On Sept. 29, 2000, I signed a cooperative agreement on behalf of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), to begin work on a retroreflectivity educational video. My assignment seemed simple enough?take the term "retroreflectivity" and put it into terms anyone "of any age" could easily understand. Assigned to assist me with the project was Peter Hatzi, a highway engineer from FHWA?s Safety Core Business Unit.
No one may be able to disagree that retroreflectivity is an important safety issue that should be made known to the general public. "How do those signs glow" is a question I am frequently asked by people when I tell them what I do for a living. When I tell people about glass beads and other technology that makes signs and stripes brighter, they are amazed. So I knew this was a good story that must be told to the motoring public.
Making a film is a big project. Many meetings and planning sessions take place and mounds of paperwork are generated before the actual work begins.
There are many stages to consider when developing a film. The first stage is the development of a "treatment," which is a very rough concept of how the film will flow, what message it will tell and who will tell the story.
The next element is the script, followed by the actual shooting of the program, both in-studio and on-location. The last steps are the editing and post-production processes.
To build the script for this story, our production team had to ensure that all aspects of retroreflectivity were addressed. I sent out a request to the industry seeking interested members who conduct research or manufacture or install retroreflective products to join a technical advisor committee to help develop a script. As a result, several industry contacts with an interest joined in a teleconference Oct. 11.
Many ideas were proposed for possible inclusion into the film. The technical advisors for this project discussed retroreflective technology and what motorists can do to make reflective products work better for them (such as keeping vehicle headlights and windshields clean). The idea of showing the viewing audience the importance of retroreflective products in clothing and on bicycles also was incorporated into the treatment. It was a long teleconference, but scriptwriter Jim Kerkhoff, film producer Clark Bavin and I left the meeting with a clearer picture of the direction we needed to take during the script writing phase.
Neither Kerkhoff nor Bavin are strangers to roadway safety issues. Both were directly involved in the production of the award-winning film "Danger Signs," as well as a roadway safety membership video for ATSSA members nearly two years ago.
Two weeks after the initial teleconference, a proposed script was e-mailed to the technical committee for their review. The name chosen for the new film was "Night Lights."
It is important to note that production of a film cannot begin until the script is finalized and approved. Once on the set, all decisions should already have been made in the scripting process regarding the shooting sequence of scenes and, most importantly, the narration.
In the weeks that followed, Kerkhoff drafted and revised the script several times. Each time the script was sent to the technical committee for review, we discovered issues not covered, or others that required further explanation or clarification. Each time, Kerkhoff added or deleted items to the script, or conducted further research until the final version was presented to Hatzi for approval.
Bring the cameras
With the holiday season out of the way, the first day of shooting was scheduled for Jan. 11 at the United Way studios in Alexandria, Va. Craig Sechler (host of "Danger Signs") and a full production team were booked and we were now ready to begin the shooting phase of the production.
To reach the widest possible audience with this film, a wide variety of actors were hired of various ages and backgrounds. Each actor would tell a unique story in the film. For example, an older woman speaks about her failing eyesight and how her vision while driving is "not as good as it used to be." A younger woman tells how busy she is taking her kids all over town and her inability to keep her vehicle clean, thereby not being able to see retroreflective products as well as she should. Another actor, portrayed as a jogger, talks about the importance of reflective clothing, while a young teen speaks about not paying attention while driving.
The first day on the set was a humbling one. It took over 10 hours to create the look and feel that Bavin wanted for the film.
The first item that needed immediate attention was the floor of the studio. We had to paint the entire floor, which took an unplanned three-hour cut into the day, as we literally stood around watching the paint dry.
The next step was the construction of the studio set. Richlite Inc., Richmond, Va., provided roadway signs and devices. The Fredericksburg, Va., DOT District Office also provided a large section of guardrail, end treatments and brand new roadway signs for the studio.
The roadway signs were affixed to 4 x 4 posts. Black twine was run from hooks on top of the posts to the high ceiling of the studio. This was necessary to stabilize the signs. Many other miscellaneous reflective devices loaned to us from ATSSA members were placed on the set as well. From the time we began painting the floor in the morning until the last signs were placed on the set, over 10 hours had passed.
Early the following morning final adjustments were made to the set. Lighting was adjusted and the final prop?a 1999 Dodge Durango?was brought through the large doors and positioned near the guardrail. Production began and continued for the next 12 hours.
When all in-studio production was completed, the next step was shooting exterior scenes at night. The evening hours of Jan. 16 and 17 were spent on a rural road in Stafford County, Va. The Stafford County Sheriff?s Department provided two deputies each night to assist the production team with traffic control. January in Virginia is quite cold, and although the production crew did not have freezing rain or snow to contend with, temperatures each night were well below freezing and winds were present. Each of these two days the crew began working at 3 p.m. and wrapped-up around 1 a.m. the following morning.
The first night the production team filmed scenes involving teenagers running a stop sign, as well as two women driving on rural back roads. Each of these scenes required careful lighting and numerous "takes."
The second night the production team taped "moving" shots from the inside of a minivan on Brook Point Road in Stafford County. This location was literally a "retroreflective gold mine," as this particular stretch of road was chock full of recently installed state-of-the-art signs, stripes and guardrails.
With all of the production accomplished, Bavin began editing the videotape, selecting music and inserting computer-generated special effects to fine-tune the product.
On Feb. 7, the production team met with several FHWA representatives to present a "rough cut" of the film. Final edits to the videotape would be made following this initial screening, as well as the audio track being digitally mastered. Additionally, credits and closed-captioning would be added over the next few days.
On Feb. 18 during ATSSA?s opening general session of Traffic Expo, "Night Lights" debuted for nearly 600 ATSSA members in attendance. The following week, a complimentary copy of the film was mailed to all ATSSA members across the country.
Many of those who watched the film were pleased that the "human element" was incorporated into it. As mentioned earlier, four actors were carefully picked from a wide range of ages to tell their own unique story of how retroreflectivity impacts their lives. Other viewers liked the way the film was crafted in "non-technical" terms that anyone can understand. Others saw it as an exceptional way to become involved in their communities by showing the film in classrooms, in law enforcement training sessions and even in retirement communities.