Fashion Film: Two-Point-O
My wardrobe stylist, Kyle Luu, was interested in setting up a test with Gift, a model with One.1 Model Management. I’ve been wanting to shoot more on location work and recently another stylist friend of mine (Torr Love over at leopardmilkshake.com), told me about shooting out at Chelsea Skate Park. I really liked the large concrete structures out there, so I went out and scouted it the day before, along with another skate park I was considering. After checking out Chelsea and another location under the Manhattan Bridge, it was clear that Chelsea was the right spot for what I wanted to do.
When scouting the skate park, I looked for potential areas I could shoot. I kept the ideas I was coming up with very general. I’d think stuff to myself like “she can do something with the fence,” “she can stand in front of this concrete wall,” “maybe she can stand in this turnstile entrance.” I don’t go too specific because I know we’ll explore things on the day.
When shooting in a public space, it’s absolutely necessary to keep an open mind and to have many options available. You never know what the situation on the ground will be on the day. It might be extremely crowded, some event you didn’t know about could be going on, or a security guard having a bad day will just kick you out. If you’re emotionally attached to a specific preconceived image, it can end up distracting you on the day because you can end up putting in a lot of effort trying to perfectly create a shot that you had in your mind. While that might seem obvious, like it’s something you’d want to do, my point is, by being attached to an overdeveloped image in your head, you can sometimes make it harder to be happy with what you get; make it harder to appreciate the value that’s slapping you in the face because you’re too focused on some distant horizon and you’re inflexible. Not saying that’s always the case or that I’m saying something that’s true 100% of the time, but just speaking for myself, I’m usually more satisfied with the result of my labor when I come in with open ideas and with an open mind and open eyes than when I come in demanding of myself to create something that for all I know, wasn’t realistic from the outset (maybe what I was hoping to shoot is not technically possible, or if it is, for whatever reason the situation makes it difficult for imagination and reality to meet in the camera.) That said, if you have permits, if you have control of the set, if you have the ability to really adjust the situation, then you most definitely would want to shoot whatever intricate imagery you came up with in pre-production. It’s about balancing the realities of production against the hopes and dreams of pre-production.
It turned out that Gift had to go to a last minute casting, so we ended up only having about three hours to shoot. I typically assume hair and makeup takes about an hour, so in my mind, we only had 2 effective hours to shoot photos AND a fashion film. That’s not easy. It’s one thing if you have a clean background, like seamless white or something like that, but on location, it usually takes a little more creativity to milk the scene. Not that it’s particularly difficult to get good shots if you have a solid eye, but it’s in knowing whether or not you’ve fully exploited a particular shot. So yeah, maybe you got some solid shots in the turnstile, with the model grabbing the fence, or posing on top of some structure, but how far did you explore? How hard did you push the ideas? Sometimes it’s not so much the quality of what you got that determines whether you’re done shooting. Sometimes it’s what you didn’t figure out, what you didn’t see that can be scary. You cast the net, but then you have to commit to pulling it back too.
No real secret to handling the time. I just kept an eye on the clock, and made it a point to shoot a bit more mechanically. That is, some closeup eyes and lips, some closeup of the whole face, medium shots, details of the clothes, and full body to include some tilts (up and down camera moves) of the clothing. Cover the bases and then move on. When an interesting idea came up, like Gift improvising an interesting action, we explored it, but spent maybe just two, three takes on it. More than that and I was probably just shooting duplicate footage. (It’s one thing to shoot multiple takes when you have time and the mental room to experiment and think through things. It’s another thing entirely to shoot multiple takes in a rush.)
Again, that’s not to say that it only takes two hours to shoot something like this. The extra time allows you to explore, to find the shot that isn’t obvious and that can yield immense value by way of making the content stickier and more memorable precisely because it’s unorthodox and not the first thing that comes to mind when you’re presented with the situation. Also, it usually takes time for those sweet mistakes and generous moments of chaos and chance to present themselves. But be reasonable. Don’t make the shoot a 12 hour day that bleeds into overtime. Eventually you’re going to hit diminishing returns.
A lot of my direction for models in my fashion films lies in just telling the model to keep moving and to keep changing within certain general boundaries (lean on the wall, look this way, close your eyes, walk in a circle, etc.) Models who don’t do much video aren’t used to moving continuously without stopping to pose. On top of all that, I’ll direct the speed of the changing and the movement in general. I’ll tell the model to keep it slow and subtle, make it fast and violent, or to go back and forth between the two randomly. It really depends on what the models does in the moment that determines what I tell her next, so we vibe off each other’s energy. She interprets what I say and then what she does informs my next direction. We dance around a moving, invisible goal.
As we shot this video, there were skateboarders all around us. There weren’t many, but we definitely did not have the place to ourselves. Shooting more and more on location, I’m finding that it’s a skill set in itself dealing with the external energy of people who aren’t involved in the shoot. Generally speaking, when you show up with a gorgeous 6’ model and a fancy camera, it’s a spectacle. Suddenly you’re a tourist attraction. People want to be around it. Depending on how you handle that energy (which can be fairly unpredictable, especially if you attract the attention of awkward, creepy guys), it can help or hinder the shoot.
Security, on the other hand, does not typically view the situation in the same way. From my experience, it can really put employees of the location on edge. For some, it’s a question of whether or not they’re going to get in trouble for letting you shoot there. For others, it’s a question of whether or not you’re supposed to be paying someone for permission to shoot. Even if you have all the legal rights to be somewhere, trying to convince a guard who believes otherwise is an uphill battle that often isn’t worth fighting. (Which is why shooting on something like the NEX-7 really comes in handy. It’s one thing to draw people’s attention, but it’s another thing if they think you’re doing something commercial, something with a budget.) Basically, security is not your friend and you should have a plan for coming into contact with them—what to say, your cover story, making sure the whole team is on the same page, etc.
We had no problems at our location. The skateboarders, I think, liked the novelty of the situation. It’s not every day a non-fashion person sees a fashion shoot.
We had the makeup artist and stylist set up on a park bench nearby. We started the shoot at 9AM on a Tuesday, so there was really no one around to bother. We had room to take up. When we were shooting, I made sure that someone was always near the gear for security.
One issue that became a problem was it wasn’t really obvious where the bathrooms were. Sure, sometimes you’ll hear that “the model can suffer,” but really, it not just the model that’s out there. The makeup artist doesn’t necessarily come in assuming that a bathroom isn’t going to be nearby (particularly in NYC). It’s just a convenient thing to keep in mind, and it’s useful for production because it can eat up a lot of time if an important person (like the photographer) ends up having to search for a bathroom.
I was looking to shoot on a sunny day so I could get some highlights and shadows in the shot, as opposed to a cloudy day where there isn’t much in the way of highlights and shadows.
With photos, it’s easier to have a plan B when it comes to lighting. Depending on your equipment, it’s likely you can just throw up a flash somewhere and sculpt the lighting situation a bit. But for video, if the lighting in the area isn’t doing it for you, that can be a pretty major problem because unless you have a tiny portable light that actually does something for the shot, continuous lights of meaningful intensity are usually large, hot, and run off something more substantial than batteries. That’s not even getting into the fact that legally, you can’t just set down a C-stand somewhere and throw on a soft-box plugged into a wall. Alternative plans for bad weather, when you’re shooting video, require a lot more open and creative thinking. My plan B for this situation was if the lighting was bland, to focus more on movement, expression, and interesting interactions with the space, something a little more extreme than what I was really going for. Basically, change the fundamental content rather than just the lighting.
Following the lead of the photos I shot for this project, I went with a sort of a hacked image aesthetic. I went for mostly digital distortions (pixelated noise, ghost images), but I mixed it in with stuff that was more like analog VHS distortion (color fringes and abberation, distorted audio).
I really wish that I had some kind of plug-in that could do the kind of effects I was looking for, but unfortunately I more or less had to do everything “by hand.” It’s a bit beyond the scope of this post to try and explain how I did all the various distortions, but basically it involved a lot of layers, playing with blending modes, using masks and custom shapes and images, messing with curves, and then stacking them on top of each other. Also, while basically the entire video is in slow motion (60fps @ 40% speed), I reduced some shots to 10% or 5% speed to produce a kind of stuttering effect. It’s the sort of thing I see when I’m trying to watch videos on YouTube and I have a slow connection.
I wanted to avoid making the video too hacked. I spaced out the distortions and tried to have some variance between them in terms of how intense and how long the distortion would last. I also didn’t want to distort the video in a way where it would detract from the underlying content, so I tried to make it so that the model always showed through and that you could see the styling. Not everyone will agree with the balance that I constructed between the content (model, styling, lighting, location), and the style (hack effect). But for those that do agree with it, I hope they find a lot of value in it. For those that don’t, I hope they like one of the other videos in my body of work.
For the intro of Gift walking back and forth behind the gate, I arbitrarily (randomly) placed clips on top of each other and set the top layer to screen blend mode. I looked for interesting relationships between the two layers of footage and then I’d switch layers out and cut them to tweak. Overall though, I began from a randomized starting point, and then I adjusted things from there.
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