Capturing human stories from around the globe: Chris Willan explains his unique photo and film style
August 5, 2015 by Joanna Sarbinowska
20 years of experience, assignments in over 50 countries, solid list of clients and international awards only begin to describe Chris Willan’s professional profile. In the interview filled with love for photography, travel and people, Chris reveals what is the most important to him about the photo shoot, how he prepares for it and the whole process of his video production, where there is a lot of novelty.
Production Paradise: You capture the vibrance of real people in some of the most diverse and interesting places on the planet, and create images that are rich and full of character. What is that make these moments stand out for you?
Chris Willan: The basis of it is the fact that I love people! I’m never pushy and have learnt that the secret to great people pictures, in the context of travel photography, is collaboration and not confrontation. I can sometimes get what I’m after very quickly but as often as not it involves getting to know people and gaining their trust, this is when you get the really memorable shots, the standout photographs.
Production Paradise: What got you hooked on travel as a theme for your photographic and film work?
Chris Willan: I was very curious about the world from a very early age, I spent my early years in East Africa and later, as a teenager, I traveled whenever the chance arose. I left home at quite an early age, and after a period at art school where I started to really find my creative mojo, I decided that I wanted to spend my career taking photographs on the road. I started as purely a stills photographer but as the chance arose, and in a way as the technology started to get more accessible, I started to incorporate moving pictures into my work.
Antigua video by Christopher Willan, TripFlicks™
Production Paradise: Your film work for Virgin Holidays has a very distinct look and mixes many different techniques. Can you tell us what’s involved in this process?
Chris Willan: As you say, there’s a lot of different techniques in these videos, but everything is anchored to the first principles and my first love of photography.
There’s single shots, sequenced shots, traditional time lapse elements and more complicated travelling time lapse. I even shot the high-line in New York, one stride at a time! And then there are the super slow mo ‘hero’ shots which are still derived from a single shot.
But I suppose the differentiator for me is people. They still feature prominently. I love building a rapport with people I meet travelling and I think that energy and love shines through in the majority of my work. It can be hard work getting released for everyone you shoot, not everyone would go to those lengths, but for me the people make these experiences and that’s what we’ve wanted to express in the destination videos.
New York video by Christopher Willan, TripFlicks ™
Production Paradise: How much time do you spend in post production for a project like the Virgin Holidays campaign?
Chris Willan: Post production is lengthy. In the first instance I’m coming back with something like 10 times the number of images compared with a traditional shoot! Even if it’s only tweaks – every frame goes through some level of post production. I begin by figuring out the story behind each destination. From there I can pick out our hero shots that receive the most intense post. Meticulous cutting out, background replacements, specialist movement techniques, additional shadows and lighting,modelling rain or particles, the process is very involved. Time lapses are beginning to feature more in these videos but they take some time to compile, and then the other image sequences have to flow really well. It’s not simply a case of running a bank of images end to end, you have to find the thread that invites the viewer through those sequences.
In total I look at a two week turnaround with a team of 4 or 5 working on them. It’s a collaborative process.
Production Paradise: How long did it take you to master this technique?
Chris Willan: In truth I don’t know if we have mastered it! This in an ongoing process. There were a number of tests we ran over a period of 12 months before we were comfortable that we could make it work for every destination. But we’re innovating on every shoot. There’s something different, a new idea round almost every corner, but the team is very experienced. I’ve been a travel photographer for 24 years – there’s no short cut with that kind of experience, and my motion partners Doodledo Motion in Manchester, are well versed in creating high end video and animation over the years.
Production Paradise: What was it that inspired you to start shooting film projects in addition to photographic projects?
Chris Willan: I used to get back from a travel shoot with thousands of images. By the time we’d selected a couple for a brochure, and one or two for the web, all the rest were locked away on hard drives somewhere – and there was stunning imagery never seeing the light of day!
But it really began with a chance encounter with James Torry from Doodledo Motion. They were working on some video content for a council in the UK and stumbled upon my photography from the project. The next thing I knew I received an email from James with a test shot using one of my still images. It was only 5 seconds but I’d not seen anything like it and it was just one of those light bulb moments. I knew this was right for the travel market and beyond and it had the potential to release my images to a wider audience and create some special content for my clients. I picked up the phone immediately and we’ve been friends ever since working on a number of projects together.
Boston MA video by Christopher Willan, TripFlicks ™
Production Paradise: What’s in your kit bag when you set off for a travel photography and film shoot and do you have any other crew with you?
Chris Willan: I have quite a large amount of kit but have a great work around to get it all in hand luggage. I work off the basic rule that everything I need to complete the shoot never leaves my side. Clothes, toiletries etc I can buy anywhere, kit I can’t. If my hold luggage goes missing or delayed it’s an inconvenience not a problem. The kit changes all the time but my current bag has the following:
– 2 Canon EOS 5D Mark III’s.
– Magic Lantern Installed on one Card.
– Full set of L series lenses both primes, zooms and converters.
– Canon Speedlites,up to 4 of these.
– 2 GoPro Hero 4’s and accessories.
– 1 dive housing for the Canons.
– Various tripods of different sizes.
– Rode audio kit.
– Macbook Pro,iphone 6,ipad.
– Sony RX100 compact.
– A three way gimbal for hand held moving shots.
I am currently trialling two new pieces of kit. One is a bespoke slider for my time-lapses that allows both sophistication and portability, the other a high end drone to incorporate aerial shots into the videos.
All this requires a fair amount stamina to haul around. If you meet me on the road you would have no idea I have all this stuff at hand.
I tend not to take any crew with me. If I need assistance I source it locally as their knowledge is often invaluable. I work a little like a one man band. The personal lo-fi nature of my approach gets me access to places that would otherwise require huge amounts of production and allows me to develop great one to one relationships that I believe show in my work.
Production Paradise: This question has to be asked, what’s the one most fascinating place that you have shot in and why?
Chris Willan: The place I just can’t get out of my head is Vietnam. I went there last year on an assignment and was blown away. I’m of an age where the mere mention of Vietnam conjures up so many images; the reality of today is extraordinary. Not only is it visually stunning, it envelops you completely and the people are amongst the most hospitable on the planet. I have only scratched the surface with this area of the world but I can’t wait to go back and get my teeth into a really juicy story.
Production Paradise: How has Production Paradise helped you?
Chris Willan: Only a couple of days after having a one-to-one meeting with Production Paradise, and going live on their site, I was approached by two major agencies, one of which offered me a brand new campaign shooting with Barcelona football star Leo Messi! Results don’t come much faster than that.
Production Paradise: Good luck with your future projects! Thank you for your time, it was a pleasure to talk to you Chris.
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