Playing on the Playa

Behind the scenes on a fun and explosive Novus production

by Corey Rich

“Gimme your credit card.”

Rex Lint held out his hand. He looked serious. In the annals of questionable ideas leading to uncertain outcomes, giving Rex the company card is right up there at the very top …

Would I end up regretting this? Rex’s eyes were wide like a mischievous child. I sighed and handed him the Novus Visa. He headed into a lonely gas station off I-80 in a windswept Nevada desert, and emerged about 10 minutes later with a grin as wide as Lake Tahoe and a large cardboard box containing $800 bucks worth of high-octane fireworks.

“For the playa,” Rex said. “Let’s light this shit up!”

What have I done!?

Rex, our project editor and second camera, had apparently just made himself a pyrotechnics engineer as well. On small light-and-fast productions such as this, we encourage everyone to wear many hats.

We were headed out to the Black Rock desert playa. At 200 square miles, it’s one of the largest, flattest surfaces on earth. This is a bleak and barren wasteland in western Nevada, famous as the site of Burning Man, draws thousands of visitors a year—people who want to create art, shoot photography, and drive obscenely fast in any direction they choose. There is something about the sheer horizontality of the playa that inspires something childlike within us. A burning sense of wanting to play. I suppose it’s no different than when kids encounter any big, open space. They can’t help themselves but run. Just run into that great wide yonder. I suppose that’s why we were headed there, too. Untethered creativity, boundless freedom. To be a kid. To just run with it.

Our project was for Nikon and commissioned by K&L, a Tokyo-based ad agency that represents the camera brand. The goal was to create some video content that would help announce the news that the Nikon Z 6 could shoot ProRes RAW files by recording to the Atomos Ninja V monitor.

Our pitch to Nikon evolved over many creative sessions and many months. Issues regarding the technology delayed the project for a short bit, which is actually quite common anytime you’re working with prototypes. There were also curveballs with our initial location ideas, as forest fires around Tahoe limited shooting opportunities.

Ultimately, we landed on a super unique and creative idea loosely called, “Three Stories, One Day.” My role on this project would be much different than others I’ve done for Nikon. Not only would I get to direct my own segment out in the Black Rock Playa, but I would also “group direct” two other segments shot by the talented filmmakers Bruno Senna in Brazil, who is a longtime friend, and Andrew Mageto in Kenya, who I had not known before but, through referrals, was really excited to get to work with and provide him with this opportunity. The results of our three individual pieces would be edited together into a blockbuster montage, with some common visual elements tying our three pieces together into a coherent piece.

The other unique aspect of this project would be that we would have no client along for the ride. Over the past decade, much of my work has been focused on servicing clients in high-powered creative agencies and fortune 100 company marketing departments. These kinds of clients expect a very specific, high-production-value result; therefore, our work is often completed on location under the watchful eyes of “The Client.”

There’s nothing wrong with working alongside The Client, and many of these folks have become very close and genuine friends. But there’s no denying that there is a different vibe when The Client is there, and when they are not. It’s like when you’re a kid and you get to go off on your own and explore. Party time. This is one of the attributes I most love about my relationship with Nikon. I’ve been an Ambassador for them for over a decade. They know me. They trust me. And often they’re willing to give me the keys to the family sports car and tell me to go have fun.

Indeed, that was the basic direction we were given for this project: Go shoot cool shit.

Oh, and have fun. The temperament of our crew was appropriately primed for having fun. There was Rex Lint, a solid all-around creative with an unshakable case of wanderlust who spends about two months a year at his home in Crested Butte. Rex has served as an editor on many Novus projects and would be working both as second camera and editor here.

There was also Dane Henry, our ringer Novus DP and one of my most consistent partners in adventure and production. There was Sean Haverstock, just one of those total badasses you’ve never heard of who has free climbed El Capitan, and he would be our ace drone pilot, picking up the RC controller from Nick Kolias, who had joined us as a drone operator on an earlier mission but, due to the delays with the technology and other logistics, had to miss this ultimate production.

There was Bligh Gillies and Bryan Liscinsky. It’s hard to overstate how talented each of these guys are—as still photographers, DPs, lighting and audio techs, file managers, and more. Bligh and Bryan are the proverbial Swiss Army Knives of just about every production we do, and Novus is so lucky to have them on our team.

Aside from all of their skillsets and titles, what was most important to me is that I could call these folks true friends.

And of course, Amelia Richmond was there as producer. She was the rock of the production, holding the whole thing together by the sheer gravity of her organizational and logistics-wrangling abilities, and ultimately, the one who would be most likely to prevent us from, say, blowing ourselves up with fireworks.

Aside from all of their skillsets and titles, what was most important to me is that I could call these folks true friends.

During our brainstorming sessions in advance of the production, Bryan, a veteran of the Playa with more than a few Burning Mans under his belt, suggested investing in a bunch of LED strip lights that we would affix to everything—the bikes, the trailers, and even the talent themselves. Oh, the talent! That would be Josh Daiek, Kurt Gensheimer, and Claire Hewitt-DeMeyer—all three incredible athletes from Tahoe, and some of the most genuine and fun people to be around. Slowly but surely, our very amorphous idea about shooting a “private Burning Man” began to take shape with each new person who joined in. Josh actually makes custom bikes with high seats that look outrageous, and these bikes ended up being some of the most important props, creating this whimsical scene as if it came from a dream.

Fireworks, LEDs, high bikes and swing bikes … what else? We wanted to rent a cool adventure vehicle for the project, such as a vintage Land Cruiser or Jeep. We had put out a request for such a vehicle on Craig’s List and social media, and ended up getting a response from Dwayne Hicks, a former Marine who owned a sick vintage Jeep. He was also a fellow camera enthusiast, and was so stoked on our idea that he asked if he could join us during the production to observe how we worked.

We also rented an Airstream from a dealer in Reno. I think I signed fewer papers while refinancing my mortgage than I did to rent this iconic silver trailer. The paperwork made it abundantly clear that the Airstream would be returned in perfect condition, with not even with a thin coating of dust on any of its fine interior cabinetry.

Well, it took all of 5 minutes of being out on the Playa before we broke that agreement. Faster, faster, faster we sped headlong across the flats. The odometer was creeping up past 160 miles per hour—or at least it seemed that way!—and we all felt an incredible sensation of flying into that wide open space.

We brought out our own personal trailers to camp in and to stage the production. It was like a camp int the middle of nowhere—a bunch of friends with a few beers and a ton of stories to tell. It’s what we’d be doing anyway, but for the fact that we had tens of thousands of dollars in camera equipment in tow and were getting paid to be there.

For all the fun we were having, it must be said that each and every person on that set was professionally aware of the one inviolable truth hanging over every production … And that truth is that no matter what happens, at the end of the day, you have to deliver the goods. Because if you don’t, even once, daddy takes away the car keys, the fun stops, and the next person in line is going to get their shot. When you’re a freelancer, the final product has to not just be good, but great.

Thirty minutes before sunset, we were scrambling to tape a thousand dollars of LED lights to the Airstream, the Jeep, and the bikes. There was no props department. No Client to check in with. It was just go, go, go! Get on the bikes and start riding across the Playa! Look at these crazy bikes! Look at the costumes! Let’s get even crazier. … Who else has a good idea? Let’s do it! Let’s run with it because that good idea leads to two more from someone else. Everyone’s working. Everyone’s creating. Everyone ‘s contributing. This is creativity and what it’s all about.

This is why I love what I do.

This was one of those productions where we had the freedom to be kids again, where there are no rules and no “bad” ideas.

Now that I’m a father, I feel lucky to be so close to the perspective of kids, who have no filters, no preconceptions of what they’re “supposed” to be doing. The way they play is all just improvisation. One kid comes up with an idea, and the next one runs with it. It’s all about saying, “Yes, and…” Yes, you agree to the terms of the play, and then you add your own twist to it. It builds into something fun, original—a thing no one could’ve created otherwise.

This was one of those productions where we all got to find that balance between being true professionals with skill sets honed over many years, but also we got the freedom to be kids again, to be in a place where there are no rules, no “bad” ideas. Speaking of which …

Where’s the “pyrotechnics engineer”?

“Rex, fireworks, now!”


This production marks the moment I learned why Airstreams are called Airstreams—a lot of air—i.e., dust—streams through them when you’re going fast on a playa! The inside of the Airstream was covered in dirt, which we could’ve gotten away with, but then we “accidentally” blasted a firework through one of the Airstream’s windows, which we couldn’t hide. And that ended up costing a cool $650 to fix. Along with the hours we spent cleaning up every tiny piece of firework debris off the playa, these were the only bummers of what was otherwise an outstanding experience.

These explosions were worth it. They ended up being crucial to the final film. Rex had seen some of the footage from Bruno and Andrew, and knew there were sparks in those pieces. The fireworks would be the visual thread tying the stories together in the final edit. Genius. Was it a conscious, considered decision he had made, or just the childlike instinct that blasting fireworks across the Playa would be simply a lot of fun? The answer to both, I think, is yes.

So do I regret giving Rex the company card to get those fireworks?

Not for a damn second.

Please watch the Behind the Scenes edit that Rex created, which I think really captures what it was like to be there. In fact, it’s safe to say this BTS video is in a league and genre of its own. This BTS video was for no client, and was never used for any kind of self-promotion. Rex just made it for fun. And that’s the best kind of work.

Also, please watch the final video, “Three Stories, One Day”!

If you liked this post …

You will love STORIES BEHIND THE IMAGES. This compendium of images, captured over the course of my career as an adventure photographer and filmmaker, isn’t even a portfolio of my best work (though I am proud of many of these pictures). Instead, this book is about the amazing people, the incredible places, and the wonderful memories I have of creating these 56 pictures. I put this book together as a testament to what it means when you follow your passion. For me, that was being a 13 year old kid, picking up my dad’s camera for the first time and learning how to rock climb. What, where, and who came next … well, I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

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1 comment

Joe December 9, 2021 - 4:16 am

Hi, Corey. I received your book as a present. I’m enjoying it. I love your vibe of doing more with less with good friends. Best regards, Joe

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