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Best of 2010 - Tom Rossiter


For the centennial celebration of Burnham’s Plan for Chicago, Zaha Hadid Architects tapped Tom Rossiter to create a time-lapse movie documenting the construction of their commemorative pavilion. Rossiter installed a plywood shed to house his equipment during the six-week shoot in Millennium Park. Tethered to a MacBook Pro laptop running Lightroom and Canon software, his camera recorded more than 30,000 still images of the structure’s creation, with the downtown skyline as a backdrop. After two weeks in post-production, a soundtrack of original music was scored to the final 2,500-image edit, resulting in three-minute sensory delight.

Tom Rossiter, Chicago, IL

Web site: tomrossiter.com

Project: Time-lapse movie of Zaha Hadid Architects’s pavilion commemorating the centennial of Burnham’s Plan for Chicago.


All images in this article © Tom Rossiter.

 

ASMP: How long have you been in business?
TR:
Since 2008.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
TR:
2 years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
TR:
Architecture, time-lapse movies, nature, culture.

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
TR:
To secure a stable spot for my camera in any weather and a location where I could leave the camera locked down in a fixed location, I had a plywood shed of approximately 4 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet built and secured to the concrete in Millennium Park. The camera was powered direct to AC power and tethered to a MacBook Pro through Canon EOS Utility and Lightroom. The camera was fired at various intervals depending on the action at the site. Over 30,000 still images were taken over six weeks as the base material for the time-lapse.

© Tom Rossiter
All images in this article © Tom Rossiter

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
TR:
The camera, a Canon 5D Mark II tethered to the laptop. This whole unit allows the flexibility to capture everything I needed.

ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
TR:
First I started with listening to the architect about what they were trying to express in the pavilion about Daniel Burnham’s plan. Then, I carefully selected points of view that would illustrate this best. I used a birth analogy of starting with a dark empty site and concluding with a living pulsing pavilion. I worked with a very talented post-production team that was able to exploit AfterEffects and FinalCut programs to create an “otherworldly” feeling.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: Please talk about your documentation of the construction of architect Zaha Hadid’s pavilion commemorating the Centennial of Burnham’s Plan for Chicago. Had you previously produced other timelapse videos and were you familiar with their past work?
TR:
This is a “Pay it Forward” story where I had helped a friend’s daughter, Elizabeth Birnbaum, with some career counseling. She ended up getting a job at The Burnham Centennial Commission and sent me an e-mail with a photo of the other pavilion in the park. I was shooting another time-lapse in the park and asked if she could help me get access to the park off-hours. She responded saying she was too junior but asked if I would be interested in shooting another time-lapse movie in the park? I said sure and two days later Roger Howie called from Zaha Hadid’s office to ask if I was interested in shooting this time-lapse starting in two days. I was familiar with what they were planning from my work on the board of The Society for Architecture and Design at The Art Institute of Chicago. We made a deal and I had the plywood shed constructed the next day, installed the following day and began shooting in the darkness at 4am the day after that.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: What was the project’s timeframe and what kind of agreement did you make with the architect? Given the length and complexity of the shoot, how did you go about determining a fee for your work?
TR:
The project was done in two phases, the first being a one-week shoot just to get going, and then I used an agreement generated through BlinkBid for the following five weeks. The proposal addressed the cost of constructing the shed, (fortunately I am an architect myself and generated the drawings on a couple of 8.5 by 11 inch sheets of paper the carpenter could build from); I hired Rob Glatfelter, a student from Columbia College as a project assistant, so his cost to sit with the equipment for six weeks of 15 hour days was included; the costs of my post production team and my shooting/creative/equipment cost.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: How often did someone visit the site to check the equipment and download captured footage and what were the details of your camera placement and settings?
TR:
The camera/laptop was always monitored as it was shooting because this setup can lock up and we could not afford to miss critical sequences. I shot small JPEGs typically every 15 seconds to record the construction. I used aperture priority exposure and then adjusted over/under from there based on specific conditions.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: You used multiple camera positions to capture other background buildings. Did you move your main camera setup, or did you use additional equipment?
TR:
I used two cameras. If you watch carefully you will notice that the final video cuts from one camera position to the other and back again, just like action movies from Hollywood where you see the crane picking from two directions.

ASMP: How much time was spent shooting and how much doing post-production work?
TR:
The shooting took six weeks, and the post-production was about two weeks of time.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: Please describe the workflow and the essential tools involved in this project. Are you the primary creative talent or did this project involve technical assistance?
TR:
I was the primary creative person, but this movie would not have been possible without my dear friend, Gary Sherman, writer, producer and director of a lifetime of Hollywood films and TV. In addition, we used post-production talent to process the images and edit the 30,000 stills to about 2,500 final images.

ASMP: Was the accompanying music commissioned specifically for this piece? If so, what parameters were given to the composer? How much freedom did they have in creating this piece?
TR:
We are very fortunate to have had the skills of Jim Tulio for this soundtrack. Gary had worked with Jim in the past and took him the final cut of the video to score a piece directly to this. We gave direction that we wanted an ethereal, otherworldly feeling to the music. I think Jim nailed it.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: How long have you been working with time-lapse movies? Where did you learn these skills and what kinds of software do you use?
TR:
I have worked on a handful of time-lapse movies over the last two years. I went to a seminar within one of the NAPP conferences to get a basic idea for making time-lapses. I was attracted to this idea of standing in one place and just doing deep looking over time. Software includes Photoshop, Lightroom, Bridge, Canon EOS Utility, AfterEffects and FinalCut.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: What do you like best about doing time-lapse movies? What part of the process is most difficult or your least favorite?
TR:
The thrill for me is to give a viewer the gift of an extraordinary event that happens over a long period of time compressed into a brief and powerful experience. It is challenging to just stand in one place with one view for a very long time (weeks) and to stay very alert to subtleties that require in-camera adjustments as they occur, because they really impact the final video.

It is a Zen process — which is both the gift and the challenge.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: Please talk about the beginning and end of the piece, where the footage emerges from darkness and then transitions back to a darkened screen? How were these visual effects achieved?
TR:
As mentioned earlier, I used the birth analogy as if the pavilion was a living thing, born on an empty dark site. I begin shooting in the dark the first day and concluded the same way. On the final day I stopped the exposure down in the camera over time and then we created a mask in post to take the city out completely.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: How does shooting a time-lapse movie compare with a still photography assignment? How do you handle estimating/negotiating for these kinds of projects?
TR:
They are much more complex with many more players and many more things that can go wrong and impact your bid. One thing that I have learned is it burns up equipment because, unlike video, the shutter opens and closes for each exposure. It also ties up the equipment while other still assignments are going on. I finally come to a dollar figure that I will not go below to do an assignment.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: In addition to on your Web site, where has this finished piece been presented or displayed?
TR:
It has been presented on the architect’s site www.zahahadid.com, in their presentations around the world, at The Art Institute of Chicago, on the Burnham Centennial Commission’s Web site and, as is often the case, it shows up all over the Web in unlicensed fashion.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: While the Internet offers a world-wide stage for the dissemination of this type of work, screen resolution, standard monitor dimensions and a myriad of potential distractions viewers face online are just a few factors that could contribute to less than ideal conditions for enjoying this work on the Web. Please share your thoughts about this and describe venues that you feel are best suited for presenting work of this type.
TR:
Considering the high resolution of our videos, it certainly would be preferable to view them on a large, high-definition monitor or high-definition projector on a large screen. But, through careful processing it is possible to maintain much of the richness of the original file when preparing it for Internet broadcast.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: Based on this work, have you been contacted by potential clients, architectural or otherwise, to produce other time-lapse projects?
TR:
Yes. I am presently working on a proposal for a significant corporate video illustrating the sustainability features of a recently completed Gold LEED certified tower.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: Besides your work in photography and video, you are also a registered Architect and have worked extensively in this capacity. Please talk about how this training and work experience has influenced your work in photography and video.
TR:
I started my creative life as a potter in Laguna Beach, California and then went to Rhode Island School of Design where I went from pottery through photography, furniture design and ultimately graduated in architecture. What one learns in that training is that process, ideas, craftsmanship and stories all matter. Today, I cannot separate out my work as a maker and a manager. To make the Zaha video, it was crucial to immediately understand that I needed to construct a shed and to be able to get it done in two days. That is the gift of a diverse background. Also, having spent thirty years as an architect gives me an appreciation of architecture as a language and to be alert to the voice of the architect as it is expressed in material and light.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: How do you balance your interests and work in architecture, photography and now video, as well as your service on non-profit boards?
TR:
Well, today I am trying to complete this questionnaire so that I can finish my scouting shots for a tower I am shooting in Chicago for a meeting with the architect tomorrow, and I am trying to finalize a live auction item around the Farnsworth House for The Modern Ball at The Art Institute of Chicago, which will take place in October.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: Please tell us more about your nonprofit board service. What organizations are you actively involved with and in what capacities? What benefits, either personal or professional, have you realized from these volunteer efforts?
TR:
Presently I am on the Landmarks Illinois Board of Directors and The Executive Committee of The Society for Architecture and Design at The Art Institute of Chicago. I derive satisfaction from having played a small role in saving some significant Chicago landmarks including The Rookery, The Reliance Building, The Chicago Board of Trade, Carson Pirie Scott and so on.

If it were not for my work on the A&D Society I would not have known what the architects at Zaha Hadid’s office were talking about regarding the pavilion.

I have met many wonderful people in the profession that I otherwise would not have gotten to know.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: Your Web site also mentions that you received a MacArthur Grant. Please provide further details about this award and about your resulting travel to document a cultural exchange program benefiting musicians in India.
TR:
I did not win the MacArthur Grant, Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music (OTS) did. I was the beneficiary in that I went on the trip with OTS and the Kalapriya Dance Company for three weeks to record the cultural exchange between OTS and the myriad of musicians in the Rajasthan area. It was a gift to witness the extraordinary skill of this group of musicians and dancers.

© Tom Rossiter

ASMP: How and where do you see your work progressing in the next five to ten years?
TR:
Love of architecture, culture and nature are at the heart of my work. It is my hope that I can provide a strong voice that advances the dialogue of living in a sustainable way on the planet. Additionally, I would like to bring joy to viewers of the images and videos.

© Tom Rossiter