Not that much back I took the challenge of shooting a series of pranks for the Saudi Arabia 7UP campaign w/ SilverGrey. Obviously, pranking means you’ll be shooting a lot with candid cameras.
That was my first time shooting pranks and shooting with candid cameras and has become an invaluable lesson. This was also a very different kind of shooting comparing to the things I used to do. Instead of delivering top quality image with rich camerawork, perfect framing and lighting polished to the very last detail, the main set of challenges here is very different: just get the things done.
In this article I’d like to share with you what I have learned.
At a glance
- The shoot included both indoor and outdoor locations, very often in public spaces.
- The shoot was in Saudi Arabia – a country with very strict cultural/religious regulations concerning filming and behavior in public spaces.
- There were 7 pranks, each of them in a different location. We aimed for getting about 3 good pranks from each day.
- Each prank was shot during one day and we had to prepare the location either overnight or a day before.
- We did have only a very basic control over the action, being able to give advice to the main actor in terms of staging and blocking and that was the only way to control the performance of the prankees.
- Get enough coverage to make a compelling edit
- Frame for both closeups and wide shots
- Keep the action within frame, at least for main cameras
- Stay unnoticed even in-between pranks, to prevent alarming other potential prankees
Let’s have a look at how I approached it.
GoProHero 3 was the first idea that came to my mind for shooting undercover. Seemed ideal: small size, remote control over wifi, easy to hide and manage, delivers full HD footage quality.
The first shooting days with GoPros were full of surprises and precious experience.
Mounting & Hiding
Probably the most pleasurable part of working with this camera. We were able to mount it virtually anywhere staying unnoticed. It breaks down to 2 scenarios:
- Going straight: Mounting the GoPros mostly on the ceilings w/ out any additional hide-work. Despite GoPros are very well known to us filmmakers it seems not to be the case for the majority of population! They are probably either totally missed on the industrial ceilings of public spaces or considered a surveillance cams – in both cases they passed unnoticed unnoticed by the majority of public.
- Hiding – the GoPros were very easy to hide in a range of objects: document binders, empty boxes, surveillance camera housings etc… Small lens size and color make them easy to put anywhere.
Definitely a tricky part. I aimed to control the cameras remotely, therefore I knew I needed more power than what’s delivered by the small GoPro batteries which turned to last for less than an hour while on the wifi.
GoPro Hero 3 does not have an external DC-in power supply, but if you examine it carefully allows you to deliver power over USB. I briefed the grip team to deliver 230V chargers for mobile phones w/ 5V DC output over USB and used a mini-usb cable to power GoPro. We spent serious amounts of time building the 230V AC power networks to all camera spots as I believed that once I have a continuous DC power supply all will go smoothly.
The result? GoPros would run for about an hour or two, but as it turned out, the batteries deplete faster than they’re charged via USB (since it acts as a simultaneous charging while in operation, not a typical DC power solution). This produced huge amounts of heat and the overheating became an issue making the cameras go down one by one on a regular basis during the shoot. Other side effects included footage drop-outs – the camera confirmed operation and recording via wifi, but no footage was recorded.
I upgraded firmware on all cameras (pretty painless process), installed the GoPro app and collected a decent amount of mobile devices for monitoring and triggering. During tests it seemed to work as a charm, but as the shoot went on more and more bugs and issues appeared.
As cool as the GoPro is, it is still an action cam. Meaning it works fine when you press a button on the housing to start recording, but when you want to geek out controlling it over WiFi it goes wild on you.
Don’t get me wrong – the software is fantastic, allowing you for smooth (although delayed about 8s) preview of what cameras see while in stand-by, remote triggering and changing settings easily, but frankly to put it straight, this mode is ‘not quite there yet’ and definitely is not ‘production-ready’.
- The WiFi takes lots of power and the camera is not prepared for that (no reliable DC-in option – see above).
- The WiFi hotspot appears to freeze very often and the only solution to recover a cam is a deep reset. Read: access the candid camera, unbox it, unmount it, disconnect, remove the battery for 10 seconds, restart and put back – the last thing you want to du shooting with a candid camera in a public place. This is confirmed but multiple user reports – just google around.
- The app itself is cool, but the features are somewhat random – on a few cameras I was able to get live preview while recording, on other identical units – not. Pretty weird and uncontrollable. Mostly you have to rely on a preview in stand-by mode and live with no monitoring while in REC.
Maybe if the remote control over WiFi matured a bit and power problem was solved, that could be a go. A patched dummy battery wired to a DC power source or this smart solution could be a future option. There are also patches like this and this available, but I’m not sure if that’s any better than what we did.
If you need external video out for a GoPro, here’s the solution.
All in all, I was devastated after the first shooting day w/ GoPros and decided to drop all of them, I mean keeping them as extra cams, but having DSLRs as a main workhorses. Loosing these cams one by one having the agency staff over the shoulder wasn’t a relaxing experience.
Old and good DSLRS
Dropping the GoPros meant only one thing – find a way with DSLRs.
This means ups:
- Decent low-light performance
- Better remote control
- Higher quality of image
- You need to be really smart hiding the cameras
- You need to geek out a bit to figure out a way to remotely control them
Canon DSLRs do have a decent support for controlling them remotely via USB using PTP protocol. That’s the thing we’re using at IguanaMill to enable the remote control of a DSLR using an iPad or iPhone, but since IguanaCube is not production-ready yet, I needed to find another option.
For a single camera one can go with a very good software from Canon – the Canon EOS Utility which brings you virtually full control over the camera including focus and live view. Cool.
But since the shoot involved usually about 4+ cameras, I would need either 5 computers or a better solution. What comes in hand is a great multi-cam remote control utility called Smart Shooter developed by Francis Hart. It’s still much of a work-in progress and you could complain for dozens of missing features, but as for what’s already there it’s pretty decent piece of software allowing you to control multiple cameras simultaneously and have a live action video stream on your computer. As soon as it ruled out other alternatives found during my research I decided to go all the way with the software.
While testing it on a good MacBook Pro w/ a set of 5 cameras over USB (hub was used) it seemed to be exactly what I was looking for, bringing a smooth playback and a steady and reliable connection.
Time to move things further. USB standard was designed literally as a desktop solution, meaning that it does not allow for extending easily. As you go past say 3-5m you need to go either with repeaters (powered) or other solutions like USB-over-Ethernet.
It’s easy to get various extenders on eBay, but your choices in Saudi Arabia are quite limited. We tested a bunch of stuff – virtually plundering the stores and decided to go with a powered USB-Over-Ethernet solution, apparently coming from china – the only one that was available, powered and did not require any drivers (since the chinese would deliver them only for Windows).
That’s where things get weird. I tested the stuff in the office getting a more-less reliable performance on the distances of 10-30m. Certainly, the framerate dropped seriously, but seemed to work. I decided to go with the highest quality CAT6 shielded cables (the best one can buy in KSA) just to be on a safe side – Ethernet cables are really fragile and prone to damage, also better go shielded than not.
Now comes the surprise: things that worked in the office stopped working on the set. I kept losing the cameras which required reconnecting multiple times, accidental recording breaks and stuff like that is the last thing you want to see with a customer right behind your back. I believe the problem is related mostly to strong electromagnetic fields affecting cables as we pushed them through the industrial suspended ceilings in stores, clubs or restaurants where we did the shooting. Interference could be coming from AC units, lighting fixtures and all other stuff you find above such ceilings.
The cables I believe could work, but you need to find and test out a really reliable cabling extension system. Do your homework and don’t expect to be all set with the first purchase.
If you have more cameras it may be safe to split them into 2-3 laptops to get smoother monitoring and responsiveness.
That’s an easy part.
Canon 5DMK2 & 3 would run for about 1-2h on the genuine Canon batteries in video mode. That’s not bad if you can afford to swap batteries every hour or two. For shooting candid cameras, that’s probably not the best choice, but there are solutions.
You can easily go with (pricy) Canon AC/DC Adapter if you have AC power source. What I did was using some of these and an alternate – the DitoGear Accessory consisting of a modded Canon Dummy Battery (converted to a mini-XLR) and the voltage reducer which allow to power Canon DSLR (8.2V) using and 12V DC source – be it an AC/DC adapter, Anton Bauer battery, Car battery, DitoGear Power Pack or the new compact PowerBrick. Use these and you’re all set.
Hiding the camera
Here comes the challenge. As easy it is to hide a GoPro, as difficult it is to hide a DSLR.
- Association – DSLRs are immediately recognized as dangerous weapon – looking obvious, infringing privacy, taking the public out of a comfort zone.
- Noise – starting and stopping a live view makes noise which brings attention to the camera.
- Body size – really difficult to hide.
- Lens size – where a GoPro is a piece of cake, the DSLR lens is a different story.
- Cabling: no wifi and more cables = more problems.
We tried a few approaches:
- Hide behind a venetian mirror
- Hide behind an ND film covered glass
- Hide behind an ND – partially covered glass
- Camera Cajón
- Just put it on a messy shelf
Venetian mirror and ND film on a glass
That worked pretty well particularly for cameras which were required really close to subjects and in locations where it could not be hidden in any other way. Rigging the glass sometimes takes more time, but can work wonders and none of our prankees suspected anything.
The drawback is that all kinds of one-way vision, ND films and venetian mirrors work as strong NDs. That was a good thing while I was shooting the Flat Tyre prank and was hiding in the cars parked outdoors. But for most of the interior shoots it just takes too much light and you have to boost ISO to 3200 plus you need to shoot at ƒ/2.8 or so – not the best choice when the camera is unmanned and there’s no focus puller.
All in all that was really frustrating as I faced mostly the same issues as with GoPros. Especially if you put an effort of a few hours of the crew working on fixing and hiding these cables on location.
- The power is easy and worked great. Go with what I recommended or find your own way.
- The software side worked awesome. Do not hesitate to go for it with the next projects.
- The cabling can be solved, but you need lots of research to find a working one. Bad cabling will bury you.
- If possible it’s better to have a laptop rigged next to the camera and do a remote desktop over 1Gbit network.
Designing the Cajón
The Cajón is a traditional percussion instrument, shaped as a box with a hole. Why not make a camera Cajón? A few sketches in LayOut (Part of Google SketchUp), a good and craftful carpenter and you’re all set.
My design has an 82mm front hole and makes it possible to shoot wide angle with 16mm lens on a full frame camera. On the back you have a hole for cabling and in the interior you have lots of space for the camera, cabling, power and all the stuff. The shelf is adjustable (tilts and booms) and has also a hole for mounting the cam using a 1/4″ pin. The best thing is that in case you want to go with batteries, theres a hole allowing to access the battery compartment and replace the juice.
Frankly, the Camera Cajón boxes were one of the smartest steps we did during the shoot. After a few design refinements I ordered 3 of them in white and 3 of them in black. Generally the mess is your friend, but some of the locations were really clean and neat stores so the boxes needed to be in line with the design of the interiors. The job seemed to be done very well and it never happened to us to be caught by the suspects.
You like it? Feel free to download my camera box design and use it for your shootings.
How to shoot pranks and don’t get covered
Besides of an enormous amount of technical challenges, there are also a few creative and production aspects of shooting pranks and making decisions on hiding the cameras.
Here are a few points that will help you do the job:
- Put the cameras in logical places – ceilings, making them look like surveillance cams.
- Don’t hide them. Show them. Make the cameras so obvious that they pass unnoticed. That really works – while shooting The Gym prank, the guys had cameras placed right in front of them on the counter desk. Same for The Pizza where we put a GoPro on a cash register.
- Let the mess be with you. The more messy the place, the easier it gets to hide cams. We have hidden the cams just by putting them on a shelf with lots of objects and even did not cover them at all.
- Keep the suspects busy. We planned action that way, that the prankees were kept busy right after entering the location.
- Get the crew under control. Avoid suspicious behavior. Limit the crew on location.
- Introduce helpers. For The Gym it was really tough to put a remotely controlled cameras and also the human-operated cams for closeups, so we transformed place into a fake renovation job. Just have a look at the prank for yourself. But be careful. People who often go to the place will notice changes and get alarmed. Build it into the script so that your talent/host have the explanation ready just in case.
- Do the technical and grip work a day before, but after the working hours (in public places). Scout, prepare, arrange angles, draw diagrams, find the angles way upfront.
- Always have fallback solutions for cams that would have to be removed for some reasons or would fail.
- Do an extensive technical check covering all aspects of your gear, ranging from power through cabling and other stuff.
- Keep it as simple as possible – the more gear, the more chances for a failure.
- Shooting pranks is tough. Prepare for hard work and lots of overtime.
And what are your experiences shooting undercover?