Art Director: Andre Simmons
For about ten years, clients like Nike, Puma, Speedo and ESPN the Magazine have been hiring Carlos Serrao to capture action. He and his crew are used to finding creative solutions to technical and logistical challenges, particularly when they involve professional athletes or Olympic competitors who can spare only a few minutes for a shoot. Clients who know him and his long-time crew “know that we like to experiment,” he says. “A lot of what we do involves technical lighting, color, motion.”
A job shooting the fall/winter line of Nike Tech Pack sportswear required him to shoot movements, but presented few constraints. “That division [of Nike] has more leeway to be fashionable and experimental,” Serrao explains. The challenge was not about locations or scheduling, but how to make the sportswear look interesting. “The fun part is solving not the logistics, but: How do we light this? How do we shoot this?” he says. “These types of jobs are basically dream jobs.”
The art director on the shoot, Andre Simmons of Nike, first worked with Serrao in 2004 and has hired him many times since. In describing the look he wanted, he referenced some of Serrao’s recent fashion assignments, some thermal imaging, and one of Serrao’s earliest sports ad campaigns in which he added “an element of red color to demonstrate the heat and speed of [the athlete’s] musculature,” Serrao recalls. He would do something similar with the Tech Pack images, using red tones “to symbolize the heat that was retained or expelled by the apparel,” contrasting it with a bluish tone on the models and clothes.
Simmons wanted the models to pose with the jackets both zipped up and unzipped to show the lining. Says Serrao, “We thought it would be fun to do that as multiple exposures. You can do it in post, but I wanted to experiment with doing it in camera.”
The shoot took place at Siren Studios in Los Angeles, on a cyclorama wide enough to give the models room to move. Serrao suggested one model he had worked with before because her movements in front of the camera were fluid and graceful. For the male model, Serrao’s studio manager did a small casting session. “I like to meet them in person,” Serrao says. “I ask, ‘What sport did you play in college?’”
Some of Serrao’s crew members, including his chief lighting technician, Ron Loepp, have been working with him for ten years on both his still and video shoots. While film crews often have rigidly defined roles, on Serrao’s sets, he says, “They wear many hats.” He’ll typically show them references to explain the look he’s after, and they all work on lights and gear to make it happen.
Serrao wanted to illuminate a large area of the cyc in which the models would be free to move around while he shot from different angles. “I like to use an overall wash of light from above,” he says, “so often what we’ll do is put a framed 20 x 20-foot silk above the set and shine a strobe head through that.” Though Serrao no longer recalls whether he and Loepp used Profoto or Broncolor strobes on the shoot, he knows he needed short flash duration and fast recycling time to freeze the models’ movements. “For me what works is to put a bi-tube head into a single power pack. It provides more power, and speeds up the flash duration.” By adding a CTB gel to the overhead light, Serrao says, he was able to get a “subtle blue tone” in the highlights.
To light the back wall of the cyc, which was about 12 feet from the model, he and his crew placed two strobes just behind the models and out of the frame, positioned at a 45 degree angle. On the grids, Serrao used theatrical blue gels, for a deeper, more saturated blue tone.
For frontal lighting on the models, he set up grids about waist- or chest-high to the model; on these he used deep red gels. He experimented to get the right output. “You have to turn the power down so it doesn’t become the keylight or the brightest light there,” he adds. “With the gel on it, you have to be careful—if you go too bright it’ll go pink, but if you go too low it won’t show.” Once he had the palette he wanted, he worked with his digital tech, Damon Loble, to create a color profile to work with while previewing shots on the set.
About getting the multiple exposures, Serrao says, “It’s an old strobe trick.” He popped the strobe, then moved the camera or had the model get into a new position while the lights were out, popped the strobes again, then did it a third time to capture the model in another pose. Between pops of the strobe, Serrao says, “I’m moving the camera a little bit, so I’m capturing him in different parts of the frame.” He slowed the shutter speed to two to three seconds, giving the model time to zip or unzip the jacket.
He notes, “We were trying to get as fast a flash duration as possible, so we shot between 1/1600th and 1/2000th,” which allowed him to freeze the action. Serrao says that he’s used to being very precise about the output on each of his light sources when he needs to freeze motion on an athlete—say, a basketball player going for a jump shot or a sprinter coming out of the starting blocks—in order to eliminate any motion blur. On the Tech Pack shots, however, the models’ movements were slower, and “we had more leeway.”
Serrao used a Nikon D800 with an 85mm prime lens, and an 105mm to capture small stitching details on the apparel.
Serrao recalls, “We were shooting at maybe ISO 400 to 800, and maybe f/8 or maybe f/5.6.”
Serrao always shoots handheld to follow the action, and likes to shoot fast, which worked well because the client wanted many variations and lots of material. Serrao was pleased with how his in-camera multiple exposure experiment worked. “When it comes up on a monitor, it’s a surprise for everyone,” he says. While he knew a retoucher would work on most of the shots, he says, the in-camera multiple exposures provided a useful reference for how they should look. “The retoucher knows it has to have a certain organic quality.”
“I usually like to look through my favorites,” Serrao says, but on this shoot, Simmons had wanted to bring back a lot of variations to show other creatives. An edit “would have taken weeks,” Serrao says. So instead of waiting for an edit, Simmons left with a hard drive, and Nike handled the retouching.
On a typical shoot, Serrao likes to arrange his selected images in groups, “to let you see the narrative of the story or an overview of the shoot.” When he sends his selects or a rough edit of a video, he labels his work because he knows it’ll be passed around the client’s office. “We’ll do our own edit with credits, my name, my partner’s name. Then you’ll hear from someone else at the agency that you haven’t heard from in a while saying, ‘I’ve just seen that thing you did.’”