In mid-2018, photographer Brett Stanley got a call from Jason Foster, who is the manager for Natalie Mering’s band, Weyes Blood (signed to Sub Pop). Take a moment to go listen to some of their tracks before continuing this story. Or, never mind, stay here! Keep reading!
Their forthcoming album was called Titanic Rising, and they wanted to create a bedroom underwater, complete with furniture, a window, and posters on the walls. Sounds awesome, right? How amazing is it that we creatives get to work in an industry where “create a bedroom underwater and don't forget about the furniture please” isn’t a crazy sentence? Don’t ever let yourself get caught saying you are bored working in this industry!
As awesome as it sounded, it certainly sounded tough too! Luckily for them, they had Brett. Having extensive experience shooting sets underwater before, he was totally up for the challenge and just the photographer for the job!
The first step was to lock down the design for the room, and Natalie had a pretty specific look in mind, which is always helpful, as it gives everyone something to work towards. What was the look she had in mind for this underwater paradise? Well, an 80s bedroom with purple walls and it being filled up with stuff everywhere. Basically, she was after a typical teenager's bedroom, all the way down to the clothes strewn across the floor. They knew they needed three walls, a floor, and a window, and they would have to bring all the furniture for the room. Stanley had some experience with props underwater, and he provided the clients on some guidelines on what was going to work and what wasn’t: posters needed to be lacquered, they needed to choose things that would sink rather than float, and furniture made of particle board would be a terrible idea.
With Stanley’s team and Jason, they spent three days building a complete set on dry land. They also had to pay attention to making sure the whole set could be easily moved into the water, which is often easier said than done. In addition to that, they also had to make sure that everything was made out of materials that weren’t going to simply disintegrate in water within minutes. The more I learn about this shoot the more, I am equal parts amazed with the final shots as I am with the preparation that went into achieving them.
As from the photos, they had numerous little items to place in the set once it was in the water. The level of meticulous attention to detail that this shoot required really cannot be overstated. The fact that they pulled off this concept and made the shots look incredible is really outstanding!
Throughout the process, the team was definitely reminded of how high they were trying to reach for this concept. For example, Stanley mentions how it was also one of the most bizarre moments of his career when he found himself lying on a pink carpet and making a bed underwater! You can take a moment to appreciate how fun our industry is again if you’d like!
Once the set was dressed and clothes strewn everywhere, Stanley and his team had to light it. Natalie loves the look of film over digital, and she also wanted to shoot some footage of her in the room on an old 16mm Bolex film camera. Stanley’s assistant, Jenny, had an underwater housing for that camera, so they needed to light it not just for the stills, but also for the motion camera. This meant no strobes and just continuous lights. They stuck a 2K hot light on the side of the pool, shooting through the window: this gave a beautifully soft and warm light that the curtains diffused so surreally. They also had some LED work lights above the pool as well to give a little bit of fill and also enough light to be able to pull focus. Stanely really wanted the lamp in the room to be lit so as to add to the surreal feel of the image, so they created a fake light bulb by strapping three LumeCube waterproof LED lights together with half ping-pong balls over the lights to diffuse it. That made all the difference and helped make the room come to life. Never underestimate the impact that props, tricks, and gadgets can have in elevating the power of your core gear. Don’t forget to experiment, as you can never be sure where or when you’ll stumble across that next gem item for your bag of tools.
The actual shooting of the images was fairly fast, as once they entered the pool, the set was starting to fall apart. As one can see, the dresser in the background started to sag as it melted in the pool. Natalie was thankfully amazing underwater, very calm and relaxed, which is what was needed to make sure they were able to get what they needed.
The resulting images were just amazing and had a lo-fi quality to them due to the water and the lighting, which is exactly what the brief was from the client: grainy and retro.
Stanely usually don’t use a lot of constant lighting, preferring strobes for sheer power, but since they needed to shoot some motion too, it was the only way to go. And to be honest, it was nice to be able to see how the light was going to work without needing to look at a tiny LCD screen.
Dream big and don’t let anything get in the way of the idea you have in mind. In case you need reminding, this team built a physical room on land and then moved it underwater in order to take gorgeous photos. If that isn’t enough of a clear indication that more or less anything is possible in terms of a set, then I'm not sure what is!
Client: Natalie Mering - Weyes Blood
Assistants: Jenny Baumert, Ryan Waller
Thanks to LumeCube and Aquatica Digital Housings.
All images used with permission of Brett Stanley.