Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge
2023 | series
DoP Josh Williams
Leitz lens LEITZ PRIME
Camera ARRI Alexa Mini
Production Companies Endemol Shine North America | Mattel Television | NBC Universal Television | Workerbee
Distribution Banijay Rights | National Broadcasting Company (NBC)
Equipment Supplier Shift 4 | London
Cinematographer Josh Williams discusses the challenges of shooting cinematically against the clock on “Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge”, a high-octane competition TV series that gives Hot Wheels® superfans the opportunity to build their dream cars to compete for a cash prize and the chance to have their cars turned into actual Hot Wheels die-cast cars. “Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge” premiered May 30th on NBC and Peacock.
Seth Emmons: Describe your journey to becoming a cinematographer.
Josh Williams: I started off as a runner at the BBC while making horror and comedy short films with mates on the side. After a few years I became an editor and spent a good six years at the wheels of edit suites - a perfect way to get started as a DOP because you really learn what you need and don’t need from what a camera is delivering. I found this essential to my understanding of sequencing once I started getting behind the camera again. But it also meant that I was in a dark room with no windows for 12 hours a day. Eventually I quit and spent a year as a dog walker before deciding I needed to get back onto camera. That was 12 years ago. Now I mainly shoot commercials with a little bit of features, but I’ve just finished “Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge” for NBC and Peacock. Ironically, that also required spending 12 hours a day in a windowless studio for three months, but at least I was moving around a bit.
How did you come to be involved in “Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge”?
I was lucky enough to work with creative director Chris “Stotty” Stott on a previous series called “Love Trip Paris,” and we hit it off. I have shied away from TV for a long time now as I felt there wasn’t enough focus on making something look good. Whilst content is obviously key, I didn’t feel like TV was for me, but Stotty came along and changed that. His love of ARRI images, silky high-end lenses, and cinematic movement has really made me think again and develop a love for entertainment TV. It’s action-packed work, and you also get to make it look good.
Can you describe what that show is about?
In short, it is all about giving Hot Wheels superfans a chance to build their own life-sized Hot Wheels cars. Using a car from their past, they have a week to build something completely insane, which they definitely did. Each episode has two contestants going head-to-head with the winner taking home $25,000 and a chance to get into the finale. At the end three finalists get another car to transform with the winner claiming a $50,000 additional prize and having their car made into an official Hot Wheels die-cast car. It was a crazy mix between a shiny floor glitzy set-piece show and full-on reality of the build, so it felt like an amazing collision of two different worlds.
What was the process for choosing the cameras and lenses for this project?
The Hot Wheels brand, being designed for kids (and big kids) is very dramatic, saturated, and fun. I planned to use a lot of RGB lighting to create a super colourful set and needed a lens set that could handle that punchy contrast. I also needed something that wouldn’t distort anything on the wider side of the set. We had brand guidelines to stick to on logos plus sets with a lot of talent in them, so barrel distortion would have caused a lot of issues on a big group shot with faces at the side of the frame. Stotty is all about cinematic movement so we needed cameras and lenses that could be flown easily on a technocrane as well as a Movi rig. The clear choice for camera was the ARRI Alexa Mini.
I have a long-standing relationship with rental house Shift 4 in London and had a lot of dialogue with them about lenses. Their new building has lens testing stations as well as a grading suite, so it is the perfect place to make these decisions. Fortunately, there was little decision to be made in this case as I needed a huge lens set to cover four master interview rooms whilst still leaving enough primes on the main stage for the Movi to have options for wides and mids.
The LEITZ PRIMEs set is 12 lenses strong - not many full frame lens sets can match them. They had the high contrast I was looking for (and expecting, having shot on Leitz Summicron-C lenses before) and their minimal/non-existent distortion was essential. I also like how sharp they are as I wanted to use diffusion filters to bloom the headlights on the cars. I needed a set that was full frame because I had 24 total cameras on set, and most of them were Sony FX9s. Our actual stage set was large (but could always have been bigger, especially when you’re trying to fit a monster truck in there!) so having the ability to use the full frame sensor was a big bonus.
Did you use any zooms?
On the main stage I had a total of 15 cameras: 2x ARRI Alexa Minis, 1x ARRI Amira, 10x Sony FX9s, and 2x Sony a7S IIIs so I needed a lot of long lenses that could attempt to match the quality of the LEITZ PRIMEs as well as being full frame. I landed on the Premista range from Fujinon. I also used the Laowa PeriProbe and the Tokina 100mm macro for macro setups.
What filtration did you use?
I used Tiffen Black Pro-Mist, mainly 1/8's as I needed to keep a reasonable amount of sharpness for the cars, but also wanted the bloom from the headlights.
Did you use any LUTs or looks?
We created the show look during the grade, but at the beginning of the job the ACs did plates for all 24 cameras. These were handed over to the edit to create LUTs for the playback team at Procam Studios to get the Sony cameras to match that ARRI’s within Rec 709.
Was there a particular scene that was the most challenging to shoot?
There are many challenges on a production like this, but the biggest challenge I found was the blocking and lighting of a show where you have 20 people facing each other in a circle, AND you need to get singles of most people without seeing cameras on the opposite side, AND try to get wides to include the cars they’re talking about…phew! It was HARD. Choosing the right focal lengths in this situation was essential.
How about the most fun part?
The most fun parts of this production were filming some really insane looking cars, along with special effects firing all over the place, throwing a technocrane over it and smoke everywhere… But the winning sequences were really special. We got to film the natural reaction of someone winning and getting $25K in their pocket and a key to the finale. Seeing the tears of joy coming from a person who you have come to love and knowing how much it means to them and how much they deserve it…that can’t be recreated in any other format. I’ve come to love entertainment TV for that. There’s an extreme amount of emotion being thrown around a room with hundreds of people behind the camera smiling, crying, and laughing. It was really special.
Was there anything creatively or practically that you took away from this production that you think will stick with you?
There was a real mixture of styles of creating on this production, more than any other I’ve worked on before. For the run-and-gun nature of doc filming in a workshop with people working against the clock we had a big team of super talented self-shooting producer directors running around like headless chickens trying to capture every story point with talent that you can’t ask to do another take as they don’t have the time. Simultaneously we had big set pieces on the floor of the main stage that needed lighting, blocking, and shooting in the same hour.
I also had to alter my approach to certain things. In commercials I pour over every shot and spend time making the most perfect reflections possible on shiny things like cars. But for a show like this there just isn’t the time. So, whilst I removed as many reflections as possible from the cars, there’s no pretending that this isn't shot on a huge studio set with a load of lights. I had to ease up and leave the odd reflection in there, something that might have bothered me before. It was a race against the clock, and when the time is up you need to hit record and move on. I think that’s an integral part of being a DOP, knowing when you can spend time making something as perfect as possible, but also not having so much ego that you don’t know when to stop and say, “Okay, we’ve got to film this now.”
I owe a lot to my 30-strong camera and lighting department teams who had my back at every turn whilst I ran around, sometimes with a Movi still attached to me, taking light meter readings and reblocking when changes were made. They kept me going with practical help and professional efficiency, as well as keeping my sanity intact via the airwaves with fun banter on comms to put a smile on my face.
DoP Josh Williams