Trashing the Dress ... On Film and Video
Every good movie has at least a few moments that make it feel more real than a series of two-dimensional moving images on a screen, telling the fictional story of a group of people who don’t exist. Often it’s dialogue that just rings true; other times it’s the visuals or sounds that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the action. In other instances, it’s the little details that lend verisimilitude by convincing you that the filmmakers know the ins and outs of the world they’re fictionalizing on screen. Whether these details actually are true doesn’t matter; it’s the feeling of authenticity that makes it ring true, and that’s good enough for most audiences.
In Martin Scorcese’s The Color of Money, which today plays too much like mid-eighties MTV to seem quite as convincing as it did 20 years ago, one of the details that made the film work at the time—and made it seem as if Scorcese et al. knew the world of pool hustlers and 9-ball tournaments inside out—comes shortly after co-stars Paul Newman and Tom Cruise arrive in Vegas for a national tournament, when elder statesman Newman informs protégé Cruise that the real money changes hands and the real action goes down not on the competition floor, but in the practice room. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s the kind of detail that contradicts my natural assumptions but retains enough inside-dope plausibility to convince me that what I’m seeing is real.
Wedding videography—especially the type we call "cinematic"—arguably uses similar contrivances to appear convincing, operating in that strange nether space where heightened reality and emotional authenticity intersect. But just as a movie like The Color of Money (its MTV segments especially) trades on vicarious wish-fulfillment, preying on an audience’s tendency to confuse "cool" with "real," so, arguably, does a lot of "cinematic" wedding video trade in a type of heightened emotion that casts every wedding at the same pitch, whether the event really achieved that pitch or not. Some would say that a wedding video edited for maximum emotional impact actually comes closer to the "feeling" of the day than a straightforward documentary that replays the action but does little to evoke how it felt to be part of it, and is thus more "real" than the "just the facts" documentary approach.
All images by John Michael Cooper, AltF.
But maybe the coiffed elegance and ritual pomp and circumstance of weddings are so far removed from the messy, workaday realities of everyday life and the people who live it that notions of what’s "real" and what isn’t in wedding video are pointless to dispute. And maybe the point is not to dispute them, but to subvert them. At least that’s the idea that John Michael Cooper, founder of Las Vegas-based photography outfit AltF, and originator of a growing movement in wedding photography known as "anti" (or "anti-bridal") had in mind when he began doing "Trash the Dress" photo sessions. The Trash the Dress concept is exactly what it sounds like—going to a location and befouling a spotless white wedding dress with whatever’s available, be it mud, gasoline, swamp water, etc., to whatever degree the bride is willing to endure, and capturing it on film. There’s much more to "anti" than trashing the dress, as students in Cooper’s well-attended workshops discover; it’s all about subverting traditional notions of elegance and sentimentality in wedding photography, and not thinking outside the box so much as burning said box to a crisp. To wit, the full-bleed shot that adorns Cooper’s business card is a shot of a bride with her dress on fire.
But the "I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide" phenomenon in wedding photography that "Trash the Dress" has become—thanks to Good Morning America and CNN, among others—is currently the hottest outgrowth of the anti movement, and it’s beginning to find its way into the wedding videography world as well. Joshua Smith of Louisiana-based CinematicBride was featured in the GMA broadcast with clips he shot during a Trash the Dress photo shoot, and ground-breaking Toronto photo/video outfit Still-Motion recently held a promotional contest for a free Trash the Dress shoot, with a winner announced August 22 on its blog. Dress-trashing is nowhere near mainstream in the video world yet, but it’s starting to make inroads. (You can read all about the emerging Trash the Dress phenomenon in wedding photography on the Trash the Dress blog.)
So if you’re inclined to trust the unbelievable more than the predictable, maybe you’ll believe me when I tell you that the hottest ticket in Vegas—wedding video-wise, anyway—on the last afternoon of WEVA Expo 2007 wasn’t a WEVA-related event at all (which is no knock on the great sessions I missed), but an exploratory Trash the Dress video shoot happening in a dried-up lake bed some 40 miles out in the desert. At least that’s the theory I was testing when I decided to cut out early, roll the dice, and ride along.
My invitation to the shoot, and the initial idea to do it, came from Philadelphia-area videographer Darrell Aubert of EventDVP and Aubert Films. Aubert said he conceived the idea as the first Trash the Dress shoot actually initiated by a videographer in order to give other videographers a sense of how far they can go beyond the traditional notion of a wedding video to take their work in fresh and unexpected directions. "Just doing weddings all the time will make you stale," says Aubert. "But going out and trying new things like this—that’s what’s going to make us better." The first thing Aubert did was hit the ModelMayhem forum to see if he could get any Las Vegas-area models to commit to the shoot, in spite of the fact that he had no budget for paying them. Then Aubert went to eBay and bid on a used wedding dress. Finally, he arranged to rent a Hummer to transport the model, crew, and equipment. And then, as the song says, along came Jones.
Knowing he would need additional videographers on the shoot to capture it right, Aubert invited Chris P. Jones of Waco, Texas-based Mason Jar Films to join him—in part because he knew Jones’ adventurous approach to wedding video, and in part because Jones shared his admiration for John Michael Cooper.
Both Aubert and Jones had had previous encounters with the photographer—Aubert met him at the Atlantic City Trash Bash in July, Jones had met him in Dallas two years earlier—which meant they could probably get Cooper to come along as well. But it was also Jones’ complementary strengths that made him a good match. "Jones is more of a creative type than me," Aubert says. "He came up with the story."
When I arrived in Aubert’s hotel room at Bally’s around 2 p.m. to find Aubert, Jones, and Cooper waiting for the model to apply her makeup (the makeup artist Aubert had contacted, as well as a second model who’d agreed to participate, were no-shows), Jones gave me his take on the project: "The idea of doing this silent film was to do something different with Trash the Dress than you can do with photography. I want to tell a story. Because it’s film, we have to explain why this bride ends up out in the desert trashing her dress—we can’t just have her roll in the mud and get dirty."
Jones’s interest came from his knowledge of Cooper’s work. Before the Trash the Dress movement started, Jones says, "John had been doing ‘anti-bridal’ sessions for years—not like anything you’d expect people to do." Trashing the dress was one natural outgrowth of the "anti-bridal" approach, another way of testing the limits of how differently couples might think about their weddings or the key elements of them. "Not every bride cares so much about preserving her dress," Jones says. "Some just aren’t that attached."
Around 2:30, the third and fourth videographers, Rob Neal of award-winning Philadelphia studio and 2006 EventDV 25 honoree Glass Slipper Productions, and his assistant Yvette Garces, arrived to complete the crew. Neal and Garces were last-minute additions, according to Neal. "I didn’t want to go," Neal says. "Darrell told me to clear my calendar for Thursday but he wouldn’t tell me what for, and by Thursday I was tired and on brain overload from WEVA sessions. Darrell came to my room and explained what it was and I said no. Then he said, ‘Let me show you something,’ and he got on my laptop and went to the AltF website. I sat there and looked at the Flash show and was blown away."
With the crew in place, we headed out of Bally’s, across the strip to the sidewalk in front of the Bellagio to begin shooting. In addition to Cooper’s still camera, the crew included Aubert shooting DVCAM on a PD170 with Glidecam 4000, Neal shooting HDV on a Canon XH A1, Garces shooting DVCAM on a PD150 with a Century Optics 16x9 lens, and Jones shooting 8mm on a Canon 1014, using vendor-supplied Spectra Ektachrome Reversal 100D film. Garces stayed a step back from the rest to document the shoot itself.
After a good hour of baking in the mid-August Vegas sun, capturing exterior shots of the bride (dress still intact) on moving walkways and the sidewalk in front of the Bellagio fountains, we returned to Aubert’s room to regroup before heading to our next location. Then Jones laid out the storyline (revised on-the-fly for a single-model shoot) for the model/bride: "You're a jilted bride at a gas station on the outskirts of town, where you’ve been abandoned by your groom, and are now hitching a ride. John, a photographer, approaches in a Hummer, picks you up, and invites you to do a shoot out in a lakebed in the desert. After a few shots in the lakebed, you get in an argument, and he leaves you there in a cloud of dust. But then we see you smile, as you begin to trash your own dress. You’re not abandoned. You’re happy. You’re free."
And with that we were off to the gas station, then to the lakebed, where Cooper said he’d done Trash the Dress shoots before, and it was indeed a great location—a big, shallow, orange dustbowl, with occasional patches of mud, scattered shotgun shells, and rusted-out abandoned appliances. Just the kind of place where a casino might dump a body in the desert, or a twice-duped bride might trash her dress and redeem her life. The trashing began slowly, with a little dust kicked up here and there, Jones and Aubert staging shots with the bride on a rusted, barbwire-filled dumpster holding empty shotgun shells.
As Jones fired up his 8 mm camera, Cooper said, "I love that sound—the whir of a film camera. Machine Gun Jones."
Jones: "Twenty-four bullets a second."
Around 6, with 20 minutes left before we needed to get back Bally’s so the "bride" could make a dinner meeting, Neal said, "If we’re going to not respect the dress, let’s not respect it," and the trashing kicked into high gear.
First, the intrepid reporter pitched in by driving Cooper’s Cadillac repeatedly through a lengthy puddle, splashing mud, dust, and grime on dress, bride, and shooters; then crawling in the mud ensued, as all shooters worked the angles with a very cooperative model in an increasingly soiled and mud-caked dress.
By 6:55 p.m. we were almost back in Vegas, wrapping the shoot with an 8 mm drive-by shot of the iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign. I haven’t seen the footage at this writing, so I have no clue what the cameras captured or how the edit will shape the footage into a representation of Jones’ storyline.
But one thing is clear: whether what I witnessed that afternoon in the desert was more cool than real, or more real than cool, I know it was more of both than many wedding video shoots will ever capture.
And whether Aubert and Jones were making wedding video history or presaging wedding video future, they certainly weren’t rehashing wedding video past.
To see Jilted,
Chris P. Jones' edit of this Trash the Dress shoot,
Stephen Nathans-Kelly is editor-in-chief of EventDV.