The dollar store is a place with the most unfortunate collection of landfill, a last-ditch effort to make sales in a consumer world driven to the cheapest possible option.
I’m always surprised the kinds of weirdly failed inventions that while sometimes useful, are just slightly off the mark. Admittedly, there’s a lot of things to find in such places that make a creative’s DIY life much easier and opens the doors to possibility.
I was on a quest for glitter and a container to hold said pixie dust. My fellow explorer was joyfully skipping down the aisles, picking up random shit that was intentionally far left field from glitter, and shoving it passionately in my face for inspection.
A pink fuzzy scarf flies at me “Will this work??” A few moments later a strangely stuffed valentines bear, “How about this?”
Finding the craft section, he realized I was focused on Tinkerbell left overs, and he slinked off to another part of the store. A short while of digging through bottles with names of Princesses I’m now too old to know, I found what I needed and proceeded to the next stage of the quest: Find my friend and escape the dredges of base-line consumerism.
Imagine the expression on my face when Curtis hopped around the corner of the store with a tiny plastic sword and shield in his hands. “We should do a photo with this!”
“What kind of photo?”
“You know the kind that you do… Let’s make it badass and everything, except it’ll be a shitty toy sword and shield that’s clearly way undersized and cheap! It’ll be hilarious, and my mom is going to flip.”
I started my mental analysis of how to turn my adventure photographer friend into some kind of barbarian or Viking skull crusher with a cheap toy. This is a guy who admittedly is a legitimate badass. Curtis spends most of his time photographing in some of the harshest conditions on earth, documenting remote cultures and extreme sports in the polar regions. Shaggy haircut, knit sweater, beard grown only from a lack of caring enough to do it every day, and he’s in good shape due to his lifestyle choices to disagree with gravity by climbing up vertical rock faces for fun. Our limitations would be the fact that we were nowhere near my personal collection of wardrobe or any designer who could contribute to the design, and it would be impossible to get much shipped to us in the limited amount of time we had to complete this idea. I would have to make a look out of what we could find locally or within my own suitcase.
Like any good video game, instead of staying true to conquer my original plan and slay the glittery dragon, I was firmly thrown into a far more interesting side quest. Now, let me preface this entire thing with a few notes: I am absolutely awful, awful, awful at sewing, hair styling, makeup, and understanding draping. But I do know what I like, just very unsure how to make it happen outside of digital compositing.
I had to visualize what I wanted Curtis Von-Headsmashy to look like. My personal aesthetic tends to drift towards the brutal and northern European type. As a result I’ve consumed an overabundance of games, movies, shows, and stories from when it was considered spectacularly uncool to be reading about a guy with a long beard and hair, swinging an axe into some dudes face. A mental checklist of cheap fabrics and where to source them from popped in my mind, like some kind of cape, something for his hips, and hand wraps. A browse of the local second-hand shops left us shy of even the most basic of options, but some bed sheets could suffice if all else failed. I could buy a cheap white one and soak it in a bucket of tea to stain the material then run at it like Edward Scissor Hands and hopefully cut something that looked sort of convincing. I briefly considered photoshopping on the armor from other people I’ve shot, but decided that would only be my last-ditch effort.
His hair had to be longer, that was a given. Yeah, it wasn’t uncommon for shorter hair to be a possibility, but if I was gunna transform someone, I was going to see how far I could push it. I browsed Amazon.com and found some really cheap synthetic hair extensions, and picked a shade of brown that I thought might be close. Turns out, Chestnut brown is actually pretty red according to this company (and maybe it just IS that red, and I don’t know anything about the names of colors??), so when the extensions showed up I knew I was going to have to either color match the extensions or Curtis’ hair once they were installed. I could have gone with a wig, but I don’t like the hairlines on wigs, so unless they have a heavy fringe, I try to avoid them. And a heavy fringe in this case would have been weird.
His cape was one of my black wrap dresses we folded in half and draped on his shoulders. It has a lot of fabric because I like to lie to myself and say I wear it to feel sexy, but the truth is it’s designed to hide the fact that when I go out for dinner, I do not order a fucking salad. Who knew my eating habits would one day actually have value to my photography career. To secure it, the black material that’s in an X across his chest, was a yoga strap he had sitting in the hallway.
The fur on his shoulders is one of my treasured Spirit Hoods that I wear when it’s cold out, which is most of the year where I’m from in Canada. I was going to have to edit out the ears and maybe do some cloning work to make it believable but I tucked the little paws under his arms back into the yoga strap to sell it a little better.
The hard part was what to do with his hips. I spent a couple days wondering this, and settled on folding another one of my dresses in half and securing it at the back with a belt. It’s not like I was going for anything that was super hardcore authentic to history or anything, I just wanted to turn someone into a version of themselves they didn’t recognize when they looked in the mirror for under $50.
So now I had the outfit looking roughly the way I wanted it, and the hair would be convincing enough for a photograph, the makeup had to be decided. We hit the local shops to browse the makeup section and I watched with pleasure as my normally outgoing and playful friend found himself far out of water, looking rather uncomfortable. More bottles of tints and textures to appease the Gods of consumerism and insecurity, I found a small dark brown palette of cream and powder shadow and some NYX lipstick that looked about the right shade of blue.
I’m willing to say Braveheart got the unintentional inspiration for this look, although I don’t really think I did it great justice. That movie along with a few others came out around the time I was trying to figure out what kind of man and lady thing I thought was attractive, and something about historical looks lit me up like a Times Square Christmas tree. A bunch of grimy humans running down a hill in skirts with pokey things, war paint, and long shaggy hair to hammer the crap out of someone else doing the same thing just doesn’t get old for me, despite my opinion on their questionable military tactics.
I brushed brown shadow around his eyes, brows, and contoured his face as best as my below average Instagram nightmare MUA skills could muster. Then I covered my palm with the blue NYX lipstick and smeared my hand down his face.
A small note here about the NYX lipstick. If you ever use this on someone’s face, be mindful to keep it out of their eyes. I’m not an MUA but I’ve never thought getting lipstick in the eyeballs was a safe thing to do. Also, it’s a complete bitch to wash off. I went to the bathroom to wash the blue off my hands, and after a horrifying 3 minutes, I realized I was just going to have to commit to looking like I’d slapped a Smurf. Curtis’ eyes went wide with fear and choked out “Oh no, am I going to be STUCK with this on my face for days?!” to which I replied with my most confident fake confident voice ever “It’ll be fine, we can get it off with makeup wipes. I think. We can also try oil. Or rubbing alcohol. Worst case, we can just wait for your skin to fall off…”
Turns out it’s probably designed to survive your entire meal at the Last Supper, and without a few proper makeup remover wipes, that stuff will stain the hell out of your skin for days. If you happen to get this stuff in your eyeballs rinse them out with clean tap water or eye wash solution, then apply eye moisture drops to the affected eye after it’s all rinsed out (that being said, according to Google and my MUA friends, NYX is actually safe on your eyes, but I’m just super paranoid anyway cause eyeballs and all…).
Look and makeup achieved, trophy awarded, proceed to next level: Lighting and location! Do you think an adventure photographer has a large collection of strobes and modifiers and a sweet ass studio to shoot it all in? Well, maybe some, but not in this case. He did have a living room though, that had white-ish walls and a strobe that could be fired from a stand at the also white ceiling. I’ll admit luck at this one, as many homes do not have white walls or white ceilings. Worst case scenario I was going back to the dollar store to find some white foam boards or construction paper and attach them to the walls and ceiling. We cleared a section of the wall and had our studio.
Like many of the crazy adventure types I know, Curtis isn’t exactly the 6’5 giant I wanted his new character to look like. I chose a 70-200mm lens because the compression would make his body look wider than if I had used a 35 or a 50, and put my camera on a tripod just in case I wanted to composite multiple poses together to make one shot. I connected the Canon 5D MK3 to my laptop and booted up Capture One.
Cue hilarity and extremely awkward posing.
I didn’t know what kind of background I was going to pick yet, but I figured it would be something I’d shot from one of my travels in Scotland. Once the awkward photography stage was done, I made my selections, did base corrections in C1, like clarity and skin tone and moved over to Photoshop.
“Jeez, we probably shouldn’t have had that giant meal right before taking these photos, huh?” as Curtis laughed. It makes me feel good that it’s not only women who notice this about themselves. Can’t say how many times I’ve had modelling gigs where I’d skip a meal before a shoot just to avoid the inevitable food baby cause I fucking love eating.
Digitally, I cleaned up the hair clips and some skin with the clone tool and some frequency separation, matched the hair colors using a soft light layer, and liquefied out the giant dinner. I cut Curtis out of the image by selecting by color range and replaced the hole-ridden wall with a shot of the Fairy Pools I’d taken in the Isle of Skye a couple years prior. I also added some dirt by creating a new blank layer over the image and put the blending mode on Multiply. Then I used texture brushes at different opacities to make him a little less clean. I could have done it in real life, but let’s be honest, I didn’t want to get my dresses or fuzzy hat covered in mud. Yes, dirt looks different if you do in real life, but in this case I didn’t really care. Color corrections were done in a random, late night flurry of curves, selective color adjustments, and some very non-sensical Adobe Camera Raw slider shoving in the Hue Saturation Luminance area. I didn’t have a color palette picked out for this shot, as I was merely just following whatever I felt looked ok at the time. Finished off with a LUT color profile and some sharpening using the Smart Sharpen filter.
With that, Curtis Von-Headsmashy was complete. We high fived each other and after a pause, I gravely looked his face and muttered “Now, let’s figure out how to get this shit off your face.”
Hair Extensions: $20
NYX Lipstick: $9
Rimmel Brow Powder: $9
Hair Gel: $2
Hair Clips: $7
We could have used my own makeup, but not being trained in how to keep someone’s eyes safe, we just purchased new stuff. I don’t have the best luck when I’m bending the rules, so when it comes to keeping important things like eyes safe, I’m probably a little too careful and I’m alright with it.
I think we grow more when we limit our options than when we are allowed to have access to everything we want. Limitations push ingenuity and out of the box thinking. I’m sure someone out there will whine and say they don’t really like the image, the costume isn’t believable, or that anyone who knows Photoshop well can turn anything into something, but that’s not really the point. I think anyone can learn photography, and I think most can learn to composite if they want to. The information is out there, in more techniques and options than I have fingers and toes. It’s really about what we want to spend our time doing, and what our limitations are and how we work around them with the strengths we have. That being said, I can’t wait for the next round of brutal barbarian men and women shoots when I actually can get my hands on proper H/MUA and designers, and shoot in a big, proper studio. But this does go to show that we shouldn’t be limited by what we think we lack. Push yourself.