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Twenty-four-hour meditations: Joseph Michael

D-Photo catches up with Joseph Michael, the talented photographer, new-media artist and film technician responsible for the Dark Cloud / White Light exhibition

6 February 2014

D-Photo catches up with Joseph Michael, the talented photographer, new media artist and film technician responsible for the Dark Cloud / White Light exhibition currently showing at Auckland’s Silo Park. The show comprises 10 awe-inspiring time-lapse presentations in which 24-hours in the life of some of New Zealand’s most dramatic landscapes have been captured with cutting-edge imaging technology.

D-Photo: Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and what you do?

Joseph Michael: I grew up in Central Otago, it’s such an amazing landscape – from a young age I was inspired by this. I was always interested in anything creative, I studied printmaking at art school in the early ’00s then went on to study at the film school in Sydney and pursued a career in the film industry. After working on some of the biggest feature films of our generation (Avatar, The Hobbit) I was inspired and keen to create more of my own work. 

What is Dark Cloud / White Light all about?

I guess it’s a unique combination of my artist background and the strong technical knowledge I’ve gained as a camera assistant on feature films.

I wanted to create an experience that takes you somewhere, even for a brief moment in time, a lot of people comment that the works feel like meditations.

What motivated you to pursue such an intensive project?

I really do love a challenge. I thought I may as well do something that was going to challenge and extend my talent. I guess that stems from the film background, working on massive films with huge budgets the “idea” is central and the “how” is just part of that process.

How long did it generally take you to set up and shoot one of your time-lapse videos?

The times for setup and filming varied quite considerably, some shots we nailed pretty quickly (a few hours either side of the 24-hour loop), but a lot of them took a day’s travel and setup either side. The longest one took a week shooting in snow and rain.

How did you go about identifying a location that was going to offer up the elements you needed?

I had done several trips around New Zealand before this one, so I had an idea of a few places I wanted to capture. Mostly though, I also used Google Earth a lot to find suitable spots, I spent hours and hours trawling through to find places. I also spoke to a lot of friends about locations they had visited.

What sort of specialist gear did the project require?

Initially we developed and built a 3D rig. we also developed a rig that would stabilise the camera (in addition to the tripod), this had four points of contact with the ground to minimise any bumps and shakes over the 24 hours of setup. A friend built a few controllers to help fire the cameras and we also developed a fan system to combat rain and snow on the lens. The camera kit consisted of five super-high resolution Nikon D800s, 16 lenses, about 30 batteries, and countless 128GB CF cards. Each day required 500 gigs of data storage!

What was the most challenging shoot in the series, and why?

Definitely the shoot up on the Routeburn track near Queenstown. This had several challenges. It required quite a long trek in with the gear for a start. Once we were in there, the hut that we were staying at was 30 minutes walk from the site where the camera was set up, so every four hours or so I was walking for an hour. Adding to this, the weather changed on us and we were battling away in heavy rain for three days. We’d almost given up hope of getting a shot when the weather changed to snow, which brought the clear weather in behind, but by this time our food supplies were low. Thankfully the kindly ranger offered to supply us with some of his food in order for us to stay that extra day and capture the shot. That’s why I tend to display that one up on the big 85-inch 4k screen.

Each of the time-lapse videos has its own unique soundtrack, how did you go about arranging that?

I approach composers and friends that inspired me. I wanted to have a range of soundtracks for the show, what’s come back has been amazing. Some cool technology there too. Michael Hodgeson (from Pitch Black) did the Lake Marian shot in the fog. Mike created a patch in [music sequencer] Ableton Live that attaches sounds to the RGB colour of the video, which creates a super immersive experience.

What do you hope viewers get from the show?

I want them to experience the awe of our surroundings, we get so busy that we tend to forget the amazing things going on all around us.

Do you have a favourite time-lapse in the show?

I have several favourites, a favourite for different occasions you might say. Ki Piopiotahi is one that comes to mind – it’s great for relaxation. I remember last year towards the end of post production the stress levels were really high, we would put that work on for a few revolutions to chill out and remind ourselves it was worth all the work. That’s why I decided to mount that on the roof with a whole bunch of beanbags on the ground. It’s such an enjoyable experience.

What’s next for you?

I’m glad you asked, I have a few exciting projects I’m working on. Later in the year we are going to travel to Antarctica to capture some of the magic down there for a different type of art instillation. It looks like that project might debut at the Christchurch Arts festival in 2015. We’re also working on travelling the current exhibition here in New Zealand and abroad.

You recently gave a talk at TEDxAuckland, how did that go?

TEDx was such an amazing experience, I met so many talented speakers that I shared the process with.

Can you recommend another speaker from that event we should check out?

Brian Sweeny’s talk about the New Zealand story and Welby Ings disobedient thinking are two of my favourites.

Dark Cloud / White Light is now showing at Auckland’s Silo Park until February 27; see the venue’s website for hours – and for details on how these stunning clips were put together check out these behind the scenes videos below.