Get ready, this is another long one! I promise it's worth it.
Ok, picture this: Four years of plotting, cramming, researching, training, practicing… And the day finally comes where all those years of planning will actually come to a dramatic peak. And nature throws a shit fit and flings snow and wind in all directions, five minutes before the first shutter clicks.
It is a very good reminder about hitting the brakes on years of lofty goal making and visualization, and just rolling with the punches.
Friday Afternoon: Obsessively checking the weather reports, feeling like a tiny mouse tied to a railroad track, watching this freight train of bad weather roll in.
Outside voice negotiating with the rental company: Yes, I need something AWD. No, I realize it’s sunny and warm out right now. Yes, it’s supposed to change. No, I need something bigger than that, the trunk is too small. Yeah, we’re working this weekend. Gunna be crazy, but looking forward to it!
Inside voice: FFFUUUUUUUUCKKKK We’re gunna die. All our stuff isn’t going to fit into this pimp-mobile looking Chrysler 300 Sport. Only all-season tires?? It’s spring in Canada for fucks sake, what fucking amateur puts all season tires on in this part of the country?? We’re gunna have to strap the videographer to the roof with a pair of big ass goggles on his head just to make room for all the gear. Gawd, we look like we’re going to deliver a pound of cocaine, not photograph some epic material this weekend. ALL SEASON TIRES! Shit, better get the expensive insurance.
The squirrel brain is real.
Four hours later, we roll into the farm property, just south of Calgary. The crew is going over final practice runs with the horses, we’ve done several over the last 8 months. They’re performing animals so they’re pretty bomb proof, but it’s always a good idea to get them warmed up to what the weekend is going to deliver. Everything goes well, a little jumpiness, but nothing unexpected. Everyone’s giddy, but also watching the weather with a wary eye. I take a bunch of sample shots, and I’m LOVING the results. It’s everything I was hoping for. Gorgeous light, beautiful animals, talented riders. Perfect atmosphere. Even the test shots look better than I’d ever hoped. I let myself get excited for a minute.
Knowing the storm was very likely going to hit us, we pick alternate shoot locations that would be out of the wind, and we cautiously eyeballed just how fucking far we were going to be lugging a few hundred pounds of equipment. And by we, I mean, the small crew that we had. Our assistants were trapped by weather elsewhere in the province, and the incoming weather is not promising anyone else will be able to show up. Bonus points, I’ve also recently damaged my C6 disc in my neck, so I am basically a worthless anxiety noodle. So, it’s basically Curtis and Nathan, our second shooter/producer and our videographer. I make mental notes that I owe them steak dinners for life.
Radar, the woman who owns the farm and is our ringleader on the rider and animal front, is eager and full of ideas. Between her and Curtis I’m not sure how I could've survived the weekend without them.
Outside voice: Yeah this will totally work! That hike is a bit of a bitch, but we’ll make it happen. There’s enough of us here. We can set up Day One locations here, here, and here. And if we’re lucky, maybe we can use this spot here. Gunna be dependent on how much snow we get and how wet we all are… Hopefully it won’t be too bad. Thanks again for doing this, you guys are amazing and total machines. Remember, please be ready to call it if you perceive something is unsafe. I will too. Safety is number one, always.
Inside voice: JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. AUUUGGGHH. We’re gunna get shut down! All these years of planning, all the monies spent on this weekend, all of everyone’s time is going to be a HUGE waste, and I have no idea how to deliver what we had in mind! What if everyone’s disappointed in me? What if I can’t take good photos in this? Fuck, I’m totally out of my element. I have no idea how to see what’s going on here. There’s so many distractions! Trees! SNOW?? UGH! I don’t even want anyone to SLIP tomorrow! I trust these guys, implicitly. They all do crazier stuff than this just for fun, so I’m not worried about them… But this is still my idea, and what do I do if someone gets hurt?? Good thing we got the extra expensive insurance… But still. It’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. We’ll make it work. BUT WHAT IF I FUCK THIS UP FOR EVERYONE?!
Outside voice: Whelp! We should try to get back to the city before it’s too late. Keep an eye on the weather, one way or another we’ll make this work!
We hand out hugs and nervous laughter and head into Calgary. I back up Friday’s images on my smaller travel computer, skip copying them to an external hard drive for some stupid reason, and notice it’s going to do an operating system software update. I watch it update, not realizing it’s the last time I’m ever going to see those images. I triple check batteries on all the lights, cameras, and triggers. Then I wipe my SD card.
Saturday morning, everything is looking good:
The skies look perfect, the wind is very mild. I’m almost ready to risk it and shoot at our first locations, until I watch the weather radar. There’s a big red and purple angry blob rolling through the Rockies, steamrolling in like a mid-winter, high altitude avalanche.
Back-up location it is! The three of us haul out everything to our first location, set up our shots, lights, and triple check everything. Heating packs in the lighting bags to keep spare batteries warm.
Outside voice: Do we have transparent bags for the lights just in case? It might miss us. It’s perfect right now. Gawd, I hope this holds out. This looks so cool.
We get a text that riders are incoming… just as the first snowflakes start to fall. Five minutes later, we are at this:
Well at least it looks cool as fuck. Now, if only I could get focus
Sure enough the ground is greased up like a prized pig at a fair. All the really epic frames we had planned finally get fired out of the sky, direct hit, headshot. Every 13 year-old Call of Duty gamer would be envious of such accuracy. A part of me dies a very slow, painful death.
I don’t make artwork to express my inner self, to bare myself openly to the world for judgement of my deepest personal emotions and feelings. However, I have siphoned off a part of my spark every day for years, and kept it in a little jar that is finally bursting at the seams. That little spark becomes a very big black hole when the project suddenly takes a hard left. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is, even though I’m working on it
When it comes to client work, I’m very used to having the very quick change of plans. It’s the name of the game. That’s because while I care a lot about the project, I haven’t poured my soul bits into it. I have a boundary within myself that doesn’t get too attached, because it’s working for a client. It’s not about me, my job is to deliver a product using the skills I’ve spent years fine tuning. I like it, and I try to do my best to serve up tasty pixels at the end of every day.
Personal work for me is, ironically, like getting a freight train moving. It takes me a while to spin up, to build momentum on an idea. It starts with a tiny little spark in the night, usually when I’m asleep, and it builds over the next few months or years. I hold on to that energy, letting it spin up inside me. It gets to really high pressure that I can feel in my body, until it’s ready to explode like a super nova on set.
Have you ever had to sneeze really, really badly, and then it just… fucking doesn’t happen? You’re suddenly just sat there, with a stupid expression on your face, watery eyes, and t-rex arms? That’s what this feels like, but infinitely worse. Just the biggest waste of built up energy, that just flops impotently into the air and dies in a small, caustic pile of suck. Like kids falling off bicycles, but way less funny. Splat.
Cue, inside voice: Whelp! You’re the fucking professional here! Figure it out! Take it slow, but not too slow. It’s fucking cold out, your batteries are going to die faster, people are going to get cold. It doesn’t matter what was anymore, it’s how to we make this fucking work. The atmosphere is fucking bonkers. Saddle up (pun intended)! Keep track of your frame rate, but just burn frames. This is going to be like shooting a sporting event. Photograph EVERYTHING. We’ll figure out the actual shots in post-production later. Get the content, get more than you think you need. Shoot the environment. Shoot the details. Shoot it all.
Location one wraps, and we move to location two. Again, our original plans are garbage binned, but we figure out a couple angles that might work. Fight scene! Woo! The snow has finally let up, but the ground is still slick with mud and snow. It’s still cold. I can’t explain in words how much I was appreciating everyone’s effort in that shit weather. They were perky, happy, joking, amazing. Projects are made and broken by who you work with, and these guys were just fucking spectacular.
Outside voice: Cool! Let’s do that run a few more times! I’ve got the timing just a little bit off, and we can only hit you with the light one shot per pass. The recycle time isn’t quite fast enough for a double burst at full power.
Inside voice: FUCK. Fucking focus mode changed. What the fuck. How did this happen? Augh.
Renting equipment. While I love renting specific gear for shoots, cameras are like your girlfriend. They’re your ride or die. Your bae. You know all the buttons, how to make them do what you want without even thinking about it. You and your camera are best buds, you’ve seen some shit together, had some scraps, but you’ve been together for a bunch of years and you know the kinks, the quirks, what does and doesn’t work. Rentals… They’re like the Tinder of cameras. You never know if you’re gunna strike gold, or if you’re actually just talking to an inappropriately aged basement dwelling mouth breather who probably smells like stale Cheetos and Axe body spray. Sometimes you don’t find out till later what those buttons are preprogrammed to do, but it’s guaranteed they’re not set up the way yours is.
Now, this isn’t saying anything against renting, I do it often. I own cheap gear, I’m good with it, because I can rent whatever I need when I need higher end options. I thankfully live in a large enough city that I can get my hands on almost anything with notice.
This rental though, has a button by the shutter that I cant’t feel under my gloves and I am accidentally pressing it. Therefore it's shifting my focus modes on me at what appears to be completely random. So on certain modes, I am blowing focus on shots that we can only do a short number of times. Horses have limited endurance, and I like to draw the quitting line long before they get tired. I love them, I grew up with them, I respect them as sentient beings. And I am totally missing some the shots, and I am just unfamiliar enough with the device in my hands enough, to not realize what was happening. That’s on me. I knew how to fix everything else, but this one little button.
I have a theory that everyone has a button in their own lives that makes them go full Hulk-Smash. Some people it’s driving, some people it’s standing in slow line ups, others it’s having to listen to an automated system on the phone when they really just want to talk to a human being. Mine is when technology doesn’t do what I’ve hired it to do, even when it’s my fault
Curtis and I have worked together a lot over the years, and he knows my internal rage face. We call a quick break, and I hunker down in a pile of snow in the trees, ready to fling myself on the closest sword and just put me out of my own misery.
Outside voice: It’s doing some weird shit. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know how to fix it. I’ve been able to work with all the other focus modes it went into, but now it’s randomizing and just picking the things that are closest, or moving, or whatever. I don’t know how to fix this. I went through the menu three times. What is going on?
Inside voice: Yeah… That’s pretty much it. Just shove a sharp stick in your neck. It’ll hurt, but at least this humiliation will be over with soon!
I hand him the camera with the strap still around my neck, because in my fluster, why would I remove it?
I get up, walk to the crew and lighten my mood, shoving some granola bars and hot chocolate down my neck. Admittedly, I’m pretty cold at this point, even with all the winter gear on. I realize being frazzled solves nothing, so I take some time to laugh, breathe, and get back to the present. I know the camera isn’t broken. The problem was between device and ground. That would be my meaty carcass holding the thing. Curtis owns a Canon 5Dmk4 and will solve the mystery. Shove Hulk-Me back into the pit where she belongs.
In only a few moments, we’re back and running. I make notes that I owe another steak dinner.
The next shots go seamlessly, and are even better than my initial plans. Amazing what walking away for a few minutes will do for clarity. I know this. I often ignore it. I’m a stubborn bastard.
We finish off with some experimental shots of Radar on her faithful steed Diego, and the creative genie shows up, delivers perfection. We end the day on a high note and slog out with bags of gear that now feel hundreds of pounds heavier now it’s all wet, and the ground is extra slippery.
I’m ready to weep with gratitude for everyone who made the day happen. We managed to pull off a shoot during a storm that shut down the entire province for 36 hours. I can’t believe how lucky we were, even though we had a massive plan diversion.
We make it back to Calgary just as the storm hits peak rage. The roads are completely iced over. One assistant who drove down from Edmonton that day, reports she’s been on the road for 12 hours, most of those hours spent between Red Deer and Calgary. For context, Red Deer to Calgary usually takes even the slowest of drivers one and a half hours.
I go to turn on my computer to perform my usual back up and scan all the images we had shot, and the whole thing blue screens and dies. Fucking automatic updates! Remember technology hulk smash? Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one with a computer there, and we backed up on other devices… But I had considered having a bath with a toaster at that moment. RIP Friday’s images, and my last shred of patience. I satiate my rage with too many slices of pizza, and try to mindlessly scroll Instagram.
Sleep comes eventually, but not before a detailed scan of what had been shot that day on another device. Better than I had expected. The video footage is unreal. The stills look great. Yeah, there’s more blown focus than not, but that’s why we took so many frames, and took it so slowly. Even when the focus was jumping around on me, there’s still lots of useable shots. Awesome! The day was chaotic, but still a success! I breathe just a little easier.
Sunday morning. The storm is gone. My nemesis is in full display. Bright sun, blue sky, not a fucking cloud in sight. I was ready to sacrifice any limb to have the storm back from the day before.
Outside voice: Fuck.
Inside voice: Shoulda shoved that stick in your neck yesterday. It’s too late now.
We head into the trees, another backup location. It’s an uphill slog in mud and deep snow, and I’m regretting all the “skipped leg days” about five minutes in. The irony is not missed on us as we drag our gear past several curious horse expressions in the corrals adjacent, who all could probably carry these loads with ease.
I’m thankful we have also rented Broncolor lights . We turn on the entire arsenal. Powerful enough, they combat the sunshine and balance out our shadows. We consider shooting later in the day so the light was lower, but in the mountains, the last thing we wanted to do was load out in the dark. It was tricky enough in the daylight, at night it would be worse. It’s back to the equation – What can we control, what can’t we, and what can we do with it?
We try to diffuse the nasty awful sunlight with a variety of smoke options which helps. The wind is still prevalent though, and we only get a few minutes per shot. Plus-side, the temperature is much warmer for which I ruefully give partial thanks to the burning ball of bright above. Could have been warmer without all the damn harsh shadows though. Canadian spring is truly bipolar.
Outside voice: Well at least we can get everything in focus today! Luckily there’s lots of trees and twigs and bushes, lots of foreground and background elements around the riders.
Inside voice: We are LITERALLY GOING TO HAVE TO PAINT THIS SHIT IN PHOTOSHOP LATER! Enjoy masking out all those twigs, sucker. I mean, masking out hair is like… super easy, right? You’ll have this licked in no time. BTW how many inches did your ass gain the last few years from sitting on it too much?
Sunday does go faster and easier than Saturday, because we take the tactics that worked so well the day before and apply them. We try a few random ideas at the end that yield middle of the road results, but we make notes for the future anyway. Everything is a lesson. We have 6,000 or so images to dissect, dial in, and make even better next time.
Outside voice: I think we have a wrap! Thank you so much to everyone and all your effort! You’re amazing, and thank you so much for trusting these weird ideas!
Inside voice: Don’t fuck this up! They showed up and did their part, you better make something they’re proud to be a part of, or they’ll laugh you out of town! Not that I think they’re the types, but it’s really what you would probably deserve.
I spend the next four months agonizing over pixels, culling, editing, re culling, re editing. I want nothing more than to make something I’m proud of, and I hope the people who contributed their time to this project feel excited about it as well.
The heap of failed images is large enough to earn its own area code, and I spend more than a few nights staring at the screen with watery eyeballs, wondering how I got myself in so far over my own damn head. This isn’t about money, it’s about valuing the time and souls of the people who trust the wild ideas of someone they didn’t know a year ago. I feel like that is a far bigger pressure. I can pay back money, I can’t give people back their time if they feel misrepresented.
So, here it all is. In its glory, chaos, and mayhem. Admittedly, there's a lot more editing to be done. I just can't wait to share any longer.
A project that I’m really excited to be tackling for as many years as it needs to be. This is stage one.
For the love of horses, fantasy, and people.
Thank you for your time.
TLDR? Here's an easy peasy video summary! I'm a little more PG in this version ;) There's more artwork below too! Sooooo keep scrolling!
Many thanks to our entire crew, and everyone involved with this project!
Broncolor Siros - B3K Digital
Canon 5D Mk4 & Canon EOS-R - McBain Camera
70-200mm Lens - Sigma Canada
Production & Second Camera:
Curtis Jones Photography
Without you, none of this is possible.
Video and Editing:
Nathan Kidd - Method Music Productions
Music, written and performed by:
Nathan Kidd - Method Music Productions