I’ve mentioned Lily La Mer before – she’s a circus performer, mermaid, model and costumier. Lily does walkabout performances and creates performance installations and sets for all sorts of events. Her latest costume – an astonishingly detailed mermaid tail christened Dave – took something like 15 people a total of 7 months to create.
Lily needed some suitably epic promotional photos for the tail and acts she can create around it.. and that’s where the planning started.We have a habit of egging each other on. Lily will suggest something and I’ll add another detail e.g. ‘why don’t we add an aerialist into the mix?’ – which will inspire another idea from her, and so on.
The original idea was to create a magical wintery scene to show what her clients could get over the Christmas season. It needed to be dramatic without being too moody and glum – Lily’s challenging brief was ‘light shadows and dark light’.
The first challenge was working out how to integrate the blue tail into a wintery scene – lots of blue fabric of different shades and some blue gelled lights mix seemed like a good idea.
The second challenge was working out how to decorate the floor – we didn’t want it to be flat, and it needed to look snowy. Lily found some large rolls of fake snow but it wasn’t terribly convincing. Combined with some extra fake glittery snowflakes and a specialist fog machine designed to create a low-lying layer of fog I thought we might just make something work.
Several of the costumes have fairy lights in them. We needed to ensure that those showed up – adding lots more seemed a good idea.
Then there were the extra details of set dressing – using multiple layers of fabric to create texture and depth, taping & decorating the aerial hoop, creating some wintery trees – and a way to make them stand up - and so on.
While Lily & team were beavering away creating set and costumes I was thinking about the logistics and lighting. It was clearly going to be easiest to use the studio I share – I know it well and it’s fairly straightforward to rig aerial equipment. The detailed planning went down to the level of working out where we were going to get bags of ice – for the fog machine - on a Sunday afternoon, as well as who was collecting who from the station when. In addition to the 5 performers we had 3 assistants at various points during the day.
This is what we started with - the ladder is under the hoop rigging point. The first job was to dismantle a partition wall. Please excuse the low-grade iPhone behind the scenes pics :) Lots of tea was consumed..
While I was doing that Lily & co unloaded the van they’d hired. Only to realise that they’d left a key component of the set in Kent; Alex was despatched on a 4 hour round trip to go and fetch it while we rejigged the shooting schedule.
Sorting out the costumes took a while:
Just getting the fabric up took a while. Some of it was incredibly creased – so we dampened it to get the worst out. Unfortunately we over did the dampening and then had to use some hot lights to dry it out again.
I was using a Nikon D750 and Tamron f2.8 24-70 lens on a Manfrotto tripod for the shoot.
Lighting was always going to be a challenge. The main thing was ensuring that the fairy lights in the set and costumes weren't drowned out by the flash but that the image wasn't too dark. The approach I took was to give each performer or detail their own snooted, gridded or flagged flash - or in some cases all 3. For instance the stilt walkers had a single gridded dish, masked with some cinefoil. The eagle-eyed will spot a speedlite snooted with a Pringles tube – this is providing an accent light on the tail. I like Pringles tubes modifiers – the silver interior gives a really nice soft edged spot, or if you need a harder edge then sliding a piece of black craft foam inside does the job.
I needed f8 to get enough depth of field and 1/50s at ISO 400 to get the LEDs to register as I wanted. Then the flashes were tweaked individually using a Sekonic L558 light meter and checking the results by shooting tethered to my Windows laptop using smartshooter and Lightroom via a Tethertools cable secured with reusable cable ties.
Ideally I would have liked a deeper depth of field but focusing into the middle of the scene got everything sufficiently sharp.
The 8 lights are a mixture of Yongnuo speedlites and studio units from Elinchrom and Lencarta; the fairy lights were selected so that they were all the same colour.
Here’s a dodgy lighting diagram – I’ve omitted a couple of the handheld reflectors which were used to lift some of the shadows. You’ll see that all the key lights come from approximately the same direction – I did try with spots from both sides of the set but the shadows were horrible. I might have got away with having all the lights perpendicular to the performers but it would have had less depth.
Here’s a snap of some of the lights:
The difficult parts were idiotic things like arranging the fake snow in a way which was safe for the stilt walkers, anchoring the trees, stopping the hoop from spinning and finding a relaxed looking pose for the mermaid - it takes an aerialist's muscles to hold the tail fin up like that. Not to mention cleaning up confetti. I thought confetti might look like snow falling so Lily bought a huge box of confetti cannon. Unfortunately it just looked like jumbo confetti – and cleaning up the results of just cannon shot took ages.
The final image is actually a composite but all the performers were in place for all the shots; we just selected the best expressions from 4 different images and merged them in. I did a little bit of cloning to fill in gaps in the floor and fabric and burnt down a couple of bright spots. Then the image was slightly desaturated and the local contrast given a little boost using Topaz Clarity.
With thanks to