Ian Spanier Sheds Light on MTV’s The Challenge Promo Shoot
July 9, 2014
Even though I always tell people the story behind the shot is not as important as getting the shot, the journey can lend to a good story to share. I got the call to photograph the marketing and promotional images for MTV’s The Challenge, a reality show which features the standout personalities from all of the network’s real-life drama shows all in one house, in an exotic location, vying for a cash prize battling one another in mental, physical and emotional challenges. On paper, the task alone was tall, traveling with minimal equipment; we would plan a way to shoot all twenty-eight cast members individually, as well as a group shot of everyone. Season 25 would be in Punta del Este Uruguay, a vacation spot for many Europeans and South Americans and considered by many to be the Riviera of South America.
My assignments for MTV have always included some fairly heavy lighting, from a Sprinter van full of Broncolor packs, 12×12 silks and everything we needed to shoot the cast of The Jersey Shore around Florence, to an island off St. Thomas for The Real World — only accessible by small boat –with six small strobes, soft boxes and plenty of batteries to get the job done. Not to mention, plenty of hands-on-deck. This time was not so simple. We had a tight budget, so it would just be my first assistant, Cam Camarena and me. We were informed we would not be allowed to go in with the lights and modifiers we were accustomed to. With the quick movement needed to get everything shot in one day, setting up a computer to shoot to was not a necessity, so we didn’t even bring a laptop. It would be all about reading the light meter and histogram on the back of my camera. Never wanting to go in without some backup, I had sorted out a way to carry-on two small Photoflex TritonFlash strobes with accessories inside one Lowepro bag, which stayed fairly under the radar. The TritonFlash is small on watts, but the strong battery makes it worth bringing, better than nothing when you need to shoot all day. I have since started using a CamRanger in conjunction with an iPad to show images to clients and would have loved to have had that there had I known about it sooner.
We of course still faced the security check when entering Uruguay, but thankfully they didn’t bat an eye. As far as stands, well we’d figure that out later, at the very least I brought a Photoflex LiteReach Arm, which fits in the same Lowepro S&F Duffle backpack along with a Photoflex Small Octadome and a Photoflex Medium Multidome. On my back were two Canon 5d Mark 3 cameras, three lenses, batteries, flash meter, loads of memory cards and a tripod in my carry on Lowepro Transit pack. Limited to what would fit in just one carry on each it was not ideal, but with the limitations, it would have to work.
The cast house was situated right on the Atlantic Ocean on a large plot of land that was owned by the inventor of Microsoft Excel. The house was about an hour’s drive from our hotel, mostly on a dirt road through farmland, which included a ferry to cross a lake that could hold two cars and was powered by a small boat attached to the side of the floating ramp. If you missed the last ferry, you would have to drive all the way back and head inland to a hilly dirt road that led to a connecting highway. Traveling in an old small manual sedan we definitely were not set for the potholed track.
On scout, we spent most of our time sorting out inside the house and the time of day the shade would be here or there, and we could show both the subject and pieces of the large house in the shot.
This is pretty representative of what we’d done for MTV many times, so the default was to stick with what has worked. We tested with one of the cast, and it wasn’t until the weather shifted we decided it would not work as well.
The group shot set a no-brainer, as the pool offered a large graphic view with a pretty obvious way to arrange the twenty-eight men and women around the show’s logo that was on the pool’s waterfall wall.
The weather was great, about 70 degrees and blue skies and white clouds. For the group shot, we would take advantage of the sunset that fell just about a perfect twenty degrees or so left of camera onto the pool scene. I have found that I like a little pop to the group shots, so we would fire the two Tritons on the same angle as the sun across the pool for that little kick. Recycle would be slow but by skipping the light off the water we’d get both a nice spread and fill the scene’s natural light shadows nicely. The show’s crew was kind enough to lend us a couple C-Stands, Sand Bags and some Apple Boxes. Hardest part would be moving around the house with the lights, but we do that often. Everything was coming together and all sounds pretty easy right? Just when you get comfortable….
The morning of the shoot, the sky was overcast despite the forecast for a match to the previous day, but I had shot some plates (empty frames) of the pool with blue skies, and despite the cold wind we felt coming off the ocean we didn’t think much of it. We piled into our small rental with the Director of Photography Andreea Radulescu and one of the Executive Producers of the show Dan Caster, and not ten feet from the hotel, flat tire. Cue the foreshadowing music. No doubt it was from the previous day’s travel on that damn road. Cam and I looked like a NASCAR pit crew and back on the road we went, quickly, to make up the lost time. In my head though was the anticipation of not going too fast on the dirt road since we now had no spare, and there’s no cell service along the road.
We arrived at the house and the weather still hadn’t changed, except that cold wind off the ocean seemed stronger and colder. The flat sky would mean some pretty lame backgrounds if we stuck with our lighting, and I wasn’t thrilled with that but without a lot of options we figured this is what we would have to deal with. Then the producer came into the staging room and informed us that a storm was heading in and we would be facing rain by about 2 p.m. or so. Oh and temps would be dropping to a chilly 55 degrees. Not two minutes later, a fight broke out among the cast in the kitchen above us and we had no idea what that would mean for our day. Thankfully it settled down, but I was not feeling the lighting plan. Not having the blue sky would be less desirable, and time-wise it would be tough to now condense the twenty-eight portraits before the rain started. I am known for being able to shoot a lot quickly, but I was not confident. We needed a faster solution.
Cam and I separated from the crew for minute and brainstormed ideas. Although it’s not my typical style, I had seen that on certain jobs workaround flat clouds would be to shoot open light style and embrace the soft light. The 5D Mark 3 could certainly handle a higher iso, and we could even allow for the cast to move as sometimes they do make quick movements. Being stuck with 1/125 second or 1/160 second shutter speeds when syncing with strobes often limits me. I changed the camera to iso 400 and shot an exposure of Cam at 1/500 second at f6.3. The light was beautiful on him, and the flat background suddenly looked better.
Jordan, our first subject as photographed with no strobes and our new settings. I used the house or the land in most cases to fill the background and minimize the amount of white sky.
This change would free us up and we could shoot anywhere, if and when the sun peaked out at all (that was happening in increments) we would just face our subject’s back to it. I showed the frame to Andreea and Dan and they liked it. It would not only be a departure from my normal style but also from previous MTV shoots and everyone got behind that quickly. Even better, this meant we could schedule the cast every seven minutes. Quick math from the time we had already lost and we could aim to knock out the cast shots by about 2:30 p.m.before the forecasted storm would hit.
We were cruising through the portraits. I figured we’d get as much done outside as possible and if it started raining we could move inside, but that didn’t really give us a plan for the group shot — the most crucial shot of the day. I guess those winds were blowing harder than we could feel and the storm could be seen off shore much earlier than we figured. We maybe had an hour at best before we’d be soaked.
We kept moving on the solo shots and the raindrops started coming. Andreea and I decided we needed to get to the group shot so we started setting up the cast. Group shots are never easy, seeing everyone is key, and if you think for a second that when Annie [Leibovitz] does the Vanity Fair covers it’s something that happens in a couple hours without changes and test frames, etc. you are sorely mistaken. We barely had a couple minutes to sort this out. Arranging the cast that is mostly known for not following the expected path is hard enough when the weather is perfect. They are all on the show for a reason. There is drama almost constantly, and certain people literally hate each other. Those that cooperate quickly get frustrated with those who don’t. On these sets I have to rely on the producers to help keep the cast happy, and Dan is amazing at that. We just needed full cooperation and maybe we could bang this out. I had sketched out a rough plan the night before (image), and that would be the starting point for the arrangement.
The rough sketch I had made going into the shoot. Notice the drapes were not blowing around in my sketch.
The cold wind howled and rain started falling harder. We bagged the lights with garbage bags and gaff tape and covered the camera with one of the pool umbrellas. All I could picture was that going over with my camera and tripod into the pool. I really am one to never say never, and I am all about solving problems, but I could see this was not working. I needed time to move people around, fill in the negative spaces and simply make sure that everyone was visible. The rain started falling harder and I had to call it. First time I have ever done that, and I felt like a total failure.
At first glance it seemed that this could work, but I would have liked to have made a few changes, fill some dead space, and at the least have more options.
Andreea and I looked at what I had on the memory card but the small LCD screen, even with my LCD loupe it was not very telling. If that was it, maybe it could have worked. Obviously the few changes we made helped and an image could be created in Photoshop, but it was not my best. I wanted to crawl into a hole.
We finished up the rest of the portraits inside the house and even some in the rain under slight cover, and it got so dark there was no opportunity to reset the group even if we wanted, and after the long day, the cast was clearly done. The drive back to the hotel was not the usual cheery “job well done” journey. Given how late we finished we had to take the longer drive back as opposed to the quicker ferry route. Pure torture.
Andreea and I discussed the shoot back at the hotel, and all I could think is if they could just give me an hour I could reset the scene right and put bodies where I needed and knock this out. There was just no time; the cast was set to do their first big challenge the next day and walk a tightrope between the highest towers in Uruguay. First piece of luck. That damned storm was going to pass, but behind it was more wind, so much that the challenge was postponed a day. Now, the cast would be available. We had one more shot, albeit we’d still have weather issues. Fifteen MPH sustained winds coming from the closest landmass, Antarctica, yes, Uruguay is that far south. The drapes that hung from the second floor porch literally were flying straight up in the air from the wind. Whatever, I’ll take it; I needed to right this ship. At least the wind would blow anyone’s long hair out of their faces!
Cam stands in with the two TritonFlashes adding a bit of pop to the flat light. You can see the wind blown drapes behind Cam.
The set up as seen behind the camera. We kept the baffles off the strobes to get as much power out of them as possible. Not wanting my camera to blow into the water, I strapped my backpack to the tripod to secure it.
We brought the cast in one side at a time and roughly placed them in the scene. Without their cooperation, this would have been a total nightmare.
I owe it to Dan. He explained the situation to the cast, and they could not have been more cooperative. Any minor diva-ish moments the day before with anyone disappeared and the cast rallied behind getting the shot done right. Cam and I made sure we set everything as tight as possible to minimize the time the cast would be standing in their skimpy bathing suits on set. We took the right amount of time to bring one side of the set out at a time to build the scene right; any changes would be so minor and fast. Firing as fast as the recycle would give me we flew through the shot and despite freezing myself, the warmth of knowing we had it was an amazing relief.
The first few test frames in the can and we went for the “safe” shot.
We even had some fun with the cast for the last few frames, which ultimately led to the inspiration for the show’s main shot.
The mad scramble for warmth.
The final images used on www.mtv.com. All images © Ian Spanier for MTV Networks
Ian Spanier is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer based in New York City and a PhotoServe member. As comfortable as he is in the studio, he can face any challenge presented on location. Ian’s first full book of published work, Playboy, a Guide to Cigars, documents his travels to nearly every country that manufactures cigars and is available at fine cigar shops and at major book stores. His second critically acclaimed book, Local Heroes: Portraits of America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters, is out now in stores and online. You can visit the book’s Tumblr Page here. Spanier is a member of the Lowepro Team, Photoflex’s Pro Team, and Imagenomic’s featured photographer list. He has been the recipient of numerous awards from such major photo competitions as American Photography, SPD, The International Color Awards, The International Black & White Spider Awards, PDN’s World in Focus, Planet Magazine, and Seeing the Light, to name a few. Finally, he is a regular lecturer for SMUG, as well as The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Ian Spanier is available for assignment. See his site at www.ianpanier.com. For questions or comments e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He is represented by Bill Charles.