Saturday, 24 January 2015

Large Format Photography: First Attempt and Results

It feels like I've been talking about large format photography for very long time, and it probably feels like that because it really has been a very long time. The good news is I've finally been out and taken some black and white 4x5 shots and developed them, so I can start to get a feel for this interesting format. The weather has been dire and continued to be dire when I took these images but you take what you can get. I would like a little more light, but it's better than nothing. I went to one of my usual photo haunts, a marshy area which runs directly adjacent to the Eurostar line. In the summer it's a bit too overgrown, but in the winter it's like a scene from Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. 

I'm learning that even though it is fundamentally the same as taking photographs on any other medium, large format really is quite different to taking pictures on a roll film. It feels like you're right back to square one and everything is a lot slower and a lot more fiddly. I'm getting a feel for it, slowly, but there's still lots of quirks I need to work out and get used to; remembering to take out the dark slide out, stopping down the aperture etc. There's more to think about for every shot but really it's quite simple.

Development feels a little less simple. The process is no different: developer, stop bath, fix and wash, but how you go about it varies from method to method.  Developing large format just seems to be tricky business, and a roadblock for anyone trying to get into it. From what I can tell, there is not a single method for getting perfect results each and every time, but rather a bunch of methods which you work with until you are able to get the results you desire. My choice is a fairly standard one but not without a lot to learn and issues to overcome. Needless to say, for my first try I expected a mixed bag and that is exactly what I got. I thought I'd share my results, warts and all.

Besides it not being a very good photograph for many reasons, I made the mistake of loading the sheets into the film holder the wrong way around so have ended up with these black patches along the top where the developer was unable to react with the emulsion on the film. A problem which is easily fixed. There's also these peculiar grey blobs, which are air bubbles forming on the surface on the film and therefore causing less development in those spots.

This is easily the best shot of the lot, but still not without problems. Again, air bubbles seemed to have formed on the emulsion and it's caused spots to be underdeveloped. However, I think you can really see the sharpness and detail starting to come through. Perhaps less so in the bottom half, where it has become a bit blurry, but this is where I can begin to see the potential over 35mm and 120 film.

I took this shot without using the shutter release cable, but even with a tripod there was a lot of camera shake, so in the end, a blurry shot. Lesson learned is to use the shutter release cable, and also to get a much better tripod!

Conclusion: more practice needed but exciting nonetheless!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Coming Soon!

This week I had the opportunity to visit France to photograph dress rehearsals and preparations for a performance of Benjamin Britten's Noyes Fludde at the Cirque Jules Verne in Amiens. I took along my medium format camera to capture the action, the results of which you will see very soon.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Adventures in Large Format Begin

A new year, a new project and new things to blog about. A few months back I bought a lovely 1950s Crown Graphic but embarrassingly it's been sitting unused ever since. Getting set up for large format development requires a little bit more effort and expense than regular film, but I'm at the point where I can start taking pictures, and very close to the point where I can develop the film as easily as any other. I bought some cheap n' cheerful Fomapan 100 which is a Czech-made black and white film to test the camera and development techniques before I move on to something slightly higher quality.

I have a really interesting photography assignment coming up in a couple weeks so expect to see lots of photo-based posts in the near future along with continued development of The Jungle.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Jungle: Visual Research - The Union Stock Yards

Along with the packing houses, where the meat is processed. there is also the Union Stock Yards where the animals awaiting slaughter are penned. These vast stretches of imprisoned livestock symbolise the swathes of immigrants who come to America is search of the 'American Dream', but then find themselves trapped within a system from which they cannot escape. Sinclair's assertion is that animals packed into the pens, being led to an inevitable death, are treated no differently than the low wage immigrant workers packed into the death traps of the packing houses. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that a lot of people die in The Jungle, or if they don't succumb to death, are spit out by the system and forced to live in extreme hardship. Not to say that Sinclair presents the workers as mindless animals, but he certainly wasn't adverse to painting them as one-dimensional characters in order for them to fit his political agenda. This is an oft-levelled criticism of The Jungle as a humanistic novel, but one which lends itself well to visual storytelling because in a way, you're only dealing with surface information,

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Jungle: Visual Research - The Packing Houses

Arguably the most interesting thing about The Jungle is Upton Sinclair's description of the inner workings of the meat packing industry. There is some debate as to how much Sinclair sensationalised the conditions and the unhygienic practices of the packers in order to draw a shocked reaction from the public. If you were lucky, perhaps you lost a finger or two, but were still able to work. If you were particularly unlucky, you might of accidentally fallen into a giant vat of boiling animal fat and packaged up as commercial lard. 

However in the end, it wasn't so much the brutal conditions in which the workers worked, but rather what eventually ended up in stomachs of everyday Americans which caused the most outrage.  Sinclair's intended message was mostly misinterpreted and the packing houses remained difficult and dangerous places to work for many years after. That said, it is difficult to look at mass produced meat the same way after reading The Jungle. 

The images I've collated are a mixture of the actual Chicago packing houses and different meat houses from around various eras and places   

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Jungle: Welcome to Packingtown

“They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” 
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

As mentioned in my introductory post what drives my interest in this novel is the idea of an environment as a character and a means to tell a story. In the book, the main setting and symbolic entity is known as Packingtown. It's a direct and accurate recreation of the real life Chicago Union Stock Yards and meat packing houses in the early 1900s. Chicago was the centre of America's meat industry and Sinclair went undercover and got a job in the district, learning the daily grind of the workers, and the tricks and swindles of the people in charge.  The book has a few paragraphs of useful description but visualising Packingtown is made much easier by the fact that it had a real world equivalent, which didn't change a huge amount in the intervening years. Photographic records of the Stock Yards and interiors of the packing houses are quite easy to come across.

 Here's a useful quote about the symbolic intent of Packingtown as an attack on capitalism. 

"Perhaps the novel’s most important symbol is the animal pens and slaughterhouses of Packingtown, which represent in a simple, direct way the plight of the working class. Just as the animals at Packingtown are herded into pens, killed with impunity, made to suffer, and given no choice about their fate, so too are the thousands of poor immigrant workers forced to enter the machinery of capitalism, which grinds them down and kills them without giving them any choice. Waves of animals pass through Packingtown in a constant flow, as thousands of them are slaughtered every day and replaced by more, just as generations of immigrants are ruined by the merciless work and the oppression of capitalism and eventually replaced by new generations of immigrants."

I think by focusing on the world in which The Jungle is set, you can create some distance between the book's overt socialist message, which is often expressed through characters actions and suffering, At times the socialist message only clogs up the flow of the novel, so I think there's the opportunity to extract the interesting journalistic elements, but at the same time approach the story in an impressionistic way to create some striking imagery. 

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Jungle - New Animation - Coming 2015!

After finishing Owl. it was nice to know that I still had it in me to go generate a big piece of work from start finish and come out the otherside still intact, even if lacking in vitamin D and exercise.  In the end I think being an independent artist. or filmmaker. or any sort of creative is all about the desire to take ownership of the work you produce, from ideas to finished piece. With Owl it's nice to know that I own everything about that animation (besides the music of course).  Financially I can't keep up what I'm doing for too much longer without some changes, but I think owe it to myself to give it one last shot and see where I can take it.

While making Owl I thought extensively about what I wanted to make after I'd finished. My last three animations have all been about setting animation to music in a very direct way and I would really like to work with narrative again. I'm not inclined to writing my own stories at the moment, so delving into the world of established literary works in the public domain is a rich treasure trove of ideas which I couldn't possibly generate myself. I found a few things, but the one which stuck out the most was an early 20th century American novel by author and journalist Upton Sinclair called The Jungle. 

The Jungle has a lot of history behind it. It's famously pro-socialist but more famously a grisly and depressing exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry at the turn of the century. The book was originally intended to drum up socialist support and sympathy for America's very poor and long suffering immigrant population, who arrived in search of the 'American Dream' but only found a corrupted capitalist system destroying whatever future they hoped to achieve. Yikes. Needless to say, it's a 400 page diatribe of sometimes yucky socialist propaganda, which doesn't always make for good reading. In fact, the last chapter is truly awful and perhaps one of the worst you'll ever read. It being America, the socialist message fell flat on it's face but the book's graphic description of the meat packing industry shocked many. It forced the hand of then U.S President Theodore Roosevelt to enact the  Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Essentially, this is where the books legacy resides rather than it's original political intention.

What interests me most about The Jungle, and it's potential for animation, is it's use of environment as character. The Union Stock Yard where much of the book is set, isn't so much just a setting, but a huge symbolic character, within which contains the numerous human sub-characters. It being written in a very Victorian style means the novel is rife with symbolism which can be extracted and visualised. It's not a novel which deals hugely in inward character emotion, which would be difficult to portray with animation. but rather it deals in very literal visual references and clear actions. That being said, it will be a tough novel to adapt, because there are many characters, it's a long book, and I'm keen to keep Sinclair's journalistic style intact. I think it's a really interesting piece of work, so I'm looking forward to finding and creating a unique expression of the text. All I can say for now is that I will be posting updates on my blog as usual for this project, so stick around as there's a lot of jungle to be explored yet!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Owl sightings on the web

A few blogs and websites have picked up Owl and kindly featured the animation. It's such a niche and quite esoteric little piece of work, that I do wonder to myself what people 'out there' think of it. I'll make sure to post of any other updates.

I've also produced a Behance page which links to seperate projects for the marker pen sketches and the complete set of infrared photographs, many of which didn't end up in the animation but were interesting images regardless. Check it out!

In case you missed it the first time around, here's the animation.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Nocturne Club Progress

I'm making some fairly decent progress on this scene. I'm using it primarily as an opportunity to play around with lighting and texturing which means at times, not much happens except me typing numbers into little boxes, which is probably the opposite of what you really want to be doing when it comes to lighting and texturing, but all the tweaking does at least end up being worth the effort.

At first I really over complicated the lighting in this one. I had far too much illumination for a night time shot, and though it's not something you'd expect from CG, reducing the complexity made it work work much better. Though, it wasn't until a day or so ago that I finally feel like I cracked the lighting properly. It's not surprising that I feel this scene works much better in black and white. While some of that is personal preference making me slightly biased, I also think the methodology behind the lighting it coming into play as well. I've purposely lit the scene as if it were a shot which needed to work in black and white, and if you desaturate the image you'll see what I mean. I'll stick to colour for this one though.

I don't know if I'll ever be truly happy with this scene, because there are things I did a year and a half ago that I wouldn't do now, but I'd rather work with what I've got than build again from scratch. There's a massive amount I'm going to change and add. The textures are far too clean, so I'm going to apply a grime and dirt layer which will help break up some of tiling and also provide a bit more realism. I haven't worked on specular maps either, which is producing some undesirable results. The poster/billboards aren't final so excuse the desperately unoriginal Coke and Kodak ones. The Armour sign was intended to be a little hint about my next big project, but I'm likely to ditch it. Other than the obviously unfinished parts, the last major flaw is probably the blown out lettering on the sign which I'll fix a little bit closer to end. I'm aiming to have it all completed some point next week, and then move on to something new. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Jazz Club Revisited

This isn't part of any project, but rather just a small personal piece. More than anything, I'm doing it because I want some lighting and texturing practice in readiness of something else. I built this model of a New York-style jazz club a long time ago but left it in an unfinished state, and since it's a fine little model in it's own right, it's exactly what I needed. I just finished constructing the UVs of the main building but still have to lay them out in a tidy manner. Once that's out of the way, I can start the fun part of working on the textures. 

The image is slightly dim because of the lighting I was playing around with the last time I worked on it. Otherwise, the only major thing missing for the time being is the lower part of the building which I'll work on once I've done the main building, as these elements will require their own separate lighting and UV set anyway.

Thursday, 27 November 2014


Owl is finally here. My suggestion would be to turn off the lights, but if you don't like wriggly things, perhaps you should keep them on!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Owl: Not long now.

A series of uncanny dioramas. Coming Soon.