Taking a car trip across the United States is a rite of passage for many Americans and tourists alike; and road trip movies are a Hollywood staple, but no-one has ever seen it done this way before.
In conjunction with the 2022 FIA Formula One (F1) racing season beginning, and the launch of season 4 of Netflix’s thrilling documentary series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, premieres another adrenaline-fueled Road Trip USA.
“We’re seeking a spectacular juxtaposition of the highest performing piece of motorsport on very recognizable roads that regular folk drive every day,” explains director Nicholas Schrunk.
The new Road Trip USA brings the world of F1 racing to the streets of New York, the Florida everglades, and the exotic ocean views of Miami. The trip culminates at the Hard Rock Stadium in Florida, which is the centrepiece of the inaugural Miami Grand Prix taking place in May.
This is the third in a series from Red Bull Media house directed by Emmy®-Award winner Schrunk. Previous films were shot on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, in Monument Valley, on the Las Vegas Strip, and in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and Independence Pass.
Both previous films were shot on RED, a perfect marriage of high-tech camera engineering with the machine-tooled aerodynamism of the fastest motorsport on the planet. “We’re privileged to be partners with RED and for the chance to be among the first to get hold of its latest camera the V-RAPTOR for our hero film,” Schrunk says. “When we conceived this film, we knew we wanted to shoot large format to capture the grandeur of New York City, and it was the V-RAPTOR which really made this story fly.”
F1 MEETS MEAN STREETS
The setup for the road trip is a misunderstanding between F1 driver Sergio Pérez (nicknamed Checo) and F1 Team Principal Christian Horner. Over a phone call, Checo responds to Horner’s instruction to get to the Miami circuit from his hotel in New York within a day, when in fact, Horner says by ‘May.’ Checo, however, is already revving up the engine of his F1 car to race 1000 miles to the Grand Prix.
Filming in New York City is fraught with logistical difficulty, even on the smallest, most conventional project. When you plan to race an F1 car at speeds up to 150 mph with a V8-era engine famous for being the most electrifying noise in all sport – you can times that by hundred. “There were so many variables to shooting in this City and we had to make sure safety wasn’t one of them,” Schrunk says.
They shot in the financial district on Wall Street, along the Canyon of Heroes (south Broadway); raced on FDR Drive along the east side of Manhattan; Houston Street; Chinatown; and the Manhattan Bridge, pausing only for a pit stop on 5th Avenue and, in one humorous sequence, for traffic lights.
“We picked RED V-RAPTOR because it combines a large-format sensor with incredible dynamic range during both day and night,” notes Schrunk, “and that gave us infinite flexibility to shoot around very tight permit windows.”
The nature of the F1 car itself posed a considerable challenge because it’s not a conventional vehicle. It has to be connected to a computer to start and as soon as the ignition is fired the car has just 60 seconds to get up to speed or the engine will overheat. The engine actually operates most effectively when traveling at race speed. Moreover, there’s no putting the car in neutral while waiting at a junction.
“Once you turn it off, you’re going to be pushing it like a Flintstone car on the street, which is not great for the vehicle nor the look we were after,” Schrunk says. “These cars are designed to perform at speed and not to be idle. That meant there was simply no time for multiple takes. If something with the equipment doesn’t operate how you want or a mark is off, then boy, that’s a really expensive mistake! We relied on RED to capture everything as high quality as possible.”
Schrunk and Director of Photography Will Roegge armed themselves with a combination of RED GEMINIs for a range of mobile cameras positioned throughout New York City. A RED KOMODO was mounted onboard the F1 car for action-cam shots, and a V-RAPTOR was the prime storytelling camera used for the main car-arm shots following the F1.
“We really like KOMODO because of the global shutter,” Schrunk relates. “Obviously, the resolution and the integrity of the film is there, but for high-action shooting there is really nothing on the market close to it. When you make whip pans and fast motion, the KOMODO snaps right into focus and it doesn’t have that frame or two delay that you get with other cameras. As a viewer you can really feel that. That’s why we like the KOMODO so much.”
They shot full resolution (6K-8K) on all cameras allowing for scope to recompose the image in post without losing sharpness: “It gave us a far more flexible image,” Schrunk adds.
“Mixing V-RAPTOR footage with GEMINI and KOMODO is a dream. All the shots just worked together, which meant we were able to spend time perfecting the creative grading as opposed to matching shots. It was such a treat on this project to have all the media from the REDs coming into conform with just a few nuanced tweaks mostly to do with lighting and lensing as opposed to format. It means you are ready to invest time in the creative grading rather than just getting media to match.”
The pairing of Masterbuilt Soft Flare Primes with RED captured the visceral reality of the experience while adding a smooth quality to the image.
“We have a small, super-fast car darting in and out of buildings and we wanted that big Hollywood feel without it looking too ridiculous and out of proportion,” Schrunk says. “My main brief for Will was to capture reality and not create a world that doesn’t exist. It should look gritty and tactile but not so radically different to anyone’s experience that it feels fake. We didn’t want it to feel manufactured.
“In the grade, I wanted to find places where we do break out highlights with the sun and at other times to balance the shadows because the texture of the city is so incredible. I wanted us to feel that tactility and the extreme latitude of RED gives us that,” he adds.
“The combination of Masterbuilt lenses and the large format sensor just made a big city feel even bigger. Everything looked sharp and in deep focus with just enough of a tweak so the fall off at the edge is smooth and the bokeh is beautiful and creamy.”
GATOR AID IN FLORIDA
After leaving New York City, Checo’s journey to Miami takes him via the Florida Everglades, where his mission is arrested by an unlikely predator lying in the car’s path. A large alligator refuses to budge from the road resulting in a stand-off between it and a local passer-by shot like a Sergio Leone western.
“This was up there for memorable days” says Schrunk. “It’s beauty and the beast. We have a peerless engineered piece of motorsport and a 11-foot alligator, who we brought to the shoot. The gator just didn’t want to move – he was having way too much fun basking in the sun. Luckily, we had put a KOMODO underneath the nose of the F1, without it we wouldn’t have captured the reactions we did. This was a real high-risk angle right up in the gator’s face.”
The beast is finally encouraged to move by a local who also offers to help point Checo in the right direction. With no room in the car cockpit, he water skis barefoot towed by the car at high speed along the bayou.
“A F1 car is obviously not made to tow anything, let alone a barefoot skier,” Schrunk says. “The sheer terror of the engineers was something to behold, and since we wanted to capture this all in-camera, not VFX, we had to nail it then and there. We did.”
FIRST LAPS AT THE HARD ROCK
When the crew got to Miami, they were finally able to unleash the full power of the F1 car but capturing its sheer speed on film presented a problem. Even at 60-80 mph, which is sluggish for a F1 car, conventional filming equipment struggles to keep pace. The obvious answer was to use a drone.
“One of the main goals for our film was to capture these big moving wides and show how fast the car is going in a way that’s not possible from an onboard camera,” Schrunk says.
“Drones are a great way to collect them, but still the problem is how to stay with a Formula 1 car traveling at 150 mph. If we shot from a helicopter with a gimbal-mounted camera you wouldn’t get close enough or low enough to the car because it rides so low to the ground. The car would appear flattened on screen.
“Even a Russian Arm, which might top out at 110 mph is not an interesting shot. It would be like shooting from a car on a highway while a motorbike breezes by,” Schrunk says.
The production team enlisted the help of Johnny Schaer (aka Johnny FPV), the drone pilot who is world renowned for his experience flying racing drones – and racing drones alongside high-speed cars.
Schaer custom-built his own drone to carry a KOMODO at speeds up to 120 mph around the Hard Rock Stadium, all while skilfully composing shots.
“He’s able to fly inches off the ground, orbit the car and then go back and high to follow the F1 car at speed. It meant we could tell the driver, ‘Go as fast you can, and we will shoot around you.’ This was an essential part of the creative to which Johnny was key.”
Johnny notes, “RED KOMODO is great for FPV flying. Weight is a huge consideration, so having a 2lb (900g) camera is fantastic. The global shutter is another tremendous bonus particularly because FPV drones don’t have a gimbal. With KOMODO there’s no jello on the image. Plus, you’re recording 6K. Most jobs I do are tailored to the KOMODO.”
The FPV drone tops out at 90mph, so Johnny found a sweet spot at corners of the circuit where the F1 car slows down.
“From there we could get nice side and front angles. The car is quite small, very low to the ground and of course it’s very fast. These all contribute to the coolness factor of the car, but also made it a challenging shoot. It was hard to keep up with the car without pushing the battery to its limit.”
The FPV drone has a pilot camera on board which transmits live to Johnny’s monitor allowing him to fly the drone.
“I had a day in the Everglades to get familiar with the car and I made a scout of the main stadium without the F1 car. We only had a limited amount of time to capture the energy, intensity and action.”
The Miami Grand Prix joins its Texan counterpart in Austin to become the second US race on the F1 calendar. A street-track spectacular with the Hard Rock Stadium at its epicentre, the 5.41km layout will feature 19 corners, three straights, and an estimated top speed of 204mph.
At the time of shooting, in mid-2021, the track was still under construction. Schrunk made it part of the story with Checo realizing the track is still being built but he races laps on it anyway – baptising the circuit months ahead of its official race debut.
“This was a genuine, live construction zone which we didn’t want to shy away from, but we still needed to sell the idea that we are racing the circuit – which we actually did. There wasn’t even tarmac on some parts, we were just running on dirt track. It took a lot of planning but that was all part of the adventure.”