ALIVE: The Made-Up Photo Story of Alaskan Plane Crash

ALIVE: The Made-Up Photo Story of Alaskan Plane Crash

Few months back we featured the incredible and unique rock climbing photos of Seattle-based photographer Kiliii Fish. This week Kiliii finished his newest photo series he worked on for a long time - this time survival was the theme. The results? Nothing short of epic. In this interview he explains the whole process and reveals how he shot and edited it all.

Before going on location, Kiliii wrote a (fake) storyline to give him a direction, and made sketches of the scenes he wanted to create to convey the story. This step was very important for the success of this project, because he had to shoot each image in few different locations and composite. This way he knew exactly what he needed to do for each one of the shots.

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Kiliii: "The ALIVE project came from a collaborative vision I had with friend and art director Lindsey Watkins. We were talking about illustrating a story through photography that would be logistically impossible to capture in a documentary fashion, yet was heavily grounded in realism. Since i have a long history with wilderness survival, it was only natural that would become the vision. I think Lindsey was drawn into the idea with a horrific curiosity.

I started by story-boarding about a dozen wide images and doing a lot of research on Google Images to the set the scenes right. Once I had a solid idea of the landscapes I'd need, I talked to pilot Jeff Chang about flying over the Enchantments, and hiked in with an assistant and shot for a week. Once we had the landscapes prepped, I took a full day to shoot stand-in models sans lighting so we could match perspective from the studio to the landscapes. That 'pre-flight' day, as I call it, helped a ton because it helped me to realize that particular poses would or wouldn't sit right in their compositions. Then I took the quick composites from the pre-flight and created a mood board so that my crew knew what we would be working towards on the actual shoot days."

The story:
March 15th. Two geologic researchers from Fairbanks, AK were flying over the interior when a flock of geese smashed their windshield and forced a crash-landing in the Yukon-Tanana Wilderness. The pilot managed to prevent a catastrophic landing but died from wounds resulting from the crash, leaving a severely injured man and surviving woman alone in the vast wilderness region. With the onset of an late-season cold front and search area of tens of thousands of acres, there is little prospect of finding the crash site.

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FS: What was the shooting process? Did you take the models with you on location?
Kiliii: Shooting started in late November. My assistant and I hiked off into the Enchantment Lakes Wilderness in the North Cascades of Washington, armed with tons of outdoor gear and camera equipment. After a week of hard snowshoeing up the sides of mountains, I managed to get some terrific plates to setup our survival scenario. My original intention had been to bring our entire crew out on location to shoot for a week, but it quickly became clear that my idea of a good time in a remote wilderness would bring with it huge logistical hurdles. Apparently not everyone enjoys scrambling up icy mountainsides in winter.

I decided that shooting composite images would make more sense- I could photograph the location scenes (many of them large panoramas) myself, and then shoot the talent in the studio and bring them together in post-production.

That was when the primary challenges became twofold- getting the intensity of real emotion from my subjects, and getting all the technical details to work so that the composites would feel raw and realistic. As it turned out, our actress Alyssa was absolutely amazing in front of the camera and pretty brought the crew to tears in the studio. On the other hand, the pre-production of the location shots, lighting and matching the lighting on and off-location, the retouching, all required lots of patience and attention to detail."

Watch the BTS video to see how the images were shot on location and in the studio:

FS: You photographed the locations before you shot the models, how did you manage to know exactly how to lit the location to match what the model were doing, for example when they had a torch and fire?

Kiliii: "Lighting the locations was a lot of fun. Since each of the shots was already mapped out in pre-production sketch boards, I had a good idea of what I wanted the shot to look like so I knew where the fire and lights would be. For those shots we brought strobes on location and tried to match their light qualities to the fire or sun etc.

The harder part was actually lighting the talent to completely match the scenes. Generally I don't find it too difficult, it's a lot of fun for me since I do love lighting. Even so, with the snow and ice, it often was a challenge figuring out the subtle changes in fill light, their directions, and more. We made a few surprising discoveries about how much light reflects off water vs snow and how much overhead diffusion difference there was between a moderate cloud layer and an overcast sky. Subtle but important once I brought the images together to composite."

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FS: The location looks like it's in the middle of nowhere. Where did you find a great location such as this?

"For the outdoor scenes, I shot up in the Enchantment Lakes Wilderness, Snowqualmie Pass, and Mt Baker Wilderness, all in the Cascades Range of Washington. I couldn't have asked for a better location in the lower 48.

The studio shots took place at my studio, where I also grabbed images of falling snow (snow machine) and a fiery torch. We also shot a bush plane at Renton Airport"

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FS: Can you tell us a little bit about the retouching process? How long did it take you to composite all the images?

"I think retouching is an exciting process and one of my favorites, because it's the moment when all your long hard work comes together and you get a chance to see the final image come together. It's here that I can make creative decisions like bring out the color, emphasize particular things with contrast adjustments, and like a little kid get to destroy airplanes in Photoshop!

Each photo took a different amount of time since the difficulties were different-- the most difficult one was the plane crash. That took probably 15 hours since I was trying to ensure a balanced composition while making sure the detail in our survivors and the damaged plane were evident. I placed such an emphasis on making the images completely realistic that I was a bit perfectionist on making sure the separate parts all blended seamlessly. On the other hand, some shots were quite easy and took only an hour to retouch, including the portraits for the most part. All the images with smoke and fire seem like they'd be difficult but actually atmospheric effects like fire and smoke are much easier than atmospherics like a snowstorm across a large landscape."

Watch this video to see how the editing was done:

"The outdoor shoot days were pretty mellow except around sunrise and sunset. My assistant and I spent most of the days snowshoeing and jumping from vantage point to vantage point, with lots of racing with aching thighs when the sun angle started to get lower. It was a bit harsh in the early mornings before the sun rose, and neither of us wanted to get up while even our condensed breath was frozen inside our tent. Despite that, there was a lot of wonder and awe at the glorious landscape, and we ran across some magical opportunities, like a mountain goat that essentially stalked us in the dark. They are known for craving the salt in people's urine, so this one just waited nearby all the time. We turned that into a golden opportunity for a photograph of a starving Alyssa stalking said mountain goat since we figured out how to subtly manipulate the goat's position relative to the sun just by moving around the right way.

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Our two studio shoot days were also pretty magical, as special effects and prosthetic master Shawn Shelton basically put our talent through a horrific plane crash. Andy went from sturdy all-American outdoorsman to dazed head-injury Andy in an hour. Alyssa's injuries actually became less severe over time, since her story was over several weeks and she healed. At the start of each day, Alyssa and Andy started mostly clean overall, and then progressively became dirtier and more beat up.

We alternated shooting the ultra wide scenics with the closeup portraits, since matching the light in each pair of was most of the setup work. Since the light in most scenes was heavily influenced by snow, we essentially made the studio a giant white reflector in every direction and then lit to match the landscape."

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FS: Rock climbing, survival... what's your next big project?

"I'm actually working on closeup portraits of adventurers in the short term, but I do have an exciting shoot in Iceland coming up, where I should be able to get some personal work in. But I think my next big series will be based around the idea of Solitude. Solitude is so different than loneliness and I have spent so much time at the temple of nature that I feel like it's really close to my heart. That shoot should take me into some pretty beautiful and remote locations, and I expect that I'll work alone to embrace the true nature of solitude. That's something we truly miss in today's world to a large degree, that special silence when the voices in your head stop buzzing and you can actually hear the sound of orchestra of the world around you."

The crew behind this great project:
Art direction: Lindsey Watkins, Kiliii Fish
Special FX and Prosthetics: Shawn Shelton
Wardrobe Styling: Deb Tudor
Hair and Makeup: Lindsey Watkins
Prop Styling: Mandy Kehoe
Casting: Samara Lerman
Photo Assistant: Dalton Green, Casey Nation and Colton Running
Talent: Alyssa Kay, Andy Gregory
Helped: Jeff Chang, Tina Yaw
Video Footage: Dalton Green, Casey Nation and Colton Running

Check out the whole series in hi-res on Killiii's website and read more about it on his blog.

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13 Comments

Love these photo-stories. In a way they are story telling in the most raw form as you get to fill in the actual storyline in your head and it makes it more personal.
It's always wonderful to see someone step up and work outside of the box. Great work!

Thanks Stacy. As a commercial photographer I find myself balancing between heavy handed in telling a story and letting the mystery stay in naturally. Cheers!

Most excellent!

Amazing!

Just not feeling it. The models faces just don't fit the scene, and make it feel very staged. I get no emotional feelings from any of these photographs. It's like your last set posted on F-stoppers with the rock climbers. Too much editing can take away from your images. This is another example of that. If this is what you and your client were going for, than good for you. But I feel that it could have come out so much better. I would have liked to have seen these photos edited by a different photographer to have seen what someone else would have done.

Nick, I have to agree that the portraits are not as powerful as they should be. I think that when I made the decision to shoot in the studio rather than bringing the talent on location I knew I wouldn't be able to harness the raw emotion that a real situation would bring. On the other hand, our primary aim in this shoot was not to achieve that raw emotion but to portray a harsh beauty.

I don't think that the post-processing is responsible for the look though-- Despite what people commonly perceive as a lot of manipulation in post, the feeling of the photograph comes largely from the lighting and the emotion of the talent. I responded to Ross below about how often people mistake the surrealism in my photos for post, but I'd say that it's actually 85% lighting. I think to really achieve the kind of stark raw feeling of a plane crash, I would need to do what the movie guys do-- I would have to shoot ambient light on location and really push the talent into a similar situation as the one posed. One day I will likely pursue a shoot like that, but for now this one was part of the greater experiment of telling a difficult story and making it more about the beauty of the natural world than the starkness of survival.

I think there's a part of me that has also been through so much survival that I cringe to think of putting myself and others into that situation for the sake of a photograph-- it builds character but definitely takes away a part of your innocence that never comes back again.

I like it, but the portrait shot's just undermine the whole thing. I know I am probably preaching to the choir here, but check out Gregory Crewdson if you like narrative photography. His photo's are like early Spielberg fine art screen captures. They raise so many questions about the people in them as well.

Great criticism Ross. I love Gregory Crewdson's work and hope that as I continue to work I can attain the level of refinement he achieved with my own vision. That sort of quiet meditative scene resonates with me. As an outdoor adventure photographer, what informs my taste and vision to a large extent is less surrealism and more about spending just most of my life outdoors and seeing things during the times of day that few people do-- storms, twilight and during generally terrible weather. Largely people associate my work with a sense of surrealism, but I often think that what they are mistaking for surrealism is often just not having spent enough time outside during those moments of life when the world itself actually seems surreal. I often am asked about my process in retouching, but the truth is that most of what looks to be done in post comes from the special light of the day.

I do think you're right about the portraits taking away from the story. That idea came from a need to plug a hole in the inability to show what the subjects are emoting in the larger landscapes, and from my co-art directing wanting to create a sense of surrealism up close. I think in an ideal setting I would simply have the wide open scenes printed very large (they are over 200MPx) so you could dive into their worlds and examine their emotions in context. So the compromise of not being able to see these images in print at a high resolution is to pair them with closeups.

I'm still quite a young photographer so I'm trying hard to develop my artistic vision slowly and thoughtfully so that in three decades when I do catch up to Gregory Crewdson I will have broken some new ground in photography.

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I have to say I actually loved the combo of the wide-scenes and the close-ups. It tells the story in a very unique way. It gives the situation/story in the wide shot, and then shows you the more personal side of it by showing the close-ups.

Well yes, absolutely, I think in this format it was the only way to show the situation and the emotion together. I do think the portraits are not as strong, primarily because we conceived of them as a surreal moment taken of out of context, whereas the wide shots are completely matter of fact. Or maybe it's better said that the wides and the portraits are telling the same story with different interpretations-- one serious and solitary, the other almost tongue-in-cheek.

I love this conversation because it's precisely what hones my understanding.

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Basically I think having the combo series tells the full story (+gives you some freedom to add your thoughts). If you had the wides alone and the portraits alone, it would be cool, but not as interesting.

That's a good way to put it. Ultimately that was the decision and I think it worked pretty well for electronic distribution.

It's a very good concept, however, shots such as #1 and #3 don't really look that realistic, particularly the way he painted the shadow makes me feel he just simply added the drop shadow from the layer style.