Published March 18, 2013
| Road & Track
Tim Damon is a filmmaker and photographer, but above all else, he's a car guy. It's in his soul. It informs everything he does.
"I've always been entrenched in car culture," he told Road & Track by phone last week. I'm a car nut-I'm no Jay Leno, obviously, but I probably own about 30 vehicles." Highlights from his personal stash include a '66 Continental, a '67 Pontiac Grand Prix, his daily-driver S63 AMG, and an Aston Martin Vanquish with a nitrous setup. "Half the fun of playing with your car is the reaction you get from other people," he laughed, explaining why the V-12 supercoupe got the bottle.
With all that established, it probably comes as no surprise that Damon is one of Hollywood's most highly regarded car-commercial directors. But that's not where it ends. In addition to his own production company, Square Planet, Tim's also behind Filmotechnic USA, whose business is fully integrated camera-car systems.
The fleet of custom vehicles Filmotechnic has assembled is designed to fulfill every conceivable client need, for any size production. The company's hangar at California's Hawthorne airport is stacked. There's an SVT Raptor, as well as a pair of Porsche Cayenne Turbos, an ML63 AMG, a Ferrari 360 Modena, a KTM 950 motorcycle, and a Polaris Ranger. Damon even has a 700+-horsepower Lingenfelter-tuned Cadillac CTS-V in the stable. There's basically no moving shot that Damon can't get with one of these custom rides.
"If I'm shooting a performance car, for example, I don't want to ramp it up in post. I want to bring that sense of excitement to the shot, and the only way I can do that is with something like the AMG, the Porsches, or the Ferrari," he said.
While he showers love on all his camera cars, he's acutely enthusiastic about the Ford SVT Raptor, shown here filming Jalopnik's new "Fusion Project" video produced in conjunction with Ford , starring Top Gear hosts Rutledge Wood and Tanner Foust. Given the eclectic nature of Filmotechnic's fleet, we asked Damon how he goes about selecting a vehicle to be converted into a camera platform. It's not a decision made lightly.
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"It's a serious process," he told us. "My business partner has two Oscars for technical achievement for the Russian Arm and flight head that go on the cars. So I want a car that's worthy of his technology. Basically, I want an Oscar-winning car."
Given the tight schedules and big expenses involved on a shoot, Damon views his camera cars as a direct extension of his own credibility as a filmmaker.
"Listen, if we go on a feature and it's a million-dollar day and our gear fails, and the producers don't get their shot, that's a huge problem," he said.
Hence, there's a lot of research as part of the purchase process. Damon approaches the creation of a new camera platform like an engineer building a new race car. "When you sweat all the minor details, you don't have real problems."
Since all the cars in Damon's stable pack big muscle underhood, you'd think that's a primary consideration. It's a factor, but it's not the most important one. "Sure, the engines and suspensions matter, given the modifications we're going to ask them to handle," he explained, "but the main thing for us is the transmission. Imagine the strain on the tranny during a 14-hour workday with five guys inside and all the related equipment. It has to be able to take a pounding, and this is something we always look into."
Once Damon pulls the trigger on a purchase, it's usually followed by four to six months of teardown and rebuild work as the transformation to camera vehicle takes place. The Raptor, he said, was an anomaly.
"Right out of the box, it was 75 percent there, which is very rare for us. It's been an incredible platform to work with. It's my favorite," he admits, explaining that the Raptor sits at a crossroads of comfort (another important factor, says Damon, given how much time the crew is inside the car) and professional utility. In his experience, it's uniquely capable.
Normally with a non-unibody vehicle, Damon's team would build the support structure for the camera crane on the frame. With the Raptor, he says he fought his fabricators tooth and nail to do the opposite after consulting with engineers at Ford.
"We built a cage around the cabin," he explained. Because the Raptor's cab is so well damped against any punishing terrain it may be traversing, the comfort benefits engineered for the truck's occupants transfer to the camera rig mounted to it as well. In practice, Damon says results are astonishing.
"We were shooting at a ranch, and it was rough. The terrain was like, 'BAM, BAM, BAM,' and we felt nothing inside. Afterward, my B camera crew called me on the walkie, saying 'Tim, you've got to see this.' And on playback, you saw the Raptor had all four wheels off the ground." The footage shot from the Raptor? It showed no indication of the chaos the suspension was absorbing.
The Raptor's ability to handle diverse surfaces is why Damon goes to it so often. "We were on a job where we had to get around a car for the shot we needed, but the shoulder was all gravel. So we came, flying around this curve, swinging the arm out. Now in the shot, you can't tell that the camera platform is going completely off the pavement, but that's exactly what the Raptor did. It was a beautiful wraparound and reveal, and I could not have gotten it in anything but that truck. It's such a surprisingly graceful vehicle, even though looking at it, you'd never imagine that it would be."
He pauses as if to further reflect on it and adds, "It's phenomenal. They absolutely overbuilt it. This isn't some bullshit truck playing dress-up with wheels and a sticker package."
I noted to Tim that he speaks as passionately about his work vehicles as he does about his personal cars, and he says that for him, it all comes back to car culture.
It's the touchstone that unifies his personal and professional life. Creating his exotic camera vehicles from scratch, with arms custom-built and tuned for each vehicle, is the professional equivalent of personalizing one of his daily drivers.
Either way, the reward is in the results.