Interview with Ian Shive
Alright next up, it is time for our special guest, Ian Shive is a great nature and landscape photographer, he is a published author, and he has recently been making a transition from stills to video and motion, which I think is very exciting. And so I'd like to introduce Ian Shive. Come on out Ian, great to have you here. Thanks a lot for being a part of this.
Thanks John, appreciate it.
You've been doing some great work for a while, you've got a few classes here at CreativeLive,
Let's sit down and chat about what you've been doing. I remember you put down a class a couple years ago on outdoor photography,
We actually did a critique,
That's right, we did, it's been a while.
So what have you been up to since then?
Well, as you mentioned that transition from stills to motion has really preoccupied most of my time. It's not a simple thing. I don't think people realize like, oh I can just switch right over and there's such a range of options, just like...
still photography. You could be somebody who just pursues it as a hobby, you could be shooting professionally or it could be like yourself or it's traveling all over the world in different continents and scouting out workshops, it's the same thing with motion, there's such a range of options. You could be producing a YouTube video, that's maybe very simple all the way up to the large screen. And so for me it's been a bit of a journey in many ways relearning aspects of my career.
Let me go back a little bit, when did you first get into still photography?
I grew up as the son of a photographer. So still photography has been a part of my life in some way and pretty much from day one. I've got my pictures of me with a camera around my neck as a toddler, so it's always been a part of it. I really started to pursue it in earnest when I left for college. So I grew up in New Jersey, I went to Montana. I was just blown away by the big sky. And I go, okay, I gotta show my friends back home in New England and you know Jersey and everywhere else, like this is what this is about. And really that's when the path began.
Quite a while ago. (laughs)
When did you start shooting video?
I always had this desire and interest to be in the motion picture industry and I liked the production side. The thing I didn't like really was the mainstream motion picture industry. (laughing) I like nature, I like photography, I love being outdoors. I really didn't know how all those things really could fit. How truly could I express those stories that were important to me. So I'd say again I started really honing the visual craft as a still photographer. And it applies just as well almost even better I think in motion if you have that foundation, as a still photographer but I would say it's a been a process that began gradually just like my photography did, probably not all that long ago in the big scheme of things, I'd say maybe about seven or eight years ago I really started to think about, could I have a career as a director or as a cinematographer or something like that?
'Cause that's not long after video started really becoming put into all the different cameras out there.
And now it's in all the cameras.
And as someone who teaches classes on cameras, I find there's a struggle because it shoots stills.
But it does shoot video. Does that make you a director?
No, it doesn't. (laughing) It depends, I don't know, maybe you think so. That is a struggle, I mean that has been the hardest piece of it because if you enjoy photography and you're passionate about it and you love doing stills, how do you suddenly say in an incredible moment outdoors, time to put that camera down or flip the switch and make a motion clip? How do you say I want one over the other? And a lot of times especially in nature photography, if we were in a movie studio, you could say cut, have the actors do the scene again and you get a second shot. But when, you were telling me a story about your trip to Africa recently and how it was this incredible moment, you might only have one chance to get that incredible moment. And you have to pick whether you feel like this is part of my motion story, or this is part of my still story. And it's still struggle to this day for me.
Yeah. On this recent trip we were at this pool of hippos and for that moment I decided I wanna shoot some video. And something really dramatic happened, and right in the middle of the video I'm like, I would rather be taking still photos but I'm shooting video and I just got to go with it. And I find it really difficult to go back and forth between the two because there's kind of a different mindset. Photography is all about the moment, one particular thing and if you take a good photograph of almost anything it's useful in some way.
It tells the whole story.
A great photograph tells the whole story, the adage, a picture's worth a thousand words. Whereas a film you really need like a thousand clips, a narrator, voiceover the music, and sound design, right? So yeah.
And so now you have this great video capability in a camera and you record five seconds of great nature video, just for our purposes here, that doesn't have a lot of purpose.
You gotta have a bigger story. And so tell me about these bigger stories that you're working on.
I'm really excited to be doing some of the things I've been on. So as I continue this journey in the motion side, I started with short films, sort of documenting. I love oceans in general. I've always been passionate about coral and there's so many different challenges with coral, coral reefs and oceans in general. And so I began there by telling these short little clips and now cut to all these years later I'm working on a giant screen film that will be released on IMAX screens called Hidden Pacific. Another film on Midway Atoll and it's been incredible 'cause I've gotten to travel to some of the world's most remote islands. Some of these places I stepped foot on are literally the size of the room we're in right now, I mean they're tiny. You walk across them, you see across them, you're like that's where it ends. And so creatively, so challenging. When you're working in remote locations like that and I'm shooting stills as well. We have a small crew, there's only me maybe two or three other people at the most. You really have to figure out how to make it work. How do you creatively tell the story of these tiny, tiny places that play such pivotal roles on a global landscape? How do you connect them to people back home in the States or around the world? It's really challenging but really rewarding at the same time.
So this is definitely a much bigger project than you know, like you've done classes here, you've done books and articles.
Like crazy, and that was probably a lot you and maybe a few other assistants and other photographers. What does the team look like for a project like this?
On Midway alone I think there's over 70 people credited. And it's a great question, 'cause the scope and scale of motion is very different from stills as well. It's great point. You might work with one or two other people in the field, you might have an editor you work very closely with as a still photographer who's looking at your work and giving you feedback and maybe keeping you on track. but when it comes to motion, you're probably especially something that's like our end product will be 40 minutes. I'm in my 19th month on the 40-minute project. (laughing) So if you're working 19 months on a still project, it better be an incredible passion and a very large book. Unless you're covering a huge topic of course over time but to work on one 40 minute story for that long, with that many people, it's a whole new way of thinking.
Yeah, and it's fun taking on those large projects.
I was telling you I got a video camera when I graduated from college and this is back in the old Handycam days. And I didn't know anything, I didn't take any classes or anything but I just shot video and one of the things I learned is that, if you're gonna have one minute of video, you need to spend at least an hour, just to have something that is watchable in a very casual may. But if you spend 10 hours, okay then it gets pretty refined. And you're talking on the level of probably spending 1000 or 10,000 hours, per minute.
And having somebody else spend that time too. As a still photographer we can go through and do an edit of our work and figure out here's how I'm gonna tell that story and here's maybe even the order that story will be told in. You come back with hours and hours of clips and oh I left the camera on and it ran for 20 minutes and somebody's got to figure out if that really was the case or not, and you typically I'd say one of the biggest changes is, you're not able to always tell that story yourself. You're not sitting in the editing bay, cutting it together. I work with somebody who's able to do that and tell that story and I just don't have the patience for it. Part of the reason I love still photography to begin with is I've always had this urge to just get that story, move on, try different scenes, try different situations. That energy was always really moving forward. Sitting in a booth all day and just clicking through footage, not my patience, it's not my style. But I am still passionate about seeing the story come together, so that's something else that really has been hard to get used to.
You probably also have to give up a lot of control. I mean you're not fine-tuning, could this edit be a half second longer and this movie a half have second shorter? And can we use that other clip here and, there's only so many of those that you can go into probably.
It may be your project but it's just like, okay that's getting me, through to the end goal. How do you deal with that?
Well, it's a creative team and so I think the best way to deal with that is to just respect people in their process and know like if this is a composer who's doing the song, even working, so we had a composer do the Midway film, and he scored the entire thing from beginning to end. I'm actually, most people don't know this about me, I'm a classically trained musician. So at the same time I was growing up, I learned to play piano I took lessons for 12 or 13 years, I did recitals, so I feel like I have a very strong connection to music. You have to go into it and say, let this guy do his job. let this woman do her job. Let these people who have their own creative passion, because it's really an ensemble. Motion is about having a team of people with a set of skills that can tell that, it's an orchestration, they tell that whole story together and you have to allow them to express that creative vision. Now if you're directing the film, you'd be able to say, here's the direction we're going. Here's the end result I would like to have. But how you go and how you get there, that's what we're bringing you on to. So it's a change of mind but I think you have to just step back and allow people to do what they do.
Yeah, well I'd be interested in hearing more about what's going on in the field, the structure of it because like I'm a big fan of movies. There's the director who describes the entire direction but then there's a director of photography, who's making a lot of specific visual choices. But then there's the actual camera operator, who actually fine-tunes and says, "Okay well I think we need to do this little thing with it." And so what are you doing, what are some of the other people doing? What does it look like out the field?
Our team is actually pretty small in the field, I wish we had camera operators and all kinds of things. So typically for us because we're doing both land and underwater ecosystems and showing how they tie together, there's an underwater team and there's a land team. I'm part of the land team but I'm directing the project, so I'm definitely involved in and reviewing footage at the end of the day from the underwater team, but oftentimes I'm not there and I'm not in the water. So I've got a cinematographer who's in there with a housing that is larger than this table and takes two people to get into the water. It's a beast.
Sounds lik a submarine itself.
It looks like a submarine. It's this giant black long box with a lot of buttons and dials and buoyancy and vacuum pumps and all kinds of other really complicated things and he usually finds a nice safe place, where there's no dust or anything else. I should give him give him a shout out his name is James Scott. The man is incredibly patient, very, very talented but that's how it typically works. Because we're going to places, I mean if we have the luxury of going somewhere where we can drive, which I have yet to do, and I would love that opportunity, then yeah, I would have an assistant camera and maybe a tech but for the most part you're gonna have me operating a camera on land, you're gonna have him operating a camera in the water and we're each gonna have at least one other person with us to help and kind of move that process along and then preferably somebody on the tech side, to do the backup, check the footage, troubleshoot. We've had drives and RAID arrays and all the other things that can go wrong in the field and that's just the one thing you wanna avoid. There're typically very small teams.
I'm tempted to get into some of the technical, but I don't want to go too far. (laughing) Let's just say, describe your travel package when you're doing still photography, versus when you do a shoot for an IMAX movie.
Oh, I mean gosh! They're not even comparable. There's no comparison whatsoever. The dream job and trip for me as a photographer is when I get in my car with a sleeping bag, a tent, and it's just me.
Just a little road trip? Love those things.
That's the best. Like that's where the heart is most of the time and I long for those days but creatively, I wanna drive bigger and better projects. On a still shoot it's usually a backpack and a tripod. It's pretty tame, I might have an extra case or extra lenses or if it's a really big shoot I might have a couple bags. On this film, on this project that we're doing now, Hidden Pacific, we had 285 pounds of gear. We just had case after case after case and honestly, that was exceptionally pared down. I think we had 12 Pelican cases that were just gigantic and we were the ones that had to move them around. And that's pared down. And that's because we were going to such remote places, that the weight restrictions were very, very, very rigid. There was only so many ways you could get that stuff out there. So that was really challenging as well.
Yeah, I've worked on a film crew myself and if you think about a large suitcase for checking at the airport, 50 pounds and you have numerous of those, but you only have a few people to move them around and just physically getting them to the baggage check can be difficult.
Well I think the best part of being a photographer or being a filmmaker is the expression on the bag, people's faces as you're walking up to the counter and they're like, "Don't come to me. (laughing) "I don't wanna have to check all that." That's probably the worst thing, it's like where are you gonna go? (laughing)
If you've ever had an experience like I had one time, they were like, "Do you have any electronics in this bag?" Like, you don't even want to get started. (laughing)
Do you have any lithium ion batteries with you? (laughing) Pretty much the whole bag on my back.
'Cause you aren't supposed to check those.
That's correct, yeah. You have to make sure you haven't. And that's actually a big challenge. Because you wanna keep your expensive gear with you, but you have to make sure you don't put your lithium ions in your checked baggage and so typically my bag is mostly batteries. It's not very glamorous. And heavy.
I hear you were shooting with red cameras?
That's right, shooting on the red. Getting ready for another project now, it'll be shot in 8K.
Resolution is king when it comes to shooting large format.
I don't know if you know about other IMAX movies, but are most IMAX movies now shot digitally? 'Cause I know they used to be shot on 70 millimeter.
Yeah and a lot of them still are. The standard is sort of influx right now. Digital has just come so fast and so far that different people are doing different things. I've been so comfortable with digital photography, going back to still and knowing and understanding the quality that I wasn't married to film, the same way that other film directors are married to film. Some think it's creatively very rewarding, others feel like this is still the standard, I'm afraid to maybe go over to this area. I like the way I can control it. They already have probably a very well ironed team and workflow out. So that transition for, think about some of these really big movies that are out. Like I see the 70 millimeter prints and world war two epics, they've been working with the same group of people for 20 years sometimes. And so to shift that into a digital space means a shift potentially of team, workflow and habits that could rock the boat in a way that's not necessarily favorable. So there really isn't a standard, I think in the education science space. When you go to a Natural History Museum and you see that big screen, I think that the the paradigm is shifting towards digital.
Yeah, it just seems that their transition is a little bit 10, 15 years after stills, 'cause it's a different thing.
Folks if you don't go to IMAX movies, it's just a fantastic experience. It's something very special. I mean occasionally I'll go to the movies, sometimes I'll watch something at home on TV but we have a great IMAX theater here in Seattle, we have a couple of them, but we have one that's really nice. I go to see regular movies there from time just because that screen is so big.
Oh yeah! Yeah, they're beautiful. They're so immersive, it's an immersive experience and that's one of the most beautiful parts of it, is that size, is the immersive experience. And that's the hardest part I think with photography and I was talking about this in one of my classes yesterday, where I said we rarely get to hold our work anymore. It's all coming at us. It's all being shined at us back from our devices. And so to be able to hold a book or a magazine, or a fine art print but now imagine being able to see what you do in a very large format. Or being able to share it in that way, it's very rewarding in a different way.
Nice. Before we get to your image I got one final question on an area that I have no expertise at all, but I know when you go to an IMAX movie and something very important in any movie experience is sound.
Are you an expert in sound? Did you have to learn that? Talk a little bit about that.
It's a great question. In a perfect world you want somebody dedicated to the sound. I mean sound is at least half the project and people don't realize it. There're all these different pieces, as I mentioned you have that ensemble, right? That kinda comes together. I had to learn field sound enough to be able to capture things that might not otherwise be able to be captured. Like the sound of an albatross or other rare birds and things like that. So you have to, if your team is so limited by weight and the number of crew and people you can bring, then inevitably you have to learn new skills and bring that in. But for the most part a lot of sound is edited afterwards. What I typically do in the field is I go out with my recorder, a great sound set up and I don't bring my camera, I don't bring anything else which is quite a pleasure,
'Cause you're so pared down. You don't have all this gear, right? You finally got a break.
All that glass. (laughing)
Exactly! You're just out there like this, it looks like you're interviewing birds, getting their sounds. So it's great but a lot of it happens afterwards. And we have audio techs and people that really bring that together.