Engineering a Difference: Benjamin Von Wong Part 2
In part 1 of this interview with Montreal-based photographer Benjamin Von Wong (vonwong.com) I talked to him about how he made the transition from day job to a successful photographer and workshop leader with a global following in just over two years. In this second half of the interview, I ask him about some of his more famous images and series and how they were created. Von Wong is entirely open about how he creates his work, and as we discussed in the first interview, there are many how-to videos on his site and blog that explain some of the shots in even greater detail. There are links to some of those videos below.
You create all or most of your effects in front of the camera rather than in editing, correct?
Yes. I know that a lot of things can be done in post-production and in Photoshop, but for me a lot of the fun is making them happen in reality. For some reason our society looks down on anything that is done with CGI or Photoshop; it's just considered not real and it has no credibility. For me that is where the behind-the-scenes videos come in: I can prove that we actually brought something magical to life.
There is something that's very cool about being on-set and building something up from scratch that you just don't get when you're sitting in front of a computer. I really love those human interactions, I like sitting down with people and meeting with them and traveling to new places. That's a huge part of why I enjoy doing what I do. It's not just creating a new world; I could probably do that alone sitting in front of my computer. But now I get to interact with other people and bring an idea to life and see it come together one step at a time. It's a very different experience.
|From the "Fallen Angel" series. Concept by Kelly Zak and Benjamin Von Wong. October, 2013|
Where did the idea of the fallen angel series come from?
I don't know. Where does the concept of an angel come from? It's just there in your mind. There's not really any story behind it, I'm not really religious, so there's no religious background to any of this. Fallen angels are usually depicted with their wings ripped off, but I thought it would be visually cool to have an angel that had crashed through the heavens, with wings just broken and burned and tattered.
|From the "Fallen Angel" series. October, 2013|
I'm guessing it took a large crew to create the shots. How did you go about finding the group of people you needed to create them?
I met this woman on the Internet named Kelly Zak who had posted a status on Facebook saying one day she would love to work with Von Wong. She didn't know how, but said it would be so cool if it happened. Fast forward two months: I put up a picture, and she left a comment on it and said she thought she'd never be good enough to work with me. I responded saying, 'It's just practice,' and I gave her some tips for improving her photographs.
She was a film student in Florida, and she asked me if there was anything I had never had the chance of doing before but that I would be interested in doing one day? I told her that I always wanted to create some images of a fallen angel. So she challenged me, saying, "Well, if you ever come to Orlando I'll make a fallen angel for you." I told her if she made me a fallen angel I'd come to Florida. So she started researching and building this angel and I just thought, well, I guess need to buy a ticket to Florida. Basically, we just called each other's bluff.
How much preplanning went into the shots?
We really didn't plan things much until the day I arrived. All we had was a very vague template of an angel wing. The shoot was going to happen around eight days after I arrived, so we had a total of about eight days to pull something together. Day one we went out and started location scouting, day two she started bringing in some of her friends: a costume designer, a set designer, and it slowly grew one piece at a time on the back of nothing more than an idea.
The concept was originally going to be a very simple shot of a fallen angel, but when I saw the location, which was a forest of giant oak trees with Spanish moss. I got very excited by the location. The funny thing is that when I told her that the setting was perfect, she was surprised because she thought it was such a common setting. But when you travel you see things through new eyes and she just didn't see the setting in the same way that I did.
I decided to create this elaborate, massively complex scene, and I started to have visions of characters, and we got kind of trapped figuring out how we were going to bring this storyline together with them. We started figuring out what we could we actually accomplish in the amount of time we had available to us. The project just grew larger and larger.
You seem to have a gift for finding people who can supply unusual things or settings or assistance.
I think that comes from being a passionate individual. When people look at you and they see that you love what you do, you're going to make things happen, and that you're going to be generous about it, they want to help you. People like to help other people. I think it's a natural inclination to encourage people when you sense they are doing something they enjoy. People who like my work are going to want to support me.
How did you get started photographing fire?
There were a couple of first experiments that weren't significant, where I went out like a hobbyist would, and just grabbed some pictures of some friends spitting fire.
Just Do It. "Sometimes life is just about taking risks…about going out there and just making something happen. Spitting fire at the Louvre? Why not?" November, 2013
You have friends who spit fire?
Yes, don't you? I spit fire. Actually my profile picture on my fan page is me spitting fire. It's very simple to learn, it just looks very impressive and it's mildly dangerous. You could die, but you'd need to be stupid and careless. If you inhale the flames it incinerates your lungs. It's the one thing not to do. If you do the other dangerous thing, which is to spit into the wind or have the flames come back at you for whatever reason, that's just generally unpleasant because it gives you a mild burn. I've had my hair lit on fire before and you just pat it out. You should always spit with a spotter, though. There should always be somebody there in case you do light up. You don't always know you're on fire for a couple of seconds; you need somebody to tell you you're on fire. And usually when you notice, it's too hot already.
When did you begin to see the creative and commercial potential of using fire and flames?
The reason I got into fire photography seriously was that Fstoppers was putting on a behind-the-scenes video competition and I wanted to do a really good video so I could attract good publicity - and I wanted to win the prize, which was like ten grand.
So I wondered, what's the most epic thing that a person could do with fire? I thought lighting a person on fire is obviously the most exciting thing, so I wanted to do that. I went on Facebook and I asked, "Okay, who wants to get lit on fire?" And I had someone actually reply. The first time I funded it, and I found a stunt man who had experience - but he didn't burn. It was just too windy.
The first try, and you can see it on Gizmodo, was actually quite miserable because the photos didn't come out good. In fact, they actually looked really bad, but the photos got very popular and I was really pissed off that the photos got so widely seen, because it was a completely failed assignment. In the end I had to Photoshop some flames onto him because he wouldn't light on fire well enough.
I knew we needed to try again. So I got the safety guy from the first shot to come in and light himself on fire on a motorcycle. He was going to be plan B and we took the shoot to a more sheltered space with a lot less wind to try it all over again. But it was too cold and the fuel wouldn't light properly - so that was the second failure.
When did you finally achieve a successful flames shot?
Through these two videos of failed shots I got tons of visibility, much to my disappointment, and then this pyrotechnics expert in France named Andrey Das noticed my work and said, "You have nice work but your fire stuff kind of sucks." I went and checked out his work and he had some amazing stuff. So I contacted him and told him we should work together when I come to France. And he was like, "Yeah, yeah - when you come to France, then we'll talk."
It just so happened that I quit my day job around this time and I was looking for inspirational people to shoot across Europe. So I responded and told him I was putting together a trip across Europe and asked if he'd be one of my subjects. He still said, "Yeah, yeah - if you want." So I told him that to date I had raised $5,000 and I showed him the Kickstarter link. He realized I was serious and from then on he took me seriously and we started working together.