Composed Bits

Digital artistry and musings by Alan Bland

A Story in Seven Images

My favorite images to create are those that tell a story.

Even more fun and challenging is to create a multi-image series that together tell a story.

And to do it in the context of a photography challenge where each image must conform to a specific word? That’s next-level sort of stuff.

I have been participating in a Photography Scavenger Hunt on Google+ for a number of years. The hunt works by giving you a list of words and a deadline. Your mission is to create new images that represent those words before the deadline.

In past hunts I often created single story-telling images, and I’ve frequently created multiple images for a hunt all using the same characters or props. One of my most famous characters is the mad scientist, or the professor as some call him. I featured him in 10 images one hunt, and he’s appeared in other hunts as well. But there was never an overarching story to connect the images together. Just random images that show bits of what that mad scientist’s life might be like.

When the 20th Round of the Scavenger Hunt started in June 2017, I did not intend to create a unified story across all the images. This post tells the story of how I ended up telling a story in seven images constrained to seven specific words.

The Clown

Last year I bought a clown costume at a post-Halloween sale, because it was on sale and I thought I might use it in a scavenger hunt someday. I was anxious to finally try it on and and see if I could use it for the hunt. My initial reaction when I saw the list of seven words (Dissolve, Bronze, Zigzag, Cinematic, Calculating, Up and Face) was “Most of those words won’t work for a clown.” So I brainstormed many other ideas, as usual. I thought the mad scientist might make an appearance for Calculating since I’ve always wanted to make an image of him at a white board working on some mad plot. But what would he be calculating? And why? If I didn’t have compelling answers to those questions it would probably be a pretty dull image.

The multi-image clown story emerged when I came up with these two ideas:

  • Zigzag: clown driving a cartoon clown car on a switchback road
  • Cinematic: depict a scene from a horror movie featuring a clown

From those two, Calculating became pretty obvious: clown calculating his next devious act on a white board. And thus was born a three-image story: Calculating, Zigzag and Cinematic.

Calculating

In my first photo session wearing the clown costume I created the base shot for Calculating, then I drew a sample white board in Corel Painter and quickly threw it together in Photoshop to see how it looked. Not too bad, I thought. Not a winner but it will be funny. However, that first photo showed my clown costume was incomplete. He needed a wig and possibly a hat. I shopped for clown wigs on Amazon and copy/pasted some of them into Photoshop to figure out what wig color would look best. I did the same with a potential hat to see what the clown would look like with the hat and the wig. It looked fantastically creepy, so I ordered the wig and hat and waited patiently for them to arrive.

It was about this time I decided the clown would need a weapon for the horror film scene for Cinematic. I found a nice looking plastic machete on Amazon and ordered it along with the rest of the clown costume.

I held off completing the shot for Calculating until the very end, for reasons you shall see below.

Zigzag

Next up was figuring out the Zigzag shot. Since I live in the mountains of Colorado there are plenty of opportunities to find switchbacks on roads, hiking trails, and streams. I wanted a shot of the clown on a trail or road, but it was difficult finding a spot where I could get the road or trail close enough to see the clown clearly while also seeing the extent of the zigzag. Eventually while driving home from a day hike where I had captured a bunch of candidate Zigzags, I drove down a twisty canyon road through one particular spot where I could practically see the clown huffing and puffing his way up the hill on his tricycle. I returned there the next morning, hoping to get a beautiful sunrise shot. That was my original idea: clown riding up a zigzag road at sunrise. But the location of the sunrise was wrong and the lighting didn’t work. So I came back later in the day and captured the base shot for Zigzag when it was easier to get uniform lighting.

About that tricycle. It’s not real. It’s virtual. I considered trying to track down a Big Wheel but I don’t know anyone with young children. I didn’t want to buy one, new or used, just for one shot. But I subscribe to PixelSquid, where I found a 3D model of a tricycle. So that’s what I used.

The image of the clown riding the tricycle was created by taking a shot in the studio of me sitting on a very low stool. I then merged it with the tricycle to make a convincing riding shot, and composited it onto the base shot of the road. I went through many iterations of the background, trying to get the colors and lighting and sky right. Fortunately we were in the monsoon season where I had opportunities nearly every day to capture threatening stormy skies. I stitched in a stormy sky shot a day or two after the Zigzag road shot. Later, as the other images in the series were coming together, I rendered some lightning in Photoshop, and continued tweaking the overall lighting and sky. Every time I opened the image in Photoshop to tweak it, it got darker and more threatening!

Cinematic

This is my favorite shot in the series. It was elusive and complex and simply fun to create. It represents the story’s climax and every other photo is tied to it in some way.

Although the idea of a horror film scene for Cinematic was one of my earliest ideas for the clown series, I had no clue exactly what the scene would be. My brainstorming list covered things like: Night time at a lake lodge, sneaking around a corner toward the victim.  Clown slitting someone’s throat. Clown mimicking the shower scene from Psycho. Clown at an amusement park at night. And who would be the victim? Maybe the clown would just be in a dark setting where the victim is implied. Would that work?

Early on I made shots of the clown as if he were about to strike from around a corner, even though I didn’t know what or where that corner would be. I composited him onto random walls but didn’t like any of them. Weeks dragged on with no brilliant idea of what the scene would look like or where I would find the location. Then with less than two weeks before the hunt deadline I had the idea of shooting the clown at a movie theater, ready to attack the people watching the movie. I’m too introverted to approach a theater and ask them if it was ok for me do a photo shoot of the interior of the theater during off hours, but I knew of several outdoor stages in the area. An outdoor cinema would work perfectly!

I constructed the outdoor cinema in Photoshop. The seating and background behind the screen is from the Band Shell in downtown Boulder. I built the brick wall behind the screen using a brick wall photo from some random building in downtown Boulder. I spent half an hour walking downtown shooting people from behind so I could have a few couples watching the film.

For the film-within-a-film I simply used a shot of a lake where I had been hiking the weekend before. I wasn’t thinking at the time I might use that shot for the hunt, but every time I go to that lake I take pictures. I shot the clown in the studio in an attack pose, and later had the idea there should be a gun aimed at him. I used a toy pellet gun, and watched some youtubes to see how to properly hold a handgun since that’s something I don’t normally do.

The lighting in the scene was extremely important to make a convincing outdoor cinema. I turned day into night in Photoshop, and spent quite a bit of time making the lighting look like it was reflecting from the screen onto the audience. I used a different color treatment for the movie on screen than the audience, giving it a lower contrast film look.

The finishing touch to the scene was adding the MST3K characters to the film. I nearly died laughing when that idea came to mind. This one detail really pushed it over the top, if it wasn’t already.

I like how much is going on in this scene and how many questions it leaves open for the viewer to imagine. Somebody is probably going to get killed, but who? The clown in the film? The girl in the film? The girl in the theater? All of the above?  What exactly are we viewing in this scene? Is the clown in the film the same clown who made his sinister plans to ride through the mountains to the lake? Or is it the clown in the theater who made the plans to ride through the mountains to reach the outdoor cinema at the lake? There’s so much meta fun going on in this scene!

Now, about the model. Just like the tricycle, she’s virtual. I have been playing with 3D rendering software for a while. She is a 3D model that I posed for the shots and then composited with all the other photographs to make the final image.

So those were the three images I originally planned for my clown shots. Calculating, Zigzag, and Cinematic. I continued brainstorming ideas for how to use the clown in the other shots, but not yet thinking they all would tell a story.

Face

I created the Face shot before I had any idea all the images would be connected by a story. I just liked the idea of the clown painting a face. The face painting was done in Photoshop. I wanted to create a more elaborately painted face but I failed, so I stuck with the simple painted smile.

When I put the model into this image I didn’t realize she would also be starring in Cinematic. Once I got the idea for the outdoor theater in Cinematic, however, I knew she had to be the star. I fit it into the story by reasoning this clown liked to play with his victims before the kill, much like a cat plays with a mouse.

Up

Up was the very last photo I conceived. I brainstormed many ideas but none of them were very compelling. Clown standing at the bottom of a very tall staircase, or riding up the staircase on his tricycle. Rock climbing clown with machete. Clown about to leap down from a construction crane. And many more ideas, but most of them required me finding locations that I wasn’t sure I could.

Eventually the winning idea was the clown floating over a gorge with balloons on his way to the lake. I gathered the gorge shots while on a scavenger meetup at Mt. Evans. The “gorge” itself in real life is about a foot high. I was lying on the ground to get that shot. The balloons were put together from three cellphone photos of balloons I found downtown, cloned and reoriented and recolored in Photoshop. The clown was shot with the camera low on the floor, to simulate looking up as he floated high in the sky.

Dissolve

I never really had a very good idea for Dissolve. Before the overall story emerged I was thinking of making a wicked-witch style melting clown, but a melting clown made no sense in the story. With less than a week before the deadline, time was running short so there wasn’t time to do anything complicated. It took a few iterations before I decided to place the pile of clownstuff at the lake and added the movie slate to tie it back to the Cinematic image. I shot the lake image at the Mt. Evans scavenger meetup without realizing at the time I would use it for the hunt. I used some splatter brushes and red hue in Photoshop to make the blood-soaked costume effect.

How does this image fit into the story arc? Is this just a pile of dirty laundry with fake blood after the Cinematic shot was filmed? Or is it real blood after someone was killed? Who’s blood is it, the clown’s or the girl’s or someone else? We don’t see the clown after this image so your guess is as good as mine!

Bronze

Oh, I had so much trouble with this one, and so much fun. Once the clown theme emerged I knew I wanted a bronze statue of the clown, but I didn’t really know how to make that effect work in Photoshop. I tried a number of techniques to convert a photo to a bronze statue but was never satisfied with any outcome. I ran out of time and had to submit the statue as is, which looks fine but looks more like a cartoon than an actual bronze statue. Coincidentally, about a week after the hunt ended I made an image in Brooke Shaden’s 15-Day Content Creation Challenge which resulted in a figure that looked very much like a bronze statue. I used techniques I already had in my arsenal but simply forgot about (they weren’t categorized in my brain as “create bronze statue”). And another week later I randomly found an actual bronze statue of a clown in a small town in northeast Colorado. But it wasn’t my clown and it was past deadline so I couldn’t use it.

As for the setting, I originally wanted the bronze statue in a museum with a bunch of blurry museum patrons, but I knew of no museum nearby with a large foyer or atrium where I could fit my virtual statue and set up my tripod to capture the patrons.  I found a public area in downtown Boulder with a huge planter suitable as a base for the statue. I shot many images after dusk to catch the ghostly people walking by and combined about ten of them into the shot. The most fun was changing out the brand name store fronts with evil clown references.

As far as how Bronze fits into the story, I had several ideas but decided it worked best as the final image. If you believe the clown was killed, then perhaps it’s a memorial statue. But if the clown lived on, perhaps it’s a warning, or a place for him to recruit more clown assistants to continue his evil mission.

Back to the Beginning to Complete the Story

Calculating was the first shot I started and the last shot I finished. I left the plans on the whiteboard open until I had finished all the other shots. That way his whiteboard plan would match the story that unfolded. The last day before deadline I scribbled out the plans and calculations on the virtual whiteboard to finish the image and submit the entire batch to the scavenger hunt.

Fun fact: the GPS coordinates on the whiteboard refer to the lake in the Dissolve scene.

And that leaves us with the final story sequence:

  • Calculating his sinister plot
  • Pedaling through the mountains along the zigzag road
  • Floating up across the gorge
  • Arriving at the lake and painting his victim’s face
  • The climactic cinematic action scene-within-a-scene at the outdoor cinema
  • Winding down the action with dissolve
  • Ending with the bronze statue as a memorial or a warning

The End

Or is it? As with many good stories, I left the ending ambiguous, open for a possible sequel.

 

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© 2017 Alan Bland