A call came through that I’d been assigned to work out in Switzerland and Liechtenstein to photograph the launch of the Xbox 360 game 'Halo 4'. The email containing the brief came through and I was intrigued to learn that one of the main objectives was to photograph an explosion. Now, if you're me, that sounds like a fun day at work.
I’m always keen to shoot things I’ve not done before and, other than stage pyrotechnics during big shows, I’d not applied myself to an explosion before. So, I flew out to Zurich of a Sunday afternoon and caught the train down to Vaduz in Liechtenstein and checked into my hotel during an unseasonal blizzard. On the Monday morning I met with Richie Hobson, the freelancer who was also covering the event for Xbox 360 and we had a walk through the locations, the brief and the aspects that we would each cover. The gig was basically a theatre event with a company of actors taking on the roles of a military garrison who were going to hijack a couple of coaches full of Xbox competition winners and journalists and commandeer them to take part in space missions to save the day by finding three glyphs to close the portal to stop the baddies from doing bad stuff, or something like that. This would be followed by the set piece moment of the Master Chief character from the game appearing through a mine, which would then comprehensively explode. This was in effect the money shot and absolutely couldn't be screwed up.
First off, there was a day of rehearsals for the actors to get into character and run though their parts. We had radios and ear-pieces so we could listen out for the cues into various action sequences. We’d be moving from the lay-by where the coaches would be pulled over through to the base camp then I’d be going into the mine with a team to to rendezvous with the professor and recover one of the glyphs. Then, the Master Chief would make his explosive appearance before everyone would move up to Balzers Castle for the finale and the party. The area was completely transformed, with the regular countryside turned into an alien planet war zone.
The problem was that the immersive experience couldn’t be lit too brightly. Everything was to be very dark and moody indeed to disorientate and scare the pants off the participants in keeping with the immersive experience and the story line. I was constantly off the scale with the numbers, shooting at around 15th sec wide-open at 5000 ISO if I was lucky. Technically speaking, shooting any of this would certainly have been be impossible back in 2006. Both Richie and I were having trouble freezing movement and we had to manage the expectations of the guys at Xbox. It looked like we’d be at the limit of what was feasible with available light shooting.
We had a practice run through of a smaller explosion, which was crucial for both the photo and video teams.. Subsequently, long conversations and examination of the frames of the development of the fireball and flying rubble led the special effects guys to tweak the timings of the charges in our favour for the real event. On the day it’s self we chipped off some nicely lit set up shots before things began and then, as the coaches rumbled in through the border of Switzerland and Liechtenstein and the shouting started, we entered what I call ‘event time’ - where 6 hours go by in ten minutes.
When it came to the explosion shot I had the ear piece of the walkie talkie rammed right in my ear hole and my focus locked on as the sequence was calmly read through; "EMP go.... follow-spot go... 3 - 2 - 1 - pyros go...." BANG! Six barrels full of cork rubble and a ton of pyros all timed a few milliseconds apart complete with a with a huge electro magnetic pulse all shot at ten frames per second.
Approvals for the pictures consisted of numerous Microsoft clients muttering delighted expletives as they huddled around my laptop as I ran through the suggested editorial set. Job satisfaction.
Upon arriving home I faced a long afternoon of unpacking a 30kg case of kit and cold weather clothing and cleaning my cameras and belt pack from the quarry mud that had found it’s way through everything.