Text, photos and video by Rob Whitworth.
Speculative… It’s a tricky concept, essentially it means working for free in the hope of being paid later. The main advantage is it allows you to work free from any restrictions or client demands. It also means no client help with regards to funding, location scouting, favours and budgeting.
My previous two city videos have also been speculative and fortunately have yielded decent returns. On the back of their success I got the chance to meet with some very interesting people and JT Singh was certainly one of them. We met in Singapore last October. JT is a ‘City Branding Specialist’, essentially he loves cities and is passionate about helping them achieve everything they can. He was in Singapore working on a project and we had a good meeting.
His next stop was China and he was very keen to build a portfolio there. As part of that process I would produce a video that presented the core values and features of a city as part of a bigger branding process. And then the word ‘speculative’ came up again. The idea was to gain traction in China we could produce a video of Shanghai, to make Shanghai itself and other cities take note.
The timing was good, as regards to both my availability and the weather, and the trip was booked up for early March. Spring and Autumn are the best months in Shanghai where the weather is clearest. I booked in 15 days shooting. This was something new for me, as I would be arriving green not only to Shanghai but to China as a whole. Previously I had only shot cities I already knew very well.
The trip got off the an eventful start when my hotel room was broken into in Saigon the night before flying out to Shanghai. Fortunately the thief opted not to take the small case with all my camera kit and laptop in, choosing instead to steal my shoes and a bag of some of my camera accessories. I’m not sure what use size 12 shoes are to a Vietnamese guy but I’m sure he had a plan. I’ll be on the look out for him next time I’m in town.
Whilst it was lucky nothing mission critical was taken it did mean I arrived in a chilly Shanghai wearing flip-flops…. Working with JT was a blessing arriving in a new city, he had done a huge amount of reconnaissance prior to my arrival, as well as having a great knowledge of the city. I’m careful to do as much online research as possible prior to arriving but it’s no substitute for the real thing.
The first few days were spent mostly walking around, in some discomfort. Sadly finding large shoes in China wasn’t the easiest thing. The first pair I chose were great but sadly one size too small. Fortunately Spring had just arrived and the weather was great. Within a few days of working together I had a pretty good idea of key locations and things we wanted to feature, as well as a reasonably comfortable pair of shoes. We worked together on a provisional story board and now all that was left was capturing it.
Shanghai is great, a really exciting city. Something that did very much come in handy (somewhat surprisingly) was speaking no Chinese. It quickly became apparent that all that was required to make it past doormen and security guards was an impatient look and a point upwards. Without exception, to avoid awkward situations, they were all to keen to let me through and sometimes even escort me through the security gates.
Some of the views we found where truly breathtaking. A couple of the stand out moments were the Nanpu bridge at dusk and Jin Li Gap Jia (huge road junction). I believe there is a quality to seeing something for the first time that can be lost with return visits or when you live in a location.
The shooting was carried out over 15 very long days. The weather came good with a mixture of the classic Shanghai fog and some beautiful clear days. Being based in Singapore at the time the cold came as a bit of a shock but one of the advantages of a heavy camera bag is you tend to stay warm when walking.
A key shot was getting a sunrise looking towards Pudong from the Bund, the iconic view of Shanghai that back in the early 90’s was just marsh land. Somewhat dispiritedly, on two previous occasions when I arrived and started shooting, the sky decided to cloud over shortly after daybreak. Days were running out. Thankfully on the penultimate day the sun shone and the sky remained clear. We now had all of the planned shots.
It seems to me the realities of being a photographer are that most of your time will be spent not on location but staring at progress bars on computers. The video was processed and assembled over the following three weeks.
The stand out sequence for me is in the middle of the video. Over 6 seconds there is a fake powercut with the lights coming back on, the camera exploring the seen day and night before falling to the ground and hyperlapse along the street near Yuyan gardens which switches once again from day to night before taking off again and arriving on a rooftop overlooking the Bund and Pudong. It took 11 hours in post, that’s excluding shooting and initial processing. It was great seeing something you’d meticulously planned take shape on screen. The process was further made eventful by a hard drive failure and some food poisoning…
Then it was done. In many ways I find this the hardest part is letting go. I’m lucky to have a close group of friends and family that I can show my work to that are happy to give me their honest thoughts and most importantly their suggestions. Once the video had made it through critical appraisal it was time to hand over to JT to market the video and find some backing.
JT had been keeping in contact with the Shanghai Municipal tourism department. Upon first viewing of the video they seemed disinterested however a few weeks later, much to our surprise, they decided to sponsor the video. They requested an inevitable few changes but thankfully were happy with the power-down sequence.
This brings us to the present. The video has received over 800k views wordwide to date, it went viral on release being picked up by a number of major news sites and getting over 300k plays in the first seven days.
The concept of copyright in China is, shall we say, not as established as in the Western world. The video has been widely uploaded to Chinese social media; just this weekend I found an upload on a Chinese video site with 300k views. The numbers are crazy, when a million people watch something if only 0.001% contact you to express an interest that’s still 1000 people. Anyway it’s still early days but hopefully the next big commission will be not far away… maybe it won’t even involve the word ‘speculative’ next time…
Please visit Rob Whitworth website for more photos and time lapse videos.