NR: I was really struck by how you transformed Humboldt Park Lagoon in one of your pictures in the Light Miners series. Would you tell me a bit of how you went about creating this image?
SW: This was one of the first images we created that established the 'world' of the Light Miners. We needed something fantastical and of wide scale and we weren't yet up to speed on making the models, which became a larger focus later in the production. Every morning I drive through Humboldt Park on the way to the studio. I find the park inspirational, meaning that I'm usually thinking about making work, what I'll do once I get to the studio, stuff like that. As I drive, I'm usually thinking about how cool this or that looks, how the park looks at different times of the day, sunny or cloudy.
The overall art direction on the commission was to create a world where nature and industry are inextricably linked, a symbiosis. Anyway, I began quite naturally to be more and more taken with the view of the lagoon behind the boat house. It was at a time in the summer when the nights stayed warm and the wind was minimal, so I took the 8x10 out and began testing long exposures of ten, fifteen, thirty minutes. And I began playing around with flashlights to burn in detail. Ridiculous to think of my using a Maglite to illuminate a space like Humboldt Park, but that's kind of what I did. I really burned in the detail of the trees. Eventually the shot we used was a 55 minute exposure—again running around burning in parts of the leaves and what would reflect in the water. Fortunately, the mist was just there and illuminated by some part lights.
For the windmill, it's a model about twenty inches high. We made all kinds of water-related structures in scale and shot them in studio on a layer of water for the reflection and composited the shots together.
I think that what I'm most proud of in that image is the reflection. It's the actual reflection of the windmill in the water. Although most of my work is digital and involves compositing, I try to keep the process pretty analogue. At the studio, we have this saying, which we usually say a bit tongue-in-cheek: We're as analogue as digital can be. But it's actually quite true. So the image is fairly simple: a sheet of 8x10 color transparency for the park and digital image of the windmill made in studio.
NR: And this image, of Lookingglass, tell me the mountains you had to climb, to create this image.
SW: When I first began working with Lookingglass Theater in the Fall of 2007, Phil Smith, the managing artistic director, came to me with an idea to create a portrait of the ensemble members commemorating the 20th anniversary of the theater. The idea was to have everyone dressed in a role from the many performances over the years and have them all meet somewhere in time in this Victorian mansion for a dinner party.
There were a lot of technical challenges to the project, like we had to shoot everyone individually. There are 23 members and they all had varying time constraints; some had flown in for the day for the shoot, for example. And that's what we had for time: one day. We chose to use the lighting available to us in the theater's inventory, partly because we didn't have a budget to use that many strobes, partly because in the production schedule we had less than 15 minutes per character shot and so just didn't have time to reset lighting on each one. With every single light in the theater split carefully over the available electrical load in the home, we were able to shoot at just 1/8 of a second—a fairly long exposure for a portrait. This provided a challenge for any character who had to hold a pose, like the guy on the stairs or the woman teetering over the bannister. The day we shot it was minus 5 degrees, the coldest day of 2007. We had 23 costumes to be coordinated, 23 people with makeup and styling. It was on the scale of a movie production, with signs through the house pointing to wardrobe and makeup.
There was a whole system in place, not just with the talent, but with the pre-production. We had to do substantial testing before we got to the day of shooting. Much of the room is shot on 4x5 film, tungsten-balanced for a very long exposure, where the individual portraits are shot with a digital back. The premise of the lighting was fairly simple: the pendant light in the room was to serve as the key light source, so for each portrait we used a chimera lantern positioned between the model and the pendant light and a large bounce card. The fire was shot in a friend's home and then placed into the fireplace in the mansion, but we needed to make sure that the warm spillover of a fire would be cast in the highlights and reflections of those around the fire, so we disassembled an Arri 1K so that it was an open source and then surrounded that bulb with orange and red gels for the fire's throw. There were a lot of little details like this to plan for, which was fun but exhausting.
Once back at the studio for retouching, I realized that my system couldn't handle the file size which exceeded 4 Gigs. I had to buy a new system. And then there were the moments where some characters just plunked into the environment beautifully, and yet others took days of fiddling to match the light and scale. In the end, it served as an awesome project to really hone the kinds of pre- and post-production work that I'd need to perfect for the kinds of work I was wanting to do.
NR: To see more of Sean's work, go to http://www.seanwill.com/