How I Got That Shot: Creating a Question Mark Out of Champagne

September 13, 2013

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Bill Cahill

The final image Bill Cahill made for a Champagne Bureau campaign. Click on the Photo Galley link below to see behind-the-scenes images from the shoot as well as other "splash" work by Cahill.

Client: Creature 

Art Director: Patrick Horn

Champagne is made only in Champagne, France. Bubbly made anywhere else is just sparkling wine. To encourage consumers to ask for the real thing, the Champagne Bureau, which is the U.S. branch of the trade association that represents Champagne makers in France, created a billboard ad campaign that read, “Maine lobster from Kansas? Of course not,” with a giant question mark made out of what appears to be Champagne. The billboards debuted shortly before New Year’s Eve, the biggest time of the year for Champagne purchases. To shoot the ads, the Champagne Bureau’s agency, Creature in Seattle, hired Bill Cahill, a still-life photographer with extensive experience shooting splashes and liquids.

After the agency sent his rep a comp showing how they envisioned the question mark, Cahill set about writing a brief explaining his idea for making their vision a reality. “Clients come to me with these ideas like, ‘a question mark made out of liquid’ and they really have no idea how it’ll happen,” he says. Once he figures out a solution, “I have to educate them and show them: This is how it works, this is how long it’ll take, this is what we have to do to make it happen.”

Cahill worked with prop stylist Lisa Crockatt, a frequent collaborator, to design a hollow acrylic model of the question mark that could be filled with Champagne; he also planned to splash Champagne all over its surface. But sculpting the liquid was only part of the challenge. Shooting the liquid against the black background required care when placing the lights, he says. “Champagne is a fairly pale color liquid. It generally just looks like bubbly water against black if you don’t light it properly,” he says. “We wanted the tiny bubbles to pop, so there had to be a lot of contrast between the bubbles and the black background.”

Logistics: Cahill and Crockatt sent their sketch of the question mark to a 3-D modeler, then got the client’s approval of his model. Next, the model was rendered in a wooden shape from which a vacuum mold was made; this was then used to create hollow pieces of acrylic which, when Crockatt attached them, formed a question mark that she could fill with liquid. “The reason we needed something that held Champagne is because we needed to have volume to it,” Cahill explains. The finished model was about three feet tall and five inches wide, and was rigged with black rods on the back that clamped to C-stands.

Next came the splashes. “We had to cover the entire floor with plastic to seal it off as best we could,” the photographer recalls. Crockatt made a backdrop out of duvetyne, which was about ten feet from where the question mark was placed. Says Cahill, “We wanted it far enough away so that none of the lights could illuminate it, and it was as black as could be.”

Anticipating that the final image would be composited from several shots, Cahill decided to splash small amounts of Champagne over sections of the question mark. “With one big splash, there are a lot of problems. You aren’t able to get the detail you can with a lot of little splashes,” he says. Rather than using a pump or hose to make the splashes, his crew did it manually, tossing one cup of Champagne at a time. He placed small pieces of plastic over the lip of the cups, which “break up the flow of the liquid in the cup,” he says. “If the surface [of the container] is too smooth, then the splash looks too smooth.” He estimates that his crew tossed cups of liquid “hundreds of times,” and used up to 200 bottles of Champagne.

The assignment took two days of preparation, and two days of actual shooting. “We had a catch tank under the question mark, and we would dump it and try to clean up during the shoot as best we could,” he says.

Lighting: In setting up his lights, Cahill wanted to light the liquid in a way that the color of the Champagne was visible, but without adding so much color that it no longer looked translucent. As a test, he set up lights to see how they looked when illuminating the Champagne-filled acrylic model. But once the splashing began, he wanted to be sure individual droplets showed up clearly. “We had to make adjustments to the lights to make sure we were getting the transparency we wanted, especially against the black backdrop.” To freeze the motion of the splashes, he chose to use Broncolor lighting equipment, “because it has a fast flash duration.”

Cahill was most concerned with lighting the outline of the model and the droplets around its edges. He had a supply of four-foot-wide rolls of diffusion material, which he cut to make pieces six to eight feet long. He hung four of these from C-stands. “Then I put lights with grids on them behind it.” The effect, he says, is to create “soft pools of light.” He placed one piece of diffusion to the left and back of the question mark, and another directly to the right. Behind each sheet of diffusion, he placed two gridded lights, one high and one low. The diffusion material was about four feet from the question mark, and the lights were roughly two feet from the diffusion. As Cahill explains, “I try to use to bigger lights further away rather than small lights close up. It provides more control.” To highlight the yellow tone in the Champagne, he adds, “Some of the lights had fairly strong yellow gels on them.” Black cards placed behind the lights blocked any spill from hitting the black backdrop.

He also placed a softbox to the right and slightly behind the question mark. “The softbox was there to create highlights.” To add more highlights on the front, he placed on small grid in front of the question mark.

To capture the movement of the liquid without blur, he set the flash duration to about 1/5,000 of a second. Each strobe was powered by its own pack. “When shooting liquids, you have to fire all the packs at the exact same time,” Cahill notes, “If you use a slave or a PocketWizard, it fires one of the lights, and then it fires all the rest of them,” creating a subtle ghosting effect in the image. To avoid this, he sets up one extra strobe at low power, “that doesn’t affect the set at all. Its only job is to fire the other packs.” Once he triggers this low-power strobe, the strobes lighting the set fire in unison.

Camera: Cahill used a Leaf Aptus 80-megapixel back on a Sinar p2 view camera with a 150mm Schneider digital lens, shooting at 1/250 of a second. The camera was on a tripod about seven feet from the question mark, and was tethered to his computer to allow the client and agency creatives to preview each shot.

Though Cahill often does his own retouching, for this job, he worked with Electric Art in Australia. He provided them with a photo of the model filled with Champagne, then picked out about 25 images of different splashes. He also sent them “a quick composite, so they had a pretty good idea of what the final product should look like.” Three rounds of retouching were needed. After previewing an early version, “The client wanted a little bit less frothiness, so we moved around the bubbles,” Cahill says. What’s Champagne without effervescence? Though they had strived for lots of froth during the shoot, in viewing the final composite, Cahill says, “We were afraid it was going to look like beer.” And that might have sent a very different message about New Year’s Eve celebrations.

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