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Old Tech New Decks – promo photography for an experimental music show

Retro old tech cello, created & photographed by Image Workshop Melbourne

We set out to build a replica cello out of bits and pieces of retro technology.

I mean, pfffft, how hard could it be?

Composer & performer Vanessa Nimmo asked us about creating promo photography for a Melbourne Fringe Festival show she was working on. Titled Old Tech, New Decks the performance was based around creating music using the nostalgic sounds of old technology: the screeching of a dial-up modem, the rhythmic clacking of typewriter keys, that distinctively ear-grating Nokia ringtone…

The budget allocation was, ahhhhhh, “as little as possible”. Budget challenges aside, we loved the idea of Old Tech New Decks and wanted to see what we could do with it visually, so we took it on as a personal creative project.

How could we visually portray the show’s concept of ‘playing music using ‘retro technology’? Brence had the idea of making an archetypal musical instrument built from bits and pieces of old technology itself. Vanessa loved the concept, and we quickly settled on the cello as our instrument of choice.

What's that you say? You need a cello built out of retro technology? I'll get right on it!

What’s that you say? You want a cello made out of retro technology? I’ll get right on it!


The build

Here’s a quick behind-the-scenes look at the cello build:

To build Frankencello we needed raw materials. Budget constraints meant we couldn’t just spend up large on eBay – no, more inventive scavanging would be required. Torches in hand, we spent a lucrative evening on hard rubbish day trawling the streets after dark filling the car with other people’s unwanted ghetto blasters, video tapes, old phones and other cast-off gold.

Vanessa and Sharon also trawled various free-to-give-away classifieds and junk stores, and soon we had a growing pile of old TV remotes, video game joysticks, phones, film cameras, and a pair of giant white ‘70s headphones.


Old tech

Collecting items… John Denver 8-track, anyone? Also, when out hunting for old tech, it always pays to wear battery powered FM radio headphones!

Brence and Vanessa doing some initial design planning. The ghetto blaster and rotary phone would form the cornerstone of the design.

Preliminary design planning: the genesis of the cello starts to take shape. Our hard-rubbish-day scavanged ghetto blaster would be a worthy centrepiece to the design.

Tech cello body parts

We decided the ‘top & tail’ of the cello needed to be authentic to ensure it looked suitable cello-y, and were kindly given a tailpiece, bottom spike and bow from Alex W Grant Violins, while Auburn Strings came to our rescue with a donated neckpiece. I love it when a plan comes together!

Crunch time came with Fringe Festival deadlines looming. Time for shit to get real! With only a few days up our sleeve before the scheduled shoot day we spent an epic 12-hour build session constructing the Beast.

Cello neck, very kindly donated to the cause by Auburn Strings in Hawthorn

Neck from a broken cello, kindly donated to the cause by Auburn Strings in Hawthorn

Cello build in action, brought to you by Liquid Nails!

Cello build in action, brought to you by Liquid Nails!

As our expert musical consultant, Vanessa had done a bunch of background work researching cello dimensions and creating a cello-shaped backing board which gave us a great starting point to help all the junk morph into something decidedly cello-like in nature.

It worryingly took all morning to get the central ghetto blaster affixed and build one corner, but once those initial sections were in place the rest of the design just flowed, rather like the copious amounts of liquid nails and hot glue involved in the process.

Finally we stepped back from the operating table to survey the end result. “Wait!” said Sharon as she grabbed a spare audio cassette, wrote MIX TAPE on it and inserted it into the ghetto blaster heart of our creation, “Now it’s done”.

Fingers firmly crossed the liquid nails would be strong enough!

Fingers firmly crossed the liquid nails would be strong enough!


Our masterpiece was a staggeringly heavy 12kg (4 times heavier than a real cello) and there was concern about structural integrity. Also we still needed to attach the neck and bottom spike. Enter the amazing Taylor Hay – hardy Alaskan welding aficionado and builder-of-things.

The night before the shoot Taylor welded a brace to support the beast and affixed the neck and bottom spike to complete our masterpiece. Taylor confidently tipped the cello upright on its spike for the first time and gave it a celebratory twirl. We’d done it – Frankencello lived!


Taylor deftly Macgyvers the cello neck and spike to a sturdy brace. “If in doubt,” he sermonises, “add more Liquid Nails.”

The photoshoot

We shot the promo images in the studio, featuring Vanessa as our star model. We wanted the cello to stand out and we needed negative space in the images for text to be overlaid on promo posters, so we kept the set clean and simple, but jazzed up the background with a nice ’80s vibe of coloured lights washing across the back wall.

Setting up for the photoshoot

Setting up for the photoshoot

Lighting test: that little-known photographic masterpiece, "Man playing invisible cello"

Lighting test: that little-known photographic masterpiece, “Man playing invisible cello”

While we got the set ready and dialled in the lighting, Maddison from Maddison Fenton Hair & Makeup gave Vanessa an awesome hair & makeup look with retro flair.

Time to shoot! We had a rad soundtrack of crazy avant garde cello music going at top volume while Vanessa ‘bowed’ the cello magnificently as Brence shouted “More intensity! Now angry bowing! Now happy bowing! MORE INTENSITY!!!”


The end result

It was a long haul from concept to execution, but great fun and everyone’s contributions added up to a fantastic end result – here’s a look at the final hero images after grading & retouching:

Retro old tech cello with an 80s vibe, photography by Brence Coghill / Image Workshop photography Melbourne

Retro old tech cello with an 80s vibe, photography by Brence Coghill / Image Workshop photography Melbourne

But wait, there’s more!

After knocking out the promo photos we also created a promotional teaser video to generate interest in the show – head over to the video blog post to check it out and see a few more behind-the-scenes details.

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