48 hours with a Skywhale

When Skywhale first started to form in artist, Patricia Piccinini’s mind, I have a hunch she knew it would create quite a stir when first presented to the public.

As you read this, the official embargo on talking about and showing images of this amazing creature has been lifted. That of course is mostly irrelevant, as pictures and video started to appear in the Australian press way before the embargo expired. I would love to know how Patricia Piccinini, quietly spoken, doting mother and passionate artist feels about the mixed reaction to her largest work. I for one hope she is thrilled by the response. After all, any piece of art, whatever its form, that makes joe citizen sit up and take notice, has to have already succeeded on a number of levels. Bringing art to the people in a fun and interesting way.

So when on Monday morning, weather permitting, Skywhale breaks free of her tether and drifts gently over Canberra, I’m prepared to bet, there won’t be more than a handful, who don’t stop, look and then at some point during the day, talk about Skywhale. Imagine that, people actually discussing art, looking at art and forming an opinion about a piece of public art. I doubt there are many pieces of modern, contempary art, anywhere that have achieved anything similar in recent times. Taking art to the people. Confronting them with it and even if for a moment making them think about art….. How un Australian!

So lets flash back a month and recount our 48 hours with Skywhale. In fact we’ll go back a couple of months. Our first inkling that something big was afoot, was when we started to get calls from Kiff Saunders of Global Ballooning. He was asking if we knew any places that would look good with a special balloon in the landscape. It has to be flyable, which is balloonist speak for We need to be able to launch, fly and retrieve without calling out the army or search and rescue. Also, keep the word “evolve” in your head while scouting locations.. Tip here for readers, if you are trying to work out what Skywhale is, the word EVOLVE should be there  in you subconcious. Anyway, despite our best efforts a couple other locations got up over ours.

Next thing we’re standing on a lonely, dark road in the middle of god knows where. The only activity is a couple of ground crew bustling about, lauching a small helium filled party balloon. Attached to it, a tiny bright LED light. All eyes are transfixed on that little light, as it scurries into the dark, starless sky. Carried aloft by a small helium balloon, hell bent on disappearing as fast as it can. Above the  constant rattle of 4 Toyota Troop Carrier Diesel engines idling over, an occasional voice will call out “heading one three zero,” then someone else will say ” 90 seconds, it looks like it’s kicking left.” All fasinating and mysterious stuff. However the purpose of liberating these small balloons has a serious side. Basically, where the little balloon goes…. so too will the bigger hot air balloon. You can tell how serious a pilot is about hiting a target, by the number of these Pie Ball balloons launched. At what intervals and from how many  locations. Eventually the precise launch site is located.

We meet Skywhale for the first time.

Special shape hot air balloon Skywhale being inflated for the very first ime in the early morning in a remote part of Western Victoria. Photo by excitations, Mildura.

Glowing a beautiful shade of orange as the first heat is shot into the massive envelope that is Skywhale. Admittedly we’re way to busy to take in the moment. If we’ve learnt anything about balloons over the years. Treat every launch and flight as if it is the only one. Tomorrow the weather maybe crap or equipment failure could have you stuck on the ground. So both Robyn and I ran around like chooks with our heads cut off. Get as much usuable stuff as we can and trying to stay out of the way of the “A Team”. A group of professional photographers and videographers incharge of getting great images of this new balloon no matter what. Our brief, far less demanding, made our shoot a pretty relaxed affair really. Oh and I forgot , there was a TV doco being shot as well. Talk about a crowded launch.

Hot air balloon Skywhale finally stands up in the pre sunrise light, creator Patrica Piccinini is in the forground with her young son.

This is a shot I wanted to get early. The artist, Patrica Piccinini, her son and Skywhale just as it first stands. History is made.  Sadly for me, Patricia turns to warn me that the camera balloon is starting to lean  toward me. Not an award winning image, but one that can’t ever be captured again. There will never be another first time seeing her work of art stand up. Tomorrow will be the second time…. the moment has past.

Australian artist, Patricia Peccinini takes a moment to pose in front of her hot air balloon, Skywhale. Photo by Ian Mckenzie.

Having missed the first opportunity. I broke probably the only rule I had set myself for this shoot. Everything had to be real… no posing, no set ups and certainly no bloody grip and grins. Oh, for you non photographers, a grip and grin is the old newspaper cheque, trophy or award presentation.. You know…. Ok guys just shake hands, look at the camera and smile… Grip and Grin. However I gotta have a shot of this moment somehow, and time/options are running out. I run as fast as an old dude carrying a bunch of cameras can, over to Skywhale’s pilot Kiff Saunders. I hold up one hand indicating please burn for at least five seconds. Luckily Kiff is one of the most photo aware people I have ever come across. I reckon he was onto my plan well before I could get my big hairy mit into the air with all five digits extended. That’s something else you may ponder while contemplating what is Skywhale. Human hand, five digits…. Just saying.

Patricia was wonderful. Shocked at first I think, to have a tall ugly photographer  emploring her to move over here just a bit. We hadn’t been introduced. In fact she’s only clapped eyes on me 30 seconds previously…. and then she was trying to save me from being crushed by 77,000 cubic feet of hot air.. Anyway not a picture I’m proud of. Wrong camera, wrong lens but we got a shot. Only shot 3 frames, one of those has done a fair bit of milage in the last few days, accompanying press reports about Patricia and Skywale. If only I had a chance to create a proper portrait.

Skywhale flies in front of Mt Arapiles, Western Victoria. Photo by excitations, Mildura.

If you ever have to photograph a balloon or just want a great view of a flight. There is only one place you need to be. In another balloon. The only proviso is that both pilots are good at their craft. Because if they are not good, with all the vagaries of  light shifting breezes you’ll end up miles apart in no time flat. No photo opp in that scenario I can tell you. I’m in luck on this occasion. If you need a promotional balloon flown precisely for a photo shoot…… Then there is only one phone call you should make. Global Ballooning in Richmond Victoria.  Tell em you need Kiff Saunders. Piloting the chase balloon today is another highly experienced and all round good guy Mark Ferguson. Our only handicap was having to fly  a long way ahead of Skywhale, so that we kept out of the other photographers shots. I would have liked to be up much closer. The old saying, if your pictures aren’t good enough…. you’re not close enough.

Skywhale drifting low over trees near Olivers Lake, Natimuk. Photo by Robyn Mckenzie of excitations.

As the morning drew on our camera balloon drifted away from target and shooting was over for me. Luckily, Robyn is right in the thick of it, capturing some great images of Skywhale, as Kiff  takes her down close to the deck. One to get shots like this, where Skywhale looks like a giant bird about to land in a tree. The other reason for getting down low was to wash off  speed… Allowing video teams to get into position for a low level lake crossing.

Hot air balloon Skywhale down real low with lots of sun flare. Picture by Robyn Mckenzie of Excitations, Mildura.

Robyn’s really on a roll here, again Skywhale’s  down low and flying straight into the sun. This is one of my favorite shots from the 3 days. I have heard, that at this point, our artist Patricia, who is riding in Skywhale, is thinking the balloon looks a whole lot better from the ground. Exilerating and terrifying at the same time I think I head her say. She needed have feared though. Apart from having Captain Kiff in the basket, the other passenger was Nick Purvis from Cameron Balloons in Bristol, England. Nick is a very experienced lighter than air pilot having flown just about everything there is to fly.

Skywhale flying low over Olivers Lake near Natimuk in Northern Victoria. Photograph by Robyn Mckenzie photographer with excitations Mildura photographers.

Still riding with Robyn as she chases Skywhale to the edge of Olivers Lake near Natimuk in Western Victoria. She got a whole bunch of interesting images here. This one is my favorite because of the Black Swan and other assorted birdlife flying past, adding to the sense of Skywhale fitting into the natural environment. Earlier in the flight, a large eagle started to slowly circle Skywhale. Probably trying to decide whether whale meat would be worth the bother of draging it home.

Creative photograph taken from inside skywhale of a desolate landscape. Photo robyn from Excitations.

OK so this is starting to not be funny. Day 2 and Robyn has been dragged into the basket of Skywhale and is getting all creative with her…. ahhhhhhh dangly bits.  One, two, three, four, five…. hmmmmm. I love this shot so much. And I’m super jealous of the images coming out of Robyns’s camera…… Think I might take it off her! Just kidding…  Ok, robyn is in Skywhale today. the light is… well there is a word for it but some little kid might be reading this, so lets just say flat. The camera balloon has been grounded , as a light aircraft has been swung into action by Mark Chew, the main photographer on the shoot. Mark I suspect is capturing some amazing images looking down onto Skywhale and contrasting her against some very cool  burn marks in the fields.  I think the TV guy is also airborn, while I’m trying desperately to get a shot… Any shot would be good. Find a promising location. Set up wait….. light won’t come out to play, so pack up, run like an idiot back to the troopy and try another likely spot before a massive great Skywhale drifts past and outta sight.

Hot air balloon Skywhale framed by rocks with Mt Arapiles in the background. © excitations

Run half way up a mountain carrying 30 kilos of camera gear for this shot. Twice infact. It’s not often that at 8:22 in the morning of a cool April day, do I have problems with perspiration running into my eyes and getting all over my glasses. Seeing to focus was to say the least challenging. The lighting gods for some reason descided to punish me this morning, by turning the early morning sunlight off.

Here’s a tip for photographers. If you’re chasing a balloon always know where it should be. A lot of the time you won’t be able to sight it. Yeah, I know they’re massive but trust me you’ll loose sight of it often. Secondly you think they are only moving slowly… true but they cut corners, so while you’re going around the long way…. the balloon is 3 clicks away.

Artist Patrica Peccinini waits on the ground as Skywhale gently takes flight. Also in shot her young daughter and John Sanderson from GloballBallooning.

This is the last of Robyn’s pictures today. It’s not included for  artistic merit, although I do kinda like it. Mum taking a picture of Skywhale just leaving the ground with a protective hand on her daughters shoulder. I also love the stance and attitude of the guy on the right hand side of frame. His Name is John Sanderson. I’m not sure that he has a job title. I know, I’d hate to try and think of a job description for what he does. Sando, is one of those guys who makes it all happen, he has two-way radios in the hands of people that need them, maps for those who need maps. He’s out in the bush, locating a lost and bogged member of a TV crew, in pitch blackness at 4am in the morning. He’s the voice on the radio or phone saying “Ian take the turn 400 metres on your left.” He’s the guy talking to land owners and getting access to remote an inaccessable areas so that we can do what we do. Take Photos.

Sando, Johno or John as I’ve variously heard him called, is a part of an amazing group of people at Global Ballooning who make it all happen. The ground crew, a group of hard working professionals, all equipt with individual  and very special skills, all of whom, go practically unoticed in the hustle and bustle of trying to coax hero images from a sometimes reluctant balloon. These unsung heros of the ballooning world are the engine room of any succesful ballooning photo shoot. If after all their work and the skills  of our  pilots, we don’t have pictures, we have only ourselves to blame.

Skywhale drifts effortlessy over grazing land in Western Victoria. Medium Format digital photo by excitations, Mildura

Some of our last momnents with Skywhale, for me were the best. She drifted gently across farmland to become part of a new landscape. For a fleeting few moments the lighting gods smiled upon us. Single knarled dead and living trees framed this amazing piece of flying art. While I happily chased her down tiny two wheeled bush tracks an across fields of dry stubble. The technique was simple. Get ahead, find a shot where I could frame the lady, shoot and move on. The back of the Troopy set as an open space fully padded, so that gear could  be accessed in a heartbeat, and thrown back in with the least expenditure of time possible.

Landscape image featuring the hot air balloon, Skywhale. Medium format digital photography by excitations.

It was with a degree of sadness that I heard the radio crackle into life annoucing that the flight should end now as there was little likelyhood of any futher photo opputunities arising. It was at that moment that I got  the shot above. Of all the images I created over the two days, this is the one that makes me smile. Wide open spaces, an interesting dead tree and a massive work of art introducing herself to a small flock of sheep just below and to  the left of the picture.

The whole crew relocated to a new location for the next days shooting.  Some of us travelled into the night to get there, others slept and then hit the road at 2am to prepare for launch that didn’t happen.  Our new location, a  massive salt lake with endless picture opportunities, a soft early morning mist, perfect light and for me the best seat in the house. Only to have the star of the show decide at the last minute that today, there would be no flight. Massive disappointment at pictures not taken. Moments not shared.  At the same time, emmense gratitude for the opportunity to catch up with old friends, meet new friends and for a short time, reconnect with our environment.













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