“When I was first asked to direct the Veronica Mars documentary, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I had no idea about the scope of challenges we would face,” says Viet Nguyen, director of the film. “We budgeted to shoot roughly 50 days of footage, but many of those days ended up being 16 hours long, often times shooting in less-than-ideal conditions. It was one of the most challenging projects I’ve been a part of, and I can say it never would have happened had it not been for the Nikon D800.”
Nguyen is referring to the behind-the-scenes documentary that he, John Reyes-Nguyen and Tuan Quoc Le created to profile one of the first-ever studio-affiliated crowdfunded films. If you’re not up on your pop culture, the Veronica Mars television series debuted in 2004 starring Kristen Bell as Veronica, a sassy and smart high school (and later, college) outcast who moonlights as a private investigator under the guidance of her detective father. The themes and characters instantly hit home with the audience, creating a cult following. When Warner Bros. Television canceled the series in 2007, a flock of ardent fans were left with unanswered questions.
In the seven years since, show creator Rob Thomas worked tirelessly towards a continuation of the drama in movie form. Veronica Mars gained an incredible following, yet it wasn’t clear that a feature film would generate enough interest. Why not take it to the fans directly with a pitch to gain their help—and demonstrate their interest—in underwriting a feature film?
In 2013, Warner Bros. approved the attempt. Thomas set his crowdfunding campaign into gear, establishing a $2 million goal. Astonishingly that goal was met within ten hours, and by the time the campaign concluded 31 days later the fans had contributed a grand total of $5.7 million.
Fans to the Rescue
Respecting the dedication and importance of loyal fans, Thomas added one more layer to the Mars mystique by tasking Viet and his team to create a Veronica Mars documentary, giving fans a behind-the-scenes look into how their crowdfunded movie would come together.
Viet had known Thomas for a long time, having worked with him on various projects including the original Veronica Mars TV show. “Rob asked me to shoot the documentary that would profile the making of the film. He thought a documentary would be a cool item to offer backers.”
Viet had previously shot short films using HDSLRs and was convinced the smaller camera format would be the way to go for this project. “As an indie filmmaker, HDSLR gear is not foreign to me, but working with the Nikon D800 was a significant upgrade. I generally prefer HDSLRs over traditional Hollywood cameras for projects like these. The main advantage is mobility.”
In addition to the documentary, Viet and his team produced the original five-minute pitch video that was uploaded to the crowdfunding site.
Lights, Camera, Run-and-Gun
By its very nature, a documentary captures the unscripted. “You can’t plan a shot. You have zero control of your environment,” says Viet. “You can’t hold for perfect lighting. You can’t ask for another take. What you get is what you get. Luckily, the D800 is equipped for this run-and-gun type shooting.”
To illustrate, Viet recounts a true documentary scenario that occurred right off the bat. He and co-directors of photography John and Tuan were working off-camera alongside the film production crew. The trio was capturing on-the-fly interviews with Veronica Mars backers (individuals who had contributed to the crowdfunding campaign and who were invited to act as extras in the film).
Since shoot venues were determined by the script and production schedule, the trio’s capture locations were not always ideal. Adds Viet, “One moment we filmed outside in perfect sunlight, and the next moment we would find ourselves in the basement of a bar with no light at all.” They were pleased that the D800 nailed outdoor images with ease, and were astounded by the low-light indoor capture obtained by the camera with a fast NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 prime.
“In situations like these where I had to go from inside to outside, I would leave the camera on Auto White balance,” says John. “It’s a feature not often used in-camera; you normally want to dial in color manually. But when filming a documentary I don’t usually have time to consistently update color balance settings, so why not let the camera do it? The D800 is very accurate. I never had an issue with proper color.”
Tuan mentions, “The D800 delivers jaw-dropping low-light performance and can operate well at high ISO numbers. Even when pushed to the top of its range the grain actually looks filmic instead of a digital mess. And when projected onto a 50-foot screen, the footage is simply breathtaking.” Viet adds that, “The latitude provided by the large sensor yields out-of-this-world footage. After that first review we realized we wouldn’t have to worry about getting a proper image.”
With such great performance in low-light conditions, less lighting equipment is needed—to both purchase and carry. The documentary team agreed this is one more plus for any film producer and crew, especially on low-budget productions, where time, money and manpower are important considerations.
Accessories Round Up: Battery Grip, Rig, HDMI Monitor, Mic, Earphones
The D800 is heralded for its excellence right out of the box, but add a few accessories and the production can truly hum. “We loved the fact that we could shoot up to 20 minutes per take, which is longer than many other cameras. It was great not having to stop interviews every seven minutes to reset and hit record again. And when we had to shoot run-and-gun in the field, we could add extra battery grips and extend shoot time over longer periods. If the battery in-camera ran out, the back-up in the grip would take over,” says John.
“Any time we asked questions, the subjects loved to talk. They told stories, shared their appreciation for Veronica Mars.” John furthers, “Our on-the-fly interviews would easily last up to 20 minutes. It was great not needing to interrupt subjects mid-story to change a battery.” They also point to the battery grip with its side-loading slot, which kept them on the move minus the need to dismount gear from shoulder rigs for a swap-out.
“We placed the camera on shoulder-mount rigs and used HDMI monitors. Specially-made for a DSLR, the rig afforded a steady shot plus ability to shoot comfortably for long periods of time. When we had to shoot interiors and be invisible, we moved the camera onto a pistol grip. Since the camera is so small, adding a pistol grip makes it almost invisible, plus provides some stabilization.”
Primary sound for the documentary was recorded separately on a boom and sound recorder.
However, another accessory came in handy—the mountable Nikon ME-1 microphone. For a documentary, capturing quality sound with the camera is very important. Constantly on the move, there were situations where the camera and boom operator would get separated. In the final cut, a lot of the audio actually came directly from the Nikon mics.
“It’s easy to record sound on the D800, monitor audio with earphones, and view levels on the LCD screen. The sound is very clean for such a small mic. It was good to know we could rely on the ME-1 as a primary mic when in a pinch. The mics are also self-powered, which saved us time and money on AA batteries,” says Viet.
Filling the Glass
As for visuals, the lens of choice was the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED. This lens allowed ample flexibility with zoom options for on-the-fly composition with nearly no switch-out required in lower-light conditions. “The story called for a straightforward fly-on-the-wall approach, so we didn’t employ many lens techniques,” says Viet. “But we did emphasize certain situations by zooming and dollying.”
There was one setting where the crew had to change up the glass—the day spent following the cast around Comic-Con. “We weren’t given access to film onstage, so we attached the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens. Even while standing deep inside the crowd of 6,000 fans we were able to obtain outstanding footage of the cast. From a distance of 200 feet, the close-ups looked as if we were filming from just a few feet away.”
Tuan continues, “The increased depth-of-field provided by the focal length allows you to focus in on your subject and really portray that person as beautifully as possible.” He points to the camera’s full frame sensor as a huge complement to the lenses, helping deliver a broad focal range and render a beautiful and clean image. “Combined with NIKKOR lenses, the D800 consistently provided a beautiful cinematic look with realistic natural skin tones, color rendition and white balance.”
Keeping Up With Production
Along with stunning visuals, the D800 affords great mobility. John adds that, “The size and weight of the D800 give it a huge advantage over other systems. A small profile is important when doing documentary work; it helps the camera disappear and permits the subject to feel more comfortable—both of which can enhance storytelling. The form factor allows for more inconspicuous movement, plus access to tight spaces.”
But a key point the team wishes to play up was the ability to shoot for long periods of time without the gear weighing them down. On one of the last shoot days, the director had to push filming beyond daylight. With two scenes needing concurrent capture, he had his camera units set-up a block away from each other. Viet recounts, “When he was suddenly called to one set and the van wasn’t available to pick him up, he ran; and so did we! Glad we were armed with a D800 and nothing larger. We found ourselves chasing him, paparazzi-style, down the street with the camera rolling. It was tiring but the great thing is the Nikon gear still captured incredible imagery.”
John adds, “The 80-400mm has VR (Vibration Reduction). It eliminates frame jitteriness that you can get when shooting on a long lens.” Or when chasing down your subject.
One more comment about HDSLR use from Tuan: “Taking a big camera out in the field for a documentary is often unreasonable. Traditional Hollywood cameras need full crews just to operate. We keep basic production costs down and the HDSLRs leave a smaller footprint. Subsequently, we can move quicker and more efficiently.”
The Next Chapter
John adds a few more thoughts, “I’ve worked with HDSLR cameras for documentary, as well as scripted work. The form factor works well in both environments. These days it’s rare not to see an HDSLR be part of the set-up. They’re so versatile and the image quality is outstanding. They are a must for motion project work—even if the core of production is done using larger or more expensive traditional cameras.”
Sharing an insider observation, Viet reveals that any time a POV-type angle was required for Veronica Mars movie capture, a Nikon camera was employed. In fact, the D800 was used as a “tablet” POV camera for one of the scenes, and also acted as a security camera in another scene.
The documentary is premiering at the 2014 PaleyFest in Beverly Hills, and will be included with Veronica Mars movie extras on the digital download and DVD. Viet smiles, “Our feature lasts 57 minutes, but there could be more story to tell depending on how well the actual movie does in theaters and DVD sales.”
Watch the Behind The Scenes video of how Viet and his crew were able to grab great footage for their documentary Making of “Veronica Mars”, and be sure to check out the Veronica Mars movie, in theaters March 14th, 2014.