Spinning Fire — and Not Burnin’ Down the House

Why film someone spinning fire poi? Well…because fire is pretty. And as a still and video photographer, at the root of things I’m in this business because I admire stunning visual art. Plus, I have had a Sony PXW FS7 and I wanted to see what good slow motion would look like… and let’s face it, spinning fire is more interesting than watching me toss a ball up and down.

Most of my work is for commercial, advertising and editorial clients. I love what I do, and it opens doors to meet amazing people, see interesting things, and in the end, help convey their message clearly and effectively.

But back to fire. Yes. The fire. Fire is pretty. And not everything has to be about the bottom line. So when a fire spinner I know came through town for a family visit, I snagged him. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity!

Here Are a Few Things I Learned About Spinning Fire

1.     It’s hard to shoot indoors. The original idea was for an outdoor shoot, but outdoor shoots require cooperative weather – which we did not have. At all. And since spinning fire in a snow suit is no bueno: we had to do it indoors.

2.     The smell of kerosene takes a while to fade from your indoor studio. Three cheers for a smart spinner (Raymond Moore), who knew how to remove excess fuel from his poi before starting a new spin! Yes it makes for a shorter burn, but there was not a single drop of flame or fuel that ended up on walls or floor. Amazing control.

3.     One small wobble in the spinning can result in very singed whiskers for the spinner. After one fast spin around the back of his neck, Raymond commented, “Well, there went some beard…” It took a split second in real life, but later when we watched it back in slo-mo, the ball of fire rolled right across his cheek. Yikes! You definitely have to know what you’re doing with fire! He wasn’t burned, but he did get a shaggy shave.

4.     Not much beats fire in slow motion. I mean, I knew fire was beautiful, but seeing it in slow motion in the hands of an expert and spun over hot music takes it straight to mesmerizing. I’m betting you watched parts more than once.

fire spinning, fire poi,

Here Are a Few Things I Learned About Shooting a Fire Spinner

1.     If the stunt is going to look good, you have to have an excellent stunt artist. Anything done on camera has to be done with more precision than normal (because the screen shows it over and over), but in slow motion, it has to be even tighter.

2.     It’s faster than it looks. To point above, as we were shooting, I really didn’t know WHAT I was seeing, until we slowed it down to 12% of real time. To perform that in real time must take amazing practice.

3.     Music helps kinesthetics. Raymond chose the track you hear on the short we produced and spun to it in studio, so that’s what we chose for the video track too. It was interesting to see how much more relaxed — yet precise — Raymond was when performing to music. It was like adding a solid floor below a dancer — it gave him something to perform on. Remember, the studio was completely dark except for his spinning flames. Imagine yourself in total darkness spinning flaming chunks with no frame of reference. Music provided a bearing.

Yeah, there will be a Part II

Just have to get Raymond here when it’s not 15 degrees and storming outside and we’re set. Stay tuned. Northern Colorado weather might be fickle, but spring’s coming and I’m ready to do this again!

Beauty is where it’s at. It’s what called me to this business over 20 years ago, and it’s what continues to inspire me today. Get whimsical. Get creative. Make time to follow those things that feed your soul. You’ll be a better artist (and human being) for it.

Erik Stenbakken is a professional photographer and videographer (and partner in Clear Summit Productions), and is based in Greeley, Colorado. He serves the Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs areas, as well as doing out of state assignments.