21 March 2023

Behind the scenes: why this major car brand chooses Canberra for its official promo shots

| James Coleman
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Hyundai on Mount Stromlo

Rod Turnbull chooses Canberra for many of the backdrops – especially the ‘hero shots’. Photo: Rod Turnbull, Tonic Films.

Imagine you own a car company that needs a pretty video of your latest offering driving through an equally pretty city without any other cars (from other pesky rival brands) in the background.

This leaves you with two options: pay three arms and a leg to close a major road for a few hours; or, do it in Canberra.

For anyone visiting Mount Stromlo a week or so ago, that’s exactly what you saw. Three cinematographers were contracted by South Korean car maker Hyundai to shoot their latest electric vehicle, the IONIQ 6, to the backdrop of the Brindabellas.

It turns out Hyundai loves Canberra – they visit several times a year in various cars.

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Rod Turnbull heads up Sydney-based production company Tonic Films, with experience in photography and videography that even extends to shooting behind-the-scenes documentaries for the Star Wars franchise. But he also has a strong Canberra connection.

“Rallying was my sport, actually driving for the Hyundai factory team in the 1990s, and my last event for them was in Canberra,” he says.

“And Neil Bates, who has won multiple Australian Rallying Championships, is also based in Canberra and I rallied with him back in the day, out on the dirt roads near where Coombs and Wright are today.”

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Rod now returns three or four times a year to shoot video footage for the press kits of car brands, chiefly Hyundai and Kia.

“Once upon a time, car companies used to hire professional photographers to take photos of their car in local conditions with local number plates on them,” he explains.

“They would pass these on to all the motoring publications for use in their stories. Now, of course, it’s all video. So what we do is shoot a whole pile of what we call ‘B-roll’ footage, or generic vision of virtually every detail of the car, both driving and static. We give this to the media for them to edit how they want.”

For this type of work, he says Canberra is “definitely a favourite” for many reasons.

“It’s getting busier and busier, but it was always a place that was easy to get around,” he says.

“We also never show another car in the shot, even if we’re doing a tracking shot over the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge or past Parliament House. It’s much easier to achieve that here than in Sydney.”

But ultimately, it comes down to aesthetics, which Rod describes as similar to Sacramento in California.

“Canberra can look very different in different seasons, whereas Sydney is just full of gum trees that look the same all the time,” he says.

“This time of year, and in springtime, it’s beautiful. And there are quite a few houses with very interesting architecture.”

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All up, he and his team of two colleagues spent three days in Canberra earlier this month. Mount Stromlo was one of their last stops for the “hero sunset shot”.

“It’s not as good as it used to be up there because the trees have grown a bit, but looking west at the Brindabellas is just spectacular.”

A few intrigued locals did want to know what they were up to, doubly drawn by the “very, very modern design” of the car.

He has a few other favourite locations, starting with Commonwealth Avenue Bridge “particularly when the Captain Cook Memorial Jet is running”. Then there’s Majura Parkway at “around 10 am when the sunlight is perfect” and the Brindabella and Uriarra Roads for the “nice views” over the hills.

“We try to make the car look like it’s in a grand-touring environment where emotionally you’re going on a road trip in this nice car, so roads where you can see off into the distance appeal to us.”

Genesis outside a family's home in Coombs

Rod’s crew got permission from this family to shoot on their driveway. Photo: Rod Turnbull, Tonic Films.

It’s all public land, so there are no fees to pay or permission slips to fill out, but he sometimes wants to use someone’s private property.

“Last week, I went and door-knocked in Coombs to get permission from the owners to shoot on a few driveways because they had nice houses and I thought the car really suited the style.”

However, Canberra isn’t all perfect, especially when you’re in an EV and looking for a quick charge.

“One of the difficult things about Canberra is the lack of charging infrastructure,” Rod says.

“You look around the city and there’s hardly any ultra-rapid chargers. Strange for a government that’s already put a ban on the sale of new fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. I was hoping the situation would have improved a bit more.”

But that said, he would “probably still live here if more car companies were based in Canberra”.

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