We pick up the story for day two of the Illinois Bureau of Tourism Summer 2010 photoshoot. The kids in the picture? Actors? Their job? Drink milkshakes. Over and over and over. More on that in a minute.
If you haven’t been through Alton, IL – which rests just a few minutes north of St. Louis, it’s the place where the rivers meet. The Illinois joins the Mississippi and then just a few miles later the Missouri joins the mighty Miss. So you’ve got great bluffs, great rivers, and great potential – when it comes to a photo shoot. The second day of the adventure started two days after Chicago so everyone could get down to Alton. We stayed at the lodge in Pere Marquette State Park, which was centrally located for everything we wanted to reach – including the lodge itself. I got down there late on Wednesday and was up at 5am Thursday for a try at capturing the action at Brussels Ferry. If you don’t know much about Brussels Ferry – well you aren’t alone. I had no idea the state of Illinois operated a ferry across the Illinois River at Brussels but they do. We had a “family” of actors set to ride over (and over and over) around 7am with a ferry full of cars but Mother Nature had other ideas and the skies did open up. We stuck it out and shot a bit but it just wasn’t working so we decided we’d try again on day three.
We reconvened back at the Pere Marquette Lodge where we were going to shoot the brother and sister characters in the amazing lobby at the lodge. The place is huge and one of the neat features is a huge chessboard that covers some 250 square feet. The lobby is also dark so the lighting guys set up a big 12’x12′ silk and some big fresnels and they turned up the daylight. The video folks were working a curve on one edge of the chessboard (to black’s right/white’s left) and it left me a lot of room to operate – both from up close and from a high position above the lobby. I also got some beauty shots of the exterior. All the rain and clouds made for some wonderfully soft light outdoors to boot. The shot on the left in the grouping was made with one of our afternoon models. She was there a little early so as video was breaking down I talked her into jumping in for a few shots. Just one umbrella camera left. You can see in the shot on the right how big a difference that 12’x12′ silk makes. She is so evenly lit and the shadows are very gracious. My light was soft – but through only a 36″ umbrella I didn’t get nearly the same coverage. But color-wise everything was pretty close.
The next mission was down in Afton itself – at the Chain of Rocks Bridge. This bridge – the original Route 66 bridge over the Mississippi – was converted to a bike trail within the last 10-15 years. It’s now one of the coolest ways to get between the states. The bridge is long – and narrow – but perfect for bike traffic. Our afternoon “family” was going to ride bikes across the bridge. It had stopped raining but there was NO sun to be found. Every shot I would make for the rest of the day would be just one thick cloud – on a day where we could have used beautiful skies. It made for good light on folks – but for mediocre scenics. I began my bridge work by just working the edges of the bridge and tracking them as they rode back and forth. I had the 70-200 f/2.8 lens working wide open and just continuously focused on them. I had plenty of light for good shutter speeds and made a series of images from both the left and right sides of the bridge. The video guys had a John Deere Gator set-up (see the pic below) and were driving just in front of the bikers. Eventually I rode side-by-side with the video guys and was able to make some moving shots as we rode. Shots one and four below were made on the ground with the 70-200. Shot two was made with the 24-70 f/2.8 lens – also wide open and eventually down to about f/8.
We finished day two at a wonderful little bed and breakfast called Tara Point. The idea wasn’t selling the B&B per se – they just had a fantastic view from on top of the bluff. If only… the sun had been setting AND viewable. Anyway, the set folks put together a wonderful little restaurant setting and we stuffed two actors (“Mom” and “Dad” from the bike ride), two tables, me, and a full video crew (Director of Photography, focus puller, dolly pusher, and grip) on a small deck. As they would dolly, away, I would step into the void and shoot for about 8-10 seconds – and then I’d get out of the way as they dollied back. They lit everything through a 3’x6′ silk camera right so at least the set was bright but the wonderful skies over the Illinois River never found their way to us. During the dinner break we actually found an opening in the clouds. I’ve never seen so many people get their hopes up for such a short time… One additional bonus for me. I shot this night session with a Nikon D700 (I had been shooting with two D300s so far). Coupled with the 24-70 f/2.8 lens – well it was just luscious. I think I shot the whole thing at ISO 800 and there wasn’t a smidgen of noise. Something to be said for that ole full-frame goodness.
Day three began early again as we tried to redo Brussels Ferry. And we were successful. It was overcast but there were lots of breaks and the lighting was good early. I shot both from shore and eventually from the ferry itself. The operation is impressive. They load up, shove off, and land on the other side – all in about five minutes. 24 hours a day. Seven days a week – as long as the river isn’t frozen. We had four rigged cars – that sat there for the entirety of the shoot, but otherwise it was business as usual for the ferry. Video initially shot a number of passes from a john boat trailing the ferry. That was no problem when I was onshore, but when I made the first of about 10 passes on the boat itself, I had to hide behind a car (as did everyone else) until they trailed off. I then had a few seconds to get some shots before we docked. We made lots of runs. Our poor little girl actor was freezing. It was pretty chilly that morning so they wrapped her up in a blanket after every pass. She can’t have had too much fun there – but she was a trooper while shooting.
Finishing up the ferry around 9am left just one job left – and we headed up to Atlanta, IL. Atlanta is right on I-55, about 45-minutes southwest of Bloomington (and only about 25 minutes from my front door). The plan in Atlanta was to hit the Palms Cafe and Paul Bunyon statue – two hallmarks of the little town that were big in Route 66 days. The Palms is a pretty neat little place – and it has great pie (I just need to state that now). The set plan was actually the two bike riding kids sitting at the counter drinking milkshakes while Mom and Dad sat in the background. The restaurant was open the whole time but we kind of took over things – which amused numerous regulars. Now if you remember the open of this article (it was a long time ago – I know), you’ll remember that I mentioned they’d drink milkshakes over and over. The two actors would drink a milkshake for a take, and then it would be topped off for the next take. They just had to keep going. And going. Tough tough work. Eventually they’d get a whole new milkshake to keep it looking really fresh. About midway through the shoot, the door to the restaurant opened and three Japanese tourists came in. They did not expect to see what they saw. They were over in the states on an actual tour of Route 66. They took a seat at another table and enjoyed the festivities – and they kept taking pictures of us. We eventually wandered outside to photograph Paul Bunyon and the old Route 66 sign (shots #2 and #4 below). If you’re even older then me (no small feat) you might remember these giant fiberglass statues that dotted America in the 50’s and 60’s. Paul used to hold an axe but now he holds a hot dog in a bun and anchors the sidewalk across from the Palms. I shot him quite a bit but again the light just stunk. I eventually came back early the next week and shot him before and during sunrise – with strobes – and it was much better. You do get a few looks when you’re standing on an eight-foot ladder with strobes flashing at 6:30am in Atlanta – but everyone was very nice about it. I must have looked like an obsessed tourist.
That wrapped up the shoot. Shooting commercially is both hard work and yet very rewarding – I love to do it. I’m indebted to the folks at JWT (Dan Bruce, Creative Director; Jim Furrh, Art Director; Beth Valenti, Art Buyer; and Debbie Hagey, Producer) for not only hiring me for the gig, but also making it go so easily. And hey faithful reader – I’m glad you stuck with it too. Now you know what goes on. Until the next one then…
And enjoy Marcus Steven’s 2009 IBOT video – nice stuff (on facebook – sorry if you’re not)…