Sometimes you just get it right. Everything works. On this shoot, I guess I should have seen it coming when the company helicopter pilot invited me to fly his helicopter to the Rustenburg factory. I mean really, how lucky can one get?

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The company, a ferrochrome beneficiation facility, melts and smelts crushed ferrochrome ore and exports the raw material. It is based in Rustenburg, where most of the world’s ferrochrome deposits are to be found. Not to mention some of the worst traffic. Hence the dedicated helicopter to ferry us from Lanseria. Just to put the records straight, I have never flown a helicopter, but with the collective set and the pilot’s feet firmly on the rudder, all I had to do was steer with the cyclical, miss the clouds and stay under 5500ft. Very cool. And very unlike the heat that met us at the factory.

Ferrochrome melts at over 1000 degrees C. It is exceptionally hot close to the kilns, and you have to wear the long sleeve protective jackets and other PTE gear. It is also very dusty inside the huge sheds – teams of sweepers work constantly to gather the dust and shovel it back into heaps. My poor Nikon D4. Damn good thing it is weather-sealed!

My job was to shoot images of the operations for the company web site, brochures and corporate publications. Initially, despite the boost from the chopper flight, I had serious misgivings about the job. I had two days only, and a vast area to cover. IMG_7413JWBSThe problem was, these people worked hectically fast, moving around and never standing still. Lots of blurry shots. The light levels inside were very low, forcing an average ISO of around 2200 in order to get any depth in the shots. On top of that, as soon as they poured the molten ore, the light levels would scream up from a 30th of a second to sometimes over 4000th of a second! I normally shoot manual but here reverted to aperture priority, yet still could not keep up without blowing out detail, even with a -1 EV dialled in.

After a few hours of shunting around trying to capture the action, I realised I needed a change of tack. I stopped, walked around and started marking nice locations, and planned a few “hero” shots. I knew I would have to “ambush” shots – set up for the expected exposure during a pouring, position an extra flash on wireless remote to fill it shadows on the deep shade side away from the furnace, and wait for the light levels to reach the preset level.

On top of this, I briefed the workers, got them to stand at the ready in places where they would work in my composition, and then let them get on with it. And this was when things started working in my favour. Literally just clicking into place. It was like you just could not go wrong. _ND40745s

I was even lucky enough to be in a particular spot when the sweeper team raised a cloud of dust that gave me a perfectly streaked white background for some silhouette shots. I had the workers all lined up already, and got the shots sorted in no time, then raced up to an observation desk to use the dusty backdrop with some pouring drama in the foreground.

_ND40570sStill, it was one of the most extreme locations I’ve had to shoot in. The dirt sifted down on everything, got into everything. I have rarely been this dirty and sweaty, and nor has my Nikon. The dust however did give beautiful texture to everything.

_ND40780For some of the portraits, I used a Speedlight on a pole close in to the subject and snooted to 105mm for a narrow beam of light that nicely picked up this grittiness, and gives a sense of what kind of conditions these guys work in.

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It’s an extremely dangerous place – the kilns full of molten ore are craned overhead, often still dripping bits of lava, and there is a very strict protocol to be observed when you work here. A couple of times I had to be shouted at to get out of the way of the hot stuff while I was concentrating on finding new locations rather than my immediate surroundings.

In hindsight, everything worked in my favour to leave me with probably my highest hit-rate of useable shots from a shoot. Ever.

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I had the most awesome backdrops to work with, the most naturally gritty, dirty, Black Label-type locations, an array of huge, steampunk-looking machinery to add a sense of scale, and workers falling over themselves to be be part of the shoot. At some stage, my client wanted me to sit in on briefing for the web site copy, but I declined. It’s not often that you get onto a roll like this, and I was not going to spoil it with a meeting! Hell no!

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Thanks to Johan Winterbach for the additional images and the loan of some clean socks and shirts after I forgot mine!

Another behind-the-scenes post from Wordsource Productions.

Find images such as these on iStockphoto.com

 

 

Shakin’ with Shakatak

Posted: April 2, 2014 in Shoots in short

Angola border, 1982. Me bordering on insane, if it wasn’t for Shakatak’s jazz. Little did I know I would one day meet my idols.SH_ND41420

It was one of those tapes that got played incessantly, two Shakatak albums recorded on both sides. I could air-guitar every riff, play the electronic piano solos like I’d written them. Even years later, I could still remember every chorus line, and drum the solos on my steering while while driving. Shakatak was part of my upbringing, a mystical band from far away that kept churning out the hits.

Fast-forward to the 2014 Cape Town Jazz Festival, and by the time I surface from whatever job was occupying my being, all tickets were sold out. And Shakatak was headlining. Drat.

A chance mention of an extra concert on a radio program had me scampering to buy a ticket. Once I had my ticket, I was thinking – you want to sit at the back and watch this show? Then I had a brainwave. I contacted the event company, the very friendly people at Barooch and PR firm Networx Pr and offered to shoot the event for free. It came with an all-access pass, to my great delight.

Sunday afternoons are made for jazz. Capetonians came in their droves to the concert, and patiently sat through the opening acts, building up a pretty good head of steam for the moment that the band would step on stage.

Roger Odell, drummer for Shakatak

Drummer Roger Odell sharing some history. Pic by Jacques Bartie

Backstage, I met drummer Roger Odell and was astounded to learn that the band still toured extensively, played around 100 concerts a year and was about to launch a new album. WTF? These guys are not young anymore, where do they get the energy?SH_ND41433

And energy there was aplenty when lead singer Jill Saward, keyboardist Bill Sharpe, bassist George Anderson and vocalist Jackie Rawe stepped on stage. It was more or less here where my dilemma made itself felt – do I shoot the crap out of this event, or chill and enjoy the show? Both won – I worked the Nikon D4 to its limits in the difficult light, as the band members were half in and half out of direct sunshine.

Not ideal, nor were the shooting positions available to myself and photographers Jacques Bartie and Simon Shiffmann. Being a daylight event, it was difficult to isolate the band members against a very cluttered background, even shooting wide open on my 70-200m f2.8 lens. It was really tight, and being on stage didn’t really help either, due to the huge contrast range we had to deal with. SH_ND41412

Outside, the crowd was insatiable and showed their appreciation. It was amazing to watch, close up, how the Shakatak band members enjoyed the crowd’s pure enjoyment. They were grinning from ear to ear. Clearly, the thrill of this kind of crowd participation never wears off!

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Another behind the scenes look from Wordsource Productions.

 

 

 

 


Getting onto an aircraft without being in possession of a visa for your destination country is not a good idea. Not in a first world country, and most certainly not in a third world one. Now if that country is war-torn Sudan, you gotta ask yourself some serious questions about your sanity.

Which is how we found ourselves “stranded” in Dubai on a recent transfer to Sudan, waiting for our visas before boarding the plane to Khartoum. Myself and business associate Johan Winterbach had been drafted in to accompany a client to the country for a fact-finding mission to a new oil field in the south of the country, and to collect video and stills material for a production aimed at shareholders.

In Dubai, we had to lay over as we had missed our first booked flight to Khartoum due to the non-appearance of our visas.  To compound matters, we had no real idea of what we would encounter. And I’m not talking political upheaval. We had no idea what we would be shooting, and could not plan accordingly. Due to space issues, I could only pack one stills camera and a few lenses, or one video camera and tripod. Lugging a heavy Manfrotto video tripod over desert terrain however clinched it, so the Nikon D4 and a lightweight Manfrotto tripod went into the bag.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai,

The Burj Khalifa, Dubai: the world’s tallest building.

But back to Dubai, where we were stationed in hotel close to the famous Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall. We took full advantage of this opportunity to see as much of the city as we could, and I even found a rare Nikkor 105mm DC lens in a shop, which miraculously found space in my crowded camera bag.

Twenty four hours later, however, we were at the airport, anxiously watching an email inbox for the long-awaited visas, and literally five minutes before the gates closed, we showed the laptop screen to the airport officials to verify our visas had been issued, and we were allowed through the gates!

Khartoum, Sudan

Khartoum, Sudan

We arrived at Khartoum, a flat, sprawling city on the confluence of the White and Blue Nile Rivers, shortly before sunset. Around it, flat Sahara landscape, nothing else, with the low sun casting long shadows from the flat-roofed buildings across dusty streets. It was exactly as I had imagined it would be, and I could feel my trigger finger starting to itch. The trouble was, I had read that taking pictures without official permission was strictly forbidden. Due to the short notice period before our departure from South Africa, though, there was no time to organise anything.

Sudan, Khartoum, Muslim clerics

Members of a Khartoum mosque welcoming a returning imam at the city airport

On landing, however, my perception of this desert city and country changed completely. To start with, it was VIP treatment the whole way. I was just getting used to flying flying business class. But to be picked up ON the runway by a black van with flashing blue lights was a new experience. Whisked off to a VIP lounge, our passports were taken away and all immigration admin taken care of while we sipped water and coffee. At some point I meandered out of the airport lounge to see what was causing a bit of a commotion outside. It was a large gathering of Muslim clerics forming a welcoming party for an imam returning from Mecca. Lots of singing and dancing in a big circle. Great photo opp, but damn, I was not going to haul out the Nikon. Until one of our receiving party encourage me to take pictures. You sure? Yes of course! It is a great occasion, please do, he said.

I pulled out the D4 and tentatively started shooting some images, and was abruptly pushed in the centre of the circle by the dancing masses to get a better viewpoint. Well, OK then! I blasted away happily after that, receiving only big smiles in return. Somebody’s got to speak to Sudan’s PR people about its image …

The next morning work started and were back at the airport, boarding a chartered twin prop aircraft to Abeela, an old airport in the south of Sudan, some 400km north of the border with South Sudan. From this dusty airfield, we were taken to the airfield by very dubious means – an old Russian MI8 flown by two pilots and a flight engineer squeezing into a small cockpit. The inside panelling of the fuselage was cracked and I had to hold the door to the pilots’ cabin closed with my foot. On top of which, the MI8 had to be jumpstarted. Kid you not.

Russian helicopter, MI8

How many pilots does it take to fly a MI8?

An altimeter just above the door showed that we never went above 200 foot, and being ex-Air Force, I was probably the only one other than the flight crew who knew that from that altitude an engine-out would give us half a chance of landing in auto-rotation mode before things spiralled out of control. Grim thought. Fortunately it was a short flight to the new oil field, situated on the Muglad Basin.

Sudan oil field protection

Johan Winterbach inspects the local hardware.

We landed in a cloud of dust, surrounded by four Toyota Land Cruisers with 20mm cannons mounted on the backs. Soldiers with AK47s were everywhere. I did not know whether to feel very safe or very scared. All this doubt however disappeared as I realised what the job was going to be – it became apparent that the client needed both video and stills, but mostly video. Now this is a problem. Unless you pimp a DSLR camera to death with follow focus and LED viewfinders, all mounted on heavy rails, it is all but impossible to shoot a decent video shot with the camera on its own. You can’t see properly on the LCD screen, which makes focus exceptionally difficult. The short depth of field of the full frame sensor worsens this – any focusing error is magnified. I knew I was just about toast. However, the old saying that the best camera for the job is the one you have with you held true. So I set about to make the most of it, mounting the D4 on the flimsy Manfrotto to at least get steady shots.

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A “Christmas Tree” – a capped oil well point

oild field, Sudan

The oil field in the Muglad Basin

Fear of the hardware around us dissipated quickly. The locals are quite friendly – the Miseriya tribe members in the area are not in favour of the succession from
South Sudan, so they support the government’s policies. Everything is quite peaceful and everyone gets on with the business of establishing the oil field, building the compound for oil workers and pumping the black stuff via a central pipeline north to Port Sudan.

It was a hard day. Our delayed start in Khartoum meant a rushed tour of the facilities, shooting off the hip, both stills and video, and trying to keep track (with a view to writing a video script later) of the oil extraction and processing sequence.

We had to finish the tour and get back to the Abeela airport in order to make the flight back to Khartoum before sunset.

Oil field, Sudan

Framing another video shot

Everything was done at a mad gallop, something that did my nerves no favours – I had no chance to review the footage, to check that everything was good, that the recordings were fine and properly exposed (all shot on manual). Fortunately, despite my best efforts to screw up the material, it all turned out fine. By 4pm, we were back at the airfield and boarding the twin prop again, relieved that all went well, and just about passing out with fatigue. I must mention at this point that a beer would have been great. But being a Muslim country, that would have to wait. A long time.

Traditional coffee served on a sweltering hotel stoep

Traditional coffee served on a sweltering hotel stoep

That evening, we got to sample the local fare, something I had been looking forward to. Goat meat, Arab dishes, even Coke in Arabic script, all fully accounted for at our hotel. But my eyes were on the sticky stuff – the dessert table, where a mountain of sweets were being displayed. Of course, everything had to be sampled.

Dessert in Khartoum

Sweet, sticky temptation

Over breakfast the next morning, I learnt that we had to shoot two interviews with the general manager and president of the local oil company. OK, I said, I won’t panic, seeing that I had no audio equipment with me, and that the D4’s onboard sound is shitty, to say the least. I also had no lights. Not a problem – I took over the client’s hotel suite, drew the heavy drapes to reduce the amount of light coming into the room, and placed a standard lamp on the other side of where the person interviewed would sit to act as key light, with the sliver of light coming in through the curtain would give a bit of 3D depth to my lighting setup.

I then borrowed a dictaphone from the client, and hid it just out of shot on a pillow next to the sitter. And so the interviews started. With the air conditioning turned off to reduce background noise, it was hot work, but an hour later, we had the interviews in the bag. I would not know until two weeks later what the sound quality was like, as I only received the audio tracks shortly before we started editing the production. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On our last day in Khartoum, I still had not shot establishing shots of the city skyline for the production, and could not get permission from the hotel to access the roof for that. There are very strict rules in
the country regarding shooting on the streets, I was told, and the hotel wanted to get me a permit first from the Government before allowing me on the roof. Well, Arab efficiency being what it is, this permit never arrived.

However, we were invited for a lunch at a restaurant at the highest building in town, and during lunch I snuck off and made my way through various stairways to the airconditioning ducting room right at the top of the building, which fortunately was unlocked due to window washers accessing the outside of the glass-enclosed building. They were happy for me to take footage of the city and the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers, as long as I took pictures of them. Done.

Rooftop view, Khartoum

On top of the roof, Khartoum

An absolutely unforgettable experience. Sudan was fantastic, friendly and helpful. The place works and seems to be fast coming out of the middle ages. Everyone has cell phones and uses them all the time. There’s hardly a beggar to be seen, and the city of Khartoum is relatively clean. Being a majority Muslim country, things are stricter than what we’re used to, but not overtly repressive.

There is no alcohol to be had in the country, but they make up for this indiscretion with food. Lots of it. I ate so much, trying to sample every exotic taste, that I developed a very serious stomach condition which had me in bed an entire day on our return via Dubai. Let me put it this way – I came back much lighter.

Back in South Africa, we edited the program in record time, with a voice over recorded by ex-KFM presenter Allan Barnard. The audio turned out to be fine, although we initially struggled to synchronise the audio to the pictures. In the end, we reduced the playback speed of the footage on the timeline to match the audio as it turned out to be easier than to match the audio to the video. The D4 came through for me. Although not perfect, it does a reasonable job in video. Enough to complete a run-and-gun production in an emergency.

Another behind-the-scenes post from Wordsource Productions. Find images such as these on iStockphoto.com

20-year old MI8. The pilot spoke broken English. Two words you don't want to mention in the same sentence as flying.

20-year old MI8. The pilot spoke broken English. Two words you don’t want to mention in the same sentence as flying.


One can most often get footage on most any subject from stock footage sites. I dare anyone, however, to get footage of the origins of the Marathon – the 42km originally run by a Greek messenger from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC.

You see the problem?    Phidippides

Legend has it that the messenger, Pheidippides, ran the 25 miles on which the modern marathon is based to bring news of the Greek victory over the Persian army. He ran himself to death, apparently collapsing after delivering the good news, and dying.

I was tasked with producing a launch video for the new, revamped Cape Town Marathon, and the client wanted me to include a bit of the ancient history. But how to illustrate this? Many paintings exist of this event, but none were suitable for use in the video. Nor could I use something for which I had no rights.

My only option was to recreate part of this run. And the star attraction, it quickly dawned on me, was going to be me.

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Me striking a Greek hero pose in Saldanha.
Picture: Gavin Hurling

First, I had to find a costume that vaguely resembled that of a Greek soldier. Which is not quite historically correct – Pheidippides was a runner, not a soldier. But creative licence ruled, and besides, instant association with Greek and military was required more than historic accuracy. So sue me.

I managed to find a rental costume, and with assistant Gavin Hurling in tow, we set off to Saldanha harbour. As you’ll see in the video below, the area looks remarkably Greek-ish. I should know, having never been there. But I’ve seen pictures. The boats in the background look like ancient sail boats, and being sufficiently far away, it was not going to be an issue. We found a pathway on a hill overlooking the harbour, and set up the camera at a height that blocked out a tell-tale modern shed on the opposite shore. Then I donned my uniform, and started running. Barefoot. In February. I have new respect for the ancient runners, who, incidentally, were used instead of horses because horses didn’t know when to stop, and ran themselves to death. Come to think of it, our own hero wasn’t much different …

After finishing a couple of runs on the mountain path, we went down to the beach and set up a Gopro Hero Black Edition low level between two rocks, and set it to shoot at an overcranked 100 frames per second to get nice, smooth slow motion. It also showed in quite clear detail my modern underwear as I ran past. But it was fun anyway, and it cooled down my by now quite raw feet.mararun2

With this portion of the production done, we now cut to the modern part of the marathon. The client requested we get real runners running the new course in such a way that it would highlight the beauty of the Mother City. I scouted the course by car, picked my locations and angles, and with the help of Olympic medallist Elana Meyer, who along with Francois Pienaar, were the brand ambassadors and driving forces behind the event. Francois now runs Advent Sports and Events Marketing from the Waterfront, of which Elana is a shareholder.

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Shooting off the scooter near the Castle

We sourced five runners, and with star video editor Ruan Neethling driving our “steadybike”, a Vuka scooter with me sitting backwards and filming with the Sony EX1, we spent a hot Sunday morning filming the run. All the athletes were bundled into my truck, deposited at the various pre-selected locations, and on my cue would run the section between bouts of traffic. The light was beautiful, a perfect day, which meant that everyone and his dog was out on the streets enjoying a perfect Cape Town day. This seriously impeded our shooting – we had to keep it safe, and with more and more vehicles on the road, parking at each location became increasingly difficult, and running safely got dicey.

But we got it all in the can. I then shot a real marathon for some covering footage of runners looking tired, being supported and cheered on, and with a few days left before launch in March, all I had to get was a shot with Elana and Francois running together. Trouble was, Francois was almost always away, abroad, or in Johannesburg, attending to business. I had to dig up a couple of “body doubles” for the two of them, local runners from the Edgemead club, to do silhouette shots of the two famous sportspeople, and leave the shot of the two of them on camera until the last possible moment.

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Francois Pienaar acting like he’s tired.

This moment came early one Monday morning. I had arranged to meet with the two at 8 am at Signal Hill, as I wanted to use the long winding road from Lion’s Head as backdrop of the two running. All fine, except that the wind was blasting up the slope at 80km/h and clouds were billowing over Table Mountain, going from fully lit sunshine to murky overcast in a matter of seconds. I knew this would be hell to shoot, but that was the only chance I had. I arrived early, and while waiting, shot time lapses of the clouds to help the continuity of the shots that were to follow.

The two arrived right on time, I quickly explained what I wanted, and like the two professionals they were, the shots were done in 10 minutes flat. I could hardly believe my luck. The two are still top fit, in excellent shape and super good in front of the camera. After the running shots, I needed to record a quick interview with the two of them at Francois’ office. I had all the other interviews in the bag already – an earlier one with Elana and with the Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille.

Francois Pienaar TV interview

Perfectionist at work. Our ’95 rugby captain is a professional through and through, and re-recorded his interview until HE was happy.

Francois Pienaar, Patricia de Lille, Elana Meyer

Francois Pienaar, Patricia de Lille, Elana Meyer

All that remained was to knock the program into shape in the edit suite, which we did in two days, diving into my stock footage of the Cape Minstrels and some extra Cape Town footage shot on the Nikon D4. Some minor change requests from the client, and we were ready to roll. The new marathon, scheduled for September, was launched to the media this week.

Another behind-the-scenes post from Wordsource Productions.

 

 

 


On paper it sounded straightforward. Photograph the various fruits that you taste in the three Quay 5 wines made by Distell. Shoot the fruits on a series of water splashes to make them look fresh, glistening and delicious. Job accepted.

But then reality struck. Some of these fruits were not available, out of season in the Cape Town winter. No amount of digging, hunting down of importers or experimenting with frozen foods helped. I was going to have to make a plan.

But first, I thought, let’s do the easy stuff. Like the splashes. I sourced a fish tank to catch the spills. One Nikon Speedlight for high speed sync behind a white translucent sheet, tons of plastic sheeting on the studio floor. Then enlist the help of my wife Nicky to throw the water at a piece of glass suspended by clamp to help create multiple droplets. That should do it. But just in case, let me add some red food colouring to the water, make the splashes more visible.

Big mistake.

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First, the splashes looked like blood. Or like a crime scene after a particularly nasty axe murder. Secondly, my wife  got exceptionally grumpy. The red stuff was all over her clothes. And the studio floor, the innocently-bystanding softboxes and other studio equipment. But hell, I was committed, so I pushed on. Cleaning up was a problem for much later.
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Two hours of splashing later, we had sufficient shots to build the background. Two hours after that, the studio was more or less back to normal. Less like a horror movie scene.

And then the hunt began for the fruits.  I spoke to importers, I sorted through fresh fruit vendors’ bins, I selected perfect “hero” fruits, bought several “stunt doubles” to be sacrificed under the knife, and got to work.

Again, not as easy as it looked. A simple softbox three quarter back of the subject did the trick in most cases, with white card filling in some of the shadow in front but leaving just enough to allow some gradation back to front on the items. The items were placed on white plastic. But that lowered the contrast and caused the items to generally look flat. So to make the fruit really pop, I needed to boost the colour. A simple trick is to surround fruit with matt black fabric, allowing just enough white visible for deep etching.

Once the in-season fruits had been shot, I searched far and wide for the summer berries, and even shot some frozen ones, but this was a disaster. I finally conceded defeat and bought some cherry and berry images from a Russian iStockphoto colleague of mine, Anna Kucherova. Then the editing begun.

In Photoshop, I first put down the splashes, and built up a rough “5” on which to overlay the fruit. Then, one by one, I inserted the items, scaling each to be in proportion to the whole. Each item had to be either deep-etched or masked off and the background painted out. This literally took weeks. But I had to be sure every detail was perfect, as the images were intended for point-of-sale displays at huge size. Any error would be glaring.

The result was exceptionally pleasing. The colours seem to go together well, the composition works and most of all, it looked fresh, as per the client brief. This image depicts the red wine flavours, and below are the entire range.

splash_berry_fruitsFBWM Q5FruitySplashCompFBWM

To show the various layers in Photoshop, I put this little video together:

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.

Find images such as these on iStockphoto.com


Photography, videography, time lapse by Jaco Wolmarans

Scouting for locations
Copyright Jaco Wolmarans

One of the absolute best things about being a freelancer is being able to decide on what constitutes work. Trips to Pella in the Northern Cape, in most people’s books, would not qualify. But I had a plan: time lapse shooting. Of course it warranted (note, not justified) the purchase of a Timelapse SA  motion-controlled dolly. Justified is a bit of a stretch, and my wife saw right through all my arguments.

In the end, I think she relented and just let me get on with buying it. And the extra length of track. And the special charger. And long life battery. Then the bag I had made to fit it all into. Ah well, …

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa by Jaco Wolmarans

My brother Wollie and his trusty Pajero, helping me scout new locations.

But back to time lapse shooting. I have spent more money on kit than time analyzing why I am so fascinated by it. I suspect it has something to do with controlling time, fast-forward through time. In much the same way as we are fascinated by macro shots of objects. It’s just a new way of looking at something familiar. And it’s just way cool.

In my case, the official version was that I was shooting time lapses to sell as stock. Or to build up a bank of footage to be used in possible productions later on. I had to admit though, one year later, that the sales have been minimal. The subject has a niche appeal. To me, though, that was not the main reason. And I think my wife spotted this – and allowed me to justify away.

So there we were, our RAV4 packed to the hilt with kit, headed off to Pella one chilly July. My brother is a manager on a grape farm on the banks of the Orange River, in what must be one of the most incredible bits of scenery I have ever visited. On par with the Richtersveld, I’d say. And that’s not only me saying so. Nicholas Cage (who happens to share a birth date in 1964 with me) also thought so. That’s why they shot parts of Lords of War right here. Cage stayed on the farm itself. The farm is dotted with the most spectacular rock formations, gnarled tree shapes and to top it all, a proper quiver tree forest. Like thousands of trees in a clump. It’s eerie and totally engrossing to the landscape photographer.

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa by Jaco Wolmarans

All set to go as the first rays of sun light up the peaks and quiver tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The real addiction, I realised, was being up before dawn, the dolly creeping up or across, camera filming one frame every second, me with a flask of coffee behind, watching another spectacular natural scene materialise out of darkness.

There is something completely engrossing about this process – trying to pre-empt where the first rays of sun would come through, judging which objects it would light up first, what exposure to set to capture that magic golden light at the right moment, not blowing out highlights by setting too wide an aperture. It teaches patience – once you’ve made your calculations, set up and started rolling, you have to see it through.

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa by Jaco Wolmarans

Working in Africa is hard. Real hard.

You’ll know whether your calculations were right the minute the sun peeks out behind the hills, and starts to colour your world. Sometimes you get it spot on, other times you misjudge it horribly, and have to abort halfway through, the morning wasted.

Did I say wasted? Not quite. I always remind myself that I could have been in rush hour morning traffic, driving to an office. Being out here is reward in itself. Whether the shot pans out or not. There is just something about the crispness of pre-dawn air. The quiet, the shapes unfolding in front of you as the light crawls over the horizon and giving shape to rock and tree. Being out there is pure privilege.

Time lapse planning process

Setting up a time lapse sequence is 80 percent visualisation, 20 percent maths. Which is a good thing, as I’m not so good at numbers. It also requires a lot of scouting, camera in hand, trying to visualise where the light would be by sunrise or sunset. Then looking through the viewfinder, framing the shot, and noting the field of view, the elevation, the zoom position on my camera. On the Sony PMW-EX1 video camera, the onscreen text makes it easier – the zoom width is indicated with a Z-value, and exposure too, so I would go to a potential scene, frame my final shot, note the exposure for a fully-lit shot, the zoom position, and memorise those.

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa

A typical end position for a shot – background revealed, pleasing light around the trunk of the tree, and enough sky detail thanks to good end shot exposure calculation.
Copyright Jaco Wolmarans.

Next, I would move the camera along an imaginary track, trying to emulate the camera movement on the dolly once set up. This helps me determine at what angle to place the dolly, what the start position should be, as you always want to move from a nicely-framed start through some “dead” middle ground on to a nicely-framed final final shot.

Moving the camera through my emulation stage also helps me decide whether to let the track run up, sideways or down. Setting it up to move upwards helps reveal middle ground, keeps the viewer enticed. I would start with the middle or background blocked by some rock or bush in the foreground. As the camera lifts, it starts revealing that background. Similarly, moving sideways past a tree trunk, a rock or bush reveals background on a horizontal plane.

Once I’ve worked out where I want the shot to start and end, I have to calculate the start time. Knowing when the sun comes up or sets is crucial. That basically determines the end of the shot, as well as the final position of the camera. So you work backwards, and calculate how far the camera needs to travel over the track, and at what speed. With the Timelapse SA dolly, you can vary the speed to make the camera arrive at the fully-revealed, fully-lit position at exactly the right moment. Well, almost exactly, with my number skills.

_DSC1046

Using a tree in the foreground to increase the sense of three-dimensionality as the shadows lengthen on the hill in the background.

Finally, I choose an exposure, and here, you have to choose the end exposure that will be required. Which means you have to be on location at more or less that time of day to check what the exposure will be for when you do the shot. Some shooters use an auto exposure system, which means the camera tries to expose for the amount of light available each time it takes an image. But what’s the point? Surely you want to show progressing from dark to light, or light to dark?

Slow down and use the best light

I mentioned patience above. This is where yours will get tested. Because you basically do only two lapses in a day if you want to utilise the best light at dawn and dusk.

Shoots like these always entail scouting for a whole day, then finding two locations – one for that evening, and one for the next morning. I would run my sunset lapse, finish off and move the rig to where my morning lapse will be filmed, set it up in the almost darkness, and leave the rig (except the camera, of course) out in the veld. This helps you fumble less in the pitch dark pre-dawn sessions, when you’re half asleep still, and not thinking straight. It also helps if you don’t have to handle Manfrotto tripods and aluminium tracks in the chill of the morning. Metal tends to get painfully stuck on flesh.

So what determines a good lapse? Some of the most spectacular, I found, always included a strong sense of three-dimensionality. Foreground moving relative to background, clouds moving relative to shifting foreground. Static is fine for a cloudscape, yes, but a scene really pops if there is some extra movement in the shot – a tree moving across the view, a rock disappearing from view in the foreground, the camera moving past a dead branch. Dead is better. You you don’t want foliage moving in the foreground. Or anywhere in the shot, if you can avoid it. I found it is distracting to the viewer.

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa

Using foreground objects to aid three-dimensionality during the timelapse.
Copyright Jaco Wolmarans. All rights reserved.

In the end, a lot of it is trial and error. And more error. But sometimes you get it just right, getting a lapse with a sense of epic scale, showing off nature fast-forward mode that somehow, strangely, makes it feel like time is standing still. I know, it sounds contradictory, but there it is – a privileged glimpse into space and time, two or three hours condensed into seconds of pure wonder.

A short video from my last Pella trip.

Another behind-the-scenes post from Wordsource Productions.

Video  —  Posted: August 13, 2013 in Shoots in short
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_DSC4529_000_MThis was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a pro bono job that one just could not turn down. Regardless of the risk. Matt Silver-Vallance was going to attempt a helium balloon flight (read party balloons, a suspended seat underneath and a pop gun wielded by an idiot with a death wish) from Robben Island to the mainland, Cape Town to raise funds for the Johannesburg Nelson Mandela Children’s Home. And when I say idiot, I actually quote Matt himself!

Now there are several things wrong with this picture. One is that it had never been done. It’s simply not allowed because of the busy heavy metal airspace from 2000 feet above sea level. On top of that, Matt had never flown anything before. He is a medical rep and paramedic. Thirdly, I was going to shoot this from a motorised paraglider, crossing the 10km of cold water with pilot Keith Pickersgill. This too had never been done. And for good reason – it’s lethally stupid to do without support. And with that, I mean a really big boat to land on should one have an engine out. Which, it turned out, was a very real possibility.

All this should have discouraged even the most dimwitted of photographers. To begin with, my images were to be handed over after the event, to be distributed worldwide, free of charge. That would be my contribution to the charity. Yet even the prospect of just being allowed to SLEEP on the world heritage site that is Robben Island was enough to convince me when Keith, a local paramotor instructor, called me to check my availability at short notice.

Keith is one of the most experienced pilots in the country and has an incident-free record which only comes from prudence and wide safety margins. Being a former paramotor pilot myself, I understood the risks and limitations. My background in imagery made this a natural fit. Which is how we found ourselves on a ferry to Robben Island one late Friday afternoon. The forecast was good, a light NW going West.

Flight nr. 13

The world media interest in this was intense. Not only because of the association with the hallowed names of Mandela and Robben Island. There was a darker reason. Only 12 such balloon flights had been attempted before, two pilots had died doing so and others had gone missing. This would be flight nr. 13. Get the picture?

So I was understandably upset when I discovered, on the ferry, that the one and only lens I could take on the flight, my 24-70mm f2.8 fitted to a Nikon D4, had somehow got bent and as a result, I could only zoom from 24-50mm. There was no turning back – we were committed, tents, food and sleeping bags packed for the night, since the balloon inflation was due to start the next morning at 4am. There would have been no time to dash back and get another lens, as we would have to launch as soon as conditions allowed. I had packed a little compact as a backup, a small Canon IX30S, but did not relish the idea of shooting with that on such a job. But at least I had another option. No pressure, noooo!

On arrival, we were bussed to the Robben Island runway – a largely overgrown, unused airstrip – which would be our camping spot for the night. Yes, tarmac. No mattress, hard ground, mist setting in, wet equipment … It sounded like it was going to be a fun evening. _DSC4533_001_M

While the inflation crew set about putting out the 25m lines at each of the four helium inflation stations, making knots in the lines every few metres where the balloons would be attached, Keith, myself and our support guy and fellow pilot John Lazarus set up tent and tried getting as comfortable as possible. A flask of whiskey provided some creature comfort.

We woke the next morning at sparrows’ to an unworldly scene – trucks idling away on the runway, their headlights illuminating four groups of people inflating multi-coloured balloons in a thick cloud of mist. I grabbed my D4 and starting shooting away at 6400ISO, trying to capture the backlit scenes literally fuelled by truck exhaust fumes, making for some spectacular shooting opportunities. Matt, stressed to his limit, was dashing between the four stations, prodding, cajoling and encouraging the teams to work faster. Miraculously, the zoom had sorted itself out and I had full but scratchy travel on the lens.

4am portrait. Matt looking worried.

4am portrait. Matt looking worried.

At once stage I managed to corner Matt for long enough to shoot a picture of him against the backdrop of some fumes and balloons, with John Lazarus giving me an edge light with his headlamp to fill in the side of Matt’s face. The shot is not sharp, unfortunately, due to camera shake or Matt moving, but considering that it was pitch dark, it had to do as Matt had to go – yet it somehow perfectly captures that eerie feel of the scene, its unworldliness.  _DSC4541_002_M

The volunteer teams working gave ample opportunities for behind-the-scenes shots, and since the fog was extremely thick and we were increasingly worried of not having a flight window, I shot what I could, not knowing if the opportunity would present itself again.

At dawn the fog was still thick, but the NW had come up and was gradually creating light spots and eventually, some blue sky patches. Around 11am, Keith suggested we launch the paramotor and recce the intended flight path from above the clouds. We radio’d Matt, who by now was strapped in and equalising the helium/weight ratio so that he was just slightly positively buoyant, to warn us before he cut away. It took a determined run in the light wind to get the tandem wing up and flying, but since we both knew what we were in for, Keith and I sprinted like mad. A steady climb up to 100m and we could see the mainland. Keith informed Matt, and before long, he cut away to the delight of the volunteers and hordes of international and national media.

_DSC4602_007_MUp and up he went – much faster than intended, and soon his voice came over the radio saying that he was climbing at 10 meters per second. Which would put him into controlled airspace in a matter of minutes! Keith suggested he start popping balloons fast, which he did, with a poke stick, taking out the control balloons at the bottom of the pile. But still he was going up like a cork, us chasing at full power and not getting anywhere near his climb rate. Out came Matt’s BB gun, but it was underpowered, the pellets just bouncing off the higher balloons. Eventually he resorted to pulling down the individual lines and popping the bottom balloons by stick.

Then the descent rate started – in earnest. Matt lost his positive buoyancy and plummeted down. Bailing out his ballast to stop the dreaded oscillation that occurs due to the delayed effect of adding or dumping helium, Matt sank to right on the water line, enough for us to warn the follow boats that we had a splashdown. Fortunately, as soon as Matt’s water ballast bags hit the surface, their combined weight was neutralised and they thereafter acted like sea anchors, keeping the pilot about 2m above the water line.

In the mean time, Keith and I descended as we were flying in cloud with very little visibility and lots of moisture. My D4 was soaked, my flight suit and shoes were soaked, and behind me, Keith had water running down the toggle lines into his flight suit, causing wet ballast underneath his elbows which he had to let out at times. I got concerned – a wet wing means flying closer and closer to deep stall, and any collapse would mean very little chance of recovery as the glider material was too wet to separate in a re-inflation. On top of which we were forced to fly lower and lower due to the cloud base dropping. Which meant our glide to safety decreased at the same time.

We estimated that we would have 90 seconds from 600ft to release harness buckles and get ready for a wet landing, but we were flying far below that height. The boat we were supposed to land in during an emergency was a rescue rubber duck, and would be easy to miss. _DSC4661_018_MOur only chance would have been to land on the Navy minesweeper that accompanied the flotilla of boats, but we had no authorisation for this. “F*** authorisation!” I said to Keith. “If we go down, head for the big grey boat!”.

_DSC4649_015_MMatt was drifting at a slower than expected speed, which meant our fuel reserves (just under 2 hrs) were getting low. We’d been in the air for over an hour, and still had 3.5km to go, and the mist was closing in again. Then we spotted a huge anchored fuel tanker directly in Matt’s flight path, too high for him to go over. We quickly radio’d the follow crew, who could not see the boat in the mist.

At this point, I suggested to Keith that with a wet wing, very little visibility to shoot in or to fly by, and very little fuel left, it might be a good idea to look for somewhere more dry. He did not argue the point.

Below us, the follow crew grabbed Matt’s throwrope and tried tugging him away to the side so that he would miss the tanker, but the force from the balloons was too big and eventually, a few hundred meters from the shore, Matt cut away, dropped into a boat and was brought ashore in the rubber duck to a massive worldwide contingent of media. Keith and I requested a boat to follow us to dry land through the mist, and landed on the beach with 200ml of fuel left! We got picked up and taken to the media centre, where I had to quickly process some images and footage, and hand over to the media.

I was amazed at the D4 – it was soaked and had to be wiped all the time to clear the front lens element, yet it did not malfunction or act up at all. The picture below shows just how wet the lens got – and stayed.

In the week that followed, the images and footage went viral. It made BBC, ABC, SABC, Top Billing and was featured in hordes of international magazines and papers. We’ve even had a request from Ripley’s Believe it or Not for images. I was disappointed in the conditions, hoping for a clear shot to Table Mountain and being able to show the whole of Robben Island, but we had no chance with all the cloud around. Nor could we fly close to Matt while he was at sea level for closer aerial footage without serious consequences to us in case of an engine failure. But that’s the nature of the beast – you do what you can. As Matt said in the post-op debriefing: Nelson Mandela took much bigger risks. This was nothing in comparison. If you’d like to donate to this cause, SMS “balloon” to 40301 (R20 per sms).

Safe at last. Note the wet camera.

Safe at last. Note the wet camera.

A short video clip on the flight:

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.