A couple of months ago, I was asked by Creative Mornings to create the illustration for their August theme of "Failure". They typically have illustrators make these images, so doing a photographic or photo illustration take on one was going to be a interesting challenge. I was given the following constraints: The image had to be a positive spin on the theme (so more silly/funny than painful/destructive), contain the word "Failure", and be delivered in a couple different aspect ratios.
I started with the kernel of "a guy thoughtfully bringing ice cream to a cute girl on a steamy hot summer day, but unfortunately the ice cream is melted down his hand before he gets to her". Lighthearted, a little silly, a little summer, a little fun.
The first step was to do a really quick concept with my friends Kim and Evan on the street before a dinner date. They were good sports and I did an awful hack-in Photoshop job to get the idea across. My initial idea was to put "Failure" in there as a tattoo on the guy's arm. Here's what that looked like.
Everyone seemed happy with the concept and the idea got approved, but they asked that the theme be a bit more prominent. Apparently my tattoo idea was too small and not going to work. I thought maybe I could have it written in sidewalk chalk on the street, or shoot the final shot in the park and have it written on the grass or something. It was a conundrum. So I took my camera up to Prospect Park and shot some background plates of grass, trees, and sky. Stuff like this that I could stitch together to great a background as long as I needed.
I had models picked out for the final shoot, but some summer scheduling conflicts and cloudy weather put that off for a couple of weeks, so in the meantime I was doing some thinking on how to get "Failure" in there in a way that was as playful as the concept. I was thinking about the fact that I've got that big open sky creating all this negative space. So one day I was laying down to go to sleep and suddenly thought, skywriting! Better than the tattoo or the grass. So I did a little fiddling in the brush palette to figure out how to pull off the effect in Photoshop and tried some quick tests like this one.
It was the basic gist and should work fine in the end, though I ended up using a script loopy font that might be easier for a real plane to pull off in smooth motion. I know no skywriter could ever make something quite so clean as my final image, but people suspend disbelief all the time and heck, this was a photo illustration not photojournalism. After putting out a call for help, an internet friend of mine named Brian Kowalchuk gave me a few images of skywriting biplanes to comp in as well to complete the illusion.
The the background mostly set, I finally set a shoot date with my models Rob and Becky one day after work in the park on the Hudson river off of 23rd street. There was plenty of grass space and a fairly clear sky looking west, which with the sun coming down on their shoulders would match the dramatic lighting I was planning for the final composite. This is one of those annoying shoots where the weather really matters. Plus as a bonus they brought their dog Pixel. And Pixel loves to eat ice cream. So we slathered Rob's hands up with the butter pecan I brought and got to work. Even with the help of my friend Claude to assist with a reflector, getting the lighting, exposure, placement, and facial expressions right took almost 300 shots. With two people, a dog, and light jumping up and down two stops as a cloud moves over the sun as it was going down, there were a lot of balls to juggle. All while trying to keep in mind how it's going to fit into the final composition. That is far more pictures than I'd normally take (I was working with animals after all), but hidden in that haystack was the needle I was looking for and it looked great.
When I started putting it together at home the next day I realized that the melted ice cream on Rob's right hand with his mostly eaten cone in it was a little too messy. Only the hand with Becky's cone should be a mess, he would have eaten his like a gentleman. So as a last minute change, I had Rob swing by my place to re-shoot his hand.
After many hours of fiddling and polishing in Photoshop (I won't bore you with the details. Sufficed to say that it's 40+ layers and I had flattened a bunch more in the process) I was finished. If you'd like to dive deep, here is a link to a low-res layered TIF file for you to play with.
The final step was to use the elements of the background, skywriting, and models to create two slightly different compositions, one for each aspect ratio that Creative Mornings requested. Basically one of them is tight vertically, the other horizontally. Personally I prefer the more widescreen cinematic version on the left. Here they are next to each other so you can compare.
The downside of having it split into two files is that now there are two places to make any changes that needed to be made. A pain, but unavoidable. See, if I were one of the illustration artists that usually do these, I could just pad it with a little more background color (That's a bad illustrator joke. Just kidding illustrator friends, I love you all).
In the end I'm very happy with the final product. With a couple of weeks of hindsight, there are always a few things you'd do differently if you were starting from scratch (like add people picnicking on the lawn behind them), but then again you learn from every project and you pour that into the next one.
Let me know if you've got any specific questions and I'll be glad to try to answer them. If you'd like to keep up with what I do, please follow me over on Twitter or check out my podcast On Taking Pictures over on 5by5. Enjoy.