A while ago I was watching the special features for a science fiction movie that I enjoy, and was surprised to learn how much of the effects were achieved in camera, on practical sets. I have always loved watching behind the scenes videos, especially when they reveal the craft involved in taking something that previously existed only in someone’s imagination and bringing it into reality. This made me wonder, “If I have always been fascinated by movie magic, what was it about this film that sparked my imagination all of a sudden?”
While the opening sequence washed over me for the first time in the theater I was excited, yet had the thought ringing in the back of my mind, “This is amazing! Too bad it’s probably just actors on a big green set.” I was convinced of this mostly, admittedly, because there are some special effects that can only be achieved by compositing footage with supplementary computer generated imagery. Because I knew there was some CGI I slipped into the assumption that “some” meant most. Without thinking it over much, because I was watching an entertaining movie, I conceded that such are the times.
Now, fast forward to watching this move again at home, and the credits have started rolling. “It’s time to check out the special features!” “Creating The Red Planet” plays first. Much to my surprise, and subsequent joy, I started learning about how much of what is seen in the movie is actually real! Throughout the whole feature I kept thinking, “I want to do that job… and that job… and that job, too!” At which point it was like many dots in my mind all seemed to connect at once, and I realized, “I CAN do all those jobs.” I have always been in love with photography, but it was in that moment I finally understood that I will become a photographer who crafts dreams into reality, just like in the movies.
It wasn’t long until I had decided on my first project; I wanted to make a photograph of a person frozen in ice. As I worked out the logistics of creating this effect I realized there was one particular camera that I wanted use to capture the final image. Previously, I was gifted a large format 4×5 monorail camera, similar to what I grew to love using while studying photography in school, but hadn’t used since. Knowing its operational requirements made me realize that using it for this shoot would be as challenging as creating the special effect.
After almost a year of work including; finding the right partners to help, acquiring the necessary gear, researching and developing how to produce the effect in camera, finding the right model and wardrobe, constructing the set, and waiting for the right time to shoot, finally, it was the night. We started late on a summer evening, around 9:30, because preventing reflections on the surface meant shooting after dark.
There was a considerable amount of preparation earlier in the day with regards to filling our homemade water tank: A 9 foot long, 5 foot wide, 4 foot deep monument of optimism, constructed on a meager budget. It was made out of (partially burnt) reclaimed decking and old fence boards, a pair of semi-translucent 6 mil plastic sheets welded together with a heat gun, and several heavy duty ratcheting cargo straps, all struggling to hold together roughly 11,000 pounds of water. Filling the tank that day, as the water level lethargically encroached on the wood and plastic’s integrity threshold, was the longest and most intensely nerve wracking experience of my life thus far. It didn’t help that an hour before the shoot, while participating in a wedding rehearsal, I got a call notifying me there was a leak! The welded seam of the plastic liner was not well enough supported on one end, and started to rupture as the water was approaching its working level. Thinking quickly, my dad grabbed a plastic shopping bag and put it inside the water next to the leak, which allowed the water pressure to hold its own plug.
After the wedding rehearsal, and a quick pit stop for dry ice, I arrived back home at the set in my backyard. Other people on my crew had already arrived, and were getting ready. The model was having underwater makeup applied, and I got to work with the rest of the crew putting the finishing touches of frost (boiled sugar glaze) on the acrylic sheet that was to be framed on the surface of the water. Our model got into a used wedding dress I had acquired, after I gave final approval on the makeup.
The lighting set up was fairly straight forward, although may be difficult to visualize from the image alone. I had an umbrella just over each of the top two corners of the tank, and one light-blue gelled strobe on each side, level with the model’s waist. Being familiar with the lighting requirements for large format cameras, I turned all the strobes to maximum and tested the exposure with a digital camera. I just so happen to guess the correct exposure of f/11 with 1/250sec at ISO100, on the first try, or so I thought (more on this later.) The empty tank looked great lit up, so I had the model get in for some practice.
I knew right from the beginning that this would not be an easy shoot to model for. I will also say that I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t want to do myself, or if it was unreasonably unsafe. So, I contemplated for five months who I would approach for this project. Fortunately, I had recently become friends with a young woman who was willing and able. Being the first person I asked, she agreed.
As the model she didn’t just have to go under water in a wedding dress. No, she had to wear a wedding dress with sand bags stuffed in the back for ballast, while being shoved under a sheet of acrylic resting directly on surface of the (not exactly bath temperature) water. Then she had to wrestle the train of the dress into position while keeping water out of her nose, hope that the dry ice fog was cooperating, wait for me to fire the camera and strobes, then blindly reach for a cane (held by her future husband) to pull her back out. It reminded me of the stories my brother told me about emergency blind underwater helicopter egress training, which also requires exceptional composure in the face of drowning. Unlike the emergency training where once you get out successfully you are done, she had to repeat this operation a dozen times or so, and its procedure had to evolve as we encountered new problems.
While the model was underwater part of the crew was holding the acrylic sheet in its place. They were also wetting pieces of dry ice in the corners, and blowing the fog into frame. I was up on our pergola overlooking the water tank, and operating the camera, which was mounted with a home made jig to the top of an extension ladder strapped to the structure I was standing on.
The camera, which is normally focused when looking at the ground glass, had to be pre-focused by careful measurement. Possibly the most ridiculous part of this shoot is that the camera had to be mounted on a ladder more than 14 feet above the surface of the ice, and directly centered over the water. This means the ladder was cantilevered over the tank at roughly 70 degrees, and I could not operate it as normal. Pre-focusing by replicating measurements is easy, but framing the water tank in shot was a little more complex. Proper framing required mounting one iPhone to the back of the camera so it could transmit the view of the ground glass via FaceTime to another phone. Only then could we see when everything was aligned properly.
In order to load the film and set the shutter I needed the ladder to be in a retracted state so I could climb up to it relatively safely. The ladder had to be firmly strapped into place when erect to ensure repeatable framing, however, the straps had to be loosened after every shot so it could be retracted to provide me access for resetting the camera. Once reset, crew members below would extend the ladder and retighten its straps, and I would carefully hold a string tied to the shutter and wait for the model to go under.
I tried five exposures on 4×5 film before the model was too exhausted. The first three were on Fuji Provia 100f, and the second two on Kodak Ektar. Being as stressed and tired as I was, I messed up two of the shots, and another one went off on accident while the ladder was being extended. After one of the Provia exposures I forgot to reinsert the dark slide, and on the last take, with Ektar, I forgot to remove the dark slide. I am very grateful that “the one” which everyone knew right away was it, was captured on Provia. It turned out much to my liking, although technically underexposed by one stop because the digital camera I was testing exposures with was set to ISO 200 instead of what I thought was 100, and I didn’t think to check! As it turns out, I believe being a little underexposed helps the image tonally by being slightly compressed in contrast, yet saturated nicely in color. “A happy accident!” as one of my art professors would say.
I have very much enjoyed every step of this journey. It is even more fun than I thought it would be when I was watching behind the scenes interviews, and wishing I could do all those movie production jobs. And, just like in the movie world, there is a sequel already in the works!