Today’s post is about a job I did at the start of January – the world’s premier maker of tunnel-boring machines, Herrenknecht (there are actually quite a surprising number) hired me to document the operation and breakthrough of their first variable-density boring machine*, which happened to be at work underneath Kuala Lumpur as part of the greater Klang Valley subway/ mass transit project. Up til this point, we have a pretty pathetic train system and monorail that doesn’t cover more than 3-4km; we don’t have a unified public transport system which combine with poor traffic management creates legendary jams**.
*Kuala Lumpur has a mix of rock and clay underneath it; you need a special machine to bore through both simultaneously – the machines for rock are too slow with clay and it also clogs the outlet ducting, and the machines for clay simply won’t cut rock.
**In the past, it has taken me up to 2 hours to travel the 1.5km from home to office at the wrong time. If you’re wondering why I didn’t just walk, try doing that in 35 C heat, 80+% humidity and the business suits that you’re expected to wear – not that clothes mean you’re any more or less competent at doing an office job…
I’m going to start this post by apologising for the lack of recent on-assignment behind the scenes stuff – most of the time I’m simply just too busy during a shoot to remember to get b-roll, much less consciously focus on doing it. And then for those extended shoots where I do have the time to get b-roll, the project tends to be so large that the images are embargoed for some time afterwards, and by the time I can share them..well, you know the drill: I simply don’t have the time. This case was a bit of both.
The brief had a few bits to it: they wanted to document the machines at work and the people who operated them, without too much focus on any one individual; they also wanted to cover the point where one of the machines broke through the wall into the deepest of the station boxes – somewhere at about 60m below ground, but cut as an open pit due to Kuala Lumpur’s geology. Finally, I was to film some interviews between a journalist they flew in from the UK and various staff representatives.
The client’s agency required as high resolution as possible, with the caveat that I was not allowed to set up any lights on site as it was an actual working location (and any unauthorised equipment would constitute a significant safety hazard); together with the humidity, moisture and dirt, it meant that the Hasselblads were not an option. I went with a pair of D800Es, one Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, the 1.4/55 Otus and a 24-120/4 VR – I needed as much light as possible because it was very dark in places (f2.8, 1/100s and ISO 6400) and I’d have to freeze motion. The Zeisses aren’t weather sealed, but I’ve not had any issues with shooting them in inclement weather in the past – just don’t use them in tropical monsoon rain. The 24-120 was along for a very specific role: the breakthrough portion.
Capturing the drama of the machine – a whopping 16m in diameter – coming through a retaining wall of rock and concrete is quite something; however, you need to be reasonably close to get the right perspective. I was allowed within about 30m,and no more. Not being sure how close I’d get or where I’d be able to stand, I opted for a sealed zoom, and stabilised in case I couldn’t set up a tripod; turns out it was a very wise and flexible choice. The 24-120 has come in very useful in such situations in the past; optics are nowhere as good as the Zeisses (obviously) but it’s good enough stopped down a little. Despite the distance and the slow speed of the machine, I was still deluged in drilling mud, water, and bits of rock; the cameras survived just fine, but I didn’t risk the Otus for that particular shot. Interestingly, the thought that you really can’t set it up for another try kept entering my head…
I believe this is the highest quality documentary work I’ve ever shot; the conditions were difficult to work under both from a photographic perspective (things moving, not enough light, mostly manual focus) and a physical one – the temperature and humidity at the working face inside the machine were very, very uncomfortable. There wasn’t a lot of space to manoeuvre, even less when leaving space for the ongoing work, and plenty of heavy/ sharp/ blunt objects to injure oneself on. I can only say that the hard hat and boots prevented injury on more than one occasion. The bit underneath the actual machine head which lays the tunnel lining was perhaps the worst of the lot – those concrete slabs weigh a couple of tons each, the exposed face isn’t that stable because of the geology, and there are a lot of moving pieces of heavy machinery. It’s one of the rare times I had an assistant on hand (along with a client rep) at all times to act as spotter.
The final video portion was much simpler: pick a visually interesting location for each of the interviewees, set up a wide contextual camera, a tight punch-in camera on their faces, and wire them up with wireless mic sets linked to a master recorder. I had a sound engineer handle that portion for me, with backup audio running directly to the cameras. The E-M1s were my choice for this part of the job, having excellent video quality and being familiar ground (we shot most of the workshop videos with them already).
If I’d had to do everything again, I don’t think it’d be any different: except perhaps this time I might try to push the image quality envelope even further with a 645Z…MT
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