Masthead Image

12-31-2023 - Case Study

Shot on VENICE 2: DP James Whitaker ASC Breaks the Rules to Create a Stunning Spot for Dodge Challenger

By: Oakley Anderson-Moore

Veteran Director of Photography James Whitaker ASC discusses his latest work with rising star, Director Angie Su, in this stunning car commercial – all shot on the Sony VENICE 2.

James Whitaker ASC is the Director of Photography behind films like Hawkeye, Troop Zero, and Thank You For Smoking.


He’s also done his fair share of gorgeous car commercials for the likes of Mercedes, Kia, Hyundai, and Chevy.


Recently, he collaborated with emerging director Angie Su on her first car commercial.


Su was one of five filmmakers selected from over 500 applicants for the CDDP, an esteemed director training program powered by the DGA and AICP. As a fellow, Su was paired with a mentor agency who gave her the script, and a production company where she met Whitaker.


“One of the best parts of working with Angie on this is she was game for breaking whatever rules possible,” says Whitaker. “Angie hasn't done a ton of car commercials.”


“It's my first one,” jokes Su. “I have zero background about how to shoot beautiful cars. Everything is new and I didn't want to do anything traditional.”


As artists propelled by new things, Whitaker and Su decided to go anything but conventional. The result was a commercial that impressed everyone – including her mentor production company, Sibling Rivalry, who signed Angie Su after the premiere. Whitaker and Su sat down with SonyCine to talk about the success of their first time working together and driving the VENICE 2 into new territory.

Redefining the muscle car commercial concept

When Su first got the script, the first thing she asked was, can I change it? According to Su, she wanted to rework it to fit their constraints, but also to explore something as a female director.


“Dodge is famous for the muscle car,” describes Su. “I didn't really see female actors in those commercials. I wanted to see something different, something that would intrigue me. At the end of the day, you want to have this car in your dreams.”


The agency was completely supportive. Su began to develop the script with the idea of the car as an extension of oneself. In particular, she wanted to embrace a female perspective comparing a woman’s body to a car’s body. And as an extension of a woman’s body, the car would need to be her companion through a sandstorm of scrutiny and criticism of the digital age.


“Women are always told about how they should look and face constant body shaming,” explains Su. “I wanted to project all those negative voices onto a woman's body, and on the car too. This car is a companion, and it helps her face this criticism. At the end of the day, you need to face yourself, face this criticism, and then face freedom at the end.”

Why Whitaker realized only the Sony VENICE 2 would fit Su’s vision

According to Whitaker, a traditional car commercial would be all about lighting it to look bright, polished, perfect. They took the opposite approach.


"Angie was like, ‘Let's not be afraid to go darker and more mysterious.’ We knew we were going to have a dark car and a person of darker skin tone, so we thought we might be smart to cover ourselves by bringing in the Sony VENICE 2.” 


In fact, Whitaker had just finished an ambitious short film with the VENICE 2 using extremely low light.


“I knew that the VENICE 2 camera had extra range and bit depth. Angie and I had also talked a lot about mixing color. With a lot of digital cameras, when you mix color, they aren’t true. On this spot, we knew that we were going to be doing a lot of strong colors, so we wanted to make sure those colors really came through accurately. The VENICE 2 also has 16-bit of color, so I knew there would be more depth and gradation to the color.  I know for sure that we wouldn’t have had enough light if we were on a different digital camera. And it was really beautiful.”

The ultra low light gamble that paid off

One of the integral parts of the Dodge Challenger spot were the projections onto the subject and the car. However, it ended up being quite tricky to shoot.


The team’s executive producer Darren Foldes brought them to a stage in South LA popular for car commercials because of its low ceiling and potential for bright, glossy car commercials. However, because they weren’t going for the bright look, they wanted to use the projectors themselves as the lighting source. On the day of the shoot, they paired the VENICE 2 with the Cooke Soft Flare Anamorphics but discovered the brightest projector wasn’t bright enough to create the look they wanted.


“On a bigger project, of course you would test that, right?” laughs Whitaker. But as he explains it, this was a one-day shoot with a budget that was basically ‘nada’ where they were all pitching in to show up and make it work. Whitaker took advantage of the VENICE 2’s dual base ISO, which allowed him to adjust the camera for extra low light sensitivity – but even he didn’t imagine how far he’d be able to push the camera while in the 3200 ISO mode.


“I did not know that I could go to 12,000 ISO, nor did I think I would ever need to,” says Whitaker. “I thought maybe we would be pushing the camera up to the 3,200 range. And I've shot that before several times. But I never ever thought we'd have to go to 12,800. I literally started dialing up the ISO and I just kept going higher. I was talking to my DIT on the radio, I'm like, ‘How's this 8,000 ISO look?’ He's like, ‘Okay.’ ‘How's this 12,800 ISO look?" ‘I think it's going to be fine.’ We looked at the monitor, and it looked incredible. In post, we did a miniscule bit of grain reduction. On some shots, we even decided not to because we liked it as a texture.


“I like the texture of film,” adds Su. “Having a little bit of that texture actually elevated the visuals. I think this camera definitely surprised me in a lot of ways.”


“It makes it more cinematic,” says Whitaker. “And the combination with the camera and the color space worked so well. The skin tones were beautiful and soft and nice and it was great. There's something about seeing these images that are literally inside of her mind on her face,” I thought that turned out really beautifully.”

How to succeed when working together for the first time

While initially nervous about working with Whitaker, Su says that was quickly dispelled because he put respect and collaboration as a priority for everyone on the team.


“It's always good to create with people who know their craft, and are also brave enough to break the rules,” says Su. “But at first, I felt really intimidated because he's such an experienced DP. For me, I was fresh off the boat, so to be able to work with such a big DP was intimidating. But once Jimi was on board, he was always willing to throw me some ideas. Seeing him and collaborating on stuff that he’s never tried before was really inspiring.”


For Whitaker, success always starts with the energy of the director or showrunner. 


“It's all about the energy they're willing to bring,” explains Whitaker. “And Angie’s energy on set is next level. When you're seeing a director light up with excitement for what we're creating, I feel it too. What a gift we have to be able to do this job when we get a chance to do it.”


The Dodge Challenger SRT spot played on a massive screen at the Director's Guild Theater. According to Angie Su, not only was she flooded with positive comments, including that people had never seen a car commercial like this before, but the 12,800 ISO held up.


“It was epic!”


The spot made for a good first collaboration with Whitaker and got her signed with production company, Sibling Rivalry. It was her first car commercial and collaboration with Whitaker, but hopefully not the last!

More Articles