Red Bull Off the Planet was the shoot of a lifetime for professional photographer Chris O’Connell. Melbourne-based installation artists ENESS wanted to bring a new perspective to action sports by fusing interactive art with skiers and snowboarders flying through the air. Chris was the man with the challenge to make the stills look as good as the motion video for the Red Bull Off the Planet shoot at Mammoth Mountain, California.
Although no stranger to mixing creative photo shoots with cutting-edge technology – he shot the first wireless synced flash sequence with a shutter speed of 1/500s – the Off the Planet shoot was an ambitious shoot for Chris and everyone else to say the least.
Here’s what Chris had to say on how they managed to create probably the best-looking kicker you have ever seen and visuals that really were out-of-this-world.
Chris, tell us about the idea behind Red Bull Off the Planet.
The concept was to have a 21-foot inflatable sphere hover between the two hits as the software mapped 3D visuals onto the snow and sphere. To make the visuals interactive, the riders [including Russell Henshaw, Sean Pettit and Simon Dumont] were tracked via an infrared camera as they flew through the air.
It was the most visually spectacular ski or snowboard shoot I have been a part of in my 15 years of being a professional photographer. But it almost didn’t happen. The idea seemed simple: Eness Agency would bring projection equipment over from Australia, set up a 21-foot helium-filled sphere in the gap with the earth projected onto it, and then project moon rocks onto the jump. And skiers would jump over the world. Easy right? Well, in theory it was.
What was the set-up like? It must have been a huge challenge?
We arrived to a perfect 65-foot table with the middle cut into a big channel to give room for the globe. Everything appeared perfect. The problems came when the Eness crew tried to inflate the sphere with helium. The size of the floating sphere didn’t bode well with the Sierra Mountain winds and the orb almost blew away. Then came projector problems: none of the projectors worked. The second day’s shoot was called off and it looked like this massive project was never going to happen.
So when did the shoot seem like it was going to work?
On night three, while we were enjoying a couple beers and sake at sushi dinner, we got the call at 10 p.m. saying that Eness had figured out the problems with the projectors and we had a go.
How did you freeze the action with lighting without affecting the multimedia graphics?
I used Broncolor Scoro A4 and A2 lights and a Broncolor Verso Battery Pack. I used long throw reflectors and had to get really creative with the lighting. I had to side light and hope I got enough light to wrap, because anything on the jump would destroy the projections for the video. It was like a chess game trying to get all the pieces to line up, but they did.
I had to shoot everything on a tripod and make a composite to make the most of the projections and really get them to pop.
How did you get power up on the mountain?
Luckily, the shoot wasn't too far from Hollywood so we had a dedicated lighting and a power guy came to Mammoth. He brought a huge diesel powered generator up the mountain to provide lots of clean power for everything we had going on.
What camera gear did you use?
I shot with Canon Mark IV with Zeiss lenses to ensure max sharpness across the entire field.
How did you feel when the shoot happened?
When the Eness crew flipped the switch and turned on the projectors at about midnight, the sight was awe-inspiring. As promised, there was a rotating earth and moon rocks projected on the jump, but the fun didn’t end there. There was a 3D laser light show with birds flocking across the jump onto the sphere, exploding lights and even goldfish and jellyfish were swimming around. The potential was limitless.
Best event shoot ever?
I think we got some of the most interesting video and still shots of skiers and snowboarders that I have ever seen.
Find more behind-the-scenes action on the Off the Planet shoot, see Chris O'Connell's making of video here on YouTube and check out the photos in the gallery.