Top Gear is hands-down the most popular motoring show on television of all time. It’s more than just a hit show. It is an institution. In addition to entertaining millions of viewers around the world with wild adventures and less-than-scientific car reviews, episodes stand out because of superior production values that go into each little car film. Every flick, slip, slide and burnout is captured for our enjoyment but who’s behind the lens and how do they do it? Thanks to our friends at BBC Worldwide, these burning questions and more have been answered! Dan De Castro has the distinction of working shooting Top Gear UK and currently serves as Top Gear USA’s Director of Photography. We chatted with him a bit about his career and what led him to work on this iconic show.
MLAS: How did you first get interested in photography?
DDC: When I was younger, I always documented holidays with family and friends. So when it got to the time to actually decide what to do with myself for the rest of my life, it really wasn’t that difficult. Cameras were to be my companions for life.
MLAS: What led you to work in television?
DDC: The fact that I could use a camera and do things the way I thought should be done. Of course I have better views and ideas of how things should really not be done now.
MLAS: Was shooting shows like Top Gear something that you always wanted to do?
DDC: When I first moved to the UK, from Spain, I was at my Auntie Di’s house (BBC Northwest morning host) and turned on the TV and saw Jeremy Clarkson up to his knees in water talking to camera and then driving a car. Then I thought… THAT IS WHERE I WANNA BE!!!!!
I got there through hard work and proving myself by working on many different car and motorbike shows. And working with amazing people like Mark McQueen… Not only my best friend but amazing, visually. 90% of his show reel is my stuff hahahaha!
I earned it… But got better by learning from others like Ben Joiner, Casper Leaver, Toby Wilkinson to name but a few.
MLAS: Could you tell us about the process of shooting an episode?
DDC: Well, that’s down to amazing production teams but from our side of things, it’s all about making beautiful pictures. Using the elements around you and making the car in your shot the cherry on the cake. Macro shot with an out-of-focus car going through shot and texture shots. Basically, sometimes not making the car the star of your picture. Edgy. Time to experiment with the camera for sure! It’s hard to explain and I struggle with this.
We want to stand out as a show and achieve this by being individuals in constant search for beauty and artistic license.
MLAS: How much influence does your own style have on the way an episode looks?
DDC: My own style was created around shooting cars since 1995, which has influenced what I’ve done with every car/bike show since.
MLAS: Aesthetically speaking, what are some of the similarities and differences between Top Gear USA and Top Gear UK?
DDC: We shoot both the same way (camera department).
MLAS: What are some of the complications in shooting a show like Top Gear?
MLAS: You tweeted some behind-the-scenes photos from the “Viking Trucks” episode in Iceland. What was that experience like for you?
DDC: It was brilliant. Extremely challenging (bloody cold) but an amazing experience. I got to drive the Scout II and never had so much fun!! Driving to a Volcano that just recently burped was just, well… kind of scary but exciting. The thing about these trips is that you could never do that if you weren’t in TV, unless you were minted!!!
MLAS: How do you prepare to work in those kinds of extreme conditions?
DDC: Carefully. Like you would prepare if you went out on a snowy hike; from thermals to hats to boots to gloves… Your kit means nothing when it’s broke and it’s like going all the way to Iceland for nothing. Imagine!! Batteries run out faster, gotta think about how to charge them constantly and how if you don’t have a fixed base, keeping the cameras warm all the time with what looks like Eddie Bauer puffer jackets, keeping filters of the rain/snow, etc. etc… The list goes on.
MLAS: Of all the Top Gear episodes you’ve worked on which is your favorite?
DDC: Police car VS bike
And ANYTHING that involves Tanner hooning about, sliding, jumping, donuting… you name it.
MLAS: Which shoot was the toughest?
DDC: None. They’re all fun. Rut, Adam & Tanner are just so funny and brilliant with each other. And I think that makes every shoot a fun shoot.
MLAS: Do you have any advice for young people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
DDC: Don’t do it!!!
Joking… Just be persistent without being annoying. Be loyal. Sit back and listen to others. Watch what they do and then have your twist. Don’t think you’re the best or know best. You will get further by watching, listening and learning… You don’t have to voice your opinions just because it’s a free world. Learn how not to do it as equally as learning how to. Experiment… Try things. That’s what I did. The more you do this the more at one you’ll be with every element of filming. Add light to the equation and hard work and you’ll be there faster
— Dan de Castro (@dandecameraman) October 30, 2013
A Final Word
Top Gear fans who participate in live-tweets during new USA episodes will recognize Dan De Castro by his Twitter handle: @dandecameraman. Do follow him as he shares fun tidbits and behind-the-scenes photos from shoots. Season Five of Top Gear USA premieres on History Channel, Tuesday, June 3rd 2014 at 9PM ET/PT. Check out the official website for exclusive videos and keep updated via social media.
My thanks to Ken Stouffer for his sage advice while preparing for this interview.
From BBC Worldwide
New York, NY, May 6, 2013 – HISTORY’s hit series TOP GEAR returns Tuesday, June 3 at 9PM ET/PT with brand new episodes as hosts Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust and Rutledge Wood come back to explore new territories, new challenges and push new boundaries.
The new episodes of TOP GEAR will take viewers on a wild ride from the backcountry of Arizona into the Grand Canyon, through the Appalachian Trail and even to the Autobahn in Germany for the ultimate high-speed road trip. Adam, Tanner and Rutledge never fail to stand up to every limit, no matter where they are in the world. The guys do everything from testing extreme ways to plow through snow, drag race in muscle cars at the Gatornationals and test how much abuse a car can withstand and still run. Even more exciting are the one-of-a-kind experiences, such as testing the most expensive and aggressive Camaro ever built, and racing the exclusive Bowler EXR-S street legal rally car against an enduro bike in the Scottish Highlands.
Featuring international road trips, extreme stunts, insane challenges and hilarious chaos, TOP GEAR is the home for anyone with a love of cars. Full of high-adrenaline action entertainment, the series tracks the colorful history of the automobile as well as the bizarre adventures of its hosts with TOP GEAR’s customary wit and humor.
TOP GEAR is produced for HISTORY by BBC Worldwide Productions and is co-production between HISTORY and BBC Worldwide. Michael Shevloff, Travis Shakespeare and Jane Tranter serve as executive producers for BBC Worldwide Productions. Executive producers for HISTORY are Russ McCarroll and Zachary G. Behr.
About TOP GEAR
TOP GEAR, which premiered in the UK in 1977, is consistently BBC TWO’s most-watched program in the UK. Top Gear also reaches over 150 million households globally and made its stateside debut on BBC America in 2007. One of the BBC’s premiere brands, Top Gear, the magazine, is the leading car publication in the UK, and the global road tour, Top Gear Live, continues to be a global success.
HISTORY®, now reaching more than 98 million homes, is the leading destination for award-winning original series and specials that connect viewers with history in an informative, immersive and entertaining manner across all platforms. The network’s all-original programming slate, including scripted event programming, features a roster of hit series including American Pickers®, American Restoration™, Ax Men™, The Legend of Shelby the Swamp Man, Counting Cars™, Pawn Stars®, Mountain Men and Swamp People® as well as HISTORY®’s first scripted series Vikings, and epic miniseries and special programming such as The Bible and the Emmy® Award-winning Hatfields & McCoys, the Emmy Award-winning The Men Who Built America, Gettysburg, Vietnam in HD, America The Story of Us® and 102 Minutes That Changed America. The HISTORY® website is the leading online resource for all things history, and in 2011, the United States Library of Congress selected HISTORY®’s Civil War 150 site for inclusion in the historic collection of Internet materials related to the American Civil War sesquicentennial. www.history.com. For more press information and photography, please visit us at http://press.aenetworks.com
ABOUT BBC WORLDWIDE PRODUCTIONS
BBC Worldwide Productions is a key business under BBC Worldwide North America, the U.S. division of the main commercial arm and wholly-owned subsidiary of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), BBC Worldwide. Led by Jane Tranter, BBC Worldwide Productions is based in Los Angeles and develops and produces scripted and non-scripted projects for U.S. cable and broadcast networks, as well as digital platforms. The production company is responsible for various titles including the upcoming Criminal Justice (HBO) and Intruders (BBC AMERICA) as well as Getting On (HBO), Americans in Bed (HBO), Top Gear (HISTORY), What Not to Wear (TLC) and the cultural phenomenon, Dancing with the Stars (ABC).