October 2015 saw the formal announcement of the partnership between f-stop and Red Bull photography and the launch of the Red Bull photography Ajna.
As a result we had an amazing opportunity to do something a little different, something with one of our amazing Staff Pro team, something that reflected our core values exploration, adventure and a pioneering spirit, add a good slug of Red Bull and their heritage as a huge supporter of pushing the limits of the human spirit, you get a crazy idea of doing something that is pretty unique.
This blog like the shoot itself is a little out of the ordinary for us, but we thought it was best to hear it straight from the team; Global Icon Craig Kolesky, our Creative Director, Anton Nelson and Community Manager, Iain Weir
Q: So how did you come up with the idea of the shoot?
AN: Craig Kolesky and I had been planning a downhill project in Africa since April 2015 but at the time we didn’t know if it would be an f-stop shoot or a personal project and when the Red Bull Ajna brief came across my desk I knew it was an amazing opportunity.
CK: We had a few ideas in mind, but when we looked at the ‘bigger picture’ of those projects the back-stories just did not fit with what we wanted. That’s when I thought: ‘what if you take two athletes from vastly different sporting codes and put them together in an unfamiliar environment.
AN: Craig has been shooting for Red Bull for some 17 years so he was an ideal choice for the shoot and his personal passion: MTB, particularly with wide-tyre Fatbikes had done the rounds on our earlier brainstorming before we thought about throwing a Skier into the mix.
The final skiing vs fatbike came as a result of a brain storm between us and Red Bull, because both companies had a history of thinking outside of the box. For this we thought we would leave the box behind and use an ICU instead.
Q: OK, but how did you end up in Africa then? It does not seem like a natural location for skiing.
CK: Doing my research I came across a ski pic in sand but it looked fake, I wanted to see if it was possible to shoot it that it looked legit – sand is not a natural place for a guy on skis.
AN: We looked at a variety of locations in Africa, I was determined to diversify the predominantly Alpine and Mountain themes that you will see in many of our other videos and stills campaigns.
CK: I have been going to Namibia for years, always shooting surfing, kiting and other such sports. I’d seen and heard a lot about the massive dunes and always wanted to head out there to shoot but getting there is a mission and requires permits and special guides to get you into the true heart of the desert.
AN: We focused on the southern section of the ‘Skeleton Coast’ for our principal photography and hired an experienced crew to take us to a location well beyond the tourist attractions of Flamingo Harbour, into the deep desert with a hundred year old fishing camp a little closer to the coast as our base.
Q: What challenges did the location throw at you?
Three simple letters that any outsider would do well to not only familiarise themselves with, but to use as the foundation for any trip to this amazing part of the world.
This. Is. Africa.
Used to working primarily in Western Europe or most often domestically, it became quite clear, quite quickly that the typical skyscanner/airbnb production approach wasn’t going to cut it in Namibia. While T.I.A. seems to be more commonly used to make lighthearted quips or vent frustration about how much longer things take in Africa, or about the limited availability of certain luxury items perhaps, it’s also carries a quite serious message - you’re a long, long way from home and things are very different.
“The desert gives zero f*cks”, Oliver Munnik, October 2015
Some lessons are only learned the hard way, and right enough on day 1 we set about schooling ourselves on the harshness of this environment driving from Windhoek to Walvis Bay the ‘scenic route’.
I’m not too proud to admit mistakes, if anything I think it’s important to share the experience. It’s funny because nothing bad happened, sobering because the list of bad things that could have happened is longer than the list of camera equipment we were carrying, and that’s a lot!
Needless to say, attitudes changed as a result of this.
I can’t thank Craig enough for his help with pre-production, his contacts in the area proved to be the making of the trip, taking us well beyond the tourist track into the deeper desert where we could create something truly unique.
CK: The wind and the cold (surprisingly) were the two major elements to contend with. That, and getting to the dunes was a major challenge as that was a 10-hour trip through the most insane dunes I’ve ever seen. Also, once we got to the location – an old mine that had been turned into a fishing village – we found that charging gear was a hassle as we had only a certain (very short) time of power each day.
Q: Given the amount of content you were planning on shooting how did you manage the gear side of things?
AN: We threw pretty much everything at this project from a gear perspective using two of my prototype Mountain packs plus a Kashmir UL for the trip. Below I include captioned pack shots to show you what we took to shoot this video.
CK: I had the idea to shoot all various options, but once we got out there and into the elements that all changed (it always does). I had two Nikon D4s bodies and a Nikon D750. Each was armed with a specific lens, as I tried to not change lenses in the dunes. That being said, wind plus sand equals: all our gear took a beating.
Q: So how was shooting in the desert?
CK: I shoot a lot in sand and on beaches so the sand was a ‘normal’ location for me. What did get me was being out there for 14 hours a day in the elements with only your clothes and 4x4 as a shelter, if you forgot anything at camp… tough luck.
AN: Being less familiar with sand, gear maintenance was a major concern as the sad got literally everywhere and when you are in the desert, tracking sand in and out of the support vehicles there is nowhere to put anything down where sand will not get. I took a supply of compressed air and spent good hour each lunchtime and evening after each shoot session clearing out the camera ports, buttons and lens mounts only for it to fill up again a few hours later. I am STILL pouring sand out of everything.
IW: From a production point of view the shoot ran pretty much perfectly. We had very little time in an environment that we weren’t familiar with and a team who were working together for the first time and there was a lot that could have gone wrong.
Aside from soaring midday temperatures and having sand EVERYWHERE, it’s worth considering the physical challenge presented by having a cinematographer, photographer and BTS photographer all side by side on a steep sand dune trying to ‘get the shot’ without getting in one another’s way, compounded by only having one athlete run every 15-25min while they returned to the top of the slope. It forced creative compromise and created pressure that could have quite easily destroyed morale and wasted opportunity, but in testament to the experienced team we had, having a clear goal and a constantly open dialogue really is the most important thing you can do in this situation and at the end of the day we’re all still friends!
AN: With a timeline of only 2-3 days of shooting with a day’s journey in and out of travel it was tight to get the footage we needed but as a whole I think the ‘action edit’ and ‘behind the scenes’ for the shoot tell a full story of our experience out there.
Q: So what are your key take away’s from a shoot of this nature?
CK: I learn so much from every shoot I go on, I think as a group we all learned a lot where we come from and what is actually out there, the desert made us feel small and helpless.
IW: The athletes were also real heroes, we brought Fabio and Oli onboard partly because they’re very, very good at what they do, but also because they were excited by the project and we knew we could rely on them to do whatever it took to make it happen - whether that was carrying a fatbike up a steep sand dune or wearing full ski gear in blistering heat.
All that said, the stars of the show were probably our guides who provided the most amazing hospitality and 100% bought into the project. Without them letting us endlessly run the generator to recharge batteries, feeding us the most amazing traditional food and tirelessly ferrying Oli and Fabio in their 4x4s from the foot of the dunes back up to the top while Anton, Craig and myself repositioned for the next shot it never would have happened.
I hope not just the individual team members but also F-stop and Red Bull Photography are proud of what we’ve produced. In retrospect there are always going to be things you’d have done differently and it would always have been good to have had more time, but I personally find it difficult to imagine how we could have had a better trip.