In three videos being screened for “Oregon Lens,” Uncage the Soul takes viewers to the Oregon coast, the Sandy Ice Caves and through the streets of Portland. But state-of-the-art photographic technology has enabled them to capture familiar sights in new ways.
Filmmakers John Waller and Ben Canales are using tools so sophisticated that even thy admit they don’t know what the images will look like until they see them. And when they do, they laugh and gasp, just like viewers do who see their films.
Waller founded Uncage the Soul in 2003. He invited Canales onboard after the photographer won a 2010 photo contest he organized for Portland’s Outdoor School.
How did the two of you join forces?
BC: I was trying to find a way to get into the industry of photography or video, so when John asked me about the opportunity, I was excited and thrilled to make a go at it. My background is not really anything photography-oriented. I did a bunch of construction labor jobs, just trying to pay the bills. Then I had an on-the-job accident, chopped my hand up on a table saw. And in the time off, I borrowed a friend’s camera.
Could you describe the photo that won the contest that got you the job?
BC: It was an image of Lost Lake with Mount Hood reflected in the water. It was early May so the weather was unusually clear that night and the road to the lake had just opened up. I can still remember coming down though the bushes. I’m not trying to overdramatize it, but seeing the Milky Way reflecting in the lake with my own eyes over Mount Hood — and there was no wind so it was a perfect reflection — I literally just gasped and sat there for 5 minutes staring before I started taking pictures.
Do the two of you like “gasp” moments? Because the films we’re going to screen for OPB Oregon Lens have several gasp moments in them.
JW: Yeah, we have some different names for them that maybe aren’t TV-appropriate.
So much of our work is about being at the right place at the right time with the right gear. And you can’t always predict when those beautiful magical moments are going to happen, but part of our career is anticipating when those might happen and being there. Then when it happens, then gasping ensues, yeah.
How do you predict when a gasp moment is about to happen?
JW: Nature is a finicky woman … and sometimes very unpredictable. There are some times when nature is setting herself up perfectly to yield something really tremendously beautiful and it doesn’t happen, and there’s other times where sometimes all these individual parts coalesce into this exceptionally magical moment.
So it’s just a matter of being out in nature a lot. You can start to recognize and anticipate those signs. Like, hmm, there’s that little sliver on the horizon and the sun is dropping right down here, and in about 10 minutes it could hit that sliver and illuminate this peak behind us.
Uncage the Soul’s films contain a lot of time-lapse photography, high-speed photography and aerial photography. What’s your interest in technology?
BC: We both definitely get inspiration from trying something that other folks haven’t tried. That’s kind of what drew me into it, is the excitement of exploring that technology and trying new things, almost like you would explore a forest you have never walked through or someone else hasn’t walked through. And we’re constantly reenergized by the idea of trying something new.
JW: These tools allow our cameras to be in places we’ve never seen before or allow some kind of motion we’ve never seen before. Drones are a great example of that. When they became available for us to use, all of a sudden our entire world exploded and expanded before our eyes, because now our cameras could be anywhere. We could literally put our camera anywhere. And we could also have our camera move from point A to B in some extraordinary pass.
And we’re also thinking, OK, so the industry’s trending in this direction, now everybody’s perhaps doing time-lapse, we might turn around and look the other way and say, well, what aren’t people doing? And maybe we’ll check that out.
How complicated is it to do a time-lapse shot with a drone? Where you’re flying a hundred feet in the air and you have to use math to plan a trajectory?
JW: We had a project recently where we did just that. And it oftentimes felt over the course of the day like we were taking a high-school calculus final: ‘You’ve got a drone that’s flying at 120 miles per hour at 300 feet elevation, your time lapse is shooting at 10 frames per second. you’ve got a battery life of 8 minutes and you’ve got a fireworks display that’s going to last 18. Plot your course.’
We tried it out recently with a project for a city of Newport tourism video. We used a drone to make a long hyper-lapse video around a fireworks display. And there’s a huge amount of intention and planning and thought and mathematics and programming that go into something like that. So it required literally weeks of conversations and thought and scribbles on whiteboards.
There’s a behind-the-scenes video that you guys took where you’re actually pulling it off and you have these looks on your faces where you’re just freaking out with happiness. What does that feel like?
BC: That is just ultimate elation. And that’s the joy of it. It’s the challenge and then seeing it successfully completed. The look kind of describes it.
JW: Yeah, because as much as people might watch our stuff and see it for the first time and be amazed, at a certain point we’re seeing it for the first time as well. We have that equal if not more amazement at something we’ve never seen before ourselves.
Of the three movies we’re going to screen, which is your personal favorite? If you had to pick one?
BC: “Yesterday’s Tomorrow” is a special one for me. It’s been a real special process, being over at the Oregon Historical Society research library going through thousands of photos, and with the Portland city archives. I now look at our city totally different as we drive through, I’m like, ‘That’s an old building, that’s an old building.’ It just puts a different lens on it.
JW: “Requiem of Ice” to me is a very thoughtful and beautiful expression of a place that may not be around for much longer. I feel like we gave it our absolute best effort, to create a visual experience of that place that may disappear. And I feel really proud of that.
We wanted to give a treatment to this place where the ice cave itself became a character. And so we thought, ‘OK, there’s this beautiful place, potentially at the end of its life. What does it feel? What would it say? What does it think?’ We thought, well, it would probably be an elderly woman, sort of at the end of her life well-lived, and that would be the story that tied our piece together.
I think we went up there 6 different times shooting content. One of the most challenging places I have ever tried to film. I have never tried so hard to work so hard to earn each second of video that you’ll see in this piece. Just darkness, wet, dirt, elevation, distance. Hauling 500 pounds of gear five miles, up thousands of vertical feet to a place that was deeply uncomfortable, and also very dangerous, where ice is collapsing around you, stuff is falling out of the ceilings, rockfall is happening around you. It was a really challenging piece to get the content that we needed and wanted in order to really express this place in the way that it deserved, because it’s such a unique and beautiful spot.
Did you lose any equipment?
BC: Some things kind of went offline for a little bit. I think it all came back eventually.
JW: Yeah, there was no shortage of technical glitches.
BC: That’s one of the frustrating things about a lot of this stuff. You set up for this amazing sunset shot and you have an 8-foot slider with a pan/tilt head with a spinning lens to keep water off of it and a water bag to cover the whole thing. And as it’s moving, if one piece of these six different systems fails, the whole thing goes out.
But no camerapeople were hurt.
JW: Every time that we left and hiked back down the mountain, I said a little thanks because everybody was OK. There were so many opportunities for someone to get hurt and no one ever did.
BC: We just saw the ice cave collapse in Washington, real tragic up there, and these caves on Mount Hood will do the same thing. It is literally a lethal place in there.
JW: Yeah, the extent of the deterioration that we have observed over the past year, that continues to unfold, is staggering. These caves are on the last legs of their life and they are literally collapsing before our eyes.