PART ONE: The prep...
" I've got this great wood yard you could use for your next shoot"
And that was that for about three months until...
izombie. if you haven't watched it you should.. it's funny and quite addictive, oh.. and it's on Netflix so how hard can it be?
But I digress.. slightly. izombie's heroine is Liv Moore and it gives little away to say she's a changed woman and fortunately for me, changed in a rather fabulous way. As soon as I saw her super white hair and snow white tan I knew I has a basis for my next shoot and furthermore that her look transposed to a nighttime setting with say logs and smoke would be rather cool, see where I'm going here? that's right.. I'd found a reason to shoot in the wood yard!
So began what was to be probably my most ambitious shoot to date. Once I'd decided on the idea of beautiful zombies floating around the wood yard at night I just needed to think of a concept.
After a quick message to my friend Charlotte Howard, she of the opening line of this blog and one short car journey later I found myself staring at Great Chalfield Manor, which for those of you not addicted to historical dramas or from outside the UK, is a stunning Tudor Manor house situated about ten miles outside Bath and the backdrop for Wolf Hall and any number of period TV epics.
The aforementioned wood yard is situated a few hundred meters along a track from the manor and at the time of my visit, cold and impressively muddy. I have to confess, that covered in lurid plastic sheeting and littered with mechanical machinery of every description I did start to wonder if I'd made a mistake, but once I got home and looked at my shots of the recce I realised it just might work.
One of the things that caught my eye on the recce was the large earth mover to the left of the yard, I was very wary of leaving anything in the shots that might force an unwanted colour palette on the shoot. However something told me that its inoffensive brown and cream hues might be OK. I can't recall exactly when the light bulb moment struck regarding the my idea to cover the digger in ivy and flowers, but strike it did and then we were off!
It's at this point I need to mention Chris Liversidge, not only the man who's yard we were shooting in, but a complete dude to boot. When I called him up to ask if it was OK to use the digger in the shoot and that not only did I want to hang lights off it, but that I wanted it to be covered in plants, he simply replied, " so you want it to look like something from The Lost world as if it's been reclaimed by the undergrowth'?!
Anyhoo location duly located it was time to find some models. I had been shooting with Ellie and Angelica recently as I'd got them into the studio to shoot some head shots for my new website ( www.theportraitprofessional.co.uk if you're interested) so I got in touch and discovered Angelica was about to go traveling... FOR SIX MONTHS! suddenly my relatively large portfolio of possible dates had shrunk to roughly one weekend..
Next I set about contacting Lucie Rose Donlan. Lucie is a model and pro surfer based in Cornwall and we had shot together a few months previously when I did some tests for her agency Mustard Models in Bristol. Lucie is fab and has a great look and despite living so far away, when I mentioned the concept to her she was in without a second thought. My last model was via the school of scouting as I like to call it or as my girlfriend likes to call it " did he spot you in Waitrose"?.. cheeky bizzum ! Enter Chloe, who despite many misgivings trusted me to turn her into a creature of the night time world and very beautifully she did it too.
So...location... check ...models... check.... concept...mostly check there can only be one thing I needed to do next..
I LOVE Pinterest. The sheer simplicity of being able to search for pretty much anything you can think of with just a few clicks is a Godsend. Add in the ability to create a board and the share it with everyone involved is invaluable. A few days later and I had what would become the mother of all mood boards and it did it's job perfectly as people began to e-mail me with a variety of "ooh and wows" that made it clear my ideas were hitting the spot.
I decided that in the tradition of shows like The Walking Dead and Survivor this would be a world in which the social order had collapsed and those who survived would just inhabit anywhere that took their liking. Following on from the neat twist of i Zombie, the zombies didn't need to be decaying, so once I had decided that my zombies would be beautiful zombies, not " bits hanging off zombies" we went looking for what they should wear. I am a big fan of photographer Gregory Crewdson's beautiful otherworldly Americana and for a time I considered having vehicles in the shots, car headlights in smoke are a pretty cool look in any scene and thus I wondered if our heroines should have a mixture of modern clothing. Eventually I decided that I wanted the colour palette to be soft and ethereal and closer to something someone else I admire, the brilliant Tim Walker might shoot.
I talked extensively with my long term collaborator Felicity Keefe about what kind of look we should go for with regards to the dresses. We decided that we wanted predominantly long dresses that would trail behind the models or at least reach the floor and that the colour palette would be whites and creams and very pale tobacco colours. I was extremely fortunate to have been recently introduced to Alice Pickup who agreed to come on board to help with the Styling as Felicity was on this occasion unable to spend as much time as usual on the day of the shoot and I wanted a female eye on the proceeding's to reign in my "Smoke and Wolves" tendencies! With Felicity's brief duly noted I took Alice Angelica and Ellie to Bath Theatrical Costume Hire in Frome in Somerset. Despite planning to take four outfits per model we ended up leaving with around 40 dresses! not to mention feather headdresses, bags, ruffs and anything esle that wasn't nailed down or so it felt.
I had decided that I was not going to go into a night shoot with no idea if the dresses worked, so I'd arranged for Ellie and Angelica and Chloe to come to my studio for test shots. This gave Felicity the chance to see the girls in the actual outfits and with a quick and brutal " no.. no..no" to about half the dresses, we had the choice narrowed down to three looks per model. Once outfits for the absent Lucie had been picked and test shot with the other outfits we had our section.
PART TWO: The Rig....
Sometimes when I look back at all the preparation that goes into shoots like these I'm amazed any of us actually do them at all! It's the little things like "how am I going to stop four girls who are only wearing dresses from freezing to death stood on a wood pile for hours on end" or " how do I power sixteen lights and five smoke machines and a microwave and kettle and a Winnebago from a few 13A sockets in a barn" ? or " how much food do I need to feed up to sixteen people from Saturday lunchtime through to Sunday evening." or " how do I get half these people to a wood yard in the middle of nowhere when most of them don't drive and more importantly how do I get them home"?!! it's this kind of stuff that keeps you awake at night and it's nothing to do with creativity it's all just sheer logistics, and logistics on a very tight budget at that.
Logistics resolved as best I could it was time to start rigging the shoot. I am indebted to my friend of many years Robbie Wood, who despite knowing this would not be a short day, agreed to help me on the Saturday. We eventually arrived at the site around 1pm after I had been to Bristol to collect the lighting. At this point we were joined by the lovely Charlotte Howard and here equally lovely husband Moray McDonald. Robbie and Moray set about running power cables to the various lighting positions I had pre visualized while Chris and I set about rigging " The Crate" with narrow beam profile spotlights. The Crate had evolved from an idea I had to hang a wooden pallet from the jaws of the digger to hopefully create rather splendid shafts of light through the smoke. I had done this when shooting with fashion students at Bath Uni for a Bowie inspired shoot and it had worked really well.
As we rigged the crate Charlotte set about the rather Herculean task of fixing flowers and ivy to a net to then affix to the digger. The net would be added the following day by the ever awesome Dave Johnson who gamely rode a digger bucket armed with nothing more than a fistful of cable ties and a smile!
Around 6-7 pm the lighting was mostly in place and our intrepid volunteer test lighting models Chloe and Angelica had arrived together with Felicity and our 11 year old son Jamie. Jamie had spotted the smoke grenades I'd ordered and was very excited about being in a photo with his beloved Nerf gun and a cloud of green smoke. Sadly the pyro company failed to send the green grenade so we had to make do with white.. Sorry Kiddo!
The lighting in the crate did look atmospheric and the idea of putting a haze machine in the crate to force a plume of constant smoke in front of the beams also worked ( Thanks Will!) but the sheer distance combined with some of the light having to be be blocked to create the slots of light meant that the amount of light that made it to the models was somewhat underwhelming. As complete darkness fell I tried some test shots with Angelica and Chloe and realised Robbie's prediction that it was going to be along day was proving right. By the time I dropped Robbie home it was clear that my lighting concept was going to need some fairly serious re-thinking. At Cleveland Pools the back lighting had worked because we had endless amounts of room to position the lights until the perfect rim light was achieved, whereas at the wood yard we could barely move them back a meter before we were in danger of them and us tumbling down a ten foot earth slope in the next field. Also Cleveland Pools is comprised of light Bath stone that reflects even a small amount of light quite efficiently whereas the wood yard on the other hand is dark and comprised of big dark logs and little else.
PART THREE The Shoot...
Sunday morning saw the welcome arrival of Dave Johnson and his girlfriend Ella who is also a lighting technician. Once I explained to them the shortcomings of Saturday's tests we set about tweaking my approach to get more light onto the set and the girls. While Ella and I rigged more lights Alice advised DJ on the application of the ivy and flowers to the digger. Alice was a huge help as despite the initial attempts looking quite passable, Alice has good eye for detail and kept gently insisting to DJ and I that it needed more. and she was absolutely right. She was joined by Hope Taylor who had assisted me on the Winter Is Coming Shoot and Hope was tasked with everything from spraying mud on to the (very green) ivy to finding ways to stop the girl's head dresses from either slipping off or digging into their foreheads.. thanks Hope!
One of the best things that materialized on this entire shoot was an offer from Chris and his wife to let us use their Winnebago. I was genuinely worried about how to keep the models warm and the potential for people to get really cold and understandably miserable. Not only did the Winnebago provide warmth but it doubled as a hair and make up HQ and almost equally important a place to cook pizza! never underestimate the importance of hot food on a night shoot outdoors people..
As the day wore on we were getting closer to our finished looks thanks in no small part to the fab Clairelouise Bender on hair and make up. Claire runs House of Bendy and is the nicest person you'll meet, always up and super talented ( http://www.houseofbendy.com). Felicity had designed some great head dresses to give the first look a more earthy pagan feel. They reminded me of Natasha Khan AKA Bat For Lashes which is always a good thing in my book.
Much excitement greeted the arrival of Mandy Partridge and her friends from Surrey Search and Rescue and their gorgeous " Direwolves" or wolf/ dog crosses as the actually are. Those who read my previous blog will recognize the dogs from the infamous " you can't bring wolves into a girl's boarding school " line.. This time there were no school officials to pacify and the dog's arrival made for some joyful scenes as my zombie girls cooed over them and the dogs lapped up the attention.
Just before we started shooting with the dogs we took advantage of the beautiful setting sun that lit up some equally striking cedar logs on the opposite side of the yard to where our main set was located. Despite a rather hair raising experience with one of the smoke grenades we got some great shots and Ellie showed no fear perching atop the pile, although keeping her headdress in place proved quite the challenge..
By this point we were ready to start shooting on the main set and much hilarity ensued as the girls kept warm by dancing to 70's disco which Angelica had on her iPod and somehow ended up replacing for a time my very different moody playlist, but hey.. if kept them warm and happy who was I to complain?...
We shot with the dogs and without, Mandy having come up with the cunning plan of hiding doggie treats in amongst the logs to try to get them into some kind of position that I could use.
I'd always loved the look of wolves roaming in urban cityscapes, the scene in the film Collateral where Tom Cruise sees a lone wolf crossing the highway at night whilst wrestling with his own feral nature made a big impression on me. In real life not Hollywood life we had the rather more ungracious issue of trying to avoid endless shots of the hounds with their bum's in the air whist foraging to contend with but hey..that's showbiz!
In the end the girls were amazing, I'd pre warned them that although we had the lovely Hope Taylor just out of shot with their dressing gowns to cover up between shots, there were going to be long periods where they would just have to endure the cold and " dig deep". Dig deep they did and I can't praise them enough.
It took me months of planning ( even in a blog of this length I've skipped a huge amount of what actually had to be out in place) and two very long days to rig. re -rig and shoot not to mention the logistics of getting forty costumes collected and returned and chosen and labelled. But in the end it was worth it. It took five smoke and haze machines and three braziers of constantly burning wood to get the amount of consistent smoke i needed and the unfailing support of sixteen people many of whom came as far as three hours drive away to make it happen but happen it did and the reaction has been amazing. so..
The next time a friend calls you up to offer you a shoot location.., just be careful what you're watching in the days that follow!
Enjoy the pictures and until the next one.
The eagle eyed among you will notice I've captioned some of the images with song titles. A shoot like this isn't everyone's cup of Earl Grey especially in the fickle world of fashion but I just finished a book on business by Gene Simmons of Kiss fame and infamy and he pointedly remarked that if he'd been put off by the naysayers in their early days, Kiss would never have become the most commercially successful band in the history of rock. Love 'em or hate 'em it's quite a thought. So I realised that whilst my style is often referred to as overtly theatrical it is MY style and what's the point in doing anything if you just copy everyone else? Kiss were never music biz darlings in fact quite the opposite but their audiences loved them and if they'd been swayed by what was trendy I wouldn't be taking my 11 year old son to see in two weeks time as they'd have long since hung up their platform boots so.. Gene and the boys you keep playing it Hotter Than Hell while I drink my Cold Gin and keep shootin'... after all I've Got Nothin' To Lose!