Red Bull Supermoon Project

Mike Swanson wingsuit flying in front of the Supermoon above downtown Los Angeles on 20 March, 2019.

The last three months the have been the busiest of my entire career. Hence, the lack of blog posts here and no Spring 2019 Newsletter. On top of that, I have had to revamp the blog from top to bottom as well. Readers will notice the much larger images and easier to read font and text. In lieu of a Newsletter, I thought I would post up this behind the scenes story about the Red Bull Supermoon project, which I was lucky enough to be a part of earlier this year on March 20, 2019.

The idea was that Red Bull Air Force team members Jon DeVore, Andy Farrington and Mike Swanson would fly through downtown Los Angeles in wingsuits and a few other team members would jump off the Intercontinental Hotel, which is the largest skyscraper in Los Angeles, all with the giant supermoon rising right behind downtown LA. Red Bull had been working on this project for months and months before I was called in. The lead producer had been studying the geometry of the rising sun for several weeks and knew exactly where the cinematographers and still photographers would need to be to get the shots they were looking for.

For this project, Red Bull hired two still photographers, Keith Ladzinski and myself, and they also had a giant crew of cinematographers, who would be filming the event from all over the city. Keith and I have a bunch of good friends in common but amazingly we had never met before this shoot. It was great to finally meet him as his work has been incredibly inspiring for so many years. For this project, Keith would be in a helicopter and I would be on the ground. We had a few days before the shoot to scout locations and figure out which would work best considering where the Moon would rise.

The best location on the ground was 3.8 miles away from the Intercontinental Hotel on top of an eight-story storage facility. As you would imagine Red Bull had permits for everything all lined up. To capture the action, we had anticipated being extremely far away, and I chose to rent a Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6 lens. This lens is a rare beast as it costs $16,000 and even in LA where you can rent just about anything no one had an 800mm Nikon lens available for rental. Hence we had to have one shipped in specifically for this shoot—and I am glad we did as it was indispensable. On top of the storage facility we had an unencumbered view of downtown LA. In the late afternoon, myself and two cinematographers set up on top of the building (as can be seen below) and waited for the action to begin.

Just to give a sense of how far away we were from downtown LA, the image on the left shows our view from the top of the storage facility. Just before sunset massive clouds rolled in and it rained all around us offering up a few rainbows. The center image shows some of the Red Digital Cinema cameras, and the giant lenses they had mounted to them, that were set up right next to me. With such long lenses attached to our cameras any wind was a huge factor when trying to capture a steady image. Hence the sand bags hanging off the tripods. Lastly, on the far right you can see my 800mm lens attached to a Nikon D850 and mounted on a beefy Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley head so I could follow the action with out any hindrance.

The weather was a major concern for this shoot. The ideal shot was to have the Red Bull Air Force wingsuiters flying through downtown LA with the Supermoon right behind them. Hence, we needed clear skies so we could capture that image right as the moon rose behind downtown LA. But on the day of the shoot, there was a layer of low hanging clouds on the horizon just behind downtown LA, which meant we would not see the Supermoon rise. I can imagine the event coordinators and producers were freaking out at that point. Nonetheless, the Red Bull Air Force are super professional and the show goes on. Jon DeVore and Andy Farrington jumped from the helicopter just after the sunset and had an amazing background of pink light as they flew into downtown LA (as shown below).
John Devore and Andy Farrington wingsuit fly through downtown Los Angeles on 20 March, 2019.

Jon and Andy buzzed the rooftop bar of the Intercontinental. Andy Farrington was in a black wingsuit filming Jon from behind for the entire flight. Andy had two cameras on his helmet and was rolling video for the entire jump so they had a close perspective. As can be seen below, Jon had several tubes attached to his leg that were throwing off huge sparks so he would be visible in the evening sky.

The first person perspective: Jon DeVore wingsuiting into downtown LA. This image was a screen capture from footage captured by Andy Farrington, who flew right behind Jon in a black wingsuit.

After Jon and Andy landed safely on 7th Street, just in front of the Intercontinental Hotel, it was Mike Swansons turn. He was going to fly solo. Because the permit allowed for more time and the Supermoon was not yet visible he waited about twenty minutes after Jon and Andy jumped. From his high vantage point in the helicopter I imagine he could see the moon or at least better envision it peaking out above the low hanging clouds. In any case, he timed his jump perfectly and also swerved way over to where the moon was when it peaked out above the clouds. It was as if he knew exactly where he needed to be for us to get the shot. With the moon so high above the city, we weren’t going to be able to get the shot they had envisioned. But, with Mike’s incredible intuition as to where he needed to be to line it all up for us we got a series of images that looked out of this world. As can be seen below, Mike also had a huge trail of sparks shooting out of the tubes strapped to his legs and since it was darker when he jumped they showed up significantly more in the night sky. The image below gives you a sense of what folks saw from the freeway driving home on March 20th. It looked like a meteorite falling into downtown LA.

I had two cameras shooting simultaneously for this shoot. Aside from the 800mm lens I also had a 300mm lens to give a wider perspective. The above image is from that second camera with the 300mm lens. Through the 800mm lens I had a much tighter perspective as shown below. It was tough to keep Mike in the frame as he was flying at speeds up to 120mph. I tracked him in the whole way and had an assistant triggering my second camera body, which was locked down on an another tripod to keep a fixed composition and it also had the focus locked down as well. Through the 800mm lens I saw an incredible image forming up and kept blasting away while also keeping in mind the camera’s buffer. I didn’t want to blast away too quickly and hit the buffer which would lock up the camera so I squeezed off several shots in a row, then eased up on the shutter release and when the composition was good again squeezed off several more images. When he got close to the moon I mashed the shutter release down as hard as I could and got fifteen or more shots as he flew in front of the Moon.

Working with the Red Bull Air Force you rarely get tons of action images because it happens so fast. This shoot was no different. There was a whole lot of preparation and standing around for a few seconds of action. We got insanely lucky as well. I was lucky to be where I was and with the equipment I had. Of course, there was a ton of planning that went into this that helped us be lucky—and Mike Swanson really made it all come together with his incredible intuition of what would look good. By the time Mike jumped it was very dark and to stop his motion I had to jack up the ISO setting on the camera to ISO 6400, which introduced significant noise. Nonetheless, we were still able to create some incredible images. Check out the video that Red Bull created from this project below.

By the time we got back to the Red Bull offices in Santa Monica, about thirty minutes after Mike Swanson landed, it had already made national news. The social media department from Red Bull came over right away (as we were downloading images) and told us we needed to get something out as soon as possible because lots of folks were confused as to what they saw in the sky over downtown LA. Many thought it was an actual meteorite. The pressure was on. When I first saw these images on the back of the camera I knew they were going to be cool, but I had no idea how intensely people would react to them. Within an hour of Mike Swanson landing (in the middle of an intersection I might add) we had the first images going live on social media. Keith worked his contacts in New York and the images were featured on Good Morning America the next morning. The project exploded on social media. On Red Bull’s instagram account the video got over 1.7 million views. On my own account the top image on this blog post got more comments than any other image I have posted this year. Aside from the social media craziness, this was one of those assignments that instantly created portfolio quality images and I have added it to the front page of my website.

My thanks to Red Bull and the Red Bull Air Force for bringing me in on this assignment. It was amazing to be a small part of this incredible project. As always, it is a blast hanging out with these guys and to see them in action. To find out more about the Red Bull Air Force head on over to their super cool website. To see more images and more behind the scenes images from this project head over to the Red Bull Photography website and read Marv Watson’s excellent article.

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