Poor Man's Process, Illustrated (Poorly)
Poor Man's process is a film making method for shooting an in-car scene, without all the trouble and expense of filming an actual car ride. You know the shot: looking over the hood of a car through the windshield at two characters chatting as they drive through the night, street lamps and car headlights twinkling in the background. This process recreates the visual experience on a sound stage.
Here is a rough diagram of what I saw. Click for the larger version:
A. These contraptions created the background, as seen through the rear windshield. Headlights mounted on rolling stands, with black cloth draped between them, served as cars. Crew members hid behind the draping and slowly moved these lights back and forth. To create the illusion of depth, smaller flashlights were used on the rear carts. Next to them, a separate cart with red lights simulated tail lights. The whole setup was wired to a box (B.) where a technician (who apparently in this picture is a young child) dimmed and brightened the lights to give the impression of brakes flickering on and cars turning. Behind these carts were Christmas lights draped over a black stand -- they were the "distant, twinkling city lights".
C. Two stands set back from the car held an amber lamp pointed at an angled, rotating mirror. At timed intervals they'd turn on, and cast moving light on the faces of the actors. They create the impression of passing street lamps.
D. The car itself was surrounded by white foam core (G.) which reflected powerful lamps on either side of the car. The grips manipulating those lamps would start turned away from the car, their light off. The lamps (also timed) would turn on, and they would then pass the beam over the foam core. The bounced light would create the impression of a passing light source, such as a store. Once the beam reached the rear end of the foam core, the lamp would turn off, and the grips would return to their first position.
E. Two cameras were pointed at the car. When I saw it, both were on dollies. Since then, I've read that it is common to have a camera on a steadicam unit, so I showed both here. The goal is to create the impression that car is moving over a road. A steadicam operated camera moves slightly, helping to avoid a static picture.
F. This is probably my favorite part of this setup. A long piece of wood is place under the rear axle of the car, then run over a wedge behind the bumper. One grip's job was to drape himself over this lever, ducked down so as to not be seen by the camera, and slightly bounce the car at random intervals. This made for a very realistic effect, seen on camera in the natural reation of the performers. Perhaps the lowest tech solution, and the most effective.
H. Very impressive was the large light on a jib arm, suspended 15 feet above all this. The arm could rotate back and forth, passing the light length-wise over the car. A large diffusion box attached to the front of the light. The grip on the jib arm would start with the light off, held in front of the car. The light would turn on, and he would rotate the light in a wide arc over then past the car. At the end of the arc, the light would turn off, and he'd return it to its original position. This would create the impression of a street lamps passing overhead.
I. Not really illustrated here, but there was a small light inside the car, illuminating the actors. It was very subtle though -- none of the "glowing dashboard" effect sometimes seen.
J. This is really part of the A. grouping, but it was so large I thought it'd be worth mentioning separately. Behind all those carts and hidden crew members, there is a massive, translucent photograph. Imagine the biggest, blown-up picture you've ever seen. Now imagine something 10 times larger, draped from a curtain rod 40 feet up. These enormous photographs are used for backdrops, often seen through windows on sets (i.e. brownstones, apartment buildings, sky scrapers from the 80th floor, etc), and lit from behind. For this night scene, then used only one small light, and pointed it at a portion of the photo. This created a bit of color for the background and added depth behind the other, brighter lights.
If you'd like to see the final results of that day, the episode of Help Me Help You they were shooting is titled "The Sheriff", and is currently scheduled to air on January 9th, 2007. Michael Price was the Director of Photography on the shoot.