" Think The Lady of Shalott meets The X-Files"...
Those were the fateful words I used to describe my pitch for my latest photo shoot to the trustees of Cleveland Pools in Bath last Autumn. Fast forward many months and the threat of the unique Victorian lido being closed for years for renovation finally spurred me into action. Little did I or the trust know quite what an enterprise it would turn out to be....
A Friend:" how are you going to get the boat out of the river and into the pools"?
Me: " we'll row it up river then lift it out of the water then carry it over the fence"? "
A friend: " how big is it"?
Me: "twenty two feet"
A Friend: " you're insane"...
He had a point....However row and lift it we did ( well actually mostly the rather amazing people at Bathwick Boat Hire actually, but it's the Royal We you understand)
That would have been fine if it were the only complication, but on this shoot that was never going to be the case. Once I had discovered that the best way to back light the keeper's cottage adjacent to the pools (given the meager power available onsite) was to use a highly efficient light called an Arena Vision by Philips, I arranged to hire three units from my good friend Gary Churchill at IMax lighting in Bristol. What I didn't count on was that they would come flight cased in what I have now christened " The Block of Flats On Wheels" I exaggerate very little I assure you. Add in that these beasts although quite light themselves come with a ballast that takes two men to carry them and then in a very ungainly fashion and it became clear that my earlier plan to collect the lighting in an estate car would have been somewhat akin to arriving at The MOD's redundant plant site to collect and tow home a used Chieftain Tank with a mini..
" come on we can do it, its on wheels isn't?!" ....
" it's a f** *ing tank you idiot" !!!
You take my point...
One very large hire van later and it was time to collect the generator I had booked, the aforementioned meager power on site meaning that the two smoke machines and one chilled smoke/dry ice effect machine together with the Arena Visions I had hired would need far more than the available power could manage.
That's when things really took a turn for the worse/comical depending on your perspective.
The very lovely people at Brandon Tool Hire here in my fair city of Bath had kindly offered me a much larger and apparently quieter generator for the same price as the somewhat modest one I had first considered. Yes, I knew it would be large.. very large as it happens but I realised I had really underestimated its bulk when all 460Kg of it came trundling out of the yard on a fork lift.
There was probably was a time when I was younger and less experienced/stupid when I would have tried to actually offload and use this monster, but after only three trips back up the very steep slope that winds it way down to the pools to offload the kit, I realised there was no way we would ever get it back up the slope and the prospect of being stuck neither halfway up nor down at 1 am with an exhausted crew was just not an option. There then followed some delicate negotiations with one of the neighbours to plug into their tool shed for the cost of about ten times what we would use in electricity but.. hey... what's a photographer Hell bent on lighting up the night sky in a cloud of Ridley Scott inspired haze to do?!
Ah yes the weather part, did I mention the forecast was " iffy" no? well the weather forecast said cloudy with a chance of light showers..
It rained.. then it rained again and then it rained and rained and rained and .. well, you get the picture. Now I'm something of a veteran when it comes to shooting outdoors in the UK in "Summer" so naive I was not but boy.. this was a drag and then some. Still being stoic British types we donned wet weather gear and carried on. Well actually that's not strictly true, one of us had wet weather gear the rest of us idiots just got properly wet.. oh how we laughed.
Despite all this "hilarity" the boat did arrive and looked as magnificent as I remembered it being and so did a while later our model Angelica for whom a similar adjective might be applied but well.. that's probably not quite appropriate, Angelica not being 96 years old and not made of wood for a start, or if she is she's looking bloody good on it!
Oh my aching sides I can hear you cry in unison.. Master of light and shade and stand up comic to boot .. who knew?!
I digress... neighbourly power duly applied to said smoke and haze machines it was time to light up the cubicles ( having removed an unsightly door covering one of them naturally) with our spiffing battery powered SMARTBATT LED lights, which being wireless and controllable via DMX from the lighting desk are a thing of beauty. David Johnson our intrepid lighting tech about town was patience personified as he constantly tweaked the position of all 12 of these little beasts as I equally constantly informed him " it's nice.. but not as nice as cubicle 5/6/9... you get the picture.
After a brief if rather dangerous foray into the upstairs and downstairs rooms of the derelict cottage to place lights behind all the windows and despite the rain stopping play for a time we were still about on schedule.
Eventually cubicles up lit, cottages back lit and model front/45 degree top lit it was time to start shooting.. (FINALLY!... I hear you cry in the aforementioned unison)
Look.. no one said this nonsense was gonna be easy ok? if it was easy everyone would be doing it as an old Liverpudlian friend of mine once dryly observed.
The best bit for me was having originally observed with a very sad demeanor that my " Ridley Scott " back lit clouds of haze behind the house were looking distinctly more X-Factor than X-Files I suddenly looked up from behind my iMac where I had been engrossed for thirty minutes to see a sight of true ethereal beauty. Dave J had let loose with a mighty burst of haze on full power a few minutes earlier and the daylight having receded just enough to let the Arena Visions do their thing, the cottage was indeed a vision to behold.
Getting Angelica in and out of the boat in heels and a variety of impractical head gear was a task I delegated to my partner and long suffering assistant in all things photographic Sarah Lillywhite. Fortunately when she's not assisting me or whipping people into shape in a responsible corporate environment at work she's busy whipping often equally reluctant people into actual shape in her role as a running coach & personal trainer. Thus crouching just out of sight holding the boat in exactly the same spot every time despite the kind of muscle burn that would have you or I running to the nearest physio was all in a day's work for her. Although I think she did draw the line at Dave J and his ever increasing arsenal of smoke bombs that crept ever nearer to her position towards the end.
Talking of smoke bombs, it's at this point I should point out the shadowy figure in the top hat and frock coat is the incredibly patient Matt Nesbeth who is also a trained lifeguard and a thoroughly lovely person too. So engrossed was I in my directing of Angelica and constantly battling with the chilled smoke machine and it's willfully poltergeist-like behavior to my right, that I completely failed to notice that while DJ was smoking up a storm with his box of bombs before every shot, poor old Matt was quietly being asphyxiated in the archway, but like the zen-like trouper he is he never said a word ( probably incapable of speech more to the point!)
I eventually realised that the model who was representing a phantom of the past was in danger of taking the role to a new and hitherto un-dreamed of level of realism and explained that he was totally at liberty to step out of DJ's "Nam style" levels of battle haze between takes.
Like I said... what a trouper!
Mindful that the wonderful Sally Helvey, our contact and champion at Cleveland Pools ( and also intrepid holder of the line at the other end of the skiff) was wary of upsetting the neighbours who hadn't accepted the previously mentioned " electricity subsidy" around midnight we finally called it a night.
It was 3.30 am when Sarah and I finally dragged our shattered bodies into the van after what was a grueling load out.. (that slope taking on Everest like proportions after working non stop for 14 hours) but I thanked all manner of Deities for my expensive but oh so sensible decision to leave that Generator of Doom in the van.
Poor Sarah was up two and a half hours later and I a couple of hours after that to start the process of returning all the lights, costumes and van. However, despite aching limbs and a large hole in my bank account it was all rendered worthwhile when the lovely Natalie who works at Savannah Home from whom we had borrowed the beautiful chrome globe at the front of the boat exclaimed on seeing a tiny picture on my iPhone " holy shit! that's amazing"
and that's why we do it folks..
I did mention the chrome globe?? run from the mains?? across the water?? no really?!
Ah, well I guess that's a story for another time....
P.S you can see a picture from the shoot and read more about my idea behind the look of the shoot and about Cleveland Pools ( and the truth behind the shadowy figure) in the September issue of The Bath Magazine and also in Bath Life.
BIG Thanks to:
Felicity Keefe for styling and art direction and for always making sure my shoots are " a little bit more Grace Coddington and a little less Wookey Hole sweetie", Angelica Baines and Matt Nesbeth our fantastic models, Clairelouise Bender Make Up Artist, full time babe and all round lovely person, Sarah Lillywhite, camera assistant, boat wrangler and soulmate, David Johnson, Andy Russell and Robbie Wood lighting and rigging crew and some of the best friends a chap could wish for, Candida Molyneaux at Savannah Home for the beautiful chrome globes, Rusette Auton for the always amazing outfits and props, Sarah Hardick at Bathwick Boat Hire for the oh so beautiful skiff, Gary Churchill at iMax lighting for Lighting hire, always cutting me a great deal and for lots of free advice, Nick Hobbs at Technical Hire for the loan of the lighting desk and for always supporting my endeavors, and last but not least Sally Helvey and all at Cleveland Pools trust for trusting me and letting me get this crazy image out of my head and into print.