Catesby Tunnel is a disused Victorian railway tunnel in Northamptonshire, first built in 1897 and redeveloped from 2017 by Aero Research Partners and TotalSim into an aerodynamic test facility for road and race cars. For the tunnel’s re-opening and launch, we were commissioned to create a dramatic, bespoke film to live on the website and introduce the tunnel to newcomer customers in under two minutes.
For this film the brief was to deliver something sleek and dramatic. We started with a recce to the site and discussed the film’s key messages with the client that we would need to convey – a prime location, a unique vehicle testing facility, a repurposed Victorian railway tunnel, 2.7km long with a constant gradient, private and discreet, and a versatile and adaptable site to conduct experiments with repeatable conditions. The site was however still under construction, and we quickly realised the main difficulty would be to avoid showing anything that was either not yet complete or the extensive machinery which would eventually be gone. “Hope you like a challenge” we were told… and we do!
Once we knew what we needed to capture, we could plan the filming days. This ended up being just two days to film everything based on the availability of several vehicles that were arranged for filming- a Tesla Model 3, a Multimatic race car with a giant transporter truck, a land speed record-holding electric motorbike, a Subaru road car and a racing bicycle – and we then built a schedule based on this. Next we found the right music track and then storyboarded the key parts of the sequence as an animatic to match the beats and timings. This meant we knew exactly what we had to film before we even began the shoot.
On the filming days we had several stages on our checklist. First there were aerial shots using our DJI Phantom 4 drone to show the location, the tunnel mouth and surrounding environment. While the Autumn weather could have been better, the sun came out for just long enough to get what we needed. This included a ‘one take wonder’ moment to get the transporter truck approaching the facility in an aerial shot, as it would have taken too long to turn it round and restage it.
Next were some beauty shots inside the tunnel without any vehicles, just using our slider and creative lighting. This ticked off these ‘easier’ shots first and allowed us to concentrate on the vehicles. When each vehicle arrived we built a montage of several sequences in slow motion using a gimbal and a high frame rate to show the racing teams arriving, drivers ‘suiting up’ and Catesby technicians making their preparations with high-tech equipment. We also covered what branding there was in place to showcase the Catesby logo as much as possible. Shots of the roller-shutter door and a metal turntable to spin cars around also highlighted the cutting-edge nature of the facility.
Then we moved into the tunnel itself to film some static vehicle shots, dramatically-lit with our specialist lighting. For this we took inspiration from other automotive and technology adverts, and used a combination of a slider, motorised gimbal and different lens choices to get the very particular movements we needed, highlighting details like the wheels and body shape more than the various specific automotive brand logos, which we had been requested to avoid. We also collected dramatic options of each driver waiting to go and then setting off at high speed (those fun must-have shots of the foot on the accelerator pedal, the speedometer leaping up, the gear-change, and the eyes close-up!)
Then there was ‘money’ shots – the final part of the shoot for each vehicle was to get moving shots of each vehicle driving through the tunnel. This was incredibly important to really sell the speeds that test drivers can achieve and the feeling on speeding through the tunnel, but was made difficult due to the ongoing construction work meaning only certain sections of the tunnel were open. Together with our on-site safety manager we devised a method of filming each vehicle driving through the tunnel at a low speed, captured from the back of a truck. We filmed these with a low shutter speed which not only increased the light in the dark tunnel but also greatly upped the motion-blur visible along the tunnel walls. Then in the edit we could speed these shots up to 200 or 300%, and we were left with our most dramatic moving vehicle shots. A real favourite of ours was the shot of the Tesla car with mist appearing in its headlights due to the atmospheric conditions inside the tunnel. To vary the shots, for the electric motorbike we got our best results filming from a 45 degree angle of the rider overtaking the van, and for the cyclist we switched to filming from the front passenger window and drove alongside the bike to give more of a rider’s perspective looking down the tunnel.
For a series of additional moving shots that were to be done at an actual high speed, we filmed inside the vehicles to get dramatically-lit shots of the drivers, and for exteriors used a camera mounted to the outside of vehicles via a suction cup. This allowed shots from the bonnet, dashboard, wheel-arch, and the reflection of the tunnel lights in the vehicle’s body panels.
After shooting wrapped we built the edit using the very best moments we had filmed, and added captions at various key moments to sell the important messages. In the end we also did some object removal from the aerial shots to remove additional construction equipment and cars which were not a true representation of how the facility would look when finished. Total Sim also sent us some excellent graphic renderings of various test experiments, which we also included. Finally we added a very ‘Hollywood’ colour grade to the whole film – which upped the dramatic tones and added extra colour contrast to bring out the orange (warm) and teal (cool) hues of the tunnel lights – and also went all out on an epic sound design to really sell the result when played at events.
The result was a huge success and successfully launched the tunnel in its new life. The facility now allows full-scale vehicle testing in constant conditions due to the naturally stabilised environment generated from being underground, and houses a 2.7km long purpose-built straight road with repeatable conditions. The site is in easy reach of Banbury, Northampton, Oxford, Silverstone, Birmingham and London