You will have to excuse the fact that this story is out of sequences with all the other “Rare Opp Stories.” This was meant to be a quick little insight into the images I have of Kenya in “Locker 14 / Collection.” As I wrote it I just realized it belonged in “ Rare Opp’s” instead. So here we go!
It was back in July 2008 that I received a call from an art buyer with Leo Burnett in Johannesburg, SA. Lynn, the art buyer, and I have worked on a few great jobs and she is wonderful to work with on anything; at anytime. So she explains to me that they are launching a new cellular company up in Kenya and she has been asked to put someone forward for the job. And that happens to be me! We talked awhile about timings and logistics of the shoot and then she sent me some references and said she needed the quote ASAP. They always need the quote ASAP! Funny how that happens…
So I sat down with my team and we started putting it all together. We got all the numbers in and the quote went out the same day. Now there is a snag in this whole quoting process and let me explain… I was told I would be shooting 2 billboard ads for the print campaign while they were shooting the TV commercial. If anyone reading this has worked as a stills photographer on a TV set, you know how difficult it can be to get your “time” to shoot your job.
I am going to digress, as I do, and give you a little background here. My “on-set” working education started on film/ TV sets in LA. I then worked into Photography and ended up focusing more on this line of work to make money, so I could take time out to try to work on big film and TV productions. I was not in the “union”, so to get great jobs was always tough. Which means you don’t work a lot. Which means no money! I was offered to join the union, but then you can ONLY work on Union jobs. And there are not always a lot of those around because there is a “hierarchy of jobs” based on your time and experience in the union. “Last to join, last to work” was a standard. Ok. The point of all this is that I am use to working on film/TV sets. I get on very well with ALL the guys and know my place within it all. My background of knowing and doing all the jobs that film/ TV guys do, helps break the ice and gets me in with everyone. Even if you are holding a stills camera on “their set”.
Ok, so 2 images and those 2 images are to be shot while they are shooting the scene for the TV commercial. Sounds easy enough. Just need to make friends with the AD, DOP and Producer and I should have no problems capturing the moments.
Now let’s fast forward about a week. I am on a plane to Nairobi, Kenya. Noticed I said “I” not “we”. Due to budgets and the flights, accommodation, and the list goes on, I had to do this job alone. As I write these stories, it is quite something how I have done so many of these alone… Just thinking out loud. So there I am flying to a country I have never been to, to shoot on a TV set (which is a challenge on its own), with no assistant or help to shoot two billboards. Sounds like an Adventure to me!
Land at 4 in the afternoon after flying for over 8 hours. Found the guy who was to pick me up after half an hour. He spelt my name wrong and still had the nerve to yell at me for being late! Sat in traffic for 3 hours to go all of 12 kilometers. 38 degrees and 100% humidity wouldn’t be bad if the AC in the van worked. Has been a LONG day and I don’t feel very “fresh” at the moment. I ask the driver where we are going and he informs me he is taking me straight to the Agency. That’s fine with me. Always great to meet everyone and talk over expectations and timings.
We finally make it to the Agency. Shook way too many peoples hands and was flooded with names I couldn’t remember much less pronounce. Was offered a cold glass of water and sat down in the boardroom with a very nice AC unit aimed my direction! Happy Days! Turns out the Creative Director, Executive Creative Director, and Art Director were in meetings, so I just hung out for a while and relaxed. Then two guys come thru the door of the Agency and everyone gets up and meets them. These guys were then asked to relax in the boardroom with me. They come in and we all introduce each other. They are French (Christopher and Manu)! And happen to be from the “Head agency” which if Publicis- France, that has the cell companies account we are shooting for. Now it is all starting to make sense…
We all talk and instantly hit it off! What a bunch of great guys. Who said the US and the French don’t get along! Haa! So after awhile the local agency creatives meet us and we all have a meeting about what they want from me. I am given a schedule and told that I will have to shoot at the same time as the TVC is filming due to a really tight time line. I thought as much, so it sounds great from my side.
So myself and the guys are taken to the hotel so we can get settled in. Tomorrow is the first day of filming and we are starting very early as you do with these kinds of shoots. Just checked in and showered and ordered room service and I think I was passed out by like 8:30.
Got up and meet the guys at the van at like 5:30 and we are off to the first location. The TV crew is all ready there setting up and rehearsing. We arrive and the guys go their way and I go mine. I am on the look out for the Producer or AD. I have the call sheet, but no idea who is who. Finally I find the Producer and introduce myself as the photographer who will be shooting the 2 ads for the print campaign. The Producer, Adie is her name, turns to me and says, “No one told us about shooting stills on this job.” She then turned and walked away.
You know moments in movies where they use that “anamorphic lens” and you are stationary, but the background is being pulled towards you? That literally happened to me right then! Oh, F&^k is what came to mind. So in my state of “awe” I quickly find Christopher and Manu. I tell them what is up and they are as freaked out as me. We then go and find the Producer and the Creative Director from the local agency and we have a bit of a meeting in a hallway. Turns out the local agency never briefed the TV production about stills, because they didn’t think it had anything to do with their shoot schedule since I was just to shoot along side them. Turns out though that the two shots I am suppose to do for the billboards have been “cut” form the TVC to say time and money. Also as it turns out because the TVC was not briefed on the stills aspect of the job that all the talent fees don’t include print usage.
No lets recap quickly. Basically I am F*^Ked! My two shots have been cut for the script. I can’t shoot any talent because they have not been paid for print. And there is no time built in the shoot schedule for me to do anything. Talk about a shit first day on set!
Now at this point. They had to stop shooting the TVC and all have a production meeting on set. Talk about being the “hated guy on set”! Not how I wanted to be introduced to everyone. “Hi, I’m Bryan- the stills photographer. And your whole schedule and shoot day is screwed because I am here!” Nice one…
Going to fast-forward for you. The production loses about two hours of shooting due to finger pointing and name blaming. I instantly become everyone’s focus of frustration. And now I have been told I must make up a schedule that fits within their shoot schedule to do my two shots. Which have not been scheduled to be shot or organized. So what I need is a Producer to produce this and I have no assistant, no lighting, no transport and no help at all!
I tell the guys that I am going back to the hotel, as there is nothing I can do on set today because I don’t have permission to photograph anyone. Today was not the day I was to shoot my shots anyway. I always go to set to make introductions and just see how everyone is working and get the vibe of the shoot. Also it is always great to give some behind the scenes to the agency if I am not busy. They love that kind of stuff… FYI
As I got into my room, I felt sick to my stomach. None of this is my fault, so that is not what is bothering me. What is getting to me is that I have to figure out a way to make this work. That’s what I do…
After some liquid courage, it is about dinnertime and I get a call that we should all meet at the restaurant in the hotel for dinner. I go down early and I find Adie, the Producer. I ask if I can talk with her and she says sure. We sit down and I let her know from my side what I need to do and I ask for her help in doing it. She has hired all the talent. locations and is running the schedule for the TVC. So I ask her to produce my two shoots for me while she is producing the TVC. She just looks at me and says nothing. I tell her that I will get the agency to pay her and all the talent and locations separately to the TVC. So she needs to come up with a quote with me at dinner so we can submit it to the agency and they just “must approve it” if this shoot is to happen. She smiles and says sure she will do it.
After dinner I meet with Christopher and Manu and the local agency Art director. I show them the quote and basically say, “This is what it is going to cost to do this shoot.” Christopher and Manu are the “big bosses or client” if you will, so they both agreed it just must get done.
So lets skip ahead. It’s my 1st shoot day as well as the TVC’s final day of filming. They have like 350 extras on set today to make this grand finale shot that they are doing from helicopters. The plan is that when they finish the TVC’s shoot, the extras will come over to my set and I will shoot them. I have been on set since 6 am. It is now 4:30 pm and the TVC is still shooting. The sun is less than an hour from setting on the mountains in my background. I walk over and grab the AD and ask him how much longer. He asks why and I explain to him that I am waiting to do my shot with their extras as well. He didn’t know about this and he makes a plan for me. Luckily over the past couple of days the film crew and I have become good mates and they are very cool with me and what I have to do now. They just don’t like surprises! And I completely understand that…
So I get one of the 2nd AD’s to start gathering around 50 people and to get them to my area so I can get them in position. Tricky thing about this is that in Kenya they speak many different languages. So every instruction had to be spoken about 3 to 4 times. This takes forever to get anything done.
I get the grips to make me a boom with a chair on the end so I can get up and look down onto the group of people for my shot. I was suppose to have scaffolding, but the TVC is still using everything… They build me one in about 10 minutes. These guys are kicking ass for me right now. This is were all my experience on set pays off huge! I know exactly what to ask for and from whom… And because I built up respect with them, they help me even though they don’t have to because I use to be one of them…
So the sun has just hit the mountaintop. Clouds have now decided to form everywhere. My 50 people are “semi” doing what I need them to do and I get off 5 frames before the sun is engulfed in cloud. I shot literally for about 2 minutes! F&#k me sideways! The TVC is still filming as they like the last light. The grips bring me down from the boom chair and a large group of people were just staring at me. Everyone has they look of “did you get it?” on their faces. I look thru the card on my Hasselblad H2 / Phase one P45 back and stand silent in front of everyone. I didn’t even have time to check them as I was shooting them. I knew my exposure was right, but I had no idea what I truly got. So everyone kind of gathers around as I scroll thru the 5 images I have on the card. I look up and Christopher and Manu are standing there with baited breath, I turn the camera to show them and I say, “got it boys!” Everyone just exhales and the weight of the world is now gone… They both check out the shot and just smile and say, “Well done!”
I just turn to everyone standing next to me; the AD’s, grips, gaffers, extras, everyone, and tell them that I could not have done it without everyone’s help! I gave a big clapping applause to them all and said beers were on me! Hugs all around as we dispersed and had to start wrapping the TVC shoot as well.
Now at this point, I am gathering all my camera stuff. I have downloaded the card to my laptop and backed it up on a hard drive as well. Just because! While I am doing all this, the 350 extras are lined up in a HUGE line waiting to get paid. There is a little table in this massive field we are shooting in with one of the production team and a little cash box sitting there and paying everyone. I am putting my laptop away when all of a sudden machine gun fire opens all around me! “Holly shit!” was my first thought. Then I dropped low to the ground and started to look around. I have nowhere to hide or what direction the gunfire is coming from. I was in the middle of the field as everyone started running in every direction. Mass exodus and chaos is all around me. I got my pack on and instantly was grabbed by one of the AD’s. They ran me over to one of the production vans and threw me in. They hopped in as well and the driver just took off. This all happened in less than a minute it seemed like. I was told to keep my head down and not to move. After a few minutes of driving so fast and crazy, I looked up and asked something like, “What the hell was that all about!” The AD told me that what had happened was that one of the extras told the other people that he got paid more. So when the next person came up to get paid, the producer gave them the agreed upon amount, but the person asked for more because so and so got more. This, I was later told, is how they get more money out of film crews. But this time an argument broke out and the military guards we had with us opened fire on the crowd as they tried to over run the production person at the little table. I asked about everyone else and I was told that they all got into separate vans and went separate directions. I asked why and then I was told that all these extras come from this area and they would have called on their cell phones and told their people to barricade the roads so none of us could get out. Then they would hold us for ransom or just hold court right there on the side of the road!
All this for a photograph! Tell me I don’t love my job… So we make it back to town, which was like a 2-hour drive thru dodgy townships and the threat of being killed. Turns out everyone made it back but different times as they all came from different directions. We all meet later that night at the bar and disgusted what had happened. While I was talking with Christopher and Manu, Adie came over and just looked at me. I turned to her and asked her what was up. She then explains to me that we were suppose to use the same location for my shoot tomorrow, as well as the same extras. But now, since most of the extras didn’t get paid because of what happened we could not go there as they would be waiting for us and could possibly hurt all of us.
So once again, I have no location, no extras, and no plan! It is 8:30 at night and we are to be on set at 7am tomorrow. Do you see a pattern here yet? This shoot is just throwing everything at me, but we always figure out a way. So we brain storm over dinner and come up with a plan. Turns out that one of the possible locations for the TVC that they didn’t use was available tomorrow. And because none of the extras knew about it, it would be safe to shoot there. Cool. Location sorted. Then Adie came up with the plan to use one of the large buses we had to pick up people on the way to the location. She said they would stop at townships on the way and get out and just tell who ever was around they would pay them “x” amount to come for the day. Sounded good to me! So by 11 that evening we had all put together tomorrows shoot and had sent out call sheets to everyone. These are the moments that make all the shit stuff worth it! I celebrated with a very expensive single malt whiskey…
Next day we get up earlier than usual, 4am this time, as the new location is further away. We drive out and get there. Turns out that I have a complete grip truck and lighting crew as well as craft service and production all there for me today. Ah… a proper shoot day at last! The bus arrives about an hour later and off comes around 60 or 70 people. Which was great! They were all excited to be there and so was I. The idea for this shot was to create a long line of people and they were “all” to be flying a very large kite in the sky.
I set up camera and we got to it. Took about an hour or so to get everyone in position due to the language barriers. Then I shot plates of people and we would move them so we could make the line longer and longer. To shoot this “for real” I would have needed about 150 people… So I made a plan as usual. Got all the plates done. Everyone had lunch by 1 or so. Then it was time to shoot the Kite. I had the grip guys build me a kite frame out of 20X20 and 12X12 frames. Then we covered it with the kite material and mounted it up on the top of the grip truck, so I could have the height I needed. As all this was going on the clouds rolled in and rain was on its way! Always something when you pull out a camera… So I rush the guys, which they understood. We got it up on the truck and lighting started to crack all around us. By the way it happens to be the rainy season in Kenya this time of year. Good to know… now! We float the kite up there and I get like 10 shots at different angles. The clouds are now over and the light is gone. My shot is finished and the rain just pours down on all of us. All the extras are hiding under the grip truck, bus and any vehicles around. I am under the easy-up tent going thru everything as Christopher and Manu come over. I show them what we got and they are supper happy. “That will work great!” was what Christopher said. As he said that I just leaned back in my chair and just sighed… I can’t believe we pulled all this off and got amazing stuff along the way…
So I thanked everyone again for all their great work and we headed back to the hotel. That night I sat with Christopher and Manu and thanked them for the opportunity to work with them. They told me that they were impressed at how I handled everything and they looked forward to seeing the final retouched layouts when I was done with them.
I will skip past all the events that happened on the way home and just say, “ I made it in one piece.” I gave the images to Armand over at Spin Images to start retouching, as I was booked on another job straight when I got back. Armand and I worked together on the images and created some beautiful images for the campaign.
Check it out.
This was one of those rare opportunities that you never knew would happen, but it just turned out that way.
Thanks for taking the time to read and share in my adventures.
All the best,