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Zombies with a Lesson: Making a Film Instead of a PSA with Tennyson Tanner and the Illinois Department of Transportation

Driving Dead

Michael Rooker (far left), Kip Polley (makeup specialist), Mike (zombie), Tennyson Tanner (DP), Clint Eilerts (Creative Director-Arthur Agency).

When you can shoot with actor Michael Rooker, and the Illinois Department of Transportation gives you the green light to get creative with a new traffic safety PSA, you better take advantage of these in a big way. In a zombie apocalypse and Hollywood extravaganza big way.

That is what Director of Photography Tennyson Tanner did with The Driving Dead film series. Charged by the Illinois Department of Transportation with creating a PSA that would reach a wide audience and actually sink in, Tennyson Tanner collaborated with the Arthur Agency of Carbondale, Ill., to create a set of short films focusing on the world after a zombie apocalypse.

The series has become incredibly popular, with fans around the world anxiously awaiting the next episode—impressive for a public campaign that is actually teaching you about traffic safety.

Not your usual PSA
When you watch the first 30 seconds of a The Driving Dead film, you know right off the bat that this is not your usual PSA. Viewers can feel the heat, dirt, and tension from each character. Michael Rooker of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Walking Dead fame is immediately recognizable, and the quality of the footage is on par with that of a Hollywood film.

From there, the stories follow survivors and include plenty of explosions, along with a constant barrage of amazing car stunt work, crashes, and in-car footage. At the end of each film, a lesson on traffic safety is told in conjunction with the storyline.

Tennyson Tanner and the Arthur Agency came up with The Driving Dead concept. Production took place over several months and continues to take place as more episodes are ordered. To shoot the series, they chose to use Blackmagic Design’s Production Camera 4K and Blackmagic Cinema Camera as the main cameras on the films.

Creating the educational zombie apocalypse

Driving Dead

Tennyson Tanner DP, Jonah Atkins (Tennyson Tanner marketing director, audio tech).

“At Tennyson Tanner, one of our catch phrases is that we create emotion with motion. And this web series is one of the best proof points we could do to show that,” said Tennyson. “There was no holding back with the production, and nothing was off limits. We had to grab hold of the audience and not let go. And since we’re able to have Michael Rooker head up the cast, the production had to be of the highest quality.”

The series was shot in RAW, using the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K as the lead camera, handling most of the action shots. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera was used for a variety of secondary shots.

“We shot most of the films handheld, and the ergonomics of both of the cameras was great. We could get really creative with the shots, and get up close to the actors in nearly any setting,” continued Tennyson.

“Also, one of the deciding factors with going with the Blackmagic cameras was being able to shoot in RAW and the camera’s amazing dynamic range. We wanted a gritty, dirty look, and this meant that we had to have footage that provided us enough freedom and data in post to tell the story how we wanted it told.

Some of the toughest scenes to shoot involved a 1971 Mustang, souped up with cages and machine guns. A number of scenes included shots of the Mustang charging to the rescue with guns blazing, while others included dialogue scenes within the moving car. Each type of shot came with its own production challenges.

“With the moving car scenes in particular, the Production Camera 4K was amazing. We nailed these shots of the car in motion using the camera’s global shutter, which was incredibly handy,” said Tennyson. “For the inside car shots, the small size of the camera let us really get up close, while still not crowding the shot. Most of the films we shoot handheld, and the cameras have been great for the really tight shots. Being able to get around easily was a huge benefit.”

“The entire series we shot knowing that we had to hit a younger demographic with a story that they would watch. And it had to look like a film. The Blackmagic cameras allowed us to get the shots and cinematic look that we were going for, and we are very excited to be using them to shoot the rest of the series,” said Jonah Atkins, Tennyson Tanner’s marketing director.

January 12, 2015