Hello and welcome to this weeks blog post and a special welcome to all my new subscribers! This week I'm inviting you into what has pretty much been my second home over the past 18 months, Air Studios, London. Founded by Sir George Martin in 1969 Lyndhurst Hall pictured above has hosted some of the most iconic film score recording sessions in modern history, including The Hunger Games, The Dark Night trilogy and Dunkirk. This post is all about my challenge of capturing the largest ever recorded string arrangement for a project titled Hans Zimmer stings in collaboration with Spitfire Audio over the past year, 344 players in total together forming their biggest project to date.
As mentioned I've spent a hell of a lot of time in Air Studios over the past year or so, working with some incredible Composers, Musicians, Engineers and Clients on some very important projects. But the biggest and most ambitious projects that I've worked on was the recording sessions for Hans Zimmer's new string library. Ok so I'm not go into too much detail of what Spitfire Audio do but they record live musicians playing mainly individual notes that are then transferred into software that can be played on a piano. These samples then become the base for Film and TV Composers to create their score. Recording samples means working in this kind of environment with hundreds of microphones in the room can be VERY difficult. Over the past year though I have learnt a thing or two about shooting such sessions and I've become pretty niche at this kind of photography. Before I started with Spitfire I don't think these kind of sampling session were photographed at all with the worry of the photographers movements, camera shutter ect ect being recorded into the samples but I've mastered it and I don't mean using a mirrorless camera. I'm still on my trusty Canon 5D MkIV DSLR who's mirror in this room sounds like a car crash.
Before I give away my secret weapon let me explain a few things that I have to go through to take images of a sessions scheduled to the minute! and I don't mean that as an over exaggeration, literally a minute of recording time with a full room of musicians can cost more than my day rate. First of all and most important is understanding what's being recorded at what time, This has become a major factor in me taking photos in sampling sessions. Not knowing can mean standing still and not breathing for an hour waiting until I can get away with taking a picture. Long notes and a technique called legato intervals are the only time I can take picture without being heard by the mics. If the player/s are recording a short note, it's not worth me shooting and gambling being picked up by the mics. Second is the shoes, they stay off! Lyndhurst hall has such an insane reverb that just the sound of your shoes creasing will make noise and potentially disrupt the session. Again this is something that has taken a lot of time to learn when to move and when to stay where you are. Breathing is also an issue! Sounds crazy but I've had to teach myself shallow breathing techniques to survive long days in Air Studios. As you can see in the photo below there are a LOT of trip hazards when recording such a big section of an orchestra so I spend most of my time looking where I'm walking instead of through my camera. I do manage to move around whilst recording which must make me some kind of Ninja surely?
Remember I'm not listening to a piece of music, each is no shorter than 5 seconds, sometimes half a second and the mics need to pick up the tail (Reverb) of each note which is quieter than breathing at ground level. Cracking my back and knees before going into a session has become routine. The amount of times I've gone to crouch for the perfect shot and my knees gone BANG! Quite embarrassing when the whole room have to start over because a 30 year old has the joints of an old man. Probably from jumping down stairs on my skateboard when I was a Kid....? Getting out can be a problem too. I'm constantly listening out for the engineers in the control room to talk back to the players into their cans (Headphones) about a mistake or a note they've missed which I know will give me enough time to open and shut the doors to get out of the hall. These sessions can be up to 14 hour days, so I have to manage my time really well otherwise I would potentially have to stay in the hall all day and thats just not an option! I've built a really good relationship with the engineers that work with Spitfire and Hans Zimmer which has made my job so much easier as they're aware of how tricky it is for a photographer in this situation and do give me the odd second to jump in and out if needed.
OK so keeping all this in mind I make my life even harder by chosing not to shoot with a mirrorless system like the new Sony A7R Mkiii or something as I'm a Canon guy and after trying very hard to enjoy shooting with the Sony I just can't get to grips with it. So I choose to deal with housing my camera in an Aquatech Sound Blimp which is a massive pain in the arse but it lets me carry on using the system I'm used to and in my mind take better quality images without camera noise being so present. Meaning there still is noise that you have to be careful of, for example the IS on the Canon 100mm Macro which seems to find its way out of the blimp as it's so high pitched. (This is why I don't shoot all the time) as mentioned earlier.
If you haven't used one of these things let me give you a brief summary of my experience.
- Can't control any camera settings when housed except from the Aperture (When the button doesn't fall out)
- Fucking heavy! This combined with my MkIV and lenses can take it's toll after creeping around like Ninja for hours on end
- You look like a dick. The amount of comments I get when shooting with this thing is crazy. Is that a toy? What lego set did you get that in?
- Glass in front of glass. Obviously putting anything extra in front of your lens isn't great, I loose half a stop of light with the Blimp.
- Seeing your frame. Being a wearer of glasses the eye piece doesn't sit flush to my eye so I can only see the right hand side of the image when looking through the viewfinder.
All sounding very negative at the moment but without this bit of kit I wouldn't be able to shoot the way I want to and have over the past year. I'm going to do a more in-depth post about shooting with my Sound Blimp soon with a few tricks and tips that might help you if you ever get into the situation that you need to use one. Now then, back to some photos....
Being in many peoples eyes the 'best room in the world' for sound is another reason why shooting at these sessions are such a great experience. A lot of musicians and composers dream to record at Air so I try not to take it for granted that in the past year I've spent so much time in this room. As I mentioned earlier I rarely get to listen to music in here but when you have 60 Violins all playing together as you can see in the image below you do get a physical response that I've never felt in any other studio before. It truly is unique to this room. Standing in the gallery you get the real sense of how the hall reacts to the sounds coming from these small instruments. There was one session that we did get a chance to hear a piece of music and that was with Eric Whitacre and his choir of which I'll do a post soon about which brought tears to my eyes (Caught on camera by Christian Henson) and after all this time thinking one note sounded impressive in this room wait until you listen to what we captured that day. Anyway back to Hans...
Luckily in the Hall you get great natural light flooding through the churches windows which surround the main hall. There are daylight balanced overhead lights which hang from the hanging baffles but on this occasion everything that could possibly make noise was eradicated from set for the Violin and Viola Sessions which included turning off the house lights as they create a buzz. For obvious reasons I can't use any kind of flash whilst recording so I just rely on my Canon MkIV's hi ISO capabilities in which you can get away with murder. I think I'm mostly shooting between 1600 - 2000 ISO which gives me no noise issues at all. I tend to switch between my Canon 24-70mm Mkii and my Canon 100mm Macro L series lens. I can't fit my Canon 70-200mm into the tube I have for my Blimp so the longest I'm ever at is 100mm. To be honest this doesn't upset me as the Canon 100mm Macro is such a great piece of glass I try my best to have it on my camera as much as possible. I even prefer using this lens to my Canon 85mm 1.2 for these sessions as I can get in nice and close and pick out beautiful details of the players instruments and finger positions.
Looking back through the sessions I've worked on just for this project alone I can really tell how much my work has improved because of this experience. My kit hasn't changed that much over the past year, it's just the knowledge I've gained and the understanding of orchestral sampling which has become so present in my images. The shot below was from the last session in November last year where we had 24 basses in the main hall. Luckily for some reason the house lights were ok to be on for the Double Basses or else there wouldn't of been a chance to shoot.
Limited Edition Hard Back Book Hans Zimmer Stings X Spitfire Audio
Photography Lee Kirby
Well thats your lot for this weeks blog post, I hope you enjoyed reading about the Hans Zimmer Strings project. If you would like to follow my work please SUBSCRIBE to my blog to receive weekly posts (something to read on the tube) comment and share would also be much appreciated.
Next week I'll be taking you to Los Angeles where I had the rare opportunity to spend a few days at Hans Zimmer's Santa Monica Studio. I've been waiting a long time to reveal this shoot for Spitfire Audio's campaign for Hans Zimmer Strings.
Until then, bye for now....
You can find out more about the project here