Human + Solo: Reuben Wu Hunts Alien Worlds on Earth

A few weeks ago, 3DR sent artist Reuben Wu with a Solo into the wild and weird American West in search of transcendence and unearthly landscapes. The trip gave Reuben the chance to see some remarkable places in a remarkable new way: from high above the ground. The project changed the way Reuben felt about himself and about the world around him. He returned from the journey with a raft of stunning imagery, brimming with new vision and self-reflection and the urge to share it all. This project is the result: a vast collection of beautiful and surreal photos and videos, coupled with Reuben’s reflections on what they mean to him and how he approached them, both artistically and technically. It’s one of the most stunning collections of drone photos and videos we’ve ever seen.

Reuben Wu Solo (1 of 1)-2

The places Reuben visited had evocative names like Mexican Hat, White Pocket and Goblin Valley. Evidently nature is a Dali fan — except these landscapes are so surreal that you don’t even need to add the drooping clocks; they’ve melted time on their own. They are melted time. The transformative power of Reuben’s aerial landscapes — shown both in photos and in sweeping HD cinema captured from Solo — is beyond words. As you take them in, it’s hard to believe that this is the same planet you’re standing on right now, hard to believe that something you thought was familiar could also be so alien, so weirdly beautiful.

Reuben Wu Solo (3 of 15)

This is what the third dimension gets you. These aerial photos and videos capture the painted scenes of an American West we may think we know, but in ways that make it look positively unreal. That’s because we’ve simply never seen these places from above; not from these angles, and perhaps most impressively, not in videos with this kind of camera movement. The drone in motion can mimic the contours of the rainbow rocks, rise up to and above the weird peaks and outcrops, and pull back to reveal sweeping scapes that we as earthbound creatures simply couldn’t otherwise see, or even imagine. Ultimately, it’s like you’re a tourist on another planet, emptied of everything but the mystifying land itself and the time it took to shape it.

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

But in the middle of many of these pictures — in some almost to small to see — you’ll find a single solitary figure. As Reuben explains, “I was struck by the incredible processes at work, by what had made a mountain crumble into tiny pieces over millions of years, and was stunned at how transient my own existence now seemed in comparison to these geological forces.”

Ultimately it’s an existential journey taken in via a visual feast. You’ve never seen the West this way. Here are the stills he returned with. His comments below explain how he used Solo to get video at each location, compiled in the video at the top of this post. We’ve put stills from each location up here for reference.


1. Planetary Observers


Goblin Valley was my first location; the remnants of a huge sandstone butte in the process of slow disintegration into bizarrely shaped pillars of rock called hoodoos. As I found myself wandering without direction in the midst of these unsettling shapes and being intrigued by the experience of moving inside this imposing landscape, I knew I wanted to view it it from a higher perspective, to try to make more sense of how the landscape came to be.


As I entered the valley, I was struck by how massive these hoodoos were, and even though I had pored over maps of the area beforehand, I really had no physical understanding of how large this area was. I was also struck by the incredible processes at work here. What had made a mountain crumble into tiny pieces over millions of years, and how transient my own existence was in comparison to these geological forces.


I am often frustrated by the limitations of being earthbound and the constant fight against gravity. It is hard to climb a mountain and it is hard to hike many miles to reach a spot where a great photo can be taken. Hiking is slow. It is also difficult to gain an understanding of the bigger picture. Are these hoodoos getting smaller as I hike to the west? Why did they suddenly change colour? What is really happening?

I realised that I needed to capture the intricacies as well as the wider perspective of this landscape, by adding the third dimension.


I knew I wanted to begin a cable cam at close quarters as if from a human’s point of view, showing the scale of the hoodoos and having the camera begin its transition within the landscape. Pulling back and up in a straight line, the form of the landscape revealed itself, gradually showing the wider vista and the horizon, until finally, you begin to realise the larger geological processes at work.

I also wanted to show a photo which depicts the boundaries of elements which can’t be seen easily on foot. The reef ends abruptly, jutting out high above a low plain, with distant buttes on the horizon. For this picture I wanted to show the human figure in the landscape, to give it the power of scale in the same way a scene painted by Caspar David Friedrich would. The lone planetary observer.

Reuben Wu Solo BTS (1 of 1)

2: Serendipity


I’m always searching for unique perspectives. I’m not interested in recreating images I’ve seen many times before, although these images do serve to inspire me to find the locations in the first place. It is important for me to experience my surroundings and to learn the lay of the land before I even get my camera out. In essence it’s about not thinking too much about photography, if at all. Allow for serendipity, because that is how the best photos are created.


It took hours of off-road driving to reach White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs and this is the reason why it is rarely visited, but the landscapes which I was confronted with were worth the trials and tribulations of the journey. I usually avoid crowds when photographing. Even when visiting popular spots, I come back at night to photograph in solitude. It is a truly authentic existence and the closest I’ll ever get to exploring an alien world. A place like White Pocket seems so remote, so hidden, yet of such unearthly beauty that you’d think that the planet was deliberately hiding part of itself from us. During the whole time I was there, it felt like I was treading on hallowed ground.


This was a different experience from Goblin Valley. The processes at work seemed to be impalpable and complex. The landscape shows signs of extraordinary upheavals in its past, and the white slick rock appeared so organic when viewed from above, almost exactly like human skin. I wanted to show the sublime undulations of the landscape at a low angle of light, during the moment of sunrise.

I realised that this zone was a tiny anomaly in a vast plateau. It was as if the earth once conducted an experiment to grow skin; why do we see the same patterns appear at either ends of our visual scale? I was left wondering if there some kind of fundamental order in the shapes we see.


Looking at this landscape without a human element in it made it so surreal that you almost have no idea what you are looking at, so it was important for this shot to begin with a person (me) and use the selfie feature to pull back and reveal the weirdness around me.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

3: The Paradox Formation


On the way to Mexican Hat and Goosenecks State Park, I encountered this strange landform called the Raplee Anticline. The strata were exposed in red zig zags and the whole mountain appeared like it had suffered some violent upheaval at some point in its past.


I had to fly Solo pretty far in order to get this shot. I was separated from the mountain by the meandering San Juan river and 2000 ft was the closest I could get. The sun had set from where I was inside the valley but the mountain remained softly illuminated, giving me a few minutes to get the shot I wanted.


As I directed Solo into position I realized this feature was immense. It had an extraordinarily dynamic natural composition, and the moon was suspended perfectly above its summit. I’m drawn to compositions where lines converge and align in symmetry with celestial objects. To capture both landscape and moon fully would not have been possible without being airborne.


This was best captured in a panoramic photo. The composition of the picture I had in mind was so fragile that using a moving image would not have added much value. Also, the landscape was so vast that I needed to use the panorama feature to pan the camera to take multiple images and create a wider aspect photograph.

Mass (1 of 1)

4: Mass

We think of mass as being static. Strangely being in a such a massive and generally inanimate place, I’m struck that it is possible to portray these features in graceful and balletic sweeps of a camera. You’re left with a more informed understanding of these seemingly immovable objects and just how delicately balanced their existences are.


I was searching for a distinctive outcrop of rock. Something which was viewable from different angles. Mexican Hat Rock is a disc-shaped boulder balanced on top of a narrow column, situated in the San Juan River valley. It’s surrounded by a dramatic backdrop of red cliffs and strangely warped mountains.


From a distance, the rock looks tiny, but on arrival I realized it’s about 60 ft wide and 12 ft thick. The circular, almost symmetrical form of the rock lended itself to an orbiting track of the camera which would ascend in a spiral and reveal the backdrop wheeling behind it.


I realized that quite an innocuous looking natural monument could be portrayed in a completely different way when you drift a camera round it at close quarters. I was able to use it as my foreground, to give the viewer a focal point to counter the distant backdrop (which is just as interesting). Without it, you would lose all sense of the climb/orbit and you would have a dull-looking panning shot.


I used cable cam to set the track, as an orbit would have given me too simple a move. It was important to show the rock coming into frame, then to use it to spiral around, and then doubling back on myself.


When shooting vast landscapes, I learnt to use a subject close to the camera to give perspective and center of movement. This seems to allow for more interesting elements for viewers to look at.


5: Emergence

There are so many fixed systems in our lives. Even in the way we create art, we practise within set rules and mediums. We become comfortable with a certain camera, or a certain film and it’s easy to be trapped inside those nuances. For a while it educates, but then it becomes necessary to break your orbit and allow a vision to be stripped of those comforts. It is liberating to not be tethered by a physical body to view the world and a strange feeling to allow the camera to leave your hands.


Learning a new thing is always a challenge no matter how much fun it is. I used to shoot solely using film cameras because the digital cameras around at the time seemed soulless to me. I fell in love with the design of the old machines and how they operated, and the act of photographing, loading, developing and scanning film continues to be a passion. It allowed my skill to crystalize faster because it was so much fun. But using a drone is a very different kind of fun. I’ve found it challenging to learn new piloting skills while ensuring my vision remains the same when flying. Basically, I need to forget that I’m flying a drone and become unconscious of this strange new ability.


Drone flying has lots of excitement associated with it. It’s distracting simply because it’s so much fun. Who wants to sit and plan a flightpath/camera move when you can start flying around immediately? I felt it was important for me to decide exactly what I wanted to film before I got airborne.


I realized here that the camera needed to follow a subject or feature a subject in the landscape. In this way, the strange scenery makes more sense and people can relate better to the footage. I also wanted to avoid a straight sequence of fly-throughs over the landscape. It might be fun for me to fly these kinds of shots, but it can become pretty dull to watch after a couple of similar moves. I wanted to knit a simple narrative together as well as edit in a way which provides a compelling flow inside a short duration.


I used a combination of Follow and Cable cam to get these shots. I also shot at 60fps so that I was able to slow down some of the quicker moves and allow a smoother flow. I definitely wanted to ensure the person in frame was the focal point at all times and that the surroundings were the backdrop.


The importance of selecting the right location for the right move. The Follow move running down the ridge was a perfect spot for the drone to track me. Safe and out of danger.

Reuben Wu Solo (1 of 1)-3

6: The Inner Landscape

Here is a place where time is suspended. In the artworks of the surrealist painters, we see scenes which have one foot in reality and the other inside the mind. In my visual work, I try to depict imagery which is neither completely realistic nor fantastical. The use of imagination and the idea of time and existence is key.


This was my second shot at White Pocket. I wanted to visualise the experience of discovery of this remote place, to imagine people discovering this place for the first time, its peculiarity and its odd geomorphic surfaces.


I was struck by the strangeness of scale as I walked through the landscape. The immediate patterns around me signified a kind of structure or language, but I was hoping that the patterns would reveal something more significant from above, that they would unify to reveal implications not perceptible from the ground.


The first reaction from flying the drone above the surface of the landscape was that it appeared like it could be microscopic, or that I was peering through a powerful macro lens at the palm of my hand. The strangeness of scale combined with the extraordinary colours was truly intriguing, but I knew that to bring home further meaning, I needed to show the familiar. Because familiarity conveys possibility.


In this shot I wanted to begin the track with a puzzling alien landscape and gradually fly through to reveal the figure standing next to a large feature of coloured rock, and to track a loose orbit as the the camera got close. While the “selfie” begins with the subject and pans out to reveal the surrounding landscape, this move starts its passage depicting the unfathomable and then slowly allows the subject to become discernable.

Reuben Wu Solo (1 of 1)

7: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Traditional landscape photography has always had one constant premise, that the photo is taken from the perspective of being terrestrial. Every photograph has been taken by someone attached to the ground. It pervades all landscape depiction.

It is so ingrained into our souls that there is a ground beneath our feet, an up and a down, that gravity exists, that light comes from above. The very idea of turning a horizon upside down seems so wrong to to us, even though we live on a tiny ball floating in space, and up and down exists only in our microcosm. Yet it is the only way we can understand the landscape.


As a whole I am interested in depicting landscape or features of the landscape which are not perceptible from the ground. When I was researching for the project, I discovered via satellite imagery an area of intricate banded topography. The bands of color were strata, ancient remains of marine deposits differentiated by mineral type which were reminiscent of map contours. From the ground they looked like horizons, but from above they assumed a new dimension.


I’m reminded of the 1884 novella Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott, where a square lives inside a two dimensional world and can only perceive lines and polygons, until one day a sphere appears to him. To others living in Flatland, the sphere is seen only as a circle, but the square’s mind is enlightened and is suddenly opened to new dimensions.


I used cable cam to create complex moves pulling away from seemingly huge landforms. I wanted to impart the perspective of subverting the idea of up and down. What is up or down, when we live on a sphere?


What are the dimensions to which we anchor ourselves in gauging reality/familiarity? Why can’t we subvert scale, or time, or orientation in our pictures?


8: A Distant Architecture

The Object at the end remains on the horizon, despite your momentum.


The remains of a dead volcano, the colossal Shiprock stands at the convergence of two exposed lava dikes, which puncture the sky with jagged peaks.

I’m reminded here of Maze of Death, a novel by Philip K Dick which depicts a harsh and barren planet in which a mysterious building exists, drawing people toward it but constantly phasing in and out of reality. Eventually we discover that this planet is not an alien world, but is actually Earth.


Shiprock is huge. No amount of research will prepare you for this realisation. It seemed as I spent minutes driving to the object, it never got any closer. The black volcanic ridge which leads up to the rock are mountains in themselves; immense walls, strangely artificial-looking but beyond anything humans would sanely build.


I realised that the shot I had in mind massively underestimated the scale of Ship Rock. It would not be possible to capture the rock properly from above, not least to follow the line of the lava ridge up past the lofty summit. I was left feeling overwhelmed by this precipice.

The imposing lava ridges became more interesting to me in this context. Why do they lead to the central pinnacle? What made the volcano erode to leave behind such a formidable skeleton?


I knew I wanted to track in the direction of the wall with the rock in the distance, to show the element of motion and speed and immensity moving past it with the distant pinnacle, austere and motionless on the horizon.


When something is so big, get up close. Allow for smaller objects to move past you, otherwise the element of motion (and thus the idea of scale) is lost to the viewer.


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