Friday 29 November 2013

Project: Thunderbolt- shooting the pic

Well, after over a year of on-off work, I've finally managed to shoot a pic using the Project: Thunderbolt miniatures.

Quick recap for anybody coming across this now, and who hasn't read the previous blog entries on this project;  as a fan of the writings of Dan Abnett, particularly the fiction work he does for the Black Library, set in the Warhammer 40,000 (wargaming) universe, I decided I wanted to do some fan art.  And being as I was looking to do some experimental stuff with aircraft models, it seemed a good opportunity to combine a shoot with some work based on Mr Abnetts "Double Eagle" book (and its forthcoming sequel, "Interceptor City".

For the project, I built a model of an Imperial Thunderbolt jet fighter, which exists as a design in the Warhammer 40K universe, and an expensive model kit.  Being poor, I decided to build my own based on descriptions in the fiction side of the game, which is why its in 1/32nd scale and uses loads of leftovers from the Britannia Model Village project, bits of felt pen, etc.

I then built half a dozen other aircraft models, all freelance- an Imperial bomber built around a much buggered-about-with (technical term there) Airfix Stirling in roughly 1/72nd, and some generic baddy planes, cobbled together (another technical term) from bits of old broken model kits and toy planes.  Anyway there are some pictures below, also some older posts back through the blog with more info on their construction.

The point of the shoot was to experiment with doing a big, slightly chaotic picture with loads of movement and action, but which didn't need to resort to Photoshop too much- I got sick and tired of combining layers, lots of images of different planes with different lighting, etc, so wanted to try and see how much I could do in-camera.  The image needed to focus on the Thunderbolt, which is assumed to be flying top-cover for a bomber squadron which is being attacked.  Blame too much of a childhood watching films like "Memphis Belle" and "The Battle of Britain".

The effect I wanted was of the Thunderbolt (as the main subject of the picture) to be 'frozen' in the shot, whilst the rest of the battle blurs around it in the background.  The only way to achieve this was to have the model and camera mounted on the same rig, moving through the 'battle'.  However, given that I had made the model rather too heavy-duty, it ended up being far too weighty and bulky for any kind of camera rig.  So the only other option was to have the model and the camera stationary, and move everything else.

The pic above shows the first test.  The Thunderbolt was suspended with thin thread, and three boards were nailed together, and put on castor wheels recycled from a demolished piece of furniture at work.  The test shot shows the concept- the bomber miniature blurring as if it is a slower-moving aircraft being overtaken by the Imperial fighter.

Another major problem though was the need for lots of miniatures; having taken months to build the one Thunderbolt and the bomber, I didn't want to spend ages, and incur costs, making duplicates.  So I resorted to an old miniatures FX trick I read about, which used to crop up on shows like "Space 1999" and "UFO".  The planes were photographed from the sort of angles they would appear in during the shoot, printed out, stuck onto thick card, then cut out again.  They were stuck onto wooden sticks, which (for the sake of anything better) were mounted into the leftover espresso cups from the Dalek project last week.  A bit of cotton wool sprays up as smoke, and hey-presto, an aerial armada without having to make more miniatures.  As blurry background items, it shouldn't be too noticeable.

The above shows the scene partially set-up, with a mix of real miniatures and cardboard cut-outs.  The 'Bat' (as the baddies are called in the books) which is dogfighting with the Thunderbolt is quite prominent, and I spent a little longer on this miniature compared to the other enemy planes.  It also has no cardboard versions, as all those holes in the wings would have been a sod to cut out.  

Finally, ready to shoot- some extra effects were tried, with Christmas Tree lights as flak, some more cotton-wool fire effects, and a whole load of cotton wool and teddy bear stuffing as clouds.  Backdrops were improvised from sheets and blankets.  Oh for a properly-equipped studio rather than a spare room...

The shoot itself took around an hour, mainly because of the trial and error involved with moving the wheeled base around, things falling over, wires breaking, etc.  All the sorts of things which probably used to happen on "Thunderbirds" and the like, when they were doing miniature shoots.  Which is probably why they invented CGI, but I'd rather be doing this that boiling my eyeballs staring at a computer screen all day.

With then intention of not using Photoshop much, I limited myself to a few little touches per picture- some colour tweaks, sorting the background in the top-right corner to get rid of the folds in the blanket backgrounds, and cloning out the threads in a couple of them.  I also added lens flare (though more restrained than JJ Abrams, happily), and experimented with the odd gunfire/extra smoke effect.

I wanted to try something in monochrome, and actually I'm quite happy how it looks, a slightly more 'period' feel.

And finally, I couldn't resist mocking up a book cover/poster.  I know Dan Abnett hasn't finished writing "Interceptor City" yet, but being as this whole shoot has been a massive fan-nod to his work, and I'm really looking forward to the novel, I thought I'd try it.  Apologies if it treads on anyones toes or gets other fans hopes up, if they think this is a real cover/poster.

So what now?  Well, I only ended up doing little tweaks with Photoshop, which was the intention.  But on the other hand, the shoot has taken a bloody long time to come to fruition.  The shoot itself was very involved, messy, took ages to set up and dismantle, and was awfully time-consuming for a single pic shoot.  Add to that the miniatures are a bit too big and bulky to do any other pics with, and this will probably remain a one-off.  I'm tempted to do a smaller, lighter Thunderbolt for the Project:Spitfire pics in the new year, using a camera rig for mounting model planes to the camera for shots out in the real world (thus removing the need to build indoor sets), but we'll see.

The next big builds involve the remedial work for "Welsh Pony" to get that shoot ready; though I've learned some lessons with the motion blur/camera rig set ups here, to try in that project.  There's also a silly "Space Invaders" pic I want to try, if I get chance to build the miniatures…  Hopefully more on that next week.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Genesis of the (Cardboard) Daleks

As anyone who spends any time on this blog will have realised, I am a nerd.  I'm also a colossal Dr Who fan, and have been since watching a rerun of "Genesis of the Daleks" when I was very young.  

With this weekend having marked the 50th Anniversary Special of the show, it seemed fitting to do a project which was a nod to Dr Who in some way.  And with us needing an activity for Scouts/Beavers at our group, I decided to return to something I remember making when I was very young, which are Daleks made from disposable cups and drinking straws.

This time things would be a little more advanced, with the Daleks (or non-specific-science-fiction-robots, if you're a BBC Lawyer who has stumbled onto this blog and is feeling like suing) being kits for the young people to assemble up and decorate in the meetings.

The prototype, along with the bits which make up into the Dalek, and my remote-control Dalek for inspiration.  The basic kit Dalek consists of a disposable Espresso cup (written-off stock from deep in the stores at work), corrugated card, cut-down lengths of cardboard tube, the top from an egg box, a straw, a length of wood from a stirrer, some pins, an elastic band, and some stickers.  Very Blue Peter.

OK so its not Genesis of the Daleks, but then I'm on an even lower budget than the BBC were in the 80's.  I realised the Beavers wouldn't be able to handle the making of the kits, so I part-pre-assembled a load, with them just having to glue the top to the bases, and poke the guns and arms into place.  The cups had to be covered in strips of adhesive labels (bought cheaply from Poundland; honestly, where would my projects be without that store?) after spraying them with white paint didn't work.

The Daleks seemed to go down very well with the Scouts and Beavers, and with a couple of spare kits and the example one I'd done knocking around, I decided to muck around with doing a picture.  I haven't had chance to do this sort of shoot for a bit, and this seemed a good opportunity.

The ultimate form of the Dalek kits- guns modified with paperclips, and pins glued onto the arms as the suckers.

The set for the shoot- really, really improvised.  A few spare barricade bits from the Britannia project, a serving slate, and buildings from a candlestick, two wooden pencil holders, and the grill tray from a scrapped coffee machine.

What a difference some weird lighting makes- done using Christmas Tree lights, a pair of battery LED torches, and a red-tinted emergency light.

Finally, I couldn't resist trying the same set with a couple of toy Daleks, bought broken from a Charity Shop as donors for another project.  

Overall, a nice, quick little project which went down well with the recipients, and it was nice to be able to tie something in with the anniversary of a program I really like.

Next up, hopefully some big developments with the Thunderbolt project… with luck, will be shooting the final pics mid-week.

"Welsh Pony" project; first test shoot

A somewhat delayed post due to a bad internet connection for most of the last month.  Anyway, in mid-October I got a chance to do the concept shoot for the Welsh Pony project.  I got the model to about ninety percent completion, and enough track work to shoot a reasonable (hopefully) looking pic.

After much trial and error, mainly error, I ended up improvising working lights using a string of LED Christmas Tree lights.

The track work, using hanging basket liner and sand as ballast, before it was toned down with grey and black spray paint.

On location- assembling the short lengths of board took over an hour, which rather ruined the plan to have quick set-up and dismantle times.  Problems caused mainly by having to thread the bolts through holes which had got partially blocked with sand ballast.  Anyway, the background wasn't quite what I'd wanted, but with it going dark, and a huge thunderstorm closing in, I hadn't got much choice.

This shot shows the high-tech camera rig...

So what now?  The concept pics proved the viability of doing this as a bigger project, and turned out much as I'd hoped, but also showed up a lot of pitfalls and problems.  Firstly, I need a stronger camera rig that doesn't wobble around co much, blurring the photos.  Secondly, longer lengths of track which don't take so long to assemble.  This has led to the third problem, which is that the wheel sets under the loco are too chunky to go along 0 gauge flexitrack, so I need to acquire some better wheels for the "Welsh Pony".  With bad weather and poor light becoming a real issue, I don't think I'll get time to shoot any more pics this side of Christmas, so at least theres plenty of time to sort it out ready for the 'proper' shoot...

Saturday 5 October 2013

Project Welsh Pony: Progress Report

Time for a bit of an update on another project, the long-exposure railway shoot which spawned out of the "Inter-City" series I did for the South Square open call last year.  The plan this time is to have a train in the shots, with a camera rig moving at the same speed (so the train will appear fully focused and 'frozen' in a blurred landscape).  I'm also planning to do some passing-by shots, replicating the sorts of pics I sometimes do from the lineside with real trains. 

I've tentatively set a shoot in October for this, to give me a deadline to work towards, at least for the concept pics, and this has given me a list of things required- the locomotive "Welsh Pony", a short train which can be illuminated for night-time shots, and a length of track.

When I did the Britannia Model Village project the track was "Triang Big-Big" O gauge track sprayed brown and badly hot-glued to lengths of wood.  By "Intercity" a slightly more elegant solution was attempted, with semi-permanent lenghts of track ballasted with small bits of garden gravel; looked better, but the gravel went bloody everywhere.  This time I needed a better solution that was more portable, looked more realistic, but which was more robust too. 

It was planned to keep this project both easily storable and transportable by having it fit into a couple of delivery crates from work, which dictated the lengths of the track to no more than 44cm.  Toy train track from various cheapo sets was glued onto bits of reclaimed wooden planking, which was in turn attached to a hardboard base.  To join the tracks together on shoots, short bits of plywood were placed underneath, with holes drilled to accept coach bolts and wingnuts.

Seen above is almost the entire available track- its not much, but it doesn't need to be for the concept shots... if they work out as planned, I can make a bit more for the main shoots.

In an attempt to disguise the track going off-scene, I'm using a model railway technique and having track curving off under a bridge (loosely based on a bridge on the Welsh Highland Railway that I use for one my regular photography locations).  It doesn't need to be massively detailed, as its going to be a blurry background item, hence why its cobbled together from cardboard and bits of scrap wood.  Hopefully when its plastered up with other detailing, it wont look quite so basic.  Again, it will do for the concept shots.

To disguise the edges of the track boards, I glued on lengths of sloped card (mountboard)...

...and then did another trick from the later stages of the Model Village project, and glued on strips of hanging basket liner as grass...  More detaililng required soon, but its getting there.

A quick progress report on "Welsh Pony", the main bodywork is done- detailing parts left to fabricate include the distinctive front handrail (which is an annoyingly fiddly shape), a working headlamp, and a couple of other odds and ends.  The chassis also needs some attention to raise the ride-height slightly, then its time to paint it up.

Project: Airborne... concept test

The nature of my Day Job is that I’m very busy over the spring/summer/autumn, but have much free time in the winter, which means an opportunity to get some projects done.  I have a few which I’m aiming to do this winter, the main ones being to play around with long-exposure pictures using miniatures.

There are some types of photography I’ve fancied doing for a while, but which are difficult to replicate, at least without using Photoshop and the like.  I’ve been wondering about trying to do some sort of aircraft shot in-camera with miniatures, with little or no involvement from Photoshop, as a run-up to doing the Project: Thunderbolt pictures.

I figured that the best way to get a shot of a plane flying against the blurred background was to have the camera and plane fixed together on some sort of rig- it’s a development of the “Intercity” project I shot last year, where the camera was mounted on a railway wagon and propelled through a scene with a long exposure.

Developing the idea for aircraft shots involved coming up with some sort of rig to keep the plane model and the camera fixed.  I had wondered about the good old “Thunderbirds” method of having the model suspended by wires, but it would move around too much (it needed to be rock steady) and the size of camera rig required would be bloody daft.  So after a bit of though, I shall be using a stick instead; much simpler.

The failiure of an early attempt (due to the weight of the model and the poor attachment of the rig to the camera) led to the test rig Mk.2, which is a slightly more glorified form of stick.  The attachment to the camera is a Poundland mini tripod, which in terms of material quality seems to have been made from tin foil, so it has been heavily reinforced with hot glue.  One of the rubber feet from the bottom of a tube was removed, and had a small length of square-section wood inserted, on the end of which was hot glued a small plastic tub which had previously contained glitter.  The reason for this is that the tub has a tight-fitting but rotatable lid (glued to the bottom of the plane) which will allow the angle of the plane to be varied- the leg of the tripod also rotates, allowing for more angles in each shot.  The stick was painted mottled greens to try and hide it against the scenery a bit.

The plane was a little trickier; being as I was doing this as a concept test, I didn’t want to spend hours building an Airfix kit, just to have it fall off and smash to bits the first time I tried to shoot any pictures with it.  So the plane chosen was a very cheap and nasty clip-together kit, which claims to be a Spitfire.  It took a fair bit of bodging together, and I had to perform a serious bit of modification to the wings, which amazingly they had managed to mould upside down and back to front, giving the wrong shape altogether.  Its still not exactly brilliant, but its good enough for the test piece.

Once it was assembled, it was quickly painted intoi something resembling a proper colour scheme, and lightly weathered.  A finishing touch with the pictures was a plan to incorporate a battery-powered fan to turn the propeller (as it happened, I ended up being too late to get one from the shops, stupid end-of-summer clearances…)

With everything built up, it was time to actually test the concept- I needed a high-up vantage point, so went up the valley to a path between Haworth and Oxenhope, and hey presto, a viable location... except that the Day Job got in the way, so I ended up shooting this off the fire escape at work, which provided a similar location.  For the sake of the concept shots I ended up just using my old Cannon 350 rather than the posher cameras, and I was reasonably pleased with the resulting shots. 

The next step?  Well I had wondered about using this technique for the “Project: Thunderbolt” images, but that model weighs a bloody ton, so that’s out of the question.  I do however want to try some more of these pictures with a better model (I have two available, both 1/48 kits which should allow for some better detailing).  Weight will be more of an issue with bigger kits however; and I want something a bit better than a stick, which will give a bit more flexibility.

The design for the ‘proper’ rig at the moment involves a special mounting built to accept a base-plate from a camera tripod, which should make things a bit sturdier.  The ‘trigger grip’ on the base should make the camera a little more controllable too, and to support the planes I will be using the same glitter-tub method as on the concept piece, but modifying the stick with thin, but strong, metal or similar as a substitute.  The intention is to have two interchangeable sets of ‘sticks’, one painted in green and one in blue, for differing shots.  Hopefully there will be more on this project before the month is out...

Winter Timetable...

Winter Timetable

Blimey, been a good long while since I’ve updated on here; a result of the Day Job (s) which have been busy over the summer, and also working on a major location photography shoot for an upcoming gallery exhibition (details here:  However, with work easing down for the winter, the time is coming when I can focus on getting a few projects done in my increasing spare time.  The plan for this winter is to finish a few odds and sods from older projects, but the main focus will be completing miniatures for a series of projects exploring long-exposure/movement photography techniques.  And being as I’m more likely to get things done if I write them down somewhere, the list for this winter (in no particular order) consists of:

“Project: Thunderbolt”
This is the increasingly-sprawling aircraft themed project, inspired by the work of the author Dan Abnett, set in the Warhammer 40K universe, and an attempt to do a huge action picture with loads of different miniatures, without resorting to Photoshop.  It’s nearly ready to shoot, the miniatures just need a bit of fine detailing and painting, and the set assembling… it’s a bit sobering that this ‘quick’ project has grown into something that’s taken 14 months so far, but it’s become a bit more complex than originally intended- my projects tend to develop what the Americans call ‘mission creep’, and this one is no different...  I’d estimate it has about a weeks worth of work left in it, indlucing building the set for the shoot, and actually taking the pictures.  I have one ‘main’ shot in mind, with options on a few others, time permitting (because it would be a bit daft making the models then only using them for one shot).  The above shot only uses minimal digital trickery and extra effects, incidentally, and was taken in the back garden by panning the model over the lawn with one hand and trying to match its speed with the camera held in the other.  The final pictures will be on a similar line, but with a rather more efficient camera rig, and bigger in scale.

“Project: Welsh Pony”
A major long-exposure photography project, this has emerged out of the work I did for “Intercity”/the “Dromology” exhibition at South Square Gallery in 2012, and will be done using custom-made, large-scale miniature trains.  The ‘set’ and the stock are almost built for the first location shoot (slated for mid October- I thought having a deadline might spur me on a bit more to complete it), with other miniatures –including a steampunk-esque Double Fairlie locomotive- designed and ready to build at a later date, depending on how the first shoots turn out.

“Project: Airborne”
Another long-exposure photography project, this time using aircraft miniatures… I’ve built an experimental camera rig for this shoot, and following the results of this shoot I am now working on a rather better rig which will stand up to more use out on location (pencilled in for the same timeframe as the “Welsh Pony” pics, depending on prep time).  It will also involve constructing a couple of large-scale aircraft kits I’ve had in stock for a while; this, if anything, is the more involved part of the project, as I don’t think I’ve actually built and painted a model kit as per the instructions for years. Generally I just use kits as a source of suitable parts for my own designs, so the thought of making something that looks like the picture on the box, and realistically painted, is a little daunting.

“Project: 50PH1E (‘Tanked’)”
Like Project Thunderbolt, this is another build set in the Warhammer 40K universe, and is linked to a possible graphic novel/short story I’ve been scripting... It will probably amount to nothing, but I keep being drawn back to the idea and doodling pictures for it, so I probably need to just make a couple of models and get it out of my system (and the models can always be folded into other projects anyway).  Basically, it needs a couple of freelance tank miniatures, which are already sketched and designed with parts acquired ready to start the build (the above model is an early shot from some concept work I did for a graphic novel; the model will be recycled in some form into this new project... what goes around comes around).  There maybe a few other odds and ends required for the project, I haven’t decided yet- basically I’ll see how it goes.

“Project: Iron Monsters”
Broadly linked to the above project, but set in the Britannia universe (in the ‘Decline Phase’ of its history in the late 2020’s, later than the other projects I’ve done so far).  Basically photographing lots of weird machines in such a way that they look like mechanical mosters and animals, out in real locations; again, as with several other projects this winter I’m trying to do as much as possible in-camera rather than resorting to Photoshop.

“Project: Cube”
Further developments of the Cube concept work I did in the summer, to spin it out into a mixed media project (with photography, miniatures, creative writing, etc).  In a way its linked with “Iron Monsters” so there may be a crossover there.  At the moment there’s no specific outcome for the project, but it may be that bits and pieces can be picked out of it for open calls, and I've a vague idea around a book or possible exhibition.

“Project: Sunken”
Basically some experimental underwater shots using miniatures- a development of the shoot I did a few years ago, but out on location (rather than shooting pictures in a bath, as above).  I haven’t decided what form the final images will take, or the subject matter yet.  It may also be a shoot for the spring, as shooting pictures in an ice-cold winter pond isn’t that appealing- at least with the bath I could run the hot tap for a bit.

“Project: Space”
A long-intended shoot doing photos using miniature spacecraft, very much inspired by the likes of Battlestar and Space:1999.  This is one of those projects I’ve been wanting to do for years- I got to the part-built miniature stage, and ‘miniature’ was stretching things a bit to describe a model spaceship that was 4ft long and so big it was never going to be finished, and I keep ending up putting this off in favour of other work.  I do however keep watching old episodes of “Red Dwarf” or the “Star Trek” films and thinking how wonderful space shots are with miniatures instead of CGI- as with ‘Tanked’ this is something I’m determined to actually get on with this winter.

I had hoped to complete a graphic novel based off some old webcomics I used to do- mixing cartoons with miniatures.  I have a story done, storyboarded, and a shots list, I just need to find time to complete the miniature ‘sets’ and do the proper artwork.  This summer has just been way too busy to do non-commission and speculative work…

As if the above wasn’t too much to get done, I also have a number of model railway projects on the go as well, the main one of which is a 009 narrow gauge layout set in Britannia.  These are fairly long projects not particularly intended for completion this winter (nor intended for specific photography project outcomes), just something to be going along with as a hobby more than anything else.  The above model is a "Britannianised" Double Fairlie model, a rather wonderful piece of 3D printing by a nice chap called Chris Ward, who's doing his best to make 009 narrow gauge railway modelling more accessible to the novice .   The below poster mash-up was done as early concept for the project (and an evolution of the Britannia Angel logo, based off the nose-art done for the Thunderbolt Project) sets the tone. 

These are the main projects to get done this winter; most are at a partially completed stage, its just a case of getting on and finishing building or detailing miniatures so I can do some pictures.  A lot of them were started last winter, but I ended up spending more time at work than I’d expected, meaning I had to shelve completing a lot of stuff until this winter… it does at least mean that I should be able to get stuff done fairly quickly.  There’s also a few odds and ends to finish off from other projects (so I can complete all the half-built models, shoot pictures, then dispose or recycle things and get some space back at home), plus whatever unplanned bits of work I might end up doing for open calls.  I’ll update as and when things get done, but I mainly intend to focus on the above, particularly projects “Thunderbolt” and “Welsh Pony” in the immediate term.In any case, it will all be documented on the blog over the winter…

Anything else?  Well just the one thing relevant to here, a print from the Steampunk project (the Salts Mill shot) is on display at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery in Bradford as part of the Bradford Open exhibition…  I’m pleased its on display, but the Steampunk project is fast becoming (like the Model Village before it) what I would classify as a Project That Refuses To Die.  I’m still sort-of drawn towards doing Steampunk stuff though, even if as a genre its gone so mainstream it probably has by now well and truly jumped the Clockwork Mecha-Shark, but I may end up revisiting the project and the vast amount of unused plans I came up with for it.  I did plan and even get as far as starting a model railway in N scale with working monorails, mechanical horses etc, but found time an common sense got in the way, thankfully.  But anyway, the image is on show at Cartwright for a few months, so we’ll see what comes of it.