Whilst it may only be 35 seconds long multi-DN alum Colin Read’s latest short Time Web, a branded film created for Converse, is a unique technological achievement. As demonstrated in his music videos for the likes of Glass Animals, Doves and Cautious Clay, Read and his crew create work which is anything but vanilla in its execution, consistently challenging the technical potential of the form. For Time Web specifically, they captured bullet time style shots of skateboarding in motion on 35mm film, a challenge that tested their technical prowess to its limits but in doing so achieved results that clearly speak for themselves. A gorgeous monochromatic work which highlights the textual and formal uniqueness only offered by the medium of film, Read returns to explain the complex camera setup that was required for Time Web, while recalling the high stakes that came with every single take.
Where did the idea for a bullet time infused skateboarding video come from?
I’ve experimented before with analog bullet time using a bunch of camcorders of various tape formats, as well as a few different styles of freezing time with skateboarding from multiple angles. So I’d been playing around with other ideas to explore this frozen analog world with skating a little more when I thought up this concept: bullet time, exposed along a single strip of film. Muybridge’s work was an inspiration for the look and feel, as was the Nine Inch Nails’ video Closer by Romanek, its raw feel.
After thinking up a unique concept like this, what are the next steps in bringing it to life?
I was really excited after I first ‘invented’ the pinhole idea as a way to freeze skating, and started trying to figure out how exactly it would be possible. But of course, in 2021, just about everything has been done before. And I soon discovered that this technique had been pioneered in the 1980s by an artist named Tim Macmillan, in a series called Time-Slice, and was awed by what he accomplished. He was the innovator whose work and ideas inspired and led to bullet time being used in the Matrix films, etc.
I thought up this concept: bullet time, exposed along a single strip of film.
As we went further down the road to figuring out our process and toward production, we found further projects that had also been built on Tim’s ideas, like Bison’s video for London Grammar’s Wasting My Young Years. So in the end, we were certainly not the first to ever play with this technique, and built on the backs of other great artists, like Macmillian and Bison.
Who took the reins in creating the camera setup?
Eric Schleicher, the DP, took the reins to figure out a wide-angle pinhole camera, something we hadn’t seen before, that would feel like a new take on the familiar lensing for skateboarding photography. Then he and Nico de Miranda made the plans, and actually made the damn thing! It resulted in 104 pinhole cameras in a seven foot diameter, and 21 foot circumference. We wanted our FOV to be as wide as possible, so each camera resulted in a panoramic 12-perf frame on 35mm.
What were the technical challenges that setup created and how did you mitigate those?
A pinhole camera is usually exposed with a long exposure, in daylight. The reason: it’s effectively a lens with a very small aperture, meaning that you need a ton of light to make an image. However, that doesn’t work with skateboarding, since a long exposure would just make a blur. So we needed to freeze just a single moment, in order to make a legible 360 degree skate photo. This meant that, in order to create enough light to make an image without a long exposure, we needed a lot of power. Especially since I wanted to shoot in a black-painted studio to create a disconnected and high-contrast feeling. After testing and a lot of math, we landed on four 2400w strobes.
To make things even more interesting: Our cameras had no shutter. Our pinholes were always open; the strobes themselves acted as the shutter mechanism. I’d planned on shooting this on orthochromatic film so that we could use a safelight while shooting. But upon testing, we found that we couldn’t pump in enough light to expose the image since 100’ rolls of orthochromatic film topped out at 25 ASA!
So that meant that we had to use a faster, but panchromatic stock, and we settled on 250 ASA Double X. But then in order to avoid exposing the film prematurely… we had to load the film and shoot in pitch black. Once we were ready to start each set-up, we sealed off our black-painted studio; Eric and Nico loaded the film in darkness, working by touch and constant communication. Meanwhile, the skaters, Leo and Cam, would be waiting in the middle of the camera ring in the dark, ready for our word to go. When we were all set, we’d flip on an overhead safe-light set to 1% power for just a few seconds, just enough for Cole Giordano, a skate photographer I brought in to trigger the strobes, to see the skaters’ vague shapes in order to hit the strobes at the right moment. The skaters jumped, the flash went off, and the safe-light immediately went off again. We’d tested this in advance, and had found that in such a short time and low power, the light didn’t fog the film enough for it to make much of a difference.
Since each set-up took a very long time, it felt like there were high stakes for every shot, both for the skaters to land their tricks, after waiting around in pitch blackness for twenty minutes, and for Cole Giordano. Thankfully, they’re all pros and we ended up with a couple great takes. And we knew immediately if the timing had been right; since the strobe was like an atomic bomb to our eyeballs, after being in darkness for so long, it burned the image of the still frame into our retinas for a while, so we’d have the skater’s frozen moment stuck in our vision. Toward the tail end of shooting, we played around with a few multiple-exposure shots, which ended up being my favourite elements of the whole project.
How quickly were you able to process the film and see what you had shot?
We developed and scanned as we went. We shot at a studio next to the Bushwick Community Darkroom, so that after each shot, we ran the film straight over to a crew to hand-process the film, and then scan. Thus, we knew after not too long whether or not we were getting what we needed.
Since each set-up took a very long time, it felt like there were high stakes for every shot.
I wanted the whole piece to feel as hand-made and analog as possible. So apart from the pinhole shots, we shot additionally on with Super 16mm, hand-cranked 35mm, and a lenticular 35mm camera.
Did having such a necessarily technical setup detract at all from the enjoyment of the process?
Sometimes in film production, you can start to feel a bit disconnected from the magic elements of making images, and can take some things for granted. Having a wireless monitor, tweaking lights for beauty, shooting another take just for safety, etc. But this forced us to focus fully on the actual basic mechanics of photography and made us treat each frame like it was made of gold. Because it was!
Who did you work with on the score and what were you looking for with it?
Sam Perkin did the score; we’ve worked on a few things together now, and he’s incredible. I was looking for something that felt dark and energetic enough to mesh with the visuals, with all the grit and texture of the film. After we workshopped it back and forth with various ideas, he ended up with this incredible score; I think it really elevated the project.
What new work do you have coming up?
Just wrapped on an interactive brand film, and am about to dive into writing on a long-form narrative. Fingers crossed I remember how to write!