The Return ~ Production Diary

Scars of the Shattered Sky ~ Episode 1: The Return

As much as I would love for the mystique of this image and its subsequent series to remain intact, I've never not answered questions about my work. And this one has generated more aesthetic and technical questions than most. Since one of the points of my Blog and technical style is to educate, it would be pretty disingenuous for me to walk away from honest curiosity for the sake of maintaining an enigma. So here's the entire production process, laid out as best I can, reconstructed from notes, shoddy behind-the-scenes photos, and fractured memories.

Photo Specs:

Camera: Mamiya RB67

Lens: 90mm w/ 2x extender & Anamorphic Adaptor @f/64

Film: Fomapan 400

Processing: Rodinal @1:50 dilution

The first thing to note is that this is a single exposure, shot on film, and the entire look is photographic and was achieved in-camera and via processing. But this is definitely not the same thing as me parking my ass at a location and waiting for a legendary swarm of birds that may never appear. My typical and comfortable photographic style is conceptual and cinematic, meaning that I plan, stage, and build the scenery of an image. It's a very laborious process that takes a lot of time and the assistance of more than a few people. The time aspect is the worst part, as since the birth of my son it is something that I have had none of. Since this is my career and I work project-to-project, I'm the SAHD while my wife goes to work. This situation hit me professionally a lot harder than I thought possible, and until I shot this image I had only done one other project in 2015, a commissioned piece that looked great but ended bitterly and horribly. I uselessly fought against the harsh reality of being stuck at home with a toddler, unable to shoot anything the way I normally would. Eventually I accepted the obvious realization that my style needed to change, at least for the near future. This forced me to revisit Teddy Roosevelt's axiom; Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

I needed to find a way to create something just to stay sane, so I tore down everything I knew and rebuilt it smaller and simpler. It was a careful rearrangement of my knowledge and experiences. So many years were spent refining and perfecting my style that I never once thought it would have to be reinvented. Sometimes growth is painful. So I designed a shot, an introduction of a new series, that I could shoot in my living room after my son went to bed at night. It was designed around things I had on-hand and wouldn't have to leave my stately prison to obtain. Cameras, film, chems, grip gear, lighting, my stockpiled arsenal. One other thing I'd accumulated are shots of skies. Hundreds of them. Mostly taken for time-lapse shots, motion picture background plates, or music videos. I figured they would be a good linchpin to thematically and stylistically anchor a series. So I crafted an entire photographic approach based upon rear-projection combined with multiplane camera animation, or an exotic matte shot if you will. I wasn't sure to what degree of success or failure I'd have, so I tried to keep the concept simple and use birds.

Along with inventing a new style I figured it would be good to go one step further and take a detour away from horror. It had become so familiar as to be boring, a sickening comfortability wherein little challenge remained. I wanted more of a subtle and amorphous emotional response. One born of a more mature and poetic attempt. It's not a stylistic direction I would've attempted or even considered if not for my current circumstances. You can never know where life will take you, adaptation is always necessary.

The background sky image was originally shot on 35mm reversal, so I dropped the chroma, lowered the contrast, and displayed it on a 42" HD monitor as my background plate. The birds were printings, drawings, and tracings on plastic transparency sheets, placed at different distances from the HD monitor. I needed room to stage the "Bird Mattes", so I used a 2x extender with my 90mm lens so that I could back my camera off about 10' from the monitor. I had an anamorphic adaptor designed for a DVX-100 mini-DV cam, so I put new threading on it so that it would mount to my 90mm lens. 

Rethreading the Anamorphic Adaptor - the Mamiya RB67 with 90mm lens, 2x Extender & Anamorphic Adaptor - full 20" build with 4"x4" Matte Box

I chose to use the anamorphic adaptor because the aspect ratio of HD monitors are not equivalent to 6x7cm film. This way I was able to waste far less negative space as it squeezed my image to fill more of the neg. Of course the image needs to be unsqueezed afterward, either digitally (if scanning) or optically. All of this made for a very rigid process that was rather technical and math-heavy.

To get the shot I wanted, I needed the most Depth-of-Field possible. So I stopped down to an f/32 (technically an f/64 with the 2x extender) and focused at 8', which gave me a usable DoF of about 55". It was within those 55" that I placed the Bird Mattes that I wanted in focus. That depth allowed me to control the apparent size of the birds by placing them closer or further from the camera. I also had to align the center of the camera lens with The center of the HD monitor to prevent keystoning. I based my exposure on a reflected meter reading of an 18% Grey field on the HD monitor that I made in Photoshop. I burned a whole roll (ten shots) on this, and my fastest exposure was 1 second. Because of that I used my cable release and mirror-lock function on the camera to reduce shake. Which was pretty damn important since the lens was physically very long. I took careful notes of the distances and required exposure times. I used a Schneider Classic Soft filter to diffuse the highlights and soften the edges of the birds, and placed a burning can of Sterno in front of the lens so I was shooting through its heat shimmer. I also lit the Bird Matte in the foreground with a 1K tungsten lamp to lift its black level and add a bit of depth.

My notes and measurements on camera elevation, camera distance, focus distance, exposure times, and Depth-of-Field.

From my inside perspective I don't know if all of this sounds easy or difficult, but the photography alone took over ten hours across two days. My first attempt was an abysmal failure and will never disturb the public eye. My exposure was off and my Bird Matte transparencies were not entirely transparent. The edges of the sheets were plainly visible, and they were almost opaque wherever they overlapped by more than 2 sheets. At least it was a productive failure. For the second attempt I scalloped and cut the edges of the transparencies to match the cloud patterns and was very careful about how they overlapped. Pain in the ass. Making the Bird Mattes was at least a day and a half, all told it was much more time than I anticipated. It was a relief to see that it actually worked out in the end, as the level of difficulty in making an image is never an indicator of its inherent quality.

Day one vs. day two.

After it was shot, I developed the roll in Rodinal at 1:50 dilution. Based on the contrast inherent in the image I didn't want the blacks to fall off too much with a stronger solution. The level of grain is intentional, which is why I chose the Fomapan and Rodinal.

I almost went with Ilford 3200 but I really think it would've been grain overkill. I am an enormous fan and ardent defender of an appropriate level of grain in an image. I personally loathe smooth, plastic, and featureless images. There were minimal Photoshop tweaks, just some Level adjustments and selective burning on some of the smaller birds, as the filtration made the highlights bleed around a few of them.

The remainders of Scars of the Shattered Sky will slowly be unveiled. Once it is concluded I can't be sure if I will ever use this technique or style ever again. That alone is enough of a reason to document it here. If it's an aberration in my career I hope that it proves to be an interesting one.