The Land Rover slogan is "The most well-traveled vehicles on Earth," and it took the most well-traveled camera move to do it justice. Hence the dazzling new :60 (and three :30 lifts), for the Discovery SUV, called "Orbit," from GSD&M in Austin, Texas, and director/cinematographer Eric Saarinen of Plum Productions, Santa Monica. GSD&M co-CD Jeremy Postaer and team had an idea to show the Discovery at work and play around the globe, shot in clutter-busting semi-circular moves in which the camera follows the scene in a giant overhead arc, starting upside-down and ending right-side up. Great idea. Now, how to execute it? Saarinen did it the old-fashioned way: he invented a rig. "I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but of the people they talked to, we were the only ones who said we could do it," he says. "Everyone else tried to talk them into doing it a different way."
So began a period of intense experimentation in a collaboration with John Frazier of special-effects design company Fxperts in Sunland, Calif., and key grip Michael Coo. First there was a Tinker Toy version of the rig on a tabletop; then a version made with C-stands and an attached DV camera; eventually, Frazier fashioned a detailed animation of the rig, using 3D Studio Max software. The final result was a counterweighted 50-foot arm with an Arri mounted on the end, so smooth of operation, one person can handle it. "We shot with the base of the arm pointed away from the sun, to place the shadows out of frame," says Saarinen. "We also used smoke and diffusion to get rid of reflections from the boom arm on the car. The rig worked like a charm; it was so smooth and steady, everyone who's seen the final product can't believe it wasn't done in post."
Plenty was done in post with the backgrounds, since this post-September 11 job was precipitously rerouted from its South Africa and Thailand locations to Los Angeles. Scenes in an African village, on a South American river, a Thai archeological dig, a Beijing street market and others were all handled locally, under the supervision of production designer Sean Hargreaves. "That's where we lost money," says Saarinen. "It's a lot cheaper to shoot overseas." Could this have been done entirely in CG? "Well, some companies are doing CG cars; but CG people? Uh-uh." Anyway, as far as Saarinen is concerned, it was all worth it. Not only does he have a crane with the pet name Shaboom, but the costly venture works something like the MasterCard campaign: "Camera: so much money. Set: so much money. Effect on the reel: priceless."