Spotlight: NASCAR and Charlotte — A Perfect Pair
If you need to shoot NASCAR-style race cars doing burnouts and drifts, Charlotte, N.C., is the place to be.
By Ron Bronski
Early in 2015, two creative industry executives announced the official launch of a new production company focused on serving worldwide agencies and brands. The Charlotte, N.C., company, Wondersmith, was founded by executive producer Joe Murray and creative director Thom Blackburn. Joe began his career as a still photographer but moved into post-production as a commercial editor and finishing artist. He launched Edit at Joe’s in Charlotte in 2003, and has run it successfully for the past 11 years, earning a solid reputation as a go-to producer. Working with a diverse client roster including agencies such as BooneOakley, LKM, Sigma Group, and brands such as Carmax, Bojangles’, Husqvarna, North State, Panasonic and Rack Room Shoes, his skills as a post supervisor and producer rose rapidly.
“Wondersmith is a reflection of our existing body of work and our ongoing commitments to creative development and smart production approaches,” says Murray. “The addition of Thom Blackburn as creative director demonstrates these commitments and gives us a proven creative leader with experience directing large teams of the highest caliber.”
Previously executive creative director for Limerick Studios, one of the Southeast’s premier motion content providers, Blackburn led that studio’s projects for The Charlotte Hornets, Duke Energy, Lowe’s Home Improvement, NASCAR, and a host of others. A Charlotte native and UNC Charlotte graduate, he began working in film and TV at the age of 16, and he held staff positions for Media-Comm, ESPN, and Creative Post and Transfer—as well as the motion design and production studio SOLID in LA, where his work as a creative director over the span of 10 years earned him acclaim.
Recently, Wondersmith took on a project for North State and Panasonic. To create two cinematic North State spots, Wondersmith worked with Trone to promote the brand’s new fiber initiative at a level that would position them as a major player. Wondersmith enlisted Florian Stadler as director of photography and Jeff Elmassian of Endless Noise to create a custom score. With Murray as executive producer and Blackburn as creative director, the team captured everything they needed in one 14-hour day. “While we feel the results speak well for themselves, we’re also proud to say that so far, these spots have earned six Charlotte ADDY Awards (including Animation and Special Effects “Best of Show” honors), and a Silver Regional ADDY,” boasts Murray.
Blackburn recalls, “From the initial concept phase, we helped define the visual arc of the characters’ inspirations, using those visuals to point back to the brand in entertaining ways. It is an honor when a client entrusts you with creating their visual vocabulary.”
Wondersmith’s spot for Panasonic debuted during broadcasts of Daytona’s Speedweeks in February. It put four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon behind the wheel of his iconic No. 24 Chevrolet SS to demonstrate the ruggedness of Panasonic’s Toughbook 54. The spot will air throughout the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season, and was directed through Wondersmith by the team of Mortimer Jones for Sigma Group.
“Together with executives from Sigma and Panasonic, we all worked hard to show the Toughbook in use in a race setting, where we could demonstrate its unique toughness,” says Jones. “The best ideas always seem to happen when the collaborative lines are open, and we all are very proud of how this turned out.”
Shooting on location at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the crew—led by Jones, Murray as EP, DP Adam Stone, and VFX lead Byron Nash—put a lot of effort into planning the shoot. It was a large rigging job, where they had cameras hanging off the race car on both sides, cameras mounted inside and on a pursuit vehicle for one shot. For the final scene, they used a drone to capture footage from about 50 feet in the air. ARRI Amiras were used for principal photography, with Blackmagic Cinema Cameras used for dashboard cams and a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 for the drone shots.
Their time with Gordon was extremely limited, but with diligent planning, they were able to get everything they needed in just a few hours, and that included Gordon doing his own burnouts. Anyone who has visited a NASCAR track knows that logos are everywhere, so part of Byron Nash’s work was removing a lot of those. Also in post, crowds were added in the stands, the speedway’s leaderboard tower was lit up and flat gray skies replaced with more dramatic ones. While only three cars were shot on the track, Wondersmith multiplied those in some scenes to show a bigger finish to the race. The complete post-production toolset consisted of Apple’s Final Cut Pro for editing, and Adobe After Effects for VFX clean-up and compositing.