Saturday, December 29, 2018

A Christmas Cruise

Normally we spend Christmas with family in Canada, or family comes from Canada to our house.

This year we decided to celebrate Christmas in a more traditional way... by taking a cruise to the Bahamas.

Ya know, as our ancestors didn't do.

So after class on the last day of school for the kids we piled into the Minivan of Destiny, and drove to Jacksonville, and got on a ship for 5 days of fun and sun.

These are some pictures, starting with the one on the upper left, of Abigail on our ship, the Carnival Elation.

This is the ship at night.
 And this is the ship in the morning.
 On Christmas Eve we went to a private island in the Bahamas and played with some sting rays, as was foretold by prophesy.
 On Christmas Day we hung out on a beach on another private island, as one traditionally does during the holidays.
 While us adults swam, then sat on chairs and watched the world go by, the kids started digging a hole.  Pretty soon they made friends with some local teenagers and they all dug an impressively large hole in the beach.  Good times were had by all.
 This was a seriously big hole.  Both kids could sit inside it, with a good 6" of clearance above them to the top of the hole.

We did a bunch of other things, but I completely suck at taking travel photos lately.  We saw shows, played in pools, drank pina coladas, spelunked for rubber duckies, and ate a lot of food.  However I'll leave you with this dramatic shot of life at sea.

Have a Happy New Years, all!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A New Way To Smoke: A Hulk Ragnarok BTS

Note:  This post originally ran on Toy Photographers.  I am super pleased with it as I invented a new photographic technic for generating special effects.

This post is a two-for-one extravaganza.  First is a behind-the-scenes exploration about how I captured the shot of the Hulk figure from Thor Ragnarok I created in my post: Building A Hulk.  The second is to describe a new way of generating action figure scaled smoke for my shots.  Both are covered in this post.

Note:  I am not sure if I am the first to use the process I am about to describe. I have asked many people how to create practical smoke effects and no one brought it up. It is a unique idea in my sphere of people. So I am taking pride in breaking new ground in this area (tho I suspect the first comment will burst my bubble).

This is the image that I am talking about:
Hulk running in search of things to smash.

Special Effects vs Visual Effects

When it comes to toy photography there are some effects that are much easier to add in post production.  These are known as visual effects, or effects done in computer.  Others are much easier to capture in camera. These are special effects, or effects done in real life on set.  Smoke effects fall firmly into the later camp.  While they can be created in Photoshop, its hard to beat the realism of real smoke captured on set.

Ever since I started my photographic journey I have been looking for ways to make toy scaled smoke to add atmosphere to my images.  I have not found a satisfactory way of reliably creating smoke that works for me.  The most common solution I've seen is lighting a cigarette, or using one of those newfangled vape things, and blowing smoke into the scene.  This doesn't work for me because I don't smoke, and don't want to start, even a little.

Other solutions like smoke machines  or smoke bombs are too large in scale.  They are designed for human scale, or larger (like concert stages), so are impractical.  There is a product called a Wizard Stick that produces enough smoke for a LEGO minifig sized image, but not near enough for a 6" action figure.

The same story has been for every other solution.  They were either scaled too small, to large, caused lung cancer, or created a mist effect, but not a smoke effect. It was a very frustrating search.  I was getting discouraged and resigned to do my sub par smoke effects in Photoshop.

That was, until one day, I went to work and played with the bees.

Not kidding.

Bees: Producers of Sweet Honey and Sweet Ideas

So long story short, the food staff at my work place does a lot of sustainable food programs.  They have a community garden, they keep chickens, and they have bee hives for honey.  They also have programs where us desk-bound software engineers can get outside, help with the programs, and learn a few things along the way.

I signed up to be a beekeeper.

Part of beekeeping is looking into the hive (which are in wooden boxes) and seeing how the bees are doing heath-wise.  To pacify the stinging cloud of murder bees than result from cracking into a hive, a bee smoker is used.  It works on bees as it masks the chemicals that they use to sound the alarm to other bees that trouble is afoot.   To me it was an epiphany.

I realized that the bee smoker would be the perfect solution to my action figure scale smoke effect problem.  The rest of this post serves as proof that I was right.

Safety Disclaimer

Bee smokers involve fire, and heat.  Do not use without adult supervision.  If you are an adult, good luck to you.

Smoke'em If You Got'em

Bee smokers are cheap and easy to come by.  This is mine, and it cost less than $20 on Amazon.
My bee smoker

It doesn't really matter which one you get, they all work basically the same.  There are also pellets than can be purchased as fuel, but I found them useless, so I'd skip those and same some money.

How they work is pretty simple.  Fill the main chamber with organic material - paper, leaves, cotton fabric etc. and set them on fire.  When the lid is closed, the only oxygen source is a small vent at the bottom, which is just enough for the material to smolder, but not create flames.  If you've ever been around a camp fire you'll recognize this as a perfect smoke generator.

The bellows on the side are used to pump more air into the chamber to fan the coals, and to push the smoke out thru the spout.  It is designed to pump smoke into a hive, but if you pump it into a camera frame, you get a perfect toy scaled controllable smoke machine.

Behind The Scenes

So the first thing I did was set up Hulk out in my back yard.  I placed him in front of an old stump to act as a nice background (tho due to the smoke this turned out not to matter as the stump is not visible in the final shot.

Then I set up the smoker.  For fuel I used dryer lint as a starter, and some fabric castoffs from my wife's quilting efforts.  If you don't have a quilting wife handy, cotton balls, or Doritos can be used as starter. Any old cotton t-shirt, jeans, or even leaves or pine needles can be used as fuel.  Just tear any fabric into 2"-4" chunks.

Lighting the fuel, which is dryer lint and discarded quilting fabric.

Light the fuel, close the lid, and pump the bellows a few times to ensure things are smoldering properly.  You know its working by a large amount of smoke coming out the end.  (and if you are me, cackling in delight at the possibilities a good smoker provides to my creative efforts).

Finally I set my camera on a Platypod Ultra, attached a remote trigger so I could reach the smoker and the shutter at the same time.  Then I pushed the bellows to pump smoke into the scene with one hand while I triggered the shutter remote with the other.

The setup with the camera on a Platypod, Hulk in front of a stump, and smoke from the bee smoker.
The rest is some basic Photoshop post-processing, and the image is complete.

Final Thoughts

So that is my solution for practical smoke effects for action figures.  The smoker produces a heck of a lot of smoke, really more than I need.  However I can put it exactly where I want it.

Another benefit is that it doesn't require batteries, electricity, or special fuels. All you need is some cotton and a lighter, so it can be lugged to remote places and still be useful.  It also has the benefit of pacifying any bees that are hanging out near your shoot.

So if you are looking for practical smoke effects,  a bee smoker may just be the answer to your problems.

Thanks, bees!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Deconstructing an image: Trunk

One of the words for this last round of the Scavenger Hunt was "trunk".  Now that those images have been revealed, I can discuss what went into it.

As has become my custom I started with a mind mapping exercise.  I list all of the words that remind me of trunk in a notebook, then list associated words with those, and work my way down to an idea.  Sometimes those ideas take minutes, sometimes they take weeks. This one had a nugget almost immediately, but took weeks to refine.

My first idea for trunk was inspired by the Tragically Hip song "Locked In The Trunk Of A Car" and had the idea of a car trunk lid being opened by a mysterious hand.  There will be lights and smoke, and be very dramatic.

After a while I decided to switch away from the car trunk (mainly cause I don't have one - minivans4life) be an travel trunk - like old timey luggage trunk, you know the type. 

Of course I don't have one of those either (well, I do, but not one that will work for this purpose). However a toy photographer is never really stymied by scale, so I decided to make it a toy hand.  Since it is a "rising from the dead" situation, I used the skeleton hand from my Grim Reaper figure.

Now I may not have a toy trunk, but I do have a Makerspace at work. In that Makerspace are 3D printers, and a Glowforge laser cutter.  So I could make my own trunk.

I wasn't exactly sure which one would make a better trunk for my purposes, so I made one with each.  First the 3D printer. Looks like this in action:

It takes about 13 hours to print, but it produces an almost perfect finished trunk when done:

The Glowforge was next.  It cuts the parts in as little as 15 minutes, but it does require assembly afterwards. However it becomes much more photogenic.

The processs while cutting looks like this:

The final cut out template:

And the final image.  It took me about 20 minutes to assemble, mainly because each piece has masking tape on it to protect the material from scorching when cut by the laser (did I mention it has a laser, cause I totally freakin cut things with a laser, y'all!)

The assembled trunk is here:

I decided that the Glowforge trunk would work best for the shot I had in mind, so for the moment I put the 3D printed trunk aside (tho I did end up using it for the image I submitted for "diamond" so not all is lost).

I painted the trunk red.  Why red?  Because it was the paint I had available.  I am glad I did because inspiration was lurking in the back of my demented brain.

This is the shot straight out of camera:

This is when inspiration struck.  Seeing the red trunk made me think of an old Canadian kids show called Mr Dressup.  Mr. Dressup had two puppet friends, a kid named Casey and a dog named Finnegan, and he dressed up in costumes to tell kids stories.  Basic 70s-80s wholesome Canadian kids show stuff.  He kept his costumes in a red trunk with hippy flowers on it, called the Tickle Trunk.  You can see him in action, with the trunk, in this YouTube video: Mr. Dressup Episode Pt. 1 1986

Now, when I was in high school (late 80s, early 90s) there was a urban myth going around the school that Mr Dressup killed himself by locking himself into his Tickle Trunk.   I don't know how extensive that myth spread, but it was all over my school.  Apparently it stuck with me, I assume for this purpose.

Anyhoo, working on the trunk sparked that memory, so I decided to use the sordid tales from my misspent youth and make this image the return of Mr Dressup, rising from from the grave that is his beloved trunk. 

So I added in the flowers, dust, and cobwebs.  To sell it I also added the head of the Casey puppet abandoned and rotting on the floor.

This is the final image:

Note: the urban myth wasn't true - Ernie Coombs, the fellow who played Mr. Dressup, lived until 2001.

Thus is the story of how I conceived and created this image for the word "trunk".

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Deconstructing an image: Balance

One of the words for the latest round of the Scavenger Hunt was "balance."  Now that the hunt  reveals have happened, I can show everyone the image I came up with, and talk about what went into it.

The first thing I do when I get a scavenger word is do a mind-mapping exercise to come up with ideas.  I write down all of the words I associate with balance - balanced cheque book, high wire act, juggling, black and white, justice etc.

I originally had the idea of an action figure (I normally shoot toys for the hunt), balancing a cheque book while in the middle of a high wire act.  I liked the concept, but it ended up being to complicated to put into one image.

So I was stumped.  Then I flew to Europe.

12 hours being stuck in airports and third class seats gives ones mind a lot of time to wander, and my mind wandered over the word balance a couple times.  I started thinking why don't I have an action figure balancing on a surf board.  I've done surf boards before for the hunt, so how about a ball?   Better yet, how about balancing on a board which is balancing on a ball?

I couldn't think of which action figure to use, so I mused that I could just do a self portrait. For the past dozen hunts or so I had only submitted toy images, so this would be a huge departure style-wise, and I didn't want to disappoint my fan base.  However art trumps tradition, so I decided to go for it.

Then in a moment of clarity the whole idea clicked.  Yours truly, balancing on a stone yin yang, on a stone ball, all in motion. Balance all the way down.

I had the basics for my concept.   Some further refinements, and this is the image I came up with:

So, how did I get this shot?

The answer is building it piece by piece.

Photoshop has a decent 3D modeling engine built into it, so I used that to make the ball and the yin yang.  I made them as separate pieces, and stuck em together.  The ball is just an image of floor tiles made round. I used a concrete texture I took in San Francisco a few years ago for the stone look of the yin yang.  Why is the yin yang stone?  No reason, just seemed right to me.

The tunnel effect is several textures stacked on top of each other, all blended together with a radial blur, and some selective darkening in the center to give a receding into the distance tube effect.

Finally it came time for me to shoot myself.  I positioned a light in front of me and up about 30 degrees.  At the last minute I decided to put on a lab coat, and use fans to blow on it, so I would have a "blowing in the wind" effect to add more of a sense of motion to the image.

I hadn't given much thought to my own wardrobe.  At the last minute I decided to do an homage to Gord Downie.  If you are not familiar, Gord is the lead singer of a Canadian rock band called the Tragically Hip.  He died of brain cancer last year, but before he passed, the Hip did one final tour across Canada.  His stage outfit for that tour was a Jaws t-shirt, and a jaunty looking hat.

I have been a fan of The Hip for decades, but I have been listening to them a lot lately, as part of my recovery from depression.  So it seemed fitting as a silent homage to Gord, thru his music, helping me regain mental balance.

In the most fanboy moment I've ever experienced, I had a replica hat made by the same milliner who made Gords hats for the tour.  I also bought a Jaws t-shirt.  So already armed with fanboyness, I had my wardrobe.

This is an AutoAwesome gif of some of my attempts to capture myself in camera:

The rest of the processing was the basic steps of masking, tone matching and adding shadows that goes along with any composite work.

So that is the story behind my image for the word "Balance".


Sunday, December 02, 2018

Cleaning Out The Studio

I spent a large part of the weekend cleaning up my studio spaces, as they were getting cluttered past the point of usability.
Along the way I found the first Mark Rodriguez print I bought, "Tears Of A Clown". 

I finally put it up in my studio, in a place of honor right below the first major concert I went to on my own, and right above the flag of my homeland (the guy with the lightsaber is just a guy with a lightsaber).

I've learned a lot from Mark about images and light, and he invented one of my favourite sayings "Make light your bitch." He's also a friend, so it feels great to have his art displayed in my creative space.
My studio isn't perfectly clean, but its well within the realm of usability, so I am ready when the muse next hits.