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BUFFALO SOLDIER: The Making of "Sacred Land"

For more than two years, I’ve been working on a staged photography series called “Buffalo Soldier,” which just premiered on September 6th with an amazing opening reception. There’s quite a bit of information out there now about the project, especially if you were there to hear me talk about my inspiration and process at the exhibition. With this collection of posts, I’m going to discuss some of the more technical aspects of making this project as well as the challenges and, of course, the mistakes I made along the way. Without further ado: 

Sacred Land was the photo that kicked off the series, and it hit me with plenty of new challenges all at once. Until then I really only ever considered myself a filmmaker. I took pictures as a hobby, but never anything serious, certainly nothing with a budget. The fact that we were assembling all these people onto a set to take a picture was out of the ordinary, and I wasn’t sure exactly what the best way to do it was. Throughout the series, I’ve run my shoots almost exactly like a movie set, the only difference is that we never call “roll sound!” So far, I think it’s working!

As much as I wanted to make this picture without any visual effects, we couldn’t find a safe way to do it, so we decided that the picture would be composited from two different images. There would be a top half that showed a truck driving by with a Confederate flag on display. Then on the bottom half, we would see a cross-section of earth under the truck with the entangled, buried bodies of Civil War troops—one Confederate soldier, and one black Union soldier. Both parts of the image had their challenges.

The drop off next to the road was key.

The drop off next to the road was key.

I didn’t have any actual experience putting together a composition like this, but I figured people on the internet are always combining pictures that were never intended to be together, so if we put a little bit of thought into it, it should be no problem. I knew enough that I wanted to make sure that the camera perspective on both sides of the image should be the same. I wanted the camera to be right at ground level. That would make it a low angle for the truck shot, but a high angle on the soldiers. That presented a problem for the top half because I couldn’t just put the camera on the ground and take a picture of a truck driving. If I shot it on flat ground, then I would have way too much foreground of the road, and it would betray the illusion of seeing that cross-section that I mentioned earlier. In a sense I wanted it to feel 2-dimensional.

We went on a search for a location where I could find a road right next to a dramatic drop off or cliff, so we could avoid that foreground issue. At the same time, the bottom half required that we dig a hole and lay two actors down inside of it. So we needed a road...next to a drop off...next to a place where someone would allow us to dig a 10 foot wide, 2 foot deep hole. It got complicated. This is probably where the bulk of our pre-production went, but long story short we found a location at Harriman State Park an hour north of New York City.

In this outtake you can see the dirt in the back and the blur on the character in the truck bed.

In this outtake you can see the dirt in the back and the blur on the character in the truck bed.

When it came time to shoot, I had a couple goals in mind for the truck picture. I wanted to see dust kicking up in the wake of the truck. For me, that was important to convey that it was an action in motion and give life to the picture. We tried a million times to get the truck to kick up dust, but we eventually gave in and just piled the dirt in the bed of the truck and let it fall out as it drove by. I lucked out because you can’t see it at all!

There was also a big shutter speed question. I never quite got around to testing what shutter speed I would need to freeze the motion of the truck speeding through the frame. I shot this picture on my Pentax 6x7, so I just set my shutter speed to the highest setting, which was 1/1000 of a second. Turns out that wasn’t fast enough. When I got the pictures back, every shot was blurred, and the character sitting in the bed of the truck looked terrible. Not only was she a complete blur, but her hair was blowing all over the place. It was all happening so fast on set, that I didn’t realize everything that was going on.

This static picture of the actor was composited in to fix the blur issues.

This static picture of the actor was composited in to fix the blur issues.

That was a big learning experience. I was bailed out because I took a few “just in case” shots of the actors and the truck completely static. I ended up compositing in one of those static shots of the character in the back of the truck and it worked out. I never intended for there to be motion blur on the truck, but I think it actually helps to gives a sense of, well ... motion.

The bottom was pretty straight forward. The plan was to put the soldiers in the hole on their sides. Then we brought in the camera from above and pointed it down, keeping in mind that when it’s composited into the final picture, they should be slightly below the camera’s eye level. I was able to do this, by rigging the camera up to a steel pipe extended out from the top of a light stand, so it could point straight down without seeing any tripod legs. I stood on a 12 foot ladder so I could set the composition, then I got out of the way, took the ladder with me and used a 40’ air release so I could release the shutter without being near the camera. We did exactly two exposures of this before the actors started complaining about being buried in the dirt (can’t really blame them). One shot has a foot cut off, but the other one is clean and you can see it in the final composite!

My original sketch of this concept.

My original sketch of this concept.

Sacred Land was always planned to be in portrait orientation. I even photographed both sides of the image in portrait, thinking that I would just crop off half of each and put them together. It wasn’t until I was in post, that my editor, Anushka Qizilbash, convinced me that it could work better in landscape. She used another one of those “just in case” shots I took of the truck, that happened to be in landscape orientation as a basis for the composite. She also took the image with the best clouds and used it for a sky replacement. Working with her showed me the value of having a fresh set of eyes on my work.

I was surprised by how much the vision could evolve during post-production. My team and I spent so long planning the shoot and working toward a specific goal, it was refreshing to see how it was able to improve once we had the footage in hand. Sacred Land was the only picture in the series in which I collaborated with an editor, but hopefully I’ll get another opportunity to do it again!

-Sheldon J.