The Traveller — Making of a project shot on-location in Cuba and in-studio in Berlin

When I decided to visit Cuba, it was clear that it would be a great chance to pursue a project that I had had on my to-do list for a while.

Spacesuits have always been fascinating to me, allowing a person to “not die” in an otherwise hostile environment. Given our — somewhat — recent attempts at making our planet such an environment, I thought about the way we would visit Earth after finding another planet to live on.

Since we are currently very interested in “retro design” it would be likely that we would travel to this planet in spacesuits like those we nowadays use to survive in space.

Cuba’s economy has made it impossible to renovate and modernize the cities the way western civilizations have done in the last decades. This made Havana very interesting to me as a location for this project, as the whole city feels much more “lived-in” and it tells a story on its own.

Also, the absence of advertisement and of new cars makes it very hard to pinpoint the exact point in time a picture was taken.

Overview of most of the setups I shot in Cuba before editing them down to nine final ones

I love wider aspect ratios — e.g Cinemascope — and the more cinematic feel they evoke, so I decided to shoot this series in widescreen, this time going for a 2,67:1 ratio, or MGM 65 as it is called.

Preproduction

As I spend three weeks in Cuba, it would have been highly impractical to rent a space suit for the whole duration of the time — I also had my doubts about the “excitement” of Cuban border control, importing an American-made spacesuit.

Having no real “person on the ground” in Cuba that I knew and no real internet anywhere in Cuba apart from certain hot spots e.g. in hotels, I had no way of finding a suit in Cuba that I could rent. So I decided to do the next best thing: Shoot everything with tons of plates (including 360° panorama spheres from the astronauts perspective) with a stand-in, my ever patient dad Lars, get as much data (tripod height etc.)as I could and then comp in the Astronaut that was shot in studio in Germany.

Google Earth was of some help scouting locations, but most of the imagery was either old, not very high resolution, or it didn’t show what I needed, so I scouted everything myself, spending about half a week walking through Havana and Casa Blanca. I ended up shooting about 50 different locations — all including the spheres, panorama stitches, plates, etc. — which I then, with the help of my agent Christian Severin at Severin Wendeler, narrowed down to 9.

For each of these 9 I wrote down light setups, special requirements — like for example boom lifts or props — and tried to figure out the best way to shoot 9 completely different setups on a single day with strobes. In the end I had a schedule which allowed me and my assistants to have to move the least lights possible, which cut down on time. Due to budgetary reasons we had to use just one set that we would then change after every setup was done.

I decided on strobes, Profoto in this case, as the weather is extremely unreliable in Berlin in spring — or throughout the whole year to be honest — , when I wanted to shoot the astronaut comps. Also, given the different looks I needed, everything from hard sunlight to soft, early morning diffuse light to harsh tungsten / LED light at night, it would have made things even harder to archive this on a daylight set.

Additionally, I needed to fly 20x20' butterflies to archive truly soft light and those are not the most comfortable things to move around outside when it’s windy and / or rainy.

Studios were a bit out of reach because I needed a lot of space. Some car studios could have worked, but they are usually in the four digit range per day plus rent equipment.

Production

To really make it look like harsh sunlight, the main light had to go as far away as possible, plus for the blue sky light to look realistic, it was essential to have a large an area as far up as possible to bounce into. What I ended up doing was finding a large storage hall which I rented for a day. The space was more than adequate and made everything more plannable. I like not having to worry about rain or deep, gray clouds.

Whenever I shoot, I always try to do so tethered into Capture One, as I appreciate the chance to see my work on a screen and — if possible — with a slightly different background behind the monitor as it helps me to see the photos more “on their own”. It also helped tremendously trying to find the camera position, as you can easily overlay the background photos to check and see if everything works out.

The friendly driver of a Lada who kindly drove me to some locations and also agreed to pick me up two hours later even though I we had no common language to communicate in. Also we were able to fit three people inside of his car.

Also, shooting into a computer makes backups a lot easier, which I am slightly paranoid about.

When the studio shoot was done, I went through my files, did the editing and then sent the studio files plus the files shot in Cuba to the wonderful Meike at Mo Postproduction. This is the first project I ever send off to a retoucher, but I felt that I wanted a professional to finish the images.

Some examples of how the Astronaut comps looked, with a quick look applied, in Capture One during the shoot.The gray background was used to simplify the masking process.

Postproduction

At the beginning of postproduction — after sending her about 40gb of files — I sent Meike a mockup of what I wanted the images to look like. She would then send me her versions that I would make notes on, moving closer to the final look of the images with each revision.

Some of the postproduction work involved stitching the panoramas together, then adding the plates to take out anyone who happened to walk or drive through, then putting together the 360° spheres for the helmet reflection, and also cutting out the astronaut. After all of that, some of the shots also needed the removal of other objects that I couldn’t get rid of through plates, such as graffitis or sitting people.

When I got home from Cuba, I stitched all the panorama photos of every setup to get an overview of what I shot. All still with my dad as a stand-in in it.

Final words

Thanks again to my super patient assistant Philipp Pohl and also Sebastian Sellner, who actually ended up wearing the suit — which I still am slightly jealous about as it didn’t fit me.

Also, a huge thanks to Meike Wittenstein at Mo-Postproduction, Christian Severin for the help, and also a massive Thank You to my dad who spend three days with me, cramped in tiny Ladas or walking through the rain to be edited out in the end…

The final images can be seen on my website or on my behance profile.