Case Study – Amtrak VTrans

Three Commercials In One Day

While it sounds straightforward enough, the normal commercial production process would not apply here…  To boost ridership on the Vermonter route to New York City, Amtrak and Vermont Department of Transportation hired Hen House Media to produce three commercials, each targeting a different demographic – family decision-maker, business traveler and college student.  Sounds simple enough? Well, read on…

The Challenge

For the typical :30 second commercial, we would have a full day of production, with a few hours of lighting setup, blocking action, filming various takes per scene and then breaking down.  In this scenario, we would have to capture the material we needed for all three commercials in that same day, with much less filming time than we typically have for one commercial.  We were up for the challenge and we tackled it with tried and true process.

The Considerations

There were multiple layers of challenges that needed to be handled for there to be a successful outcome.  Some were the normal logistical issues of casting actors, gear rentals, location permissions and such. However, because this was Amtrak, there were a few critical additions we had to consider.

First, Amtrak is a business.  We would not have the luxury of shutting down operations and taking over an entire moving train for our filming purposes.  We would be on the actual Vermonter, operating normally, with paying customers and staff keeping a timely schedule.  Second, Amtrak is under federal jurisdiction, which meant ensuring all clearances, permissions to film and safety protocol needed to be in place well in advance of our filming dates.  There are several layers to this part of the process alone, and we can cover that in a future post.  Third, our filming could only occur within the state of Vermont for various reasons, the biggest being needing our car for paying passengers in popular areas.  We spent two months working directly with Amtrak officials to ensure clearances and set very specific production schedules.

The train starts at the Saint Albans, VT station, about 45 minutes north of our studio, and our crew would need to fully unload equipment and any modifications to the car in White River Junction, roughly 2 hours south of our studio.  Of course, there are stops along the way, so once the train started moving, we would have roughly 2-3 hours to film our commercials, break down and remove our cast, crew and gear.  That’s usually not enough time for one commercial, let alone three.  We would have to get creative with our approach and worked closely with Amtrak on the ultimate solution.

The Solution

We reduced the number of commercials we would film during the actual travel portion of the train to 2, and worked with Amtrak on clearance to work on the train in the early morning hours.  During preproduction visits, we measured windows which would need to have neutral density gels to cut down on sunlight, measured seat clearance, tested mounting options for lights and used our iphone cinematography apps to test different camera angles and positions.  Preproduction was limited to 30 minutes: The time it took to get from St Albans to Essex.

With those notes in hand, we created an approved storyboard, shot list and a schedule – it would be a 3:30am arrival at the St Albans station, we would set up camera gear, apply ND filters to the windows and set up lighting. We would have half the normal setup time for a project of this size. We will share the details of the production in a future post.

Our talent for the college and family spots would be arriving at the station at 8:15am, an hour before departure, so we could capture shots of them on the platform (so each would have a different opening segment).  Before that, we would capture the business man for his own commercial beginning at 7am, on a non-moving train.  When you watch the final business commercial, it will appear as though the train is moving – we employed some special visual effects tricks to make that happen.  A complete rundown of the business commercial will be featured in a future post.

We completed the body of the business commercial on time and our team then walked to the platform to begin filming the opening segments.  We had roughly 20 minutes to film three commercial opens with our three groups of actors, which we accomplished on time.  We timed all of our opening shots to coincide with the train movements – we filmed pick up shots of happy people before the train pulled in, used the train pulling in as a backdrop for the family spot and then filmed the business man and college opens as they boarded the train.

Once on board, the business actor would become a background extra for the other two commercials, as would crew members and the actors from the piece not being shot.  Family became extras for the college spot and vice versa.  We started with the family commercial, and then finished with the college commercial.  Once we knew we had the needed shots, we used the remainder of filming time to capture pickup shots to give us flexibility and options in editing.

Support was also needed outside of our train journey.  We had a chase vehicle, that contained a camera crew that would arrive at select stations along the route, all with proper Amtrak clearances, to film the trains arrival and departure from the station.  This vehicle would also become the car that would transport our crew and gear back to our studio from the final stop.

We hired two large passenger vans with drivers from a bus company in southern Vermont to meet our actors and drive them back to St. Albans.  This would happen two stops before our final destination.  This would ensure we had a cleared train car as we very quickly took down all ND filters, lights and camera gear.  When the actors boarded the vans, a nice freshly made lunch from Let’s Pretend Catering awaited them.

It was a very successful production under very challenging conditions, not the norm for typical commercial productions, let alone three in such a short time.  Planning, preparing for worst case scenarios and working intimately with our client is what made the difference. The best part for Amtrak and VTrans is they are still being used today – a full four years after they were produced.  Amtrak has even used them in other markets as well.  We call that a success!

, , ,