Charlie, India and Jason Millers’ credentials read like a Who’s Who on the British hair industry, dating back to 1965 when Charlie (Jason’s father) started the business with his first salon in Edinburgh. This has now grown to five salons, employing 120 staff in some of the most beautiful parts of the city. They have been Scottish Hairdresser of the Year eight times and won dozens of awards in the UK and across the rest of the world. Recent credentials include creating the looks for the MTV European music awards in Berlin, along with commissions for L’Oreal and British Vogue. The team has tended the tresses of such stars as Charlize Theron, Joely Richardson and Tilda Swinton.
I had first met the Millers a year ago in London when covering the 2009 L’Oreal Colour Trophy and was impressed with their sense of style and creativity, along with their cool and calm approach under pressure. Above all they were friendly and the kind of people I would happily socialise with. The Millers have a long relationship with L’Oreal and a huge amount of trust exists between them and the world’s largest cosmetics, beauty and hair company. The shoot was a success for L’Oreal and the Millers, who particularly liked the way shooting in soft, warm, continuous light had created work with feeling and atmosphere. My assistant Roger Richards and I had pitched up with eight Redheads (the Arri kind) and injected a feeling of backstage high-end fashion which lent itself extremely well to India and Jason’s work. Several months later, India approached me to shoot a campaign for the uber-cool Japanese makeup and hair brand Shu Uemura. She was to become the ambassador for the brand in the UK, and had been given a lot of freedom to create a series of pictures that were both ‘on brand’ for Shu Uemura as well as for India. With their inspiration coming from art, fashion and photography, I felt the privilege and the pressure to make sure that this shoot would meet our collective expectations. Most importantly, with this wonderful opportunity, I wanted to stamp my particular brand of ‘auteur’ on to it.
Post production at this level fascinates me and the results far exceeded my expectations, with tiny tweaks on highlights and reflections while keeping detail in the shadow and not losing the overall contrast. If only it were possible to do every shoot this way!
Our first pre-production meeting at Shu Uemura’s London office established the theme of cinema or, more precisely, cinematic. India had some really beautiful examples of recent work she had seen from various photographers and film makers and I left with homework! Could be a lot worse… Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 movie Marie Antoinette (more for styling than cinematic reference) and, for both style and lighting, I sent India Stanley Kubrick’s much-underrated 1975 film, Barry Lyndon. I particularly love the story of how the Carl Zeiss Planar lenses were made especially for the film and even my Canon f/1.2 85mm and 50mm can’t match the f/0.7 50mm lens which enabled Kubrick to shoot the famous candlelit scenes with nothing but candles.When I first saw this film it had a profound effect upon me, as I had been experimenting for several years with Canon’s incredible primes, shooting wide open and being amazed at the results and low-light shooting capabilities. The technical difficulties of shooting those scenes must have been immense for Kubrick, as each actor would have had to stay in exactly the same position with only millimetres of depth of field to play with. I really wanted to utilise the Canon primes on this shoot, making full use of the f/1.2 capabilities to really push the possibilities for creating work of a super-sensual and atmospheric nature. Three other visual references that helped to cement the final approach were the incredible silver-print Hollywood portraits of George Hurrell from the thirties. forties and fifties, maybe somewhat strangely, the native American Indian plate camera portraits taken in the early 1900s which bear a startling similarity to my finished pictures, and finally, certain scenes of Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series (now remastered and great to watch all over again). Work began about a month before the shoot date with our first casting of 70 girls that took most of the day. We were looking for slightly unusual models who would give the pictures an edge. A further day enabled us to make our final selections that included two girls and a boy. For castings I always take my camera and lenses, plus a portable lighting system (usually 1×1 Litepanel LEDs on stands) or whenever possible window light. I also like to see how the models take direction and I’m often surprised how a seemingly ordinary looking girl or boy can come alive when seen through the viewfinder. I like to ask if the models have had any acting or dance experience, because I find this can make a huge difference to face, hand and body shapes, expressions and movement.
I spent many days looking back at my work over the past few years for lighting and styling references, which sparked many phone calls between India and myself. This helped with our final decisions on look and as we didn’t have the luxury of a pre-light day we sketched out lighting plans well before the shoot. Our equipment list left nothing to chance with a 4K, two 2.5Ks, two 1.2Ks and a 650HMI, along with all manner of clamps and flags, plus lots of polyboard. Originally I had intended to blast the 4K HMI through the frosted studio windows but after what seemed like an eternity we managed to craft the light down to two 1.2Ks bounced through polyboard and frost with a 650HMI to paint the black colourama backdrop. To further increase the atmosphere we built polyboard walls to kill the reflected light and then, finally, feeling happy with this look, we spent many hours flagging the light on each model.We had decided that the final pictures would be head and shoulder portraits, and so lens choice was the easiest decision of all, 85mm. The Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII was for the most part kept static on a tripod and shot tethered straight to Capture One Pro, which then converted each file to a pre-configured temporary colour profile by our digital assistant. I’m always really pleased to hear the buzz around the monitor when a file appears having been shot on the 1Ds MkIII and 85mm prime, as most digital techs are used to Hasselblad or Phase One with the usual Schneider lenses and are simply not expecting to see a comparable result from a Canon set-up. The Canon cannot compare on resolution, but it can hold its own and then some, when the optics of the Canon primes are at wide apertures.With all this continuous light I also shot some short video sequences, as has become the norm on almost every shoot I do.
My agent and producer for this project, Mark George, suggested I shoot the job at Iris Studios in SW10. A visit confirmed this would be a superb place to work; in fact everyone on the shoot wanted to move in and live there! It’s a beautiful space that has been converted from a municipal church hall by Found Associates London. It has been thought through as far as photographers, guests, hair and make-up are concerned. There is a feeling of calm which is always a plus, when often there is so much at stake with so little time to spend on its achievement.
The styling was simple; my best explanation is Bohemian tech, as we wanted to draw on the work of the past and yet use the styling to keep the pictures in the present. Saskia Price did a wonderful job and brought a wardrobe that used glass, plastic and reflective materials which gave the pictures a whole extra dimension without overpowering the models looks or expressions. I particularly love the crystal glass shoulder pads and plastic scale dresses. Billy (my lighting assistant) and I put a lot of energy into making sure we made the most of them, adding little highlights here and there which were blown out with the extremely narrow depth of field. The make-up also made use of subtle gloss around the eyes and a very pale silver sheen to the skin. This was key to our original idea of using cold low light that is in stark contrast with the usual hair photography that is for the most part very warm and bright. I have to admit to a yearning for rebelling against the usual plastic, heavily retouched look that hair and sometimes make-up advertisements have, and to India’s great credit we kept a little imperfection in both hair and skin. The Millers had set me a wonderful challenge and I knew this project would require a serious amount of detailed preparation. The Final studioset-up, a polyboard maze. “Post production at this level fascinates me and the results far exceeded my expectations, with tiny tweaks on highlights and reflections while keeping detail in the shadow and not losing the overall contrast. If only it were possible to do every shoot this way!”
I knew from the outset that this project would benefit from good retouching and post production and thank Chris Roome and Happy Finish for adding his particular brand of magic to make this job complete. Chris’s clients include Nick Knight’s Dior campaign and award-winning Dolce and Gabbana ad campaigns, along with dozens of British and international Vogue covers. I had spent many hours on screen shares with India and Jason in Edinburgh and me in Derbyshire, post producing the files in Aperture 3.0 to a level with which we all felt comfortable. I than met up with Chris in Happy Finish’s Soho studio to discuss the RAW captures along with my own interpretations. The Aperture files gave Chris a direction and we discussed how he would work towards keeping the reality in the shoot while not over-smoothing the skin; a trend that he reliably informed us is very definitely ‘so last season’. We wanted to maintain the pores and subtle imperfections while making sure the colour temperature was cool and yet still retained a degree of warmth. Post production at this level fascinates me and the results far exceeded my expectations, with tiny tweaks on highlights and reflections while keeping detail in the shadow and not losing the overall contrast. If only it were possible to do every shoot this way! Everyone invested so much energy, enthusiasm, passion and care into this project and I believe for the most part we have met our own brief and maybe even exceeded it.