Vincent Skoglund captured this high-velocity image for Nixon Watches' 2009 Autumn/Winter ad campaign. Image © Vincent Skoglund.
All ads aim to grab your attention but, in our over-saturated media environment, it’s increasingly difficult to achieve, especially for humble print or poster ads. Brands need simple but striking imagery to stand out from the crowd and currently many advertisers and agencies are going for freeze-motion photography. Breathing life into what could otherwise be rather dry and ordinary product shots, it’s particularly popular with perfumes and drinks but has also been used by brands specialising in watches, sportswear and luggage, among many others. Its appeal is simple – it allows the brand to put its logo front-and-centre, but it also lends the products excitement.
The effect is achieved by freezing the action of a rapid moving subject, using either very fast shutter speeds or very fast flash lighting. “I tend to use flash, and particularly Broncolor Graphite A4 packs,” says photographer Dan Tobin Smith, who has shot freeze-motion images for brands such as Boag’s beer and Bacardi. “These flash packs can generate flash durations as short as 1/8000s, which is short enough to capture liquids moving very fast, certain stages of explosions, people running and jumping, and so on.”
Tobin Smith’s images for a Boag’s Brewery campaign featured dramatic explosions caught mid-blast. “When the action happens really quickly, you need to use triggers to catch movement that is too fast to see and respond to,” he continues. “The Boag’s Brewery shoot used a rig of high-explosive detonation cord and yeast powder. We used a sound trigger on a stand near the explosion and that went to a delay unit in which we used varying delays in thousandths and millionths of a second to get different sizes and styles of explosions. The special-effects guys use high-speed video cameras to analyse experiments before the shoots, which helps us fine-tune the delays and the types of charges before we start.”
Still-life specialist Dan Tobin Smith's ad for Boag's Brewery. Image © Dan Tobin Smith / Publicis.
Freeze-motion advertising often appears very slick and polished, yet part of the appeal for photographers is the element of chance it involves. If they use it for personal work, they often strive to capture everything in camera. “In my fine-art work, everything has to be authentic and done in one shot,” says Martin Klimas, who also creates photography for agencies and brands alongside his art projects. “Of course I do the normal retouching such as colour measurement, contrast work and dust removal but, in most advertising jobs, a lot more will be done.”
Ad campaigns sometimes feature a composite of images melded together to produce an overall look but, even in commercial commissions, many photographers strive to keep the images rooted in reality. “I try to shoot as much in-camera as possible,” says Marcel Christ, who has shot freeze-motion work for the likes of Coca-Cola and many more. “Nothing can beat Mother Nature. All randomness and happy accidents are impossible to create in postproduction, and are more than welcome as input. The image will be composed with the most beautiful bits and pieces in retouching. But again, less is more.”
“I prefer keeping as much in-camera as possible,” agrees Tobin Smith. “It’s more authentic and the energy is communicated more. Some projects have a different aesthetic that makes them very much about composites – communicating the energy becomes about good editing and retouching, making the image feel like one moment and integrated. When you shoot a lot of this kind of imagery, you realise that to show an energy there should be a kind of imperfectness. For me, the best images are the ones that combine this with a kind of compositional elegance.”
This unpredictability also makes shooting freeze-motion images much harder than regular still-life works. “You sort of have to set the stage and let the action happen,” explains Vincent Skoglund, who has created action shots of snowboarders as well as still life ads for brands such as Nixon Watches . “Whereas if you do other still life photography, you can take much more time for every decision. You can look at the set, move something half a millimetre, look at it again, move it back, move the camera a bit, adjust the light and so on. Here it’s more like you set the stage and let the action take place. You try to capture the moment and repeat it until you get the feeling of having the shot you were aiming for.”
“I guess they are harder to refine as you are basically trying to control something quite unpredictable, depending on the material used,” says Tobin Smith. “In some ways, it’s easier to get something immediately satisfying because, like watching slow-motion film, it makes us see something we are not used to. But I think refining the images to make them different from the vast majority of high-speed images out there is tricky.”
Martin Klimas is a successful commercial photographer but he also shoots freeze-frame still lifes as personal projects, including a series on flowers. Image © Martin Klimas.
The freeze-motion advertising trend extends beyond just still images, and has expanded into TV work. In 2009, Amsterdam-based ad agency Tribal DDB created a film for an information website for Philips televisions showing a dramatic heist scene frozen at the height of its intensity. The camera panned around the scene in the film, showing bullets hanging in mid-air and a policeman flying through a pane of glass. Directed by Adam Berg, the film was enigmatic and well-suited to the brand, which was trying to emphasise its cinematic qualities.
Christ has found that ad agencies will use his freeze-motion images as a starting point for more complex campaigns, which extend into different media. “These images are used as inspiration for ad agencies that come up with integrated ideas,” he explains. “The ideas are not drawn any more but illustrated by 10 to 20-page PDFs with strategic descriptions alongside the images… As well as print, [they are used for ideas] for online, outdoor advertising and TV.”
The fascination with high-speed photography has a long heritage, stretching back to the early photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge and Harold Edgerton. Both Muybridge and Edgerton were given major retrospectives last year – the former at Tate Britain, and the latter as part of the 2010 Photo España festival in Madrid – a testament to their enduring relevance to, and influence on, contemporary photographers. They viewed their photographic and film works as science, offering audiences a chance to witness the world slowed down, but many of their images are now regularly viewed in an artistic context.
It easy to see why images such as Edgerton’s Shooting The Apple (1964), which freezes a bullet as it blasts through the fruit, or Milk Drop Coronet, which reveals the elegant splash of the drop as it lands, have influenced advertisers.
“Freeze-motion shots in print or poster ads have a sense of appeal because of their immediate surface level impact on the viewer,” says Michael Carter, former art director at Nixon Watches, who commissioned Skoglund to create the campaign. “They are a quick read that is open to interpretation about what’s going to happen next… Add some colourful paint splashing about or a nice little explosion and people will be drawn to look at it.
“Stop-motion photography has been in the public eye ever since it was introduced in 1916,” Carter continues. “It’s had various levels of trending throughout the years, but we’re [currently] experiencing one of the biggest trending periods ever in a commercial sense. It’s everywhere – exploding shoes and things being dropped into paint.”
“I think what makes those kinds of images so interesting is that they are quiet and loud at the same time,” says Skoglund. “On the one side you have a quite strict composition combined with precise lighting, and on the other side you have this dramatic action going on. I think that gives those images an interesting twist.”
Marcel Christ worked with Wieden + Kennedy to create this ad campaign for Coca-Cola. Image © Marcel Christ.
For Craig Williams, art director at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, who commissioned Christ to create a freeze-motion campaign for Coca-Cola, the technique’s appeal to brands is simple. “The images bring energy and motion, depth and texture to something that is just liquid, something that normally looks flat,” he says. “They capture Coca-Cola in its glorious essence – think of it as romancing the product.”
Having endured this long, the appeal of freeze motion will undoubtedly continue, but whether it remains at its current height in advertising depends on the inventiveness and skill of those creating the images. As with any photographic movement, there is always a risk it will start to look repetitive, and peak in popularity before dying out for a while.
“Edgerton’s work is amazing and inspiring,” says Skoglund. “It’s really aged well too. In terms of advertising though, I think these images won’t be interesting forever. It’ll be filtered out until the next trend comes.”
Christ agrees, but says it’s up to photographers to justify using freeze motion by taking interesting images. “I don’t think it will ever disappear, as long as you come up with new, fresh ideas,” he says. “Without that, it’s only a technique.”
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