Frames Per Second: A Fashion Film for Vogue Italia

DECEMBER 11, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Yomi Abiola, a former fashion model, contacted photographer/director Amber Gray to suggest they collaborate on a video they would pitch to Vogue Italia. Abiola had been a fan of Gray’s film work and fashion videos, which tend toward the surreal and are often dominated by a striking color palette, from wintery whites to deep jewel tones. The concept she and Abiola came up with for “Night Blindness” required Gray to show the model in two different scenarios: Driving a sports car at night on a foggy road, and then, Gray says, looking “a little bit wild and lost,” moving through a lush, dense jungle. Neither location was real. Gray and her crew, who included her partner and the director of photography, Julian Bernstein, created both settings from scratch in studios.

The loose storyline for the video was to show a materialistic woman undone by an encounter with nature. Gray explains, “The idea was to represent the inescapability of nature, and the way that material possessions can make [people] feel that they have outsmarted nature and surpassed it in a way.”

As they began discussing scenarios, Gray first brought up ideas for the video’s color palette. “I wanted to represent bright red and bright green,” she recalls. “It started with imagery, then we built the connecting scenes around that.”

To illustrate Abiola’s character as a materialist, they imagined cuts showing her driving a bright red Lamborghini sports car. Gray rented out Bathhouse Studios in New York City where she would create the illusion of the car moving down a dark road. Borrowing a Lamborghini for a day is “actually easier than you would think,” with Lamborghini simply requiring a letter from Vogue Italia saying how the car would be used. A driver, the only person allowed to control the vehicle, drove it into the studio, and then would reposition it each time Gray needed to get shots from slightly different angles. A smoke machine and a wind machine blew what appears to be night fog over the hood and body of the car.

The jungle images were shot in Gray’s own New York City studio. In a section of the studio’s cyclorama area, measuring roughly 14 feet by 14 feet with 12-foot ceilings, they set up potted plants, branches and cut leaves in two rows, leaving a narrow path. In the video, Abiola appears to move between the rows of foliage—by standing on a dolly that was pulled forward by an assistant, and sometimes with Abiola lying on the dolly, being shot from above. For a final shot in the video, Gray and her assistants moved the plants together to create a single wall of greenery behind Abiola. “The people in the Flower District [in New York City] know us well because we’re often down there buying banana leaves,” says Gray.

Abiola was shown inhaling the perfume of a flower—represented by colored Holi powder wafting in the air—that intoxicated her, leading her to laugh while she spun around. Along with lighting equipment and other gear rented from Foto Care in New York City, Gray got a computer-operated turntable that she planned to use to spin Abiola around. But in the end, having her stand on a spinning office chair, which was turned by a production assistant, worked better. The day before she photographed Abiola, Gray had a seven-foot-long snake brought in, so she could shoot it slithering beneath the foliage. Despite having the snake’s owner on hand as a wrangler, she says, “That snake wanted nothing to do with us. She kept trying to go under the dolly.”

The biggest logistical challenge, Gray says, “was not having a budget.” That meant cutting back on the time spent preparing and shooting, as well as ideas Gray had for a more elaborate set, including a water element, some butterflies and more. While it’s easier to make something beautiful with a big budget, Gray says, “I think that your true colors show when you have to scrounge.”

Lighting: In the car scenes, Abiola’s face was lit with a small LED light attached to the dashboard. Two Broncolor Kobold 400s, which are HMI lights, were placed on the passenger side of the car, about ten feet high. These were slightly angled so they would hit the smoke, but not hit the car directly. Each light was fitted with a Source Four optical spot, “so it’s a sharp beam of light,” Gray says.

In the jungle scenes, she again used Kobolds, this time with blue gels, and kept the lighting slightly indirect. “We hardly ever use direct lighting,” notes Bernstein. Gray adds, “We’re not trying to show a product as much as we’re trying to create a feeling.”

For example, in the shots of Abiola spinning or being drawn through the foliage, Gray says, there was a light above her bouncing light onto a silver bead board above her head, and another smaller, silver bead board that was just below her face. Abiola was wearing black contact lenses, and Gray used the smaller bead board to add reflections to her eyes.

Camera: Gray shot “Night Blindness” with a Canon 5D Mark III using Zeiss Contact Prime CP lenses. “We shot at 60 frames per second. We liked having the slow-motion effect,” Gray recalls.

Post Production:
Bernstein edited the footage—roughly an hour of it—for the two-minute video, and oversaw the color correction, with Gray working “over his shoulder,” she says. Gray and Bernstein prefer minimal retouching, and after editors at Vogue Italia reviewed a cut, they asked for only minor changes. “We’re not big on post production,” says Gray. “We try to make our decisions before shooting, not after.”

Watch "Night Blindness" below:


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