Making Of: No Loose Ends
Creating a classic spy themed photo shoot is something that has been burning in the back of my mind for quite some time. The idea actually began a year ago when I stumbled across a fantastic picture that was hanging inside a photography store. You know the kind of photo that I'm talking about. This wasn't just any photo where you say "Oh yeah that's cool..." and move on. Nope, this was the kind of photo that puts fire in your breath and hungry motivation in your eyes. The one that you instantly adore and but respectfully envy. I think we've all at least seen one photo in our lives that moves us in such a way.
The photo that I saw featured two suited men (who were obviously government agents of some sort) sitting inside a car and watching over an SR-71 spy plane that was resting on a military runway. The perspective was taken from the back seat of the car, with the two agents sitting in the front seats on each side of the frame, and the plane could be seen directly in front of them through the windshield. The photo was a rare view into a world of extraordinary secrecy, and like any typical photographer, I had an intense desire to explore the concept.
I mulled over that inspiration for the remainder of the day and thought about how I could evolve it into something of my own, and after a while I began to ask myself, "What if there was a man outside of the car instead of that plane? What if the agents inside the car were not friendly and something serious was about to happen?" That would definitely bring a higher level of drama and would be an interesting story to tell.
Learning From the Best
With those initial ideas in mind, a larger story was slowly brewing to the surface, but it didn't all come a once. I actually sat on them for weeks until heftier, more exciting questions came into my mind. "What if the man outside of the car had a briefcase but we never knew what was in it? What if he negotiated with the agents but it deteriorated into something dangerous? What if these guys were bitter enemies who had a long history and were looking to end things here and now?" Of course the briefcase idea immediately made think of the murderous, yet eloquently scripted Pulp Fiction and the idea of a powerful final showdown between rivals had me re-watching the genius duel in The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (seriously if you haven't seen these movies then get to it! They are treasure troves of creativity). Also, since the story was going to show a risky, deadly negotiation taking place I figured I'd watch some scenes from my favorite TV show Breaking Bad. I paid especially close attention to the nail-biting meetings between Walter White and Gus Fring, the two drug kingpin characters who played many games of mental and violent chess throughout the series. Just like an actor, I wanted to fully immerse myself in the mood, the stress, and the treachery of these scenes. That way I could better understand the world that I was going to portray.
After soaking my brain in the genre long enough I was able develop plenty of scenes of my own. I had so many in fact, that I needed to design them in a cohesive way. "What if all of the photos had a specific order and made a story?" That was when the project finally became fully realized.
Since the photos needed to be organized with a clear opening, middle, and end, I pawned one more tool from the cinematic industry and created myself a storyboard. It was bizarre yet hilarious to see that my drawing skills hadn't evolved much since elementary school.
The Suit Makes the Man
The storyboard may have been a drawing abomination but it did the trick, and now it was time to transform those ugly stick figures into beautiful photographic reality. Throughout all my planning I already had a particular actor in mind that I wanted to have in front of the camera, and that was a friend that I had worked with in the past named Joel Mario Rickert. Joel was excellent for this shoot because although he is a happy, approachable guy who is easy to work with, he also has an intense "switch" that I always enjoy finding in an actor. This "switch" that I'm talking about is when an actor can flip their entire personality 180 degrees and act like a whole different creature within a moment's notice. Another unexpected bonus of working with Joel was that he had a perfect arsenal of 1960's suits and his cousin Tighe (who also had acting experience) was willing to donate himself and his beautiful 1966 Cadillac Coupe DeVille for the cause.
So we had two great actors, outstanding wardrobe, and a perfect car, but what could possibly go wrong? Of course in the world of art production nothing ever goes 100% according to plan. Just as we had set our sights on a shoot date in mid-March, Tighe's Cadillac broke down. We had to push the shoot back one more month and now without being able to get this major prop on location we had a bit of dilemma.
We looked at alternative cars to use, but in the end I just couldn't imagine the shoot without the Cadillac within it, so I had to come up with a new solution that I had never attempted before. The shoot would be broken up into two days: On the first day I would take all the photos with the Cadillac in it at Tighe's house, and on the second day I would photograph Joel and Tighe on location. Afterwards I would Photoshop the car into the scenes wherever it was needed.
Another challenge that we had to deal with was that we only had two actors for a shoot where three characters were going to be present (the two agents in the car and the lone briefcase-holding wanderer outside). But again, we put our heads together and found the remedy. Joel offered to play two characters in the shoot, and in order to do that he volunteered to shave off his manly beard (rest in peace) and dress in different clothes to make it more convincing. I also would reconstruct his face in Photoshop so that we could push the changes a step further.
In mid-April the shoot was finally underway, and just as I expected, photographing the Cadillac was where the project got the most technical. Not only did I have to Photoshop the car into the future location photos, but I also had to make the lighting look realistic. Any composites with different light directions would be easily spotted by the audience, so in order to fix that I photographed the car in the same lighting conditions that I knew I would be experiencing on the second day - full sunlight at around noon.
I also brought in my Profoto B1 strobes to add a little more finesse, because when I initially photographed the car the actors inside it were too dark to see. I placed the lights outside of the car with the heads aimed directly into the windows, that way we could see them inside.
The Two Gunmen
On our second day of shooting we geared up for an hour drive to one of my favorite locations - Montezuma Hills. I love this place because out here is a wonderful balance of aesthetics to work with for many different types of shoots. First off, the area is beautiful with miles and miles of lush green hills and rich blue skies; Both meeting between thousands of mesmerizing, twirling windmills. On the other hand, the land also feels abandoned, with dilapidated telephone poles and mangled, crusty roads scattered in every direction. It has an almost foreign, European-like elegance to it but then it also has an accent of honest, ramshackle character that all of us photographers go crazy for.
We kicked off the shoot by working on Joel and Tighe's duo agent portraits first. In these photos they continued acting as the two tough, grizzled agents who were in the car during the first shoot, but now at this point in the storyboard their characters had gotten out of the car and were preparing to face off with the lone wanderer.
The sun was bright and directly above us, but with a little lighting trickery I was going to make it look like it was hanging lower on the horizon.The reason I chose to do this was because when the sun gets lower we see heavier shadows, and when heavier shadows are present we as the viewers feel a greater sense of danger and drama. Of course I again busted out a Profoto B1s to get the job done.
There were three steps that I took to get the lighting exactly as I wanted. The first step was to overpower and replace the gnarly ambient sunlight with a light of my own. The easiest way to do that was to bring the B1 in close and max out the power, and since the B1 already has 500 Watts to work with that was no challenge at all.
The second step, was molding the strobe light in a way that would make it appear cleaner than the natural light while also still appearing realistic. I started by attaching an octabox to the strobe and didn't have much success. The modifier made the light too soft and silky compared to the fierce, hard edged sunlight, so eventually I just removed the octabox altogether. Usually its a no-no to have zero modifiers on your light when shooting portraiture but the secret with the B1 is that it has a small white diffusion disk made of glass that is already placed over the light. It actually looks fantastic when you want to mimic sunlight on a person's skin because it blends a nice balance of diffusion with the familiar degree of hardness that you would usually see.
The last, and final step to getting the light just right was to knock down the glaring ambient sunlight that was still lingering in the background. To do that I placed my camera on high speed sync and drastically sped up my shutter speed. The photo below was taken at 1/1250 of a second.
After completing the first duo shot it was time to create the individual headshots of the actors. In these photos I wanted to show the audience the true grit and very real hostility in the character's eyes. Almost as if you were facing off with them from a first-person perspective.
I already had an established lighting style from the previous photo so I barely changed my approach. The only difference in these photos was that I placed a large piece of cardboard between the actors and the sunlight so that I had less ambient lighting intruding on their faces.
The Lone Wanderer
The portraits of the two agents turned out great, and next up we were going to bring these two characters face-to-face with the lone wanderer (the mysterious man holding the briefcase who would oppose them). I always enjoyed the dramatic, wide open shots that you see in classic western movie showdowns, so I wanted to pay homage to that within this photo. Even without the sounds, motion, and other sensory aids found in a movie, I think the audience would be quite familiar with that cinematic suspense that I was aiming for. It's that moment where the characters square off with no options of turning back. When the air and the landscape itself grows heavy and still. When the tension between them becomes unbearable.
Just as I had mentioned earlier, in order for us to show all three of these characters with only two actors, Joel was going to portray both the lone wanderer and one of the agents at the same time. The plan to pull this off was simple. In order to create a photo where we could see both characters we'd actually have to take two separate photos and later composite them together. The first photo would be taken with Joel and Tighe as the agent characters on one end of the scene, and the second photo would be taken with Joel alone as the lone wanderer character.
I picked a stretch of road, locked my camera on a tripod (so that the scene would be photographed exactly the same between the two shots) and then placed two small pebbles at the places where the characters would stand their ground. Joel and Tigh stood at the first marker and began staring down their imaginary enemy. After a few shutter clicks it was then Joel's opportunity to switch sides. I still can't thank him enough for sacrificing his awesome beard. As he shaved, the older, more sinister agent faded away and the younger, more innocent appearing lone wanderer appeared. Joel then ran back to the scene and stood at the opposite marker so we could complete the shot.
After the big showdown scene was finished there were only a few photos of the lone wanderer left to take. We took photos of Joel walking by himself on the open road (which would be the opening scene) and more of him stopping and watching the agent's car approaching on the horizon.
Overall we worked on the shoot for about 3 hours. We munched on some PB&J sandwiches, nursed our sunburns (I personally was reborn as a lobster-man), and we headed home. We definitely felt a sense of artistic pride and victory for this project - because not only was it riddled with creative hurdles that we overcame, but because we also had just contributed a unique spin on a photography that, as far as I know, is still rarely seen. Most photo shoots will a few shots with matching themes, but few have a cohesive, in-order narrative like this one. Personally I think it adds a new exciting challenge to photography that I can't wait to try again.
Please enjoy the slideshow below.