Anatomy of a Fantasy Photo & Film Shoot

A couple of weeks I blogged about the importance setting yourself apart and how we do it for our photography studio Teen Identity. One of the things we do is create high concept photo shoots that allow our team of girls to play dress-up, feel like models, and get amazing looking images that go far and beyond what they might see from our competitors charging $40 for a photo session and a CD full of high res images (yes, that is a real competitive package in our market). Well, this past Friday was the world wide web premiere of our most epic photo shoot to date—Tribe Quest: a fantasy-themed shoot that included both a behind the scenes making of video, as well as an original short film. I wanted to give you an quick overview of how we made this film come to life.

The Concept

The germ of the idea came from the girls themselves. The team we have is a 6-12 month program where girls participate in shoots, create original YouTube shows, and learn about media. Part of our goal in empowering them is giving them the reins on idea generation for some projects. They said they wanted to do a photo shoot with “flowy dresses.” I wasn’t there for the actual meeting, but somehow that evolved into a fantasy themed photo shoot. My wife Tasra (the visionary for Teen Identity and head photographer) came up with the idea of doing a corresponding film shoot. That would naturally fall on my shoulders.

I wrote the script literally the night before the shoot. There would be no dialog. It was going to be a visuals-only piece, with voice over to convey the story. Tasra found the perfect location for the shoot: Lullwater Park in Atalanta, GA (just a few blocks from the CDC and part of the Emory University site). It’s a favorite spot for engagement shoots, complete with beautiful foliage, hiking trails, green pastures, a lake, and a very cool bridge. But the piece de resistance that made this the ultimate location is the old, abandoned stone tower. This ivy covered, dilapidated, hollowed out tower looks right out of a Lord of the Rings set. It made the perfect motivation for the characters in the film.

This screen grab of the Lullwater tower looks like something pulled right from a LOTR concept art.

Here was the original back story I wrote for the film. Much of this is used in the final voice over.

Eons ago a powerful race ruled the land. But an evil force arose from within and divided them into three separate tribes that left their homeland. Now, after a 1000 generations, an unknown and unexplainable sense has compelled the three races back to the birth place of their ancestors. Over the years the three descendant races evolved. Their cultures. Their beliefs. Their look. Distrust and prejudice also set in. Word traveled that leaders from each of the three tribes were headed to the tower of AO, the only remaining edifice of the now fabled “First City.” It was from this tower that the original queen of the race lead her people with wisdom and compassion. Each tribe now travels back to the birth place of their ancestors. But can they overcome their hatred and distrust of the other tribes to re-join the three back into one? If not, all three tribes risk extinction.

Our objective was to have a story that taught a lesson about the value of liking people who are different than you are, and a story that encouraged teen girls to work together and respect one-another. We also wanted to show them that a fashion shoot can make you look bold and beautiful, without making you a sex object.


Naturally, a lot of planning goes into a shoot like this. Tasra worked closely with the girls planning outfits. One of the make-up artists was actually the dad of one of the girls, Nick Tsokalas of Nick Tsokalas Designs. He paints motor cycle helmets for a living. We thought it would be cool to have him do the same kind of art on the girls faces. We use a private Facebook group to coordinate and plan activities and meetings with the team. We used that to upload images of outfits, make-up designs, magazine clippings for inspiration, and props. While Tasra coordinated all of that, I worked on the shot list and prepping equipment.

(click image to launch gallery)

The Shoot

Saturday, October 22 was a crazy day at hour home studio. We had ten “models” (our girls), three or four parents, me, Tasra, plus my mentee (and occasional guest blogger) Phil Stevens shooting behind the scenes footage. We had three people doing hair and two people doing make up (one other parent, Michele Honoré, a make-up artist and consultant for BeautiControl).

For equipment, I had my T2i, a DP Slider, and Steady Tracker. Since there was no dialog, no mics for the main film was needed. For the BTS video, Phil had his T3i and a Rode mic going into my his Zoom H4N (for interviews, etc.) I knew we had a very limited time to shoot at the park, so I decided to stick with one lens: a Canon 28-70 2.8L. As usual, I shot with a flat profile and graded in post.

The girls were split into the three tribes during the make-up process. Tasra read the story to the entire group. We created a separate back story for each of the three tribes that we only told to the girls in that tribe. We then had each girl come up with her own tribal name and personal back story.

The tribe names have actual meanings. We picked them based on what the tribe was primarily known for:

  • Nguvu is Swahili for “warrior”
  • Tharraléos is Greek for “courageous”
  • Harmoniska is Swedish for “harmonious”

Post Production

The film is heavily inspired by Lord of the Rings, specifically the eerie Fellowship of the Ring voice over opening by Kate Blanchett. I had my daughter (also a star in the film) do the VO. I added a slight echo to give it that LOTR feel.

Tasra was instrumental in the color graded look of the film. I frequently ask for her input on grading as her photographer eye is much better at it than mine. We wanted to have the film’s look match how she was processing the photos. I used Magic Bullet Look Suite and Colorista II for grading. Below are a pair of “Before and After” shots.

"Before" & "After" shots from raw footage to graded. Click to enlarge

For music, I relied on soundtrack-style songs from Kevin MacLeod’s site. If you don’t already know about this site, you need to bookmark it now. He has about 2,000+ pieces of music that fits all sorts of genres. He gives full blown film and video usage rights. You can use his music in promos, DVDs, short films, feature films, and television. Heck, you can even use it for weddings. 😉 As long as you give proper credit. (Note: other popular music sites you may be familiar with will typically require additional fees for use of their songs in things like short films, feature films, television, etc. And sometimes their license terms are not as long as you think. Make sure you know the license terms of any song you purchase). For Kevin’s songs he suggests a $5/song donation, but it’s not required. His music does not have that typical “canned” music sound. His stuff if legit! When you watch the film (below) you’ll see what I’m talking about. Great stuff. The songs are in mp3 format, so you’ll need to convert to aif or wav files before adding to your video. I don’t think he provides high quality versions of the songs. However, I would guess that for most of what you may want to use his music for, this won’t be an issue. (Especially when it’s free, or at most $5/song). Follow him on Twitter.

I also wanted the film to be a way to highlight Tasra’s photography from the shoot. So I incorporated many of the photos into the opening and closing credit sequences.

Speaking of opening credits, I plan to post a demo video on how I did the  opening titles. Tasra and I had a little, um, shall we say, difference of opinion on one aspect of the title sequence (I’m sure none of you husband and wife creative teams have any idea what I’m talking about). Anyway, she won. 🙂 But, my original vision is preserved in the demo I will post later. Even if it didn’t make the final cut, it’s still a cool trick to learn and worth sharing on the blog. Stay tuned for that.

There are some slow-mo shots at the end. Those were shot at 60 frames per second (fps) then I used Final Cut Studio’s Cinema Tools to conform to 24 fps (the equivalent of 40% slow mo). The downside of this kind of slow mo is that my (and most) HD DSLR shoot 60 fps at 1280×720, not 1920×1080. So, you have to blow up the video footage in post. There is therefore some quality loss. But, this is a piece that will be viewed for the most part at 600 pixels wide or less. So I ain’t sweatin’ it. You could also slow down footage in post, but that causes “ghosting” (a sort of blurriness). It’s much better to shoot at a higher frame rate then convert to the standard frame rate. Another popular post production tool for achieving a higher quality slow mo look in post is Twixtor. At $330 for the regular version, it’s a little on the pricey side. But, if you do a lot of speed changes in your work, and you can’t afford to rent a Phantom or RED or some other high end production camera that can shoot at high speeds at 1920x1080p (which can be many thousands of dollars for one shoot), Twixtor is an excellent choice.

The Film

This was such an incredibly fun and educational experience for all involved. Tasra got some amazing images, and we were able to give these girls an experience they won’t ever forget. The opportunity to star in a real “movie.” Yes, I know to you and me it’s just another DSLR film. But to a 12-year-old middle school girl, this is like starring in Lord of the Rings.

Next week some time I’ll have the behind the scenes video of the photo shoot itself, as well as that title sequence demo. Stay tuned.

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4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Fantasy Photo & Film Shoot

  1. Excellent work you two! My 12-year-old loved the short film and what he called ‘fancy’ photos. I love the comparison from the RAW photo to Tasra’s mesmerizing final product. Talented she is .

    Oh, and just for the record. I have my own zoom. Um… Sir.

    1. Oh Snap. You’re right. I’ll fix that. 🙂

      Thanks for all your hard work that day. I’m thoroughly enjoying hearing your BTS commentary. That video will post later this week.

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