How to do Scenes on a Moving Train

Behind the scenes of “Last Passenger”

The publicity machine is ramping up for Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express remake, and it’s got me thinking about the challenges of a script set largely on a moving train. There are a number of ways of realising such scenes, and today I’m going to look at five movies that demonstrate different techniques. All of these methods are equally applicable to scenes in cars or any other moving vehicle.

1. For Real: “The Darjeeling limited”

Wes Anderson’s 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited sees three brothers embarking on a spiritual railway journey across India. Many of the usual Anderson tropes are present and correct – linear tracking shots, comical headgear, Jason Schwartzman – but surprisingly the moving train wasn’t done with some kind of cutesy stop-motion. Production designer Mark Friedberg explains:

The big creative decision Wes made was that we were going to shoot this movie on a moving train. And all that does is complicate life. It makes it more expensive, it makes the logistics impossible. It made it incredibly difficult to figure out how many crew, what crew, what gear… but what it did do is it made it real.

Kenneth Branagh has stated that at least some of Murder on the Orient Express was shot on a real moving train too:

They painstakingly built a fully functioning period authentic locomotive and carriages from the Orient Express during the golden, glamorous age of travel. It was a train that moved… All of our actors were passengers on the train down the leafy lanes of Surrey, pretending to be the former Yugoslavia.

 

2. Poor Man’s Process: “The Double”

Director Richard Ayoade

Although best known as The IT Crowd‘s Moss and the new host of the Crystal Maze, Richard Ayoade is also an accomplished director. His last feature was a darkly beautiful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s classic identity-crisis novella The Double. 

Unlike the other movies on this list, The Double only has short sequences on a train, and that’s a key point. So named because it’s a cheap alternative to rear projection (a.k.a. process photography), Poor Man’s Process is a big cheat. In order to hide the lack of motion, you keep the view outside your vehicle’s windows blank and featureless – typically a night sky, but a black subway tunnel or a grey daytime sky can also work. Then you create the illusion of motion with dynamic lighting, a shaky camera, and grips rocking the carriage on its suspension. Used judiciously, this technique can be very convincing, but you would never get away with it for a whole movie.

Poor Man’s works particularly well in The Double, the black void outside the subway car playing into the oppressive and nightmarish tone of the whole film. In an interview with Pushing Pixels, production designer David Crank explains how the subway carriage set was built out of an old bus. He goes on to describe how the appearance of movement was created:

We put the forks of a forklift under the front of the bus, and shook it… For the effect of moving lights outside the train, it was a combination of some spinning lights on stands, as well as lights on small rolling platforms which tracked back and forth down the outside of the bus.

Part 2 of the Darjeeling Limited featurette above reveals that Poor Man’s Process was also used occasionally on that film, when the train was stuck in a siding due to heavy rail traffic. I used Poor Man’s myself for night-time train sequences in two no-budget features that I made in the early noughties – see the BTS clip below – and I’ve also written a couple of blog posts in the past about my use of the same technique on a promotional video and in a fantasy web series.

 

3. Green screen: “Source Code”

Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Jones followed up his low-budget masterpiece Moon with Hollywood sci-fi thriller Source Code, a sort of mash-up of Quantum Leap and Groundhog Day with a chilling twist. It takes place predominantly on a Chicago-bound commuter train, in reality a set surrounded by green screen. In the featurette above, Jones mentions that shooting on a real moving train was considered, but ultimately rejected in favour of the flexibility of working on stage:

Because we revisit an event multiple times, it was absolutely integral to making it work, and for the audience not to get bored, that we were able to vary the visuals. And in order to do that we had to be able to build platforms outside of the train and be able to really vary the camera angles.

In the DVD commentary, Jones also notes that the background plates were shot in post from a real train “loaded up with cameras”.

Director Duncan Jones on the set of “Source Code”

Cinematographer Don Burgess, ASC discusses lighting the fake train in a Panavision article:

It’s difficult to make it feel like natural light is coming in and still get the sense of movement on a train… We worked with computer programs where we actually move the light itself, and brighten and dim the lights so it feels as if you are travelling… The lights are never 100% constant.

When I shot The Little Mermaid last year we did some train material against green screen. To make the lighting dynamic, the grips built “branch-a-loris” rigs: windmills of tree branches which they would spin in front of the lamps to create passing shadows.

 

4. Rear projection: “Last Passenger”

Perhaps the most low-budget film on this list, Last Passenger is a 2013 independent thriller set aboard a runaway train. Director Omid Nooshin and DP Angus Hudson wanted a vintage look, choosing Cooke Xtal anamorphic lenses and a visual effects technique that had long since fallen out of favour: rear projection.

Before the advent of optical – and later digital – compositing, rear projection was commonly used to provide moving backgrounds for scenes in vehicles. The principle is simple: the pre-recorded backgrounds are projected onto a screen like this…

Rear projection in use on “River of no Return” (1954)

Hudson goes into further detail on the technique as used for the Last Passenger:

To capture [the backgrounds] within our limited means, we ended up shooting from a real train using six Canon 5D cameras, rigged in such a way that we got forward, sideways and rear-facing views out of the train at the same time. We captured a huge amount of footage, hours and hours of footage. That allowed us to essentially have 270 degrees of travelling shots, all of which were interlinked.

Because rear projection is an in-camera technique, Nooshin and Hudson were able to have dirt and water droplets on the windows without worrying about creating a compositing nightmare in postproduction. Hudson also notes that the cast loved being able to see the backgrounds and react to them in real time.

 

5. L.E.D. Panels: “Train to Busan”

Enabling the actors to see the background plates was also a concern for Yeon Sang-ho, director of the hit Korean zombie movie Train to Busan. He felt that green screen would make it “difficult to portray the reality”, so he turned to the latest technology: LED screens. This must have made life easier not just for the cast, but for the cinematographer as well.

You see, when you travel by train in the daytime, most of the light inside the carriage comes from outside. Some of it is toplight from the big, flat sky, and some of it is hard light from the sun – both of these can be faked, as we’ve seen – but a lot of the light is reflected, bouncing off trees, houses, fields and all the other things that are zipping by. This is very difficult to simulate with traditional means, but with big, bright LED screens you get this interactive lighting for free. Because of this, and the lack of postproduction work required, this technique is becoming very popular for car and train scenes throughout the film and TV industry.

This brings us back to Murder on the Orient Express, for which 2,000 LED screens were reportedly employed. In a Digital Spy article, Branagh notes that this simulated motion had an unintended side effect:

It was curious that on the first day we used our gimballed train sets and our LED screens with footage that we’d gone to great trouble to shoot for the various environments – the lowlands and then the Alps, etc… people really did feel quite sick.

I’ll leave you with one final point of interest: some of the above films designed custom camera tracks into their train carriage sets. On Last Passenger, for example, the camera hung from a dolly which straddled the overhead luggage racks, while The Darjeeling Limited had an I-beam track designed into the centre of the ceiling. Non-train movies like Speed have used the same technique to capture dolly shots in the confines of a moving vehicle.

“Last Passenger”s luggage rack dolly

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How to do Scenes on a Moving Train

Int. Car – Moving

Hama suction mount
Hama suction mount

Inside a moving car – an everyday setting, but amongst the more challenging ones for a film crew. You can tackle it with greenscreen, or with front projection, or with Poor Man’s Process. Or you can do it for real.

On The Gong Fu Connection we did it for real. If you’re going to attempt this you’ll need three things:

  1. A very wide lens, if you want to get both the driver and the front passenger in frame. I used the wide end of a Tokina 11-16mm zoom, kindly lent to us by DIT Rob McKenzie.
  2. An LED panel to ensure the cast are sufficiently illuminated when the vehicle passes through dark areas.
  3. Some kind of suction mount.

I still had a Hama car mount I’d bought back in 2000 to do car chases like this with my Canon XM1.

I can’t believe I used to rely entirely on that mount to hold the camera, with no safety rope. I’d never do that now.

Of course, this mount wouldn’t support the weight of the Blackmagic. It was just to provide an extra anchor point. Most of the camera’s weight was actually rested on the dashboard, as you can see below. Cardboard and gaffer tape were used to secure it firmly, and the V-lock battery was placed in the open glove box underneath.

The Blackmagic, mounted on the dashboard with an old Hama suction mount, some cardboard, some gaffer tape, a wing and prayer
The Blackmagic, mounted on the dashboard with an old Hama suction mount, some cardboard, some gaffer tape, a wing and prayer

We ruled out mounting the camera on the bonnet partly for safety and partly because windscreen reflections can be a real nightmare. But we did mount the LED panel on the bonnet, or rather in the gap between the back end of the bonnet and the windscreen, nestled on the wipers. Its yoke rested against the windscreen, maintaining the panel at the right angle. Bungee cords and gaffer tape held it firmly and a bin bag protected it from the spitting rain.

Under the black bag is an LED panel to keep some consistency to the light on the actors as the car moves.
Under the black bag is an LED panel to keep some consistency to the light on the actors as the car moves.

Baldur, the character in the front passenger seat, was supposed to have a laptop on his lap. Since it was out of frame, I gave him another LED panel instead to represent the light coming from the screen. With hindsight I wish I’d gelled it cooler, but never mind. I gaffer-taped over the brightness and colour temperature dials on the back of the panel to stop them getting accidentally knocked out of position.

Exposing for these shots is tricky, particularly when you’re driving on country lanes where a dark, tree-lined avenue can suddenly give way to a bright, open field. If you turn up the LED panels too bright, the dark sections look fake, but if you don’t turn them up bright enough then the dark sections look too dark. I made a guess and it turned out to be pretty bang on.

When we shot, only the three actors and the sound recordist were able to be in the car. Before it drove off, I started the camera rolling and Colin popped in with the slate. Then it was all down to the actors. They did a series of takes and came back to show us the results. Everyone was happy, and that was that.

Support The Gong Fu Connection at www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-gong-fu-connection

Int. Car – Moving

The Steadicam, the Blackmagic and the Troublesome Converters

I spent last week in rural Sussex DPing Ted Duran’s 30 minute action-comedy, The Gong Fu Connection. It was a great shoot with a real community atmosphere, excellent food and beautiful weather. I’ve just been looking through the rushes and I’m blown away by the amazing images that my Blackmagic Production Camera has produced. They are very filmic with an incredible amount of detail, even though we only shot in 1080P.

Colin operates the Canon C300 on his Steadicam Pilot
Colin Smith operates the Canon C300 on his Steadicam Pilot

Not everything went to plan though. The aim was to capture the fights using fluid Steadicam photography, and since I hadn’t used a Blackmagic with Colin’s Steadicam Pilot before, he and I met up the weekend before to test the set-up.

The chief difficulty was that the rig’s built-in monitor accepts only a composite video input, while the Blackmagic outputs only an SDI signal. I searched online for a portable SDI to composite converter, but no such thing seemed to exist. I already had an SDI to HDMI converter, so the obvious solution was to buy an HDMI to composite converter. But the more links a chain has, the more opportunity for weakness.

I made the purchase and Colin sorted out power adapters so that both converters could run off the same battery as the Steadicam monitor. We tested it at my flat and it worked perfectly.

Flash-forward a week and we’re on set preparing the Steadicam for The Gong Fu Connection’s first martial arts sequence. All we’re getting on the Steadicam’s monitor are colour bars, which are output by the HDMI to composite converter when it’s receiving no input signal. The other converter, the SDI to HDMI one, has packed up.

Without a working monitor on the bottom of the rig, Colin can’t watch his step and frame the shot at the same time. The Steadicam is essentially useless.

There is a Canon C300 on set, being used for behind-the-scenes shooting. Although Ted and I are both keen to shoot the main film exclusively on the Blackmagic, to avoid severely disrupting the schedule we decide to shoot the day’s Steadicam material on the C300. (The C300 has SDI, HDMI and composite outputs. Blackmagic Design take note.)

DO NOT BUY THIS CONVERTER.
DO NOT BUY THIS CONVERTER.

At lunchtime I get on the wifi and see if I can order a replacement SDI to HDMI converter. The only one that can be delivered the next day (a Sunday) is the same model as the one that packed up. Having little choice, I order it. Amazingly it is indeed delivered on the Sunday. Nice one, Amazon.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work. I was at least hoping for the paltry month of service I got from the previous one. But no, this one is dead on arrival.

By a process of elimination we check that the converter is indeed the piece at fault. We swap cables and cameras and the results are the same.

We continue to shoot the Steadicam material on the C300.

But I have one last desperate idea to get the Blackmagic working on the rig.

The CCTV camera set up to film the Blackmagic's screen
The CCTV camera, set up to film the Blackmagic’s screen

On Monday morning I send our driver, Lucky, to the nearest Maplin. I’ve given him instructions to buy a small CCTV camera. When he gets back with it I have Colin attach it to the rig behind the Blackmagic, filming the Blackmagic’s screen. The CCTV camera outputs a composite signal directly to the Steadicam’s monitor.

Incredibly, this works. But it does mean enclosing the Blackmagic and the CCTV camera in black wrap to eliminate reflections on the former’s screen. Which means we can’t get to the iris controls, and we’re relying on the distances marked on the lens barrel to focus. And to make matters worse, the Steadicam Pilot can’t take the weight of a V-lock battery, so the Blackmagic must run off its short-lived internal battery. Between takes we have to plug it into a handheld V-lock to top up the charge.

After capturing two or three successful set-ups with this ludicrous rig, we decide it’s slowing us down too much. I finally abandon all hope of using the Blackmagic on the Steadicam.

For those interested in how the C300 and Blackmagic stack up against each other, the Canon has a sharper, more video look compared with the Blackmagic’s filmic images. The Canon also has more compression artefacts due to its lower bitrate. But they seem to cut together alright once graded.

The lack of an HDMI output on the Blackmagic has been the one thing that’s really caused me problems since buying the camera. I’d be tempted to go for a Kinefinity mod if it wasn’t so expensive…

Of course, the camera is still incredible value for money. Personally I think the only competitors in terms of image quality are the Reds. (The Alexa and film are in a whole other league.) But it is strange that Blackmagic Design claim to have built the camera for people working in the low budget world, but apparently didn’t consider that such people rarely have access to SDI monitors.

Stay tuned for more on The Gong Fu Connection shoot. There is still time to contribute to the project’s crowdfunding campaign over at Indiegogo.

The Steadicam, the Blackmagic and the Troublesome Converters

Wheels Within Wheels

One of the great things about DSLRs is that, being so small, you can put them in all kinds of unusual places and, being so light, you can rig them to things with relatively little hassle. Stop/Eject is not the sort of film where we’ll being doing a lot of this (unlike Act of Valor, which I strongly suggest you check out), but there is one shot that needs a custom rig…

Shot 69, as drawn by Sophie Black
Shot 69, as drawn by Sophie Black

In this shot, the camera needs to be attached to the bike in some way so it moves with it, maintaining the same framing on the wheel throughout. This is part of the film’s visual theme of circles, which I discussed earlier this year on the blog.

Rigged for the rear wheel
Rigged for the rear wheel

If the shoot had gone ahead last October as originally planned, this shot would probably have got dropped or replaced with a similar but less effective version achieved by simply steadicamming along next to the bike. But one great advantage of a shoot being postponed is the opportunity to prepare so much better.

To that end, Colin and I borrowed his mum’s bike this morning to test the shot. Under the pressure of a low budget filming schedule, you can’t mess around trying to figure out a rig like this. You have to work it out in advance.

My plan was to use a C-stand arm and a cheap tripod to get the camera in the right place. First of all we tried clamping the arm to the frame of the bike, but it was too thick. So then we clamped it to the pedal (which meant roping or clamping the pedal to another part of the bike so it wouldn’t turn). The bottom of the tripod was clamped in turn to this arm. The handy thing about using a tripod, of course, is that you have a pan-and-tilt head for easy adjustments and a quick-release plate too.

Rear wheel shot
Rear wheel shot

Initially we filmed the rear wheel, but then I realised filming the front wheel would allow us to get a wider frame, since the pedals (which had to be framed out because the arm was clamped to one of them) were further away from the front wheel.

The rig worked out really well. We had to use a lens with an image stabiliser, and when we shoot it for real we’ll put someone on the bike to weigh it down and reduce the bumps further. I’d imagined we’d have to use a second clamp and bungee cords to keep the camera in place, but the sturdiness of the C-stand arm and the low weight of the camera made this unnecessary.

Yeah, we got a bit of the pedal in shot, not to mention Col’s feet. But those things are easily fixed.

Just before I sign off, I have to give you a link to Tony Hill Films, a site I came across while researching bike rigs. He’s built a number of unique and fascinating camera rigs which you can see in action on the site: http://www.tonyhillfilms.com/rigs

Front wheel rig
Front wheel rig
Wheels Within Wheels