While I was working on my Portraits of Strangers project last year, I got an email with the subject: “Hey there… a mail from Ad-Land in Singapore.” Much to my surprise, the email was from Steve Elrick, Regional Executive Creative Director of BBH Asia Pacific. He came across my portraits series from a link in Facebook which lead back to my blog. He asked if I could drop by to have a chat and “see if there’s a project we could perhaps get you involved with in the future.”
I went “holy sh*t…”
Being a hobbyist with dreams of making it big in photography, getting the opportunity to have a reputable ad agency as an audience was very exciting… and pretty surreal. I had no idea what a photographer was supposed to do in these meetings so I just showed them a bunch of my favorite street photographs and portraits then accompanied it with anecdotes on how and why I took each shot. The whole meeting was a quick show and tell. I remember thinking I wish I could show more, being a complete newbie showing off my hard work hoping to strike an impression with the big guys. After the meeting, the waiting game started. I didn’t know what would happen next. But after about 3 weeks, I got another email from them: “We’ve an upcoming project which is very much your style.”
The ad campaign…
The project involved taking portraits of 10 talents in 10 different locations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. These photos were for an ad campaign to launch the world’s first nationwide 4G mobile internet network called Yes 4G. This was a large scale campaign handled by BBH Asia Pacific, which covered just about everything from internet marketing, tv commercials, print ads, launch event… the works. The talents for the campaign are Malaysians in all walks of life, and each represents a story of a ‘yes’ moment in their lives. The campaign’s tagline is “Amazing things happen when you say Yes.”
From the comfort zone to cold sweats…
In my discussions with the ad guys, the treatment they wanted for the photos was something exactly like my portraits project. I thought “No problem, I can definitely do that.” I’ve done it so many times in Orchard Road, I should be able to do it again in Malaysia. But as I learn more about the project, I quickly realize that this wasn’t going to be the walk in the park that I thought it would be. I was confronted with 3 dilemmas:
1) Each portrait was to tell a different story of a blissful ‘yes’ moment. This meant that I had to actively direct the talent and somehow bring out that believably sincere expression of happiness from them – something that I’ve never done before. And “say cheese” wouldn’t cut it.
2) Half of the location shoots were to be held indoors. But I always shoot outdoors for the perfectly soft, evenly-distributed light rendered by overcast skies or shaded trees. Shooting indoors has always been tricky, especially if you had to replicate the same natural light quality that the outdoors easily provide.
3) The photos needed to be in very high billboard resolution – suddenly, my trusty Nikon D300 had become insufficient. I’d have to use a camera with much more megapixels, like a medium-format camera. One of my first rules in photography is to know the gear. I’ve never even seen a medium-format camera before… now I had to use one for a high profile project.
In addition to these, I had no idea how these commercial shoots worked. They used terms like “recce” which I had to secretly google to find out what it meant. When asked if I had a producer, I went “Nope. What’s that for?” They hired photo assistants to help me out in the shoots. And being the noob that I am, I almost ignorantly insisted that I didn’t need one.
All these challenges violently threw me out of my comfort zone. The ad guys knew this and was very concerned if I could pull this off. So was I. I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew… but I also didn’t want to let this opportunity pass. I couldn’t offer them any guarantees, only that I will do what I can. A few weeks later, the project took off, and I was in for the ride of my life.
Preparing for the shoot…
They flew me to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was a 4-day engagement. 2 days for location recce and test shoots, and 2 days for the actual shoot. On the first day of shoot, I was in the first location with my assistant by 5am to plan and prepare. As much as I was scared of the whole thing, I was also wowed by the whole process. I’ve always wanted to see the behind-the-scenes of an ad shoot… and there I was right in the middle of it. In each shoot location, every step leading up to the actual shoot ran like clockwork: the makeup and dress up of the talent, the setting up of the view station for the ad guys, the camera and light modifiers, even the catering… everything was happening around me and I was just there overwhelmed. It seemed like everyone on the set knew exactly what they were doing… except for me. I braised myself until that moment where I had to do what I was hired to do: shoot.
Getting that smile…
I made it a point to introduce myself to the talent before the shoot so I could establish some quick rapport and hopefully make them comfortable working with me. With this very short time, I’d try to get to know them as much as possible and look for hints of what could make them willingly surrender that blissful smile for the camera. This getting-to-know-you process went on even during the actual shoot.
Story tagline: “Yes, of course. I will marry you.”
I learned that Fadiah was a soccer fan and had the biggest crush on Ronaldo. We kept on teasing her about it, making her imagine him taking her on a once-in-a-lifetime date … even imagine him proposing to her.
This was the very first shoot. It was only after this that I started to get confident about the whole project. As we wrapped up and moved on to the next location, Michelle the producer asked “Are you ok?” I let out an exhausted “Yeah…” Then she smiled and said “You’re doing good.” I smiled back in relief “Thank you.”
Story tagline: “Yes, you have just been accepted into university.”
Sofia was a natural on the photo shoot. She’s an art student who specializes in sculptures. During the shoot, we kept talking about her process of working, the works of art that she’s created so far, and what else she would love to create. We also teased her how great it would be to see her photo on a billboard along the highway :)
The first behind-the-scene shot above was taken by the Art Director, Arh Chun. Thanks again, man!
This is my one of my favorite shots in the project. The light was perfect because of the massive floor-to-ceiling window we had. And Sofia was just a complete natural with that smile.
Story tagline: “Yes mom, I’ll be home for your birthday.”
This lovely lady is about 80 yrs old and she’s still surprisingly healthy and active. She didn’t speak English, but fortunately, Arh Chun and Michelle helped me make her feel comfortable and bring out that smile. They kept saying this word that meant “one more…” in Mandarin (I think). I tried to use that word too… I just wasn’t so sure if I was saying it right.
Across all the shoots, the first few shots is always a period where the talent tries to get comfortable in front of the camera. We usually get the typical snapshot smiles at first… stiff, contrived, a smile you’ve smiled a million times every time you’re in front of a camera. We rarely get any good smiles at first, but that’s always expected. The talent begins to warm up on us halfway in the shoot after small talk and a few laughs… and from there, keeper shots start to surface, one after the other.
Working with kids…
Kids can give the sweetest most contagious smiles… but when you ask them for that smile in front of a camera for an hour, it gets complicated. They’re so hyperactive, they can’t sit still. When they do, they easily get bored which will immediately show in the photos. So we had to constantly entertain them with games and props to keep them up and about. As Carl said: “You have to go into their world. You can’t expect them to go into yours.”
Story tagline: “Yes, you’re teeth will grow back. Yes, you’re a big girl now.”
Valerie is the youngest talent at only 6 yrs old. Before the shoot, I would see her curiously walking around the set with a bright smile at her face. I thought, if we can capture that exact smile, we’re good to go. But as expected, that natural smile didn’t come easy for us in the set.
Fortunately, I had some help from Arh Chun the Art Director, and Carl the producer who’s worked with these young talents before. Carl brought in bunny ears, kiddie clips, and clown noses… and no, it wasn’t for Valerie. It was for us… to wear… to keep Valerie entertained. We even jazzed up the camera for her. And as Arh Chun and Carl played with Valerie, I kept a quick eye on every chance we get for that smile.
One of the dilemma’s I had coming into this project was dealing with the indoor locations. The ad guys have already determined the necessary locations, so I had to work with that. During the recce on the indoor location, the very first thing I looked for were big ass windows. And I was in luck, because it was a big ass house with big ass windows.
The portraits above of Nori, Arjunan and Valerie were all taken indoors, in one house, and in different rooms. Thank God for big ass windows. We moved some furniture, took away the curtains, opened the windows up wide, placed some reflectors here & there, set up strobes for background fill light… we basically experimented until we got good soft quality light that looked natural.
The last challenge I had was this portrait of Nisha. Given the treatment that the ad guys wanted for this shot, I knew that this was going to push me out of my comfort zone again.
Unlike the other portraits, I couldn’t use available light on this one since the setting for this shot was supposed to be at night time. I also couldn’t use strobes because they were too strong given that I needed to use a large aperture to blur the background (a little techie talk there). So we had to use hot lights (continuous lights) shining through a large diffuser, placed a silver reflectors here and there, slapped on the 300mm lens in the camera, manually set the exposure, then we were all set.
Story tagline: “Yes, you have my blessing. Yes, you have my daughter’s hand.”
This is one of my favorite portraits in the project. The light was spot on, and the smile was perfect. Nisha was so easy to work with. Indeed, it was a happy thought to her should a man ask for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Sonny, the studio’s Art Director, did a great job with the lighted background. This was the last scheduled shoot, and ending the whole shoot with a portrait I really liked was a great feeling.
Getting to use a Hassy…
Another one of my dilemmas with this project was that I had to use an unfamiliar equipment… a medium format camera. I liked the idea of being able to use an MF camera, but I was more concerned about delivering the goods. But when I was coordinating with Studio 31, the studio the ad agency hired to provide the necessary equipments for the project, they said they could rent out their Hasselblad. My jaw dropped to the floor.
The shot on the right above was taken by the Art Director, Arh Chun. Thanks, man!
I have never imagined myself ever getting the chance to use a Hasselblad. Suddenly, this dilemma of mine turned out to be one of the best part of the project. Although using a top-of-the-line industry standard camera wouldn’t necessarily guarantee good results, getting to use one was a wet dream for any photography enthusiast. I remember the first time I got a hold of it, I was completely star struck… like a kid holding his shiny new toy :) And as I got to use it, I could feel the Hassy’s potency through its shutter click… it didn’t go “click”, it went “kla-chaaak!!!”
I did have some qualms about it, though. The autofocus was pretty slow, which handicapped me for a bit especially when photographing the kids who consistently bobbed their heads everywhere during the shoot. Another problem I had was that the autofocus point could not be selected. It was nailed down to the center. So I had to focus on the eye, then recompose… constantly. And this was even much harder when I had to use the 300mm hulk of a lens.
But even with all these shortcomings, I sucked it up and was still happy as a flea in a doghouse :)
The portraits I worked on was only a fraction of the whole ‘Yes 4G’ campaign. I wasn’t sure how they would be using the photos, or if it would ever see the light of day. But a few months ago during the scheduled launching of the brand, I googled the campaign and came across this photo:
The photo above is courtesy of Campaign Brief Asia.
I was grinning from ear to ear, seeing the outcome of all that hard work come out quite nicely. I like it. I’m proud of it. I wished I could actually go to that location and have my picture taken with it. And yes, photoshopping myself inside this photo did cross my mind.
This was my first commercial photo shoot with an ad agency, and a personal milestone for my photography. I was overwhelmed most of the time throughout the project. But as they say, you’d have to push yourself out of your comfort zone so you can grow. I’ve done this with Portraits of Strangers. Now I’ve done it again with this project… my first ever commercial shoot. I’m excited for my next chance to push further.
It’s funny to think that I almost backed out of the project early on. I guess amazing things really do happen when you say ‘yes.’
Big big thanks…
I’d like to give some big thanks to the awesome guys from BBH Asia Pacific and Studio 31 who helped me in this project: Michelle, Arh Chun, Keith, Shaun, Noel, Leong, Elson, and for the talents that gave their genuinely sincere smile for the portraits. Thank you so much, guys!
Update, February 14, 2011:
Fellow photography enthusiast Mister Jo took photos of the Yes campaign ad in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. These are the photos I worked on with my commercial photography job with an ad agency. It felt so exhilarating when I first saw these… thank you so much, Mister Jo! :)