Sometimes you have to build stuff to get the shots you want.

A couple of years ago my friend, Chris Archer, talked to me about a project he wanted to do. He'd just bought a Sony F55 Cine Alta video camera that was capable of shooting pretty decent slow motion and he had a friend who was an accomplished dancer. He wanted to shoot her in front of a wall of cascading sand as she dropped into the frame from above, and he wanted everything but the sand and the dancer to drop into total black.

During the course of his experimentations he decided that he really needed to shoot with a Phantom camera for even slower, slow motion. He also decided that he needed to build this rig to drop the sand evenly across two, large intersecting planes. Chris had carpenters build the entire rig/set for this in an airplane hangar at the old, Mueller Airport, here in Austin.

Chris asked me to help out with the lighting. We wanted a semi-hard source that was somewhat directional but had soft edges. I figured a 24 by 36 inch, heat proof softbox with a 2,000 watt, open face tungsten light would be good. I skirted the box with black fabric to cut down on spilling light so we didn't contaminate the background of black felt. We were able to pull f2.8 at our high speed settings something like 600 frames per second. With the fast, Zeiss cine lenses we were using that aperture was the perfect combination of sharpness and depth of field control (sharp subject, sharp sand, not sharp black material). We added a few highly controlled spots for fill in light but they had little overall effect on the scene. I could tell they were there but they were subtle...

Once Chris had his angles figured out we started placing the two thousand pounds of sand on the set.

The resulting video was pretty amazing. It takes eight or ten seconds from the point the dancer enters the frame until she lands on the sand. Every grain of sand that puffs up is clearly delineated. I liked the concept. I loved the fact that Chris was so committed that he engineered every piece of a custom set that took weeks to concept, design and implement. Sometimes that dedication to doing things exactly right goes missing when clients show up with budget restrictions and a general lack of understanding just how much goes on
behind the scenes.

Self-directed projects like this one led Chris to a number of opportunities to become a camera operator on a series of feature movies. His career is effectively launched and he recently returned to Austin after six weeks in L.A. shooting yet another feature.

We often hear why something can not be done, it's refreshing when an artist disregards the obstacles and relentlessly pursues his real vision. If it's a great vision it's nearly always a stepping stone to the next big opportunity. Real artists seem to make their own luck.

I just found the actual video. It's here:
Of from Chris Archer on Vimeo.
Created for the The Modern at Ft. Worth Dance Festival.

Thank you to the whole team and to Austin Studios/Austin Film Society (Chris Engberg / John Elder)


  1. Cool set, good post, but can we see the video?

  2. Your wish is my command. Found it and added it to the original post.

  3. I like it all but the last minute is incredible.

  4. When you get involved in personal projects like this, do you get paid for your time and expertise?

  5. No. Chris and I are old friends and help each other with personal projects all the time. Quid Pro Quo. You scratch my back I'll scratch yours. While Chris benefitted from my lighting experience and some time spent rigging, I learned a tremendous amount from him about shooting for slow motion, working with a very large jib and much more. It was absolutely a fair trade.

    1. I figured, as it was a personal project that the two of you could learn together on. But how about the carpenters? Or the owner of the hangar? Were they paid? I bring this up as I think about bringing my own personal project ideas to fruition. The "spec" video, coincidentally timed, also speaks to the idea of working for free in hopes of future work. I get that there's a difference between a personal project and a spec piece (esp. if requested by a "client"), but I ponder the benefits of doing a personal project that would appeal to the market you want to pursue, perhaps going so far as using an iconic brand in a personal project. Setting aside the obvious trademark issues for a moment, why not do an unsolicited spec piece as a personal project?

  6. WOW -- Thanks for the link. Great work by all.

  7. Keanu, all tradespeople paid in full. All location fees paid in full. What is a commercial portfolio but a test to show prospective clients what you can do--- on your term, not theirs!?


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