Fighting fire with a fire.

March 23, 2015
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We were escorted to the perimeter of Chicago’s O’Hare airport on a miserably cold September night. I was there with Downtown Partners  art director, Scott Rasmussen and art producer, Matt Jasperson to shoot a pro bono campaign for The 100 Club of Chicago–a financial support organization for families of first responders killed in the line of duty. These ads were to appear on bus shelters throughout the city.

My creative direction was to depict how vulnerable families of first responders are to mortal threats their loved ones face on the job. This concept by Scott Rasmussen, was simply called “Fire”. It showed a mother and 3 children on the scene of a chemical blaze alongside their Firefighter husband and father.

“I wanted to communicate the dual (and potentially contradictory) ideas of impending physical danger, and calm concern.” –Scott Rasmussen, Art Director 

From a creative standpoint my goal was to capture everything in-camera avoiding the use of CGI . Though where does one get to shoot a raging fire with a $0 budget? Fortunately, the firefighters themselves came to the rescue. We were offered a controlled blaze by the Chicago Fire Department at their austere air rescue training facility on the grounds of O’Hare.The centerpiece of which is a blackened steel model airplane fuselage the size of a 737. When set alight the flames rise 30′ engulfing the jet and sending black plumes into the air. This gas grill on steroids would provide the perfect raging fire, as long as I didn’t get vaporized in the process.  Seen from an incoming jet, this spectacle could easily be mistaken for a grim tragedy.

I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to capture the level danger that I had imagined… Yes, we could capture all the elements separately, but would they all marry together into a believable whole?” –SR

Night fell as the rain retreated but the wind picked up and became very cold. Readied with a camera and a walkie-talkie, the warning alarm sounded from the control center and a “GUSH” or natural gas could be heard from across the grounds. Within seconds the plane disappeared into hot orange light illuminating the sky. I shot quickly at a 90-degree angle to the wind, which blew the heat (mostly) away from me, however the ambient heat would become so unbearable I was forced to back-off after 45 seconds. I radioed the control tower to, “kill it!”. None-the-less, the smell of burning hair on my own face was undeniable. I repeated this 2 more times until I had a library of tack sharp exposures of the most beautiful dancing flames (and a shave).

Next, we went to work on shooting the foreground blocking talent positions and styling the set as a fire scene. Coincidentally I’d just happened upon an actual Chicago fire and shot reference photos. Later I collected detritus from abandoned lots to use for the styling. Water was from sprayed across the concrete from a fire truck to reflect light on the ground. We replicated the fire’s backlight with orange strobes shot through a 12’ silk held against the wind by 2 men and 200 lbs of sandbags.

“Because the family is only there metaphorically, I didn’t want them to be panicked by being so close to the fire…I did, however, want them to be worried…Striking this balance of performance was crucial.” –SR

Near freezing temperatures and deafening wind made it a challenge to direct the talent, most of who were small shivering children, also volunteering. Between shots my team swept in with blankets and coats to warm them while we reviewed images on the computer. Back-up child talent sat toasty in my car until they were called in.

Editing through all these elements, I composited a single layout for my retoucher to follow. I added elements into the layers of flame shot the week before. Buildings, a steel trellis, an old metal silo offered context and took us away from the airport and into an industrial park of sorts. Carefully blending flame, smoke and light took insightful judgment on all our parts, plus a degree of imagination as this was something we’ve never actually witnessed before. The result is a hyper-real metaphor for The 100 Club that’s as eye catching as it is compelling. Look for them this spring and summer around Chicago.


 Production Credits// Retouching: Stick Digital, Producer: Audrey Cho, Styling: Agga B, Make up: Rose Austra, Camera assistants: Tim Blokel, Nate Smith, Travas Machel, Sean Collier, Casting: Planet Earth Agency, Equiptment: ProGear Rental, Camera: Phase One IQ250

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