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Motorz Skills: Producing a Hit DIY TV Show
Posted Oct 5, 2011 Print Version     Page 1of 1

MotorzPerusing Chris Duke's automotive portfolio-blogs, online communities, web video offerings, and now a nationally broadcast television show with millions of viewers-leaves you with the impression that his professional engine is firing on all cylinders. When you learn he also has a day job as a software developer, you realize that engine must have the help of some serious aftermarket parts. As it turns out, the source of Duke's added horsepower may just be his enthusiasm for learning new things: new skills, new gadgets, even new industries. The San Diego-based producer and host of the broadcast and web TV show Motorz (pronounced "motors") combines the agility of a technology professional with the enthusiasm of a lifetime, self-taught car buff. The result is an automotive DIY show that can, in Duke's words, "keep how-to installations real for enthusiasts." Increasingly, it does this without giving the impression that there's anything amateur about the decidedly DIY Motorz operation, and looking inside that operation provides a great lesson into what a multitalented and motivated independent producer can accomplish without a studio behind him.

Automotive Autodidact
To understand what's under his show's hood, you need to know something about how Duke got his start in the automotive space. "I've been working with computers for a long time," Duke says. "I'm in my early forties, and I've been geeking out since the Apple }{+." His computer proficiency led him to become an early adopter and developer on the internet. "There was a joke in my family that anything I got into, I created a website about," Duke says. "I got my roots in the automotive area doing online editorial, and that turned into a situation where I attracted the attention of a magazine publisher."

The editorial work in question was Duke's hobbyist website, F-150 World. In high school, Duke "spent most of his evenings and weekends modifying [his] car, mainly through aftermarket accessories." According to Duke, his automotive hijinks included designing and building a subwoofer speaker enclosure "that filled the entire rear hatchback of [his] vehicle."

"I'm self-educated with everything that I do," says Duke, who-case in point-went to work for Microsoft straight out of high school. "That's been my life. No matter what I do, I love to do research and tinker and rip things apart and make them better."

F-150 World was where he started passing that kind of self-acquired knowledge along to automotive enthusiasts who could use it, a pastime that Duke says has become his calling.

Mixed Media
After 2 years, F-150 World had become Ford Truck World and given birth to 17 websites and four newsstand magazines. Duke served as chief technology officer and editor. In the latter role, he continued to produce the DIY automotive content that was becoming his specialty. He also worked as a photographer, even shooting covers. In the process, he "invested a ton of money on a bunch of Canon lenses." This investment would end up impacting an important equipment decision when, years later, Duke began focusing more exclusively on video.

Duke says that shift to video came as the result of a number of factors. He left Ford Truck World "because the business started to become a bit too commercial in catering to advertisers as opposed to the enthusiast," he says. To continue creating content for the latter, he started Truckblog and Muscle Car Blog. Again, DIY articles were a staple of his content, but video also began to play a role.

"I was doing a lot of editorial, and I was just getting tired of writing and putting in these really tiny pictures. We were doing an exhaust installation for Truckblog, and I just said, ‘Since I have this obligation to do this online article, let's try a video format.'"

The video series, originally called Truckblog.TV, wasn't as big a leap as it may, at first, sound. "Since we had some video gear because we were covering car shows, we had the chops to do some decent filming and audio as well as to edit that video," Duke says.

As for the move, as he puts it, "away from the keyboard ... and in front of the camera," Duke did have some anxiety going into those early video shoots. "I was with a friend who was helping me out, and he was behind the camera and I was in front of the camera," he says. "I had no experience and was scared to do it. But it was very well received. We just kinda kept doing it. Six episodes later, I decided to turn it into Motorz and make it its own show and its own business."

Putting Motorz Together By Taking Motors Apart
For the most part, Motorz is a one-man show. "Traditionally, I've done everything myself"—Duke says—"the website, marketing, editing, distribution, everything. But these days I have a lot of help from my associate producer Jason Gillmore, and I've hired a firm to handle sales, marketing, and PR."

The Motorz website (www.motorz.tv)

The show's "from one DIY'er to another" approach affects the shots they capture. Duke explains that traditional automotive programs don't show viewers what they most need to see.

"I didn't really like a lot of the car shows out there," he says. "They didn't really show you how to do things step-by-step, and viewers can't relate to all the expensive tools and equipment they have." (Motorz partnered with Sears beginning with Season 4, and the Sears Blue Tool Crew now provides all the tools Duke uses and reviews on the show.)

For instance, Duke says, imagine an electronics installation episode. Most shows include a scene where the host shows off the uninstalled component in front of whatever panel it will be fitted into, often with the panel disassembled and the wiring exposed.

"But they'd come back from break, and they'd have everything all wired up, close the door, and say, ‘We're done,'" Duke continues. "But that's what I wanted to know how to do! What I really wanted to find out was how to hook up all the right wiring, what tools you need, that kind of thing. With the other shows, the viewer doesn't really get much out of that. Viewers walk away having a high-level view that they can install parts on a truck, but they don't know how to."

In order to ensure that the viewer does know how to install those parts, Duke always includes a tool overview (a shot where he names and points to each of the readily available tools he will use for the job) and, most importantly, plenty of shots from under the hood or under the vehicle. Since most enthusiasts don't own a repair-shop-style auto lift, neither does Duke. Thus, the need for shots from below poses some camera-angle challenges. One need only watch Season 1, Episode 1's exhaust installation followed by Season 4, Episode 12's fluid-changing extravaganza (the most recent episode to air, as of this writing) to see that Duke and his shooter have learned a thing or two about how to get those shots-and with what type of camera.

Screenshots from early (top) and recent (bottom) episodes of Motorz

Camera Curve
From almost the very beginning, Motorz has been shot in HD. "The first episode of Motorz"-then still known as Truckblog.TV-"was filmed with the Canon ZR200," a consumer MiniDV cam, Duke says. "That's the only episode that's standard definition. The camera after that was an HG10."

The HG10 served Duke well for the first two seasons. It was when he had the opportunity to take Motorz on the road that the need for an upgrade became clear.

"In 2009, I was approached by eBay Motors," Duke recalls. "They had this great opportunity at the Ford booth at SEMA [a major automotive trade show] to do live installations on a brand-new Ford Mustang and a brand-new F-150. They invited me to go there and bring all my tools and install stuff on those vehicles over the course of three days. We did nine installs, three a day. That was a big opportunity: involvement with eBay Motors and Ford Motor Company. It was me and my crew being there in a large industry event filming episodes live."

Filming episodes live in front of industry giants-that was the problem. "Leading up to that event, I was like, ‘We can't show up with these tiny consumer camcorders and start filming this. We're going to look like idiots,'" Duke says.

The decision about what kind of camera investment to make went in stages. With his photography background, Duke was keen to go to DSLR. "I had actually purchased a Canon 5D Mark II when it first came out, because I had seen some work that Vincent Laforet had done using that camera, and I was just blown away," Duke says. "Trying to be on the bleeding edge, I said, ‘This is something I need to check out.' This was at the end of 2008. I got the camera and started playing around with it, since I already had a bunch of Canon lenses. But there was no way to monitor the audio with headphones, or adjust it. I was trying to get this TV show off the ground and wanted to get the production value up, but my shooter wasn't going to know if there were pops. I actually returned the 5D Mark II and started doing some research on the best semi-professional camera."

Duke decided on a tape-based solution, the Canon XH-A1s. Accustomed to an all-digital workflow, he also purchased a Sony HVR-MRC1 Memory Recording Unit to write to a 16GB CompactFlash card while shooting.

As for the live event he was scheduled to shoot, it turned out that perhaps a certain amount of the embarrassment Duke was looking to sidestep was unavoidable for the boldly self-taught.

"The problem there-and those episodes show it-is that it's very evident that we just got that camera three weeks before the event," he says. "My shooter just kept it on Auto. The quality of the lighting isn't very good. It took us a while to dial that in. I think our lighting problems were more amplified with the XH-A1s because it's just a better camera. We were still learning. We did have a better camera, but the quality of the video didn't reflect it. We looked better at the show, but you gotta read the manual. You gotta experiment with the technology. So we got bit by that; that was a learning experience."

Despite the technical difficulties, SEMA Show 2009 was a breakthrough event for Duke and his remote crew. It ended up being the break that took Motorz from a variable-length video series distributed via a YouTube Partner Program account to a fixed-length TV show available in millions of homes.

"We were at that SEMA show on the floor doing installs. During a break someone asked me if my show was on TV and then asked if I'd like it to be," Duke says. "I said, ‘Yes, but I don't come from a broadcast background. I'm totally winging everything I do.' The fact that this guy walked in and got me going was incredible. It was only a couple million homes. The things I learned along the way turned it into 70 million."

Back to the DSLR
While Duke and Gillmore's facility with their new camera improved, their tape-based days were nevertheless numbered. "Slowly over time we got better with the XH-A1s, but I started seeing more and more stuff going on with the DSLRs," he says. "These cameras started increasing in features and support for what people were starting to do with video. I did some research and learned that all the things I wanted to do prior to getting the XH-A1s were now possible."

Jason Gillmore shooting Motorz on DSLR

"But a lot of my questions weren't answered," Duke continues. "There wasn't a whole lot of information out there about production companies that were doing this."

After a lot of time spent reading online forums and talking with knowledgeable people, he characteristically decided simply to learn by doing. "I had all these lenses," he says. "The investment wasn't really that high. I just tried it out."

Duke was originally interested in the Canon 7D and 60D. Once again, it was sound concerns that made the difference. The 7D employs auto-gain control and lacks manual audio adjustment. By this time, Motorz was expanding its audience to television, so Duke could hardly afford to take a hit in sound quality. That need effectively made the decision for him.

"I'm a one-man show; the last thing I wanted to do was have audio on a separate recording device," Duke says. "That's why the 60D became my camera of choice, because it had the ability to control the audio levels on the camera."

When Duke finally got the camera, he wasn't sorry he'd made the investment. "I spent $1,000, hooked up my lens to it, started playing around and, within a couple of hours, all of the hesitations that I had in moving forward were resolved. At that point I put the XH-A1s in the box and started going hog wild on all the different products that you can now get for the DSLR to help you shoot and focus," he says. See the sidebar, "The Motorz Production Gear Box," for more on Duke's gear.

Duke was especially grateful for the 60D's articulating LCD screen, perfect for "all those strange angles" under the vehicle. Of course, the size of the new camera (5.69" x 4.17" x 3.09") compared to the XH-A1s (6.4" x 7.6" x 15.5") also helps with getting difficult shots. Plus, Duke says the extra light through those Canon lenses has added vibrancy to the show's colors. He'll also never have to worry about his broadcaster sending back an episode because it has an interlaced scene, because the 60D shoots in 1080p.

Duke summarizes the end result of his purchase like this: "We saved a lot of money, improved our workflow, and have flexible camera rigs. And if a camera dies on us, it's easily replaced by a trip to Best Buy!"


Chris Duke (executive producer, host)
Jason Gillmore (associate producer, camera, technical director)
Dillon Adams (production assistant)
Andrea Gillmore (production assistant)
Krissy Duke (CFO)

S01E01 (first episode): Canon ZR200
S01–S02: Canon HG10
S02–S03: Canon HG10, Canon XHA1S
S04: Canon XHA1S, Canon 60D
S05: Canon 60D

Sennheiser EW100 ENG (set up for two, in case there’s a guest on the show)

Lenses Used
Camera A: Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
Camera B: Canon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS

Other Special-Use Lenses
Canon Macro 100mm f/2.8
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8
Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 fisheye

Duke notes: “We started using a Canon L-lens (16-35mm f/2.8) but found the limitation of f/3.5 actually helped us maintain the depth of field we needed on a regular basis, so it’s rarely used now. We opted for the cheaper 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 lens on our A-camera due to the wider range and having IS on both A and B cameras helps when we’re off a tripod/dolly.”
Camera Rigs
Dynamic Perception Stage Zero Dolly (motorized 6' slider)
Kessler Pocket Dolly (gets used the most)
DIY Skater Dolly (for getting 360-degree shots, short movements)

Camera A (Canon 60D Body)
Manfrotto 504HD fluid head
Manfrotto 546B tripod
Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens
Redrock microMatteBox
Redrock Follow Focus (used for zoom)
Zoom H4n (used only to monitor audio—not record it)
Small HD DP6 Field Monitor (relied on to pull focus)
Redrock 15mm carbon fiber rails
Sennheiser EW100 ENG receivers (dual XLR inputs into Zoom H4n)
Monster/Beats Studio noise-cancelling headphones

Duke notes: “Camera A lives on the tripod with all the gear attached and never leaves it.”

6 ALZO 600 Cool Lite

Other Hardware
MXL VO: 1-A for and Sound Studio (Mac software) for voiceover work
iPad teleprompter
Bombing Brain’s Teleprompt+ (works with a Bluetooth foot pedal)
AirTurn BT-105 and footswitches

Duke notes: “With this setup, I can author a script using Google Docs, sync it with Teleprompt+, then use my iPad (v1) and the ProPrompter HDi Pro2 to display it. The speed is controlled via the Teleprompt+ iPad App, and I can use a single Bluetooth footswitch to pause/resume while I’m reading from the script. As a result, I’m able to shoot my entire Partz product segment by myself, fully scripted, without a camera operator and without a teleprompter operator.

Postproduction, Posthaste
Duke does all his own editing and, until recently, his NLE was Final Cut Pro 7. When Apple released the wildly controversial FCP X-which most editors have agreed is less of an upgrade than a v1.0 (or v0.9) NLE-he paid his money and took his chances.

"I have to admit I was one of the very first that day to buy it, only to be completely pissed off beyond belief at Apple," Duke says. "Everybody had high expectations, and it was a huge letdown on a lot of fronts. The biggest letdown was that it wanted to import an iMovie project instead of an FCP 7 project."
Duke describes a number of other frustrations, including the changes to the timeline and the digital delivery formats. He also laments the "really obvious bugs. With FCP X, I'm still using beta software," says Duke (a software developer himself, recall).

However, he decided to look at the situation from what he calls the "innovation standpoint."

"Apple did something incredible with the iPhone and revolutionized cell phones," he says. "I thought, ‘Maybe they're trying to do it again with NLEs, taking one and making it a completely new way of editing video.'"

With this hypothesis in mind, Duke made a slight adjustment to his solo, dive-right-in approach. Coinciding with the product's release was the release of Ripple Training's FCP X tutorials, available on iTunes for $39.99 (more info at www.rippletraining.com).

After running into his brick wall of bafflement in his first attempts to use the software, Duke decided, "I'm not going to touch this product again until I've gone through the training series, and I'm going to learn the way to use this product,'" Duke says. "Every technique that I'd learned previously I had to just throw out the door and learn a new way of doing it. That's what that training series did for me-not just watching the videos, but interacting with them. By the end of that, I was blown away. I couldn't believe how much easier everything was. Yes, it was a frustrating initial experience, but it is a brand-new product."

Motorz in FCP X
A Motorz episode in the FCP X Storyline

Among Duke's favorite new features is the ease of handling clips in FCP X. "We shoot a lot of short clips, a lot of cuts," Duke says. "One of the limitations to the DSLR is that you can put in only 12 minutes at a time. Maybe the longest clip is 3-5 minutes long. Most of them are one-minute or even 10-second clips: ‘Grab this tool. Do this with it.' So I've got all this raw footage. I need to mark in and mark out. I bring all these clips into the project, and I just go in one by one and sort by date and time. For the most part we shoot in chronological order, especially for the main installation. I click on one, mark in and mark out. I use hotkeys I-O-E and keep pulling up the next clip."

Other helpful capabilities, according to Duke, include adjusting audio levels ("Being able to add a music bed and lower the audio for a portion of it while I'm talking is so much easier"), tagging with keywords ("really nice and really easy"), and linking effects such as white balance from one clip to another ("more intuitive in X").

On the whole, these improvements map well onto the set of major needs in Duke's workflow. "That's the bulk of my time: marking in, marking out, adding to timeline, organizing timeline, adding transitions, adding a music bed, and dealing with volume," Duke says.

Of course, Duke has several seasons' worth of episodes stored as FCP 7 projects-which FCP X can't import-and, like many FCP 7 users, he's concerned about legacy support for FCP 7 in future versions of the Mac OS. Thus, he took advantage of Adobe's recent deep "switcher" discount and purchased Adobe Premiere Pro, which can open them ("I need insurance," he says). But for episodes present and future, he is happy with FCP X.

Motorz in FCP X
Chris Duke editing a Motorz episode in FCP X

"I'd be more annoyed by going back to the old-school way of doing it," Duke says. "It's a better workflow, it's faster, and it's easier to edit. I'm definitely sold on it. It's the future of Motorz as far as postproduction goes. My advice to anyone who's still frustrated is to learn how to use it. Don't try to use it based on your experience with another NLE, because it's not another NLE. Educate yourself. If you don't educate yourself on it, it's going to be a frustration."

Educate yourself: unsurprising advice from a self-described autodidact who has taken his own advice throughout the development of a show now poised for its fifth season and, Duke hopes, even wider distribution. Perhaps that's why he is so able, as Motorz viewer Ronald Surber recently put it, to "relate to the everyday backyard mechanic."

"We don't profess to be experts," Duke says. "I don't want to be. I learn on the show as I'm showing people how to do it. For me, that's an exciting thing."

Kyle Oliver (kyle.matthew.oliver at gmail.com), a freelance writer and editor and former EventDV staff editor, will complete his M.Div. at Virginia Theological Seminary inb May 2012.

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