“Bee Bedroom.” The work of the creative duo Ransom & Mitchell isn’t quite photography, isn’t quite photo manipulation and isn’t quite video, either. It’s a surreal mix of fantasy and reality that springs to life thanks to their masterful use of lighting, sets, 3-D modeling software and CGI.
Ransom & Mitchell is a still and motion creative team based in San Francisco featuring the combined talents of director/photographer Jason Mitchell and set designer/digital artist Stacey Ransom. The results of this collaboration are highly detailed and visually lush photographic-based digital art scenarios and portraits for the editorial, advertising and fine-art worlds.
Their edge-of-reality and dream-world imagery are a combination of cinematic lighting, theatrically designed sets, handcrafted custom props and computer graphics, which are digitally composited and painted with an illustrative approach inspired by Italian and Dutch master painters. Their aim is to blur the lines between traditional photography and classical painting to create worlds that cannot exist otherwise. Photography, digital artistry, CG and motion skills make the surreal attainable. Yet within these fantasies is an instilment of cinéma vérité and a good dose of social commentary.
DPP: In your creative relationship, who does what?
Jason Mitchell: We have a symbiotic relationship where we both work at the creative level coming up with concepts and overall vision.
Stacey Ransom: We bounce concepts back and forth—and then move forward on the ones we both feel good about. I’ll make a creative treatment so that if there’s a crew that we need to bring in, they’ll have a clear vision of what we want.
Mitchell: Then we divide our tasks into individual specialties. I tend to take care of the camera, lighting, dealing with talent and the composition of the shot.
Ransom: I handle the mise en scène—the set and costume design, the colors, the textures, and if there’s talent, what their hair and makeup would be. When we’re shooting on set, we find hierarchy is helpful. Jason acts as the director and helps the talent find the emotion needed for the scene.
DPP: Are these concepts for fine-art usage to illustrate ads and editorials?
Mitchell: It’s a combination. We do both fine art and commercial art. When we work for clients, they usually bring a strong vision and they’re the lead creatives, yet our overall process is the same.
DPP: Let’s talk about the process.
Mitchell: Creating treatments is vital to communicate as a team to ensure that everyone is on track. We usually do them by integrating Photoshop sketches and pulled reference photos and working in InDesign to note important details as they relate to the concept or brief, then outputting PDFs for the team.
Ransom: We find that if we’re assembling strong treatments that clearly communicate our visions, we can be more confident and open about receiving feedback from the crew. When we surround ourselves with talented people who we trust, and we encourage them to participate and bring their POV, the results are always stronger.
Mitchell: Sometimes we shoot on sets Stacey has created, and other times I’ll photograph the subject in a studio on a simple backdrop, then completely composite it into a background that we created separately in CG. Often the concept and budget will steer us one way or another.
Ransom: For Bee Amazing, a recent self-promotion project, our goal was to create an agency-targeted piece that was celebrating girls being creative and empowering them to be scientists, engineers and so on. Jason created the sets in Autodesk Maya, a program we use to make a lot of our backgrounds, virtual sets and environments. There’s so much more we can do building a set in Maya in relation to the scale of the scene. Additionally, I work in ZBrush to create props and other decor details.
Mitchell: Maya is a 3D application by Autodesk that was originally designed for doing animation work, but now the systems have evolved to where it’s become very realistic and you can do a lot of particle dynamics with it.
Ransom: Particle dynamics being, “How does the light look?” “How do the shadows look?” Volumetric light like when light is beaming through dust.
Mitchell: Mimicking real-world physics both in light and gravity flow has been very unique and inspiring. It mimics everything from hair, cloth and fluid dynamics for water and clouds. The great thing is that you can break those physics whenever you want.
Ransom: Our tag line is “Gravity and common sense are for suckers.”
Mitchell: For the Bee project, prior to the shoot I created the scenes in Maya to match our concept sketches. These included a grass field and a room with a window for light motivation. Using the volumetric effects of the Arnold renderer in Maya, I created an additional light bloom as if the sun was streaming in and bouncing off of particulate in the air. In the studio, I shaped Profoto strobes with an octobox, flats, flags and nets to match the scene. I also used a Magnum reflector in an 8x book light to give a wide soft fill.
Ransom: We handle our own post-production as an integral part of our look. As we’re capturing the different scenarios, I often do a quick rough composite in Photoshop to make sure everything is matching. It confirms as well that the concept is on target, or if we need to make adjustments to the physical or 3D elements to tweak it into place.
Mitchell: We shoot RAW tethered to Lightroom, and afterwards we’ll go through and pick out our hero images. In Lightroom, I’ll do some image balance and correction on the RAWs before outputting 16-bit files to Photoshop. Stacey prefers them to be fairly clean of effects with a fat negative so she can dial in the look with all of the elements together. I’ll assemble the selects doing general cropping and compositing to create the composition and will perform any cleanup necessary to cover gaps or blemishes. Then Stacey comes in and does the fine compositing and the heavy manipulation before finalizing the look.
Ransom: While Jason was making the environments, I was creating the differ-ent versions of the bee, one realistic and one a mech bee, both of which I sculpted in ZBrush. As they were being layered in during the Photoshop phase, I rendered them in KeyShot, a 3D texturing and rendering application, as it has a great handoff with ZBrush. I can send large polygon meshes and not worry about weighing it down. The realistic bees ended up small in the frame, but our mech bee was a larger key element in a couple of the shots.
DPP: Let’s take, for example, your Postcard and the Empress of China image.
Ransom: That’s from our Rough & Ready Sideshow project. We did a whole series on sideshow imagery, taking the idea from the sordid past where these exhibitions exploited people as carnies, which is an ugly part of our history. We wanted to turn it around, so we explored how we could empower the characters. We wanted to create imagery that was still dark-hearted but where all the characters in it were powerful and had a strong presence.
Mitchell: Where they have ownership over their own identity.
Ransom: That series was shot on semi-practical sets. The subjects were actually live characters with make-up and wardrobe and shot on a wooden floor with a blank canvas hanging behind them, and the backgrounds were digitally painted. In some cases, where the characters themselves had curious qualities, such as the mermaid’s tail, those were sculpted in ZBrush and output through KeyShot to layer in with the captures in Photoshop. The results are a combination of practical sets and props, practical photography, and digital painting and CG components that were added in post-production.
DPP: What’s the idea behind your image of a family boxed into a very tight space?
Mitchell: We were hired by Transparent House, a company that creates digital backgrounds and CG walkthroughs for architectural work. They also do advertising work, and they needed to create funny cramped living situations.
Ransom: It was a conceptual advertising project for spacious condos that are on the outskirts of San Francisco. In San Francisco, like New York, it’s hard to find places that are roomy.
Mitchell: We were tasked with creating the antithesis.
Ransom: Jason is great at directing talent and creating these funny moments. We went to the company’s downtown San Francisco studio and photographed the people against a white seamless sitting on generic pieces of furniture. They had pre-built the tiny apartment spaces in CG, and I was compositing live on-set to make sure we were getting everything.
DPP: What photo and lighting equipment are you working with?
Mitchell: Mostly with a Nikon D800 with either a Nikkor 50mm 1.4G or an 85mm 1.4G lens and Profoto studio packs and heads with a variety of modifiers, such as their octabox and beauty dish. I’ll often employ larger rags when possible, 8x or 12x frames with a 1/4 grid or silk for a large source. We use gels to get the light to match the concept. For example, one of our most popular fine-art images is called “It will be Ours.” A woman—representing nature—reaching toward a child watching TV. The woman is bathed in warmer sunlight compared to the kid who has this sort of blue TV light on him. We have behind-the-scenes images from this series on our process website, called Fake Believe, fakebelieve.net.
DPP: So you try and work with CTOs and CTBs and other color temperature gels rather than doing major correcting or adjusting in post?
Mitchell: Garbage in, garbage out. We want everything to kind of be where it’s going. We then do a lot of work
in post to push it along. We don’t want to have too many light pollutions going on unless they’re intentional.
Ransom: Which is one of the reasons we rarely use greenscreen, which tends to have a lot of spill off of them. We prefer using white, gray or black seamless. The black and the gray often become our shadows. We’re creating a natural light even though we’re creating things that are very unnatural. Jason sets the general light for the story. That’s where we stay true all the way along the process.
Mitchell: What I capture in the camera is one of the better ways I can communicate forward what I would like to see in the final. All the final finishing is done in Photoshop. I’ll take what I’ve done in CG and render it out as parts, which be-come layers that work in Photoshop.
Ransom: There’s a designer, Nicolai Grut, who makes GrutBrushes. It’s a brush set for Photoshop that’s gorgeous. I can’t say enough good things about them. Watercolor, oils, dry brush—you name it—we use them for texturing shadows, sparkly light and grime since they’re very organic.
DPP: How are you outputting your fine-art prints?
Mitchell: We print most of our work out on an Epson 7890 using the Moab Lasal Exhibition Luster paper and their Slickrock Metallic Pearl, which is great. The Moab Metallic has been great for the Sideshow series because there’s an extra dimension to the paper. The areas that are bright white almost feel, dimensionally, like they’re standing off of the paper. We’ve printed as large as 4 by 6 feet.
Ransom: There’s a beautiful luminance to it, almost like a tintype.
Mitchell: For a figurative series I have, I’ve been using Museo Max matte paper for its fine tooth and excellent DMax for the larger prints, and the Moab Entrada 4×6 cards have been nice to create small prints for sale or as giveaways.
DPP: How did you meet?
Mitchell: We were working together in the Bay Area. I was working as a cinematographer, occasional director and editor for the motion world.
Ransom: My background is in art directing in the corporate world directing photo shoots. Jason encouraged me to get into filmmaking. “You should get into production design, you’d like it.” He was right! After working together on a few motion projects, we thought we should focus on single images because we could make so much more in one image than we could make with a whole film in terms of detail and grand scale. They always say do the work you want to do for your portfolio. We did. Some of it’s commercial and some of it’s a bit unsettling and more appropriate for the fine-art world. Both speak from our hearts.