ago in Japan, and the designer came out and said, “Tim, look at these creases in the roof.” I didn’t notice them. He said, “These creases on the roof echo what happens on the hood.” Sure enough, we took really hard directional lighting and raked the roof of the car, and it was amazing. It pulled that whole line from the front of the car to the back of the car. It was great, and I never would have seen that if it wasn’t for the designer pointing it out to us. It completely changed the picture, the energy, and it made the shot much more dynamic.

For more on Damon Live Action, visit www.damonproductions.com/main.html