I have always been drawn to photographs that are not just a snapshot of an object or place, but a frozen slice of an event unfolding. Captured in the frame is a story that needs exploring. It can be evidence of something that has just happened, or is about to. The above image, which I call “Occupied”, has a whole lot going on in it. There is a multitude of events unfolding simultaneously with a sense of extreme urgency. The process of creating it, however, was no mere slice of time. It unfolded slowly over numerous days. It involved 4 separate photoshoots in the studio, a trip to the masters of pyro at danger-boy.com and a fascinating day with location scout Connie Johnson exploring the greater Detroit area.

The rough sketch of the drone that started the creative process.

Detail of the main image showing the completed drone.

I had been toying with a number of ideas for images in the video game/movie poster art genre. I had just made a sketch of a flying warrior drone that I had hoped to build a visual story around when I came across Connie’s name. Ever since I  purchased my Phase One IQ260 Digital back I had been looking forward to taking it to the Detroit area. There I wanted to capture the incredible architecture; with some of the abandoned buildings yet to be repurposed, it provided a unique photographic opportunity and a great testing ground to push the limits of my new gear. I assumed I would find the perfect environment to build a story around the warrior drone.

Knowing we would be hiking through some unforgiving landscapes, I packed light and brought an assistant. I brought the Phase One 645DF+, IQ260 back, 120mm, 35mm and a Schneider 80mm LS lens. A Gitzo carbon fiber tripod and Hensel Porty pack with two heads came in handy as well. With the help of various property managers we covered a lot of ground, exploring spectacular locations that could be the set of any number of movies. We traversed through scenes used for Eminem’s various music videos including ‘Rap God’. While Detroit has seen better times it does have an experienced film-making industry and I can see how it would be an incredible place to produce a film.

Some of the many incredible locations I explored

For “Occupied” we ended up at a steel mill that is in the process of being repurposed. It was massive on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. It covered an area of many city blocks. The street and the half demolished building in the photo were actually inside the larger mill building. It stood out as the perfect surreal backdrop for my story to unfold. Lighting conditions were as extreme as they get. Large openings in the outer building brought in harsh light, but the interior was so large that it faded off into complete darkness. The 13 stops of dynamic range from the IQ260 were pushed to the limits. A generator with tungsten lights lit the side of the building and gave it that movie set feel. I found the walls, that the battle-hardened fighters were to be hiding behind, in an area outside of the main building complex. There had been numerous large buildings on the property that  were blown up as part of a cleanup effort. The remnants, with their twisted re-bar and blackened concrete, provided the perfect backdrop for a post-apocalyptic ambiance. Between locations we stopped to watch a building being dismantled, and the resulting images from that process ended up in the final frame as well. It was a successful day of shooting that filled a  void in my elements library. I was surprised by the amount of activity going on in the resurrection of Detroit. I met some great people and left with a new respect for the city.

The building within a building. You can see the light used in place of the explosion.

One of my photographs of a gas bomb explosion made by the professional at Danger Boy

Back at the studio I roughed together some of the Detroit elements. Once I worked in the fire and explosion, things started to take shape. For a previous project I had spent several glorious days with Tom Comet and his team of pyro technicians, blowing things up. So when I needed a 12m (40’) ball of fire I only had to look as far as my elements library. We had also spent time photographing Tom’s 3 million volt Tesla coil, so I had the necessary pieces to build my induction drive powering the warrior drone.

Building the warrior drone required a trip to the recycling depot. I felt it was necessary to only build one gun-toting wing. It was easier to rotate it in 45º portions on-set  than to build an entire drone. It was also easier to handle with the reduced weight. I used the 120mm lens on the drone, getting the camera back out of the way to make it easier to maneuver around set. I find simple lighting is always best. The fewer light sources the better, as far as I am concerned. This didn’t fall into that scenario. I had four lights for overall lighting, and to recreate the effect the explosion would have, I used LED lights inside parts of the drone. I dragged the shutter 2 seconds for those. I also used three fiber optic cables on a Hensel Star Spot to bring in random hits of light, to mimic the light that would emanate from the sparks. This is the type of scenario that I love, using the iPad running ‘Capture Pilot’. I find it indispensable. I set up right next to the drone model. I tethered the camera to a Mac Pro laptop running ‘Capture One’. From the iPad I was able to trigger the camera, adjust exposure and check focus without bumping my way back and forth from camera to set, through a forest of light stands. More importantly it allowed me to make adjustments to the pinpoint lighting. I could take a shot, make a small adjustment, take another shot and so on, instantly seeing the results. Using this tool allows me to easily attain a variety of different lighting options, which I can mix and match in postproduction. I added various small details from fighter jet engines I had previously captured for my library. I completed the drone by setting up a laser and smoke machine in a blacked-out studio and photographed the scanning ray.

The last piece of the puzzle was the battle-worn soldiers. The 80mm Schneider lens has an astounding clarity. It was the perfect choice for the front and center heroes. Creating a flesh wound with wax, makeup and fake blood added to the grungy look. I set up a hard light on the camera right behind the wall. I used a light through a large diffuser from the front for fill. A light bounced into a warm reflector added a hit from the left. A fiber optic light and a hand-held LED light provided a hit to the main character’s face. Lighting the cyclorama wall to create silhouettes of the opposing forces running into the ambush finished off the list of elements.

Detail from the main image. The 80 mm lens combined with the IQ260 has incredible clarity. The original high resolution image viewed on a large monitor shows stunning detail.

I found building the image in two parts was easier for such a complex compilation. I made the drone in one file; the main environment with all the soldiers in another. I brought them altogether and fine-tuned it in a third working file after merging many of the layers. Even while dispersing the work between separate files I still ended up with layered files over 10 GB. It is ironic that so many pieces had to come together to create this unfolding story of destruction. In more ways than one, it was a blast to create.


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