Gray Lady Down!

(my apologies to the late Charlton Heston for the title)

Sunday morning provided me with the opportunity to combine two interests – building implosions and cameras. I think I’ve recovered fully enough now to tell the tale!

The old Pallas Hotel in New Orleans had never been a commercial success, and for as long as I’ve been coming to the city it has loomed over I-10 in phases of evolving decrepitude. When the state via Louisiana State University and the Veterans Administration selected the site for a sprawling medical complex, it sealed the building’s fate – as well as much of the neighborhood around it, including the Deutsches Haus and many historic residences. The project fostered great controversy, but most New Orleanians I talk to today – whether they agreed with the state’s decision or not – hope that the new medical center will contribute to the city’s overall renewal. Besides, the Pallas Hotel was never the recipient of much love.  Everything that people had cared about in Lower Mid City was already gone. Thus, it was with a hopeful heart that observers gathered to see the building tumble earthward.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to see a building implosion close-up. When I learned that the Pallas would go down on July 22nd, I decided to try to acquire a press pass so I might film this historic event for the Center for the Study of New Orleans. In truth, I also wanted to put some new equipment through its paces, and this seemed like a good opportunity to do just that. Being able to generate a little social media traffic for CSNO’s upcoming NolaLoyola event was icing on the cake.

Ready to roll!

As instructed by the state’s helpful and efficient coordination person, Christina Stephens, I arrived a little bit before six in the morning for setup. This was my first time acting in the capacity as a member of “the media,” although I was upfront about my interloper status as a historian withe the other early bird camera pros who were already there. It was cool to meet and talk shop with a group of people who really knew their business. I set up next to DP, Ralph Madison who already had a RED Epic and RED One trained on the doomed structure. One late-arriving European crew showed up with a 35mm Arri film camera with a giant PL Arri lens on it. I could have felt small and insignificant, but these folks made me feel welcome and included.

We were located on the roof of a building located at the corner of Galvez and Canal. I knew the place well, as it was right next to the former site of the Deutsches Haus, a place that I had spent almost the entire summer and early fall of 2010 shooting my first film, This Haus of Memories.

My own setup included a new Sony FS100 sporting a Sony E to Nikon F mount adapter with a Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 on the end. To combat the tough lighting conditions, I screwed on a Tiffen .6 neutral density filter. I ran audio through two microphones – the standard Sony shotgun supplied with the camera and a RODE NTG2 high above on a boom with a deadcat and shock mount. I shot some stills with my Sony A77. I haven’t seen so many pros using this somewhat scarce camera, but Sony translucent lens technology is the wave of the future. It will fire an impressive 12 frames a second – 24 megapixel…. in RAW. What was especially cool about being on that roof with so many pros were the approving comments I received on my selection of the FS100 from the crews with much, much, more expensive gear. It felt good – especially since I did hours upon hours of research to decide what the university should buy.

Boom! If you use this image, please link back & credit! Thanks! Also, note the people standing on the roof of the Tulane Building in the distance.

Implosion of Pallas Hotel – New Orleans from Justin Nystrom on Vimeo.

The blast itself was pretty impressive. Quite the opposite of what I had expected, the “minute to go” signal seemed to fly by, and the first pops of explosive startled me. It was over, literally, in seconds. Soon a giant cloud of dust began to float ominously toward us. I didn’t have plastic bags at the ready like Ralph, but I had a plan. As the cloud approached within 200 yards of us, I slipped the camera off of the tripod and began stowing it in my waterproof Pelican case. No sooner had I snapped the lid shut when the heavy cloud of dust hit us, coating the top of the Pelican. Since the A77 is weather-sealed, I didn’t worry as much about it.  We headed inside, masks on our face, while the worst of the cloud flew by. All but one crew from WWL, who had their poor news girl out there talking through the dust. I hope her lawyers have a copy of the tape when she contracts emphysema 30 years from now!

I took this after the worst of the dust had passed while looking through the window of the enclosed area provided by the state. The girl in the pink top had broadcast nonstop through the thick of it. Travis Mackel (in the truck bed) smartly sought shelter for a moment.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

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