Last year I had written an article about why I don’t shoot at conventions. A lot of it was for logistical reasons (not enough space, the time pressure, no guarantee that the spot you wanted to use won’t be taken up by others when you want to shoot, etc). But some of it was for creative reasons. The primary one being that when you have all of these factors that are forcing how exactly you have to shoot it doesn’t leave a lot of leeway for creative interpretation. Secondly when there’s so many people around doing the same thing it’s a lot more difficult to stand out as an artist if everyone from that event is putting out work that looks similar.
Once I was done with that article I did share it out to a few different places. In the places where the audience was mostly photographers it was really appreciated (it was even shared out on a website I follow). I did get some comments from photogs who had tried it and they said they stopped for the same reasons I had brought up. There was one comment where someone had mentioned that at first they had expected the whole article to be negative but after reading it they realized it was a “punch up” for photographers. And I was glad someone phrased it in that way.
Then I posted it in a local cosplay Facebook group… and they fucking HATED it. Oh well, can’t please everyone.
Recently I was trying to put together some ideas for marketing… and I was really having a hard time figuring out the ‘elevator pitch’ especially when encountering someone face to face. I knew I needed something more than just “we do everything differently”. That wouldn’t really fly if you were trying to convince someone to hire us to take photos of them even if they were to look at the material we have produced in an attempt to get some idea of what we do.
So I put together a list of what we do whenever we’re putting one of our projects together. Then I realized we had never actually shared what exactly what we go through… and how much fun we actually have with these exercises and how much we just plain end up learning. I thought this would be a great time to offer up this information and possibly get some people to realize possibilities.
Sometimes we know that there could be an existing space that could work well for one of our projects. At times we’ll be aware of a spot because someone we know had been there previously or we might know the owners of a particular property. So we’ll go check it out to see if it fits the vision we have in our heads and if there may be any logistical issues we would need to work through.
At other times I’ll just say to myself “Hey, I’ve never been to this town/place… I should go check it out.” Even if it involves some driving. Driving always make for good ‘idea pondering time’ for me so I don’t mind the time spent to get somewhere. There have been moments where along the way I’ll see something and go “Ooohh, there’s some possibilities there”. So I’ll make a stop and take some photos to aid in research later. We may not end up using those spaces but seeing them with your own eyes helps with giving some inspiration for projects down the line.
We’re not talking about Hollywood style set building here. I mean we certainly have nowhere near a Hollywood budget. But there’s something we like about possibly finding pieces that could serve as interesting elements in our photo shoots. I for one like going to places like Michaels, JoAnn, Hobby Lobby, Lowe’s, Ikea, Ross, Austin Creative Reuse, whatever… and just seeing if there’s something that makes me go “Ooohhhhh, that could be interesting for something”. So I’ll pick them up right away (especially if they’re on clearance) or take a photo to remember them for later. In those instances where for an idea I know I want certain elements I’ll be all “Oh hey, there was this” and run it by the team. If they like it I’ll go get it. But there’s something I like about randomly going to these stores really with no intent at all and seeing if there’s something that catches my eye.
The rest of the team does a pretty similar thing with online stores. Sometimes they’ll find something and they share it in our team chat and say “Hey this could be cool for something”. So we’re all pretty active in this activity in some way.
At times there will be instances where we know we want certain pieces in a certain style… but either they don’t exist or they’re way beyond our budget. In those moments I’ll be like “Damn it all… fine, I’ll make the fuckers myself.” A great example of this is the donut stands you see in the Sugarbelle set. I knew I wanted donuts on plates on stands but I couldn’t find any that were high enough or were not of a crazy design that would be distracting from everything else. So I just got some wood pieces from Michaels and made them myself. And we would eventually make more of them and repaint the existing ones to use as candle stands for our Halloween Love Live set.
For me there was something I really liked about actually building these pieces along with others. Something about taking me away from the camera and computer so I can focus on putting these bits together really help clear my mind in an odd way. I think it’s when it’s something that’s in your hands that you are putting together that will help build some of the images you have in your head for a project… there’s something about that I think more people could benefit from.
Figuring Out Creative Solutions
One thing I’ve become a big fan of is trying to figure out how much we could do ‘in camera’. For one it makes the post processing sessions a lot easier to get through. But attempting to add CGI effects and make them not look distracting takes a lot of work. So if we can do as much as we can in the space we know really well (in this case the space being the camera) then it communicates so much more for us.
There’s been a few different ways we’ve been exploring this. One has been with light painting. Right now our only published work involving light painting has been done with the PixelStick. But we’re always on the lookout for items that could possibly make for some really neat effects. LED strips, finger lights, LED swords, etc. Whenever I find something that could work I do some experimenting at home to see how they could be used. And some of these experiments will be used in our future work.
Another new area we have been exploring has been with projection mapping. With projectors reaching stupid cheap levels it really offers us a space to see what could be done. When you add free projection mapping software there are a lot of opportunities there. So we can’t pass that up.
There’s also a lot of room for exploration with regards to creative lighting. And this means more than just using available modifiers and colored gels. When I discovered CineFoil I saw lots of uses for it. You can do a lot with a material that is easily shaped and blocks light. Hell one of our most popular images is a pic of Mermaid Child I took off the cuff where I had taken some CineFoil to make a tight snoot around one of my Godox AD200s to simulate a pin light. And there’s more you can do with stuff like make gobos and cucolorises (also known as “cookies”).
When it comes to lighting you can do some crazy neat stuff. I’ve seen things like interesting high key backgrounds done with shower curtains. Blasting light through textured plexiglass and glass wall blocks. So when you give yourself space to pay attention to small things and realize they could do something for you it will help a lot. And it’s something we pay attention to.
Lastly there will be ideas we will come up with that we think will make for interesting physical elements for a project… but existing solutions may be out of our budget. So what can we do to get something close but can still reasonably put together? Researching these aspects has allowed us to learn a lot even if we may not be able to achieve quite what we had in mind at first. But that knowledge could be applied elsewhere.
One thing we do a lot when we come up with a new project idea is to go back and look at our previous work and see if there’s any bits we might be able to apply. When we add that along with whatever idea we might have at the time we can come up with combinations that will make something our own but yet still have this element of “Yeah, this style is certainly us”. Yet even more possibilities there.
Taking Away Everything You Typically See
When it comes to characters that have pretty well established depictions we try to do as much as possible to “take them out”. Some great examples of this are with Sailor Moon and Love Live. Whenever we come up with ideas involving these characters I look at things and go “Well, this is what people would expect… we’re not going to do that.”
That gives us a lot of room for us to portray these characters. And by extension it allows us to say something about ourselves. Even if we come up with an idea that’s adjacent to the original depiction of them there’s still quite a bit of ‘us’ in the images. When you add everything else that has been mentioned earlier there’s a lot more that can be done.
Developing Original Characters And Ideas
While this was something that we hadn’t really considered when we initially started MTA because of the fact we pay attention to so many small things it was just something that came about organically. Quite often someone will share something in the team chat that they thought was cool. After so many instances of this we remember certain small pieces and someone will be all “Oh, what if we did this.” Sometimes it will just be a completely original idea not tied to existing material. But there will be something about it that will just grab us that we just have to go for it. If we stuck to just ‘what we know’ then certain projects would have never happened. And something would be lost.
When you’re not tied all of the typical constraints you tend to see in our space it can really offer a lot for everyone involved to explore themselves as a creative and as a person. And having that space is quite enjoyable.
I’m not going to lie… this will require a lot more work for everyone that might be brought in. For us we deal with a lot of moving pieces and plans are adjusted all the time. So it does certainly require mental bandwidth.
But the tradeoff in learning new things, considering new possibilities, pushing ourselves, and quite frankly having fun even with all of the work involved is worth it. Because at the end of the day people can look at our work and say “Yep, that was definitely you.”
If people weren’t saying that about us then we probably wouldn’t be bothering with any of this.
If people aren’t saying that about you now… if you gave yourself the space… would that change?
About the Author
Rob Swackhamer is a creative nerd who likes to make really awesome art. Rob is also a pinball nerd and cat dad with over seven years working in the video & photography industries. You can find out more about Rob at Make Them Awesome. This article was also published here and shared with permission.