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BUFFALO SOLDIER: The Making of “Distant Relatives”

This post will be about the fourth installment in my photo series, “Buffalo Soldier.” If you missed the previous installments, you can go ahead and click here, here and here.

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Distant Relatives |  Click Here for Prints.

Distant Relatives | Click Here for Prints.

Distant Relatives was the first time I was depicting an actual war scene, which for a series about soldiers is a little surprising. It always seemed like a daunting task to go literally into the trenches, so it helped to build up to it over time. We were able to shoot at a WWI reenactment site in Pennsylvania operated by the Great War Association. 

The Ebony Doughboys are an amazing organization. You should  check them out.

The Ebony Doughboys are an amazing organization. You should check them out.

Since we were depicting all these soldiers from very particular units I got in touch with the WWI reenactor community to get as authentic uniforms as possible. I ended up connecting with the “Ebony Doughboys,” a reenactor group that does specifically the American 372nd Regiment, which was one of the Black regiments of the 93rd Division that I wanted to depict. They were able to lend their vast knowledge of the Regiment’s legacy from the war as well as picture perfect uniforms, and of course several of them performed in the picture.

This image was a great reference for the Senegalese uniforms.

This image was a great reference for the Senegalese uniforms.

The other half of the image depicted African troops who fought for the French. It was much more difficult figuring out these uniforms. There wasn’t nearly as much information available (in English, anyway) about exactly what they wore. We were able to get in touch with one reenactor group, that did French Colonial from WWI, but they didn’t use the uniforms I wanted. The French were known for wearing blue uniforms during WWI, and in the first few years of the war their colonial troops wore blue as well. However, around 1917 the Colonial troops switched to a mustard-khaki color that more closely resembled the British and Americans. For the sake of my picture I wanted to be able to distinguish the Africans from the Americans, so the blue uniforms were a must. You may notice that it creates a bit of an anachronism since Americans didn’t arrive in France until after the Colonial troops went to khaki, but hey this is art. 

We ended up using standard French Horizon Blue uniforms that the regular French Army wore. From our research they seemed to match very closely if not exactly with what we saw the Colonial troops wearing. This was especially true of the great coats, which were most prominent anyway. 

Our insignia that didn’t come in time.

Our insignia that didn’t come in time.

The main difference was that the Colonial troops wore an anchor insignia on their lapel. We were able to get in touch with a lady who I’m told is the only person who still makes them. Her business is based in France and our lapels were held up in customs for several weeks, so they didn’t arrive on time for the shoot. We planned to composite the anchors in during post-production, but it wasn’t necessary because all the gear around the actors’ necks covered the insignia anyway. 

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When it came time to shoot we were completely faked out by the weather. All the forecasts we saw leading up to the shoot, even the morning of, were saying overcast and even a chance of rain. We were prepared with 12’x12’ negatives to make sure we’d get some contrast as opposed to just a flat shadowless set. We ended up getting a bright, sunny day, which made our negatives mostly useless and also was not what I wanted artistically. Overcast days and smoky skies are more representative of the Western Front. I really wanted rain to drive home the misery of trench life that these soldiers endured, but we didn’t get it. 

Fire Department wets down our set.

Fire Department wets down our set.

As a workaround we got the local fire department to do a wet down of the set to give it the look of having just rained. The problem was that the sun was shining so brightly that the water dried up in just a few minutes. We were constantly hosing down the set, but in the final picture it hardly looks wet. I think if we had done nothing it would look even drier, but overall we didn’t achieve the effect that I wanted. 

This is an outtake with much more backlighting, but less smoke.

This is an outtake with much more backlighting, but less smoke.

I’m pretty much always partial to backlighting and this picture was no exception. The one benefit of the sun coming out was that we were able to use our reflectors to redirect the sunlight from behind the actors. I had different takes of this, but it ended up being a compromise between the light and the smoke. The smoke (or gas effect) diffused away some of the backlight, so takes with lots of smoke had less backlight and vice versa. In the end I made the smoke the priority and settled for just a little glow around the actors’ helmets. 


This was also the first shoot in the series on Large Format film. I bought a Toyo 45G and got pretty proficient with it. I had to come up with a workflow for how to integrate the view camera into my shooting style. I had two camera assistants: one to operate the camera, release the shutter on set, and be generally in charge of all things camera department; the other was primarily responsible for loading and downloading film, which was perhaps the most stressful job on set once we started shooting. I had to teach my camera assistants how to use the camera, fire the shutter, and load the film. This was honestly the most nerve-racking aspect of the whole shoot because if something went wrong with the film or camera, everything we did could go down the drain. And literally everyone handling the film and camera was doing it for the first time in an on-set environment. It’s a little surprising, but everything turned out fine and the pictures came out great. 

This is me at the camera with my Camera Assistant,  Sunnie Kim  next to me on the ladder. She is also a phenomenal cinematographer.

This is me at the camera with my Camera Assistant, Sunnie Kim next to me on the ladder. She is also a phenomenal cinematographer.

I did the wide shot on a 90mm lens then we moved the camera into the trench on a 150mm lens for the close up. The bright side (see what I did there) of having a sunny day was that I was able to stop down to an f/22 to get everything in focus for the wide shot and still shoot at a comfortable shutter speed of 1/125. Everything was shot on Portra 400. 

It was amazing how welcoming and accommodating the Great War Association and the Ebony Doughboys were in helping us to create this picture and tell these stories from the war. 

Thanks for reading this series on the making of Buffalo Soldier. For now that’s all I’ve got, but sooner or later I’ll be adding more to this collection!

-Sheldon J.