Behind-The-Scenes: Ash Angel ~ Part 2

Episode 4: I See Your Face - Fomapan 400

I See Your Face

It's so obvious that I doubt I need to state that this is the linchpin of the entire series. It was from this that all of the preceding and successive images were born. Its generation and inspiration were threefold, at its blackened core is a remnant of a singularly disturbing nightmare that I can still recall from twelve years ago, the characterizations are a slight deference to the Batman: Court of Owls storyline, I merged those two and wrapped them in a dark noir shell whose influences I spoke of earlier.

An out of character group shot.

This interior location is about three miles removed from its "exterior" in the previous image. The setting and blocking for this was far too complex for me to do anything but cast talent for every role. Logistics dictated that this had to be a day-for-night shot, which while advantageous made it unbearably hot inside. However, the ambient daylight was put to creative use. Outside of frame left is a large bay door, and we opened it to flood the scene with a base-level of light, about 1 & 1/2 stops under exposure. Two diffused 2K fresnels were placed frame left and a single diffused 1K fresnel was off camera right for ambient fill. We needed a generator for this shoot, since the location was the victim of the theft of all of the live copper wiring the night prior. This is the only shot in the series where I felt it necessary to use a color filter. I employed a Yellow #8 to help lighten the floors, walls, and the baby.

Yes, he's a real baby! This was the first time I had my son model for me, at four months old. I had fully expected him to be screaming and crying being in a 100 degree room with masked people, but he was as bubbly and happy as he always was and still is. That makes for a much more disquieting photograph in my opinion. I was very specific on his placement in the shot. I wanted the viewer(s) to see the entire room first, scan its decrepit walls, and look at the characters until they find the baby. Without the environment the inclusion of the baby is meaningless, without the baby the scene means nothing. To introduce either in a more obvious way is pandering and gratuitous, it reeks of lack of confidence and an amateur mentality.

It's also consciously not a true POV shot, although it is close. The talent were all given an eyeline about 1" higher than the lens and a little to the right. Having them stare directly at camera, breaking the fourth wall, would have been disastrous. At best that approach only works with glamour photography and even then it's horribly overused. To do that with a narrative image transposes the viewer into a direct participant in the scene. To know how ineffective this is as a creative tool you only have look at the movies that never do this. Which is nearly all of them. Here, the viewer is entering the scene along with the "Detective", he's the focus of their attention, therefore the entire scene is open to the viewer.

Episode 5: Worth Fighting For - Delta 400

Worth Fighting For

For purely technical reasons this was the first image I shot. I needed to allow for time to reshoot in case the effect I wanted didn't work. I'm a fan and adherent of practical FX, if it can be photographed in-camera then I will always choose that option over a digital fix. I held true to that philosophy here, everything in this shot is on the original negative. Of course if I had attempted to sync the camera shutter to the firing of a handgun I'd still be at my studio trying to shoot this.

For the gunfire effect I appropriated a technique used in the film Robocop (1987), namely the FX used for some of the close-ups of ED-209 firing its primary weapon in the boardroom during its introduction. For those shots, the gun barrels were fitted with photostrobes and long teased out cotton balls were attached to the tips. So that when the photostrobes fired it gave the illusion of a muzzle flash. A stupidly simple technique that works stupidly well. It was simple to adapt it for my use, although I couldn't modify the gun to fit an adequately powerful light source. Therefore I used two external sources, 1K open-face lamps, on either side of the gun. The lamp camera right was tightly snooted so that it would fall off mid-gun, perpetuating the illusion that the muzzle flash was lighting the gun. I used a spot meter on the cotton and plastic "muzzle flash", and lit it 3 stops over exposure.

Crude proof-of-concept testing.

A 2K fresnel was placed camera left for the visqueen "wings" and as a very sidey light for the "Detective." Since his entire wardrobe is black on black, I lit him a full stop over exposure with a bank of fluorescent lamps and a 4x4 bounce card. In practice I almost always light or overlight the blacks/shadows. This allows for much greater image and contrast control. If I were to simply let the blacks/shadows fall off to complete under exposure, then I would be stuck with that level of black, there would be no information on the negative. If I wanted or needed more detail I'd have to reshoot it or live with that mistake. By increasing the exposure level for the blacks/shadows, you'll have that additional density and information on the negative and it's a simple matter to drop those levels down if they are a little too bright. You can always make the blacks blacker, but you can't always bring light and information out of the dark, unless you light it that way. Hope that makes sense.

Blocking and lighting the shot.

This is the only photo in the series where I used any form of diffuse camera filtration. To help sell the effect of the muzzle flash I used a Black Frost filter to softly halate the highlights and help soften the already shallow depth-of-field. I intentionally directed the talent to have a dead expression in his eyes. Just an empty dispassionate stare. I wanted the viewer to insert their own emotional interpretation onto that blank slate.

Episode 6: Mercy - Fomapan 400

Mercy

A relatively simple setup and relight from Episode 4. I had originally wanted a high angle that revealed a floor covered in bodies, but the low height of the ceiling prohibited that. Instead of being stubborn and trying to photograph the shot as I had originally planned, I altered it into a low canted angle. The choice of the Fomapan stock really shines in this image, the shallow depth-of-field really shows off the heavy grain structure. It's soft and dirty, an excellent contrast from the crispness of the previous image.

The open bay door is directly behind camera in this shot, and that change in angle made that light a very soft frontal fill. It was far too shapeless and intense for my liking, so we moved the grip truck to act as a large bounce source through the open bay door. It gave us a lot more control to shape and cut it with flags. Instead of a wash of soft ambient light, the new bounce source gave it some direction and falloff, and I let it go about 2/3 stop under exposure. The two 2K fresnels were moved far camera right and a little behind talent, to light them and the floor without reflecting in the white mask. The "Detective" and background were lit solely with the bounce source.

A relatively simple setup and relight from Episode 4. I had originally wanted a high angle that revealed a floor covered in bodies, but the low height of the ceiling prohibited that. Instead of being stubborn and trying to photograph the shot as I had originally planned, I altered it into a low canted angle. The choice of the Fomapan stock really shines in this image, the shallow depth-of-field really shows off the heavy grain structure. It's soft and dirty, an excellent contrast from the crispness of the previous image.

The open bay door is directly behind camera in this shot, and that change in angle made that light a very soft frontal fill. It was far too shapeless and intense for my liking, so we moved the grip truck to act as a large bounce source through the open bay door. It gave us a lot more control to shape and cut it with flags. Instead of a wash of soft ambient light, the new bounce source gave it some direction and falloff, and I let it go about 2/3 stop under exposure. The two 2K fresnels were moved far camera right and a little behind talent, to light them and the floor without reflecting in the white mask. The "Detective" and background were lit solely with the bounce source.

The location reeked of mildew, decay, stale wine, and fresh A1 sauce.

In our haste to prepare for this location (five photos from another series were shot here on this day), we completely forgot our bottle of fake blood. While lighting this shot, my Production Designed drove to a nearby gas station to find a quick replacement. Since it was a B&W shot I imagined that he'd come back with thick motor oil, not a bottle of A1 sauce. Our poor talent reeked of a chain steakhouse for the rest of the shoot.

Episode 7: Forever After - Delta 400

Forever After

The final image in the series was also the last to be shot, sort of. This is its second iteration and one of the rare times I've had to reshoot a scene. I got it right the second time. In its first incarnation I had trouble securing the car I wanted. The vehicle we wound up shooting was decent at best, but should've been better. I almost broke down and rented a DeLorean for the shoot but felt that it was too iconic and would detract from the scene. It would've been more about the car than anything else in the shot. I couldn't get the classic muscle car I wanted, so I changed my approach and chose the Mini Cooper.

I honestly loved everything about the original shot except for the damn car. The blocking, lighting, and posing were great, so I re-created all of those. The car and woman were lit with a 2K fresnel (camera right) heavily diffused with Lee 216 (Full White diffusion) on a 4"x4" frame. It was carefully cut and controlled with flags to eliminate all reflection on the car hood and windshield. I didn't want it to look like a damn car ad. The fence was raked with a 1K fresnel (camera left), and the "Detective" was blasted with a naked 2K fresnel (camera right), all powered by a generator. The Delta 400 stock was the only choice for this, carrying over the texture and grain from the previous shot would've felt more like a continuation rather than a conclusion.

The lighting setup with the original car.

This is the singular instance in the series where you can recognizably see someone's face. To me that choice was unavoidable. There needed to be a human face for emotional resonance and closure. Even though with this coda the woman has not yet achieved that closure, although the audience knows it is imminent, her reaction instead focuses on sorrow. It was a dark series about dark things, any other emotion or reaction would have detracted from that overall atmosphere. Like Morgan Freeman hitting Brad Pitt in the face with a pie at the end of Se7en. I didn't want to defuse or chicken out of what I'd created, so I rode it out until the end.

The biggest lesson to take away from all of this is that this and all of my photography is the product of intense planning and preparation. The first and last image in this series were shot almost three months apart, but maintained a visual style and continuity. I cannot overstate how much of this is because of the lighting. Lighting a scene is never merely about proper exposure, anyone can achieve that. The creation of mood, atmosphere, texture, and depth are all achieved with careful and practiced lighting. All of these were "lit on paper" with hand-drawn lighting plots before they were ever shot. Light and lighting are predictable and known quantities, once you understand what light can do, you can visualize it without ever looking through a camera or being on set.

Having a written plan and style for the lighting is paramount when creating a style and visual continuity. As are other factors such as wardrobe, props, camera filtration, film stocks, lens choices, et al. Even little things like the inclusion of dirty visqueen (plastic sheeting), helped to unite three images that were shot in vastly different locations. Having a visual style locked down made it much easier to alter the original script and cope with unanticipated problems, like a ceiling being too low or needing one person play three. It also meant that very little post-production was needed for the series. I did finish them digitally, but all that was necessary in Photoshop were some Level adjustments and dodging and burning. And the composite work on Episode 3 of course. Having a plan can allow for creative cheats as well, like having the "Detective" wear a mask meant that I didn't have to work around any talent with a fickle schedule. Which is why "he's" played by someone different in every shot. This was also more fun for my talent as it meant that nobody had a complete picture of the narrative, they discovered it for the first time when viewing the final product along with everyone else.

 

Now It's Dark.