On Think Stupid Simple, we had with us Ben Von Wong. Ben has risen to global prominence through his epic and fantastical photography that pushed every creative boundary imaginable. Ben utilized his skills acquired through his formal background in mining engineering toward creative experiments that led him around the world on epic projects chasing storms, diving into underwater shipwrecks, among many other previously unfathomable endeavors. Ben eventually steered his expertise in producing viral campaigns toward working with companies, individuals, and charity groups to raise awareness for environmental activism and global causes.
In the podcast, we talk about what really drives Ben as an artist, his own journey as a creative, how he found his way to fighting for global causes with his work, and where he plans on taking his career next.
Full Episode on Youtube
Benjamin Von Wong’s Projects
Benjamin Von Wong’s Art Installation Uses 168,000 Plastic Straws
In mid-2018, Starbucks announced plans to phase out plastic straws from its more than 28,000 stores worldwide by 2020. While this is a huge step forward in the fight against plastic contamination, establishments worldwide still offer straws and have no intention of stopping anytime soon.
Benjamin Von Wong, a visual engineer known for creating expressive art inspired by environmental and societal issues, manifested “The Parting of the Plastic Sea,” an installation comprised of 168,000 plastic straws. The piece is a commentary on how the ignorant bliss of one human accepting the use of a plastic straw will only fuel this environmental tragedy. You can see a behind-the-scenes video showing its creation from concept to reality:
With the help of Zero Waste Saigon and Starbucks Vietnam, Von Wong was able to collect enough straws over a 6 month period of time to begin construction of his 10ft. high structure. After two weeks of organizing and cleaning the straws, the conceptualization of the sea started to become a close reality when Von Wong designated “green/blue/black straws for the base of the wave, white for the froth on top, orange/yellow for the sand and all other transparent ones as transition points in the structure”.
While the installation predominantly used straws, the goal is to open people’s eyes to “the plastic epidemic threatening the oceans we rely on.” To further emphasize this point, Von Wong implemented plastic bags, which helped to diffuse the LED lighting structure representing the sun.
“The Parting of the Plastic Sea”
An Inside Look at Von Wong’s Magical World Without Photoshop
“Childhood memories, fantasy, and a world within a world,” sounds befitting of a Christmas dream. That’s how Ben Von Wong describes one of his latest projects, and one he has, in typical fashion, broken down and shared. And if this is a Christmas dream, we want more time in bed. (BTS photos, video, & gear below)
Together with costume designer Yvan Castonguay and set stylist Charlotte Grant, Wong set out to create a series of images to feature a young ballerina in a magical world that’s larger than life. It conjures up parallels to something in the vein of Thumbelina meets The Nutcracker.
To create the magic, the team selected a model with ballet experience, a day of kind weather, used oversized props (made for the project), a 10×20 tent to act as a studio, a fog machine, and Wong goes on to share that he specifically used long focal lengths to compress the look. It’s really a beautifully done shoot, with a lot to be taken away.
When Wong presents a project, especially one with BTS video and info, you’d be wise to pay attention. Enduringly generous and forthcoming with information, Wong manages to explain to us how the above descriptors of this project were achieved. If you squint you’ll see and hear all about how the team conceptualized, planned, and executed the shoot. From materials used, sketches shown, and gear descriptions, it’s all there. But if you open your eyes, his BTS video really gives a good look at the intangibles of a shoot like this; How the project members interact with each other, energy, how to speak to be engaging, less prominent equipment (CamRanger gets a mention), and just how an imperfect outdoor area can be transformed into an effective outdoor studio. Like having nice underwear, this stuff matters. See below for some BTS shots and video.
Special Gear Used:
Fantasy Lighting 101 In Detail
Smugmug and their crew invited Benjamin Von Wong out for a simple photo shoot as long as their staff could experience the entire thing themselves by being on set. If you’re familiar with any of Von Wong’s work, you know simple isn’t in his vocabulary.
With the help of Kicka Custom Designs (for the wardrobe) and inspired by one of our former SLR Lounge editors, Joe Gunawan, Ben Von Wong guides us through 5 images he shot in the Sutro Forest of San Francisco. Luckily for us, Fstoppers cinematographer Jaron Schneider captured some video and put together a 10-minute walk through of each shot and its steps into creation.
Von Wong took an already strong image and added his flair and magic. By complimenting the wardrobe with scenery, spicing it up with mood and of course, executing great lighting, Von Wong delivers the image below:
This is one of five shots discussed in the video and this particular one Von Wong states was his most challenging of all of them. After selecting this narrow ravine-like landform for his setting and deciding to shoot with a 14-24 Nikon lens to exaggerate the leading lines from the rock surface, there was still a challenge of shooting up hill. The Smugmug crew built Ben a make-shift platform so he could shoot directly in front of the model without having to balance himself while composing the shot.
REWIND: [PART 3 OF THE BENJAMIN VON WONG DEAD SEA SHOOT IMAGE EDIT – BRINGING OUT THE ETHEREAL LOOK ]
This is what the scene looked like:
As Von Wong explains in the video, a shot like this is pretty much 90% prep time and 10% shooting. Planning is everything. For this shot, Ben was clicking his Nikon D800 along with a Broncolor Move 1200L outfitted with a soft box and a Para 133 for his lighting setup.
Below is the lighting blueprint for this shot.
I encourage you to watch the video below to see the other 4 shots and hear Ben discuss the creation of each shot.
A special thank you to Smugmug for producing this shoot and FStoppers for creating a great BTS. For a look at each lighting diagram used to create the shots, check out Ben Von Wong’s blog here.
Playing With Fire
Recently, Ben was hired for another dream job – to create the “craziest photo” he could using fire. The caveat? He had to use an unreleased smartphone to do so. Photographing fire is extremely challenging as you could imagine. (He gives some of his tips for shooting fire in this article here). Ben said,
In the best of conditions, fire is one of the most challenging elements to capture. Not only is it dangerous, its luminosity varies with time. Long exposures result in motion blur, and the high contrast between subject and flames typically means that an amazing camera with a large dynamic range is necessary.
An amazing camera with a large dynamic range, such as the $38,000 Mamiya Leaf Credo he usually uses.
For their global launch, Huawei 8 wanted to make a splash (of fire, that is) and presented Ben with three additional “rules” to make the challenge even more difficult. Besides using a smartphone to photograph fire, Ben needed to use the phone’s Lightpainting function, the model must be surrounded by fire and absolutely NO PHOTOSHOP.
Could he pull it off? Could an epic fire photo be made with a tiny little smartphone camera? Come on, this is Benjamin Von Wong we are talking about. Of course, he could.
On the day of the photo shoot in Shanghai, the element of rain added another piece to the challenge, but even with the cameras pointed on him while shooting, Ben was able to capture the resulting final image:
Read how Ben did it, how a smartphone was capable of photographing something that usually is captured with a $38,000 camera and see more behind the scenes images in his post here.
Mad Max Meets Trump’s America | Von Wong Series Highlights The Dangers Of Coal
Much of the horror Americans have been expressing about the current political atmosphere centers around human rights, but there are other concerns that are pressing as well. As we sit in precarious times with a changing climate it is of grave concern when climate science is ignored and environmental protections are rolled back. Benjamin Von Wong is using his platform once more to draw attention to environmental issues in his newest series, ‘Mad Max Meets Trump’s America.’
When Von Wong discovered a company bottling Rocky Mountain air to sell to people in China, it inspired him to research whether such a thing could possibly be real, rather than satire. Having grown up in China himself, he was taken aback to discover that things were in fact now so bad in some places that his own elementary school in Beijing needed an airlock around the gymnasium and air filters for every classroom to afford children something so basic as an approximation of fresh air.
Further research revealed what is to blame for this atrocious air quality – coal. This set the wheels in motion to produce a series painting a stark, if dramatic, picture of what life could be like if we continue to ignore or deny what is happening around us and press forward with environmentally damaging energy. With Trump’s promises to do just this and revitalize coal power in the United States, the message becomes all the more important to drive home the situation’s severity so Americans will put in the work to fight back.
With all this in mind, Von Wong set out to create his vision of a post-apocalyptic wasteland where clean air is a commodity that is difficult to come by, where humans must harness every last bit of oxygen they can scrape together by whatever means possible, where oxygen is big business for the elite and the poor languish.
With gear from Phase One, Broncolor, and Three Legged Thing, props by post-apocalyptic pros, Wasteland Warriors, a volunteer cast including a baby, and a perfect location in Germany – Ferropolis, a museum made from an old mine strip, Von Wong was able to create images that will hopefully hit home and drive people to take action before it’s too late.
Check out Von Wong’s own post about his project for even more information, and enjoy a BTS video below!