“Would you like to know a secret? Almost no one knows that all the clouds we see in the sky come from the same place. The brothers Korky and Nimbus are older than time itself – yet everyday, they sit in their floating pavilion and do what they love most, telling each other stories while smoking hookah.”
The Cloud Makers (full image at the bottom of this blog post!) marks the beginning of a new image series. As with all of these projects, I don’t know yet where it will lead me. It’s just as possible that I will dedicate the next couple of months (if not years) to it an it is just as possible, that I will loose interest. I always try and let my passion be in charge of what I would like to do creatively. Because passion, any passion, is the single most important gift we can have – as human beings and especially artists. If you allow your passion to get lost or broken – it’s very hard to get it back. Never stop to care for it, appreciate it, nurture it and shelter it from harm.
The Conceptual Backbone of The Cloud Makers
What do you know about weather phenomena? What if you were completely wrong (and I’m not saying you are of course 😀 ). What if there are actually a series of beings directly responsible for individual aspects of weather, rain, snow, wind, heat, rainbows, … I’m fascinated in an imaginary world where this might be true. The personification of nature is of course nothing new – in fact, all early religions where based on deities that represented certain aspects of nature. And even long after that, we all like to hear tales of such a mystical world.
There is one very specific lady that you could say was the spark for this project, even if I didn’t realize it in the very beginning. But if you’re familiar with the fairytales of the brothers Grimm, you likely have heard the tale of “Frau Holle” (english: Mother Hulda). By fluffing her pillows every morning, she made it snow down bellow on earth.
Mother Hulda gave snow a face, and a character! Mother Hulda isn’t portrayed as the ever so lovely and sweet godmother. She has character, she wants her things done a certain way and expects people to do so. But she is also a very good and decent person. The people in the classical fairytales are much less black and white as they are portrayed in Disney movies. The evil witch isn’t exclusively evil and the good king isn’t exclusively good. That’s what makes them so interesting.
My intent with this project is to expand on the idea of a Mother Hulda and tell the stories of some of the more important beings that are responsible for our weather and celestial phenomena. Korky and Nimbus are the first two, but I’ve got a lot more ideas 😉
The Creation Process
As with my other recent projects, I decided to build the world, in which the story would take place, with the 3D software Cinema 4D. Even if I’m now starting to get faster at creating things in 3D, it still takes a ton of time and a lot of attention to (or rather obsession with) detail. But the beauty of the process is that I can really start off with a very vague idea and as I progress my understanding of the world I’m building grows along with it. It’s a balancing act between composition – design – mood – lighting – staging – details and of course, storytelling. It took about a month to complete the background image. This is of course a long time and there are many shortcuts I decided against taking. For example, many 3D artists don’t actually model (= create) their own objects, they buy them ready-made (at best…) and simply set them up in a scene and render the result. This is fine of course, if somewhat lazy maybe. To me however, I think that the more of the image I create myself, the more you can claim the final image to be my own work. But even more importantly. Creating all the assets will also enable me to have them tailor-made for the specific story and composition envisioned. At a certain point, the objects in an image stop looking “thrown together” and start “forming a consistent visual unity”. Not immediately though. When I create assets for a scene, it’s sometimes hard for me to look at the final thing and say to myself: You know what, I think that flute asset just doesn’t fit into the scene – let’s get rid of it again. Creativity doesn’t always mean getting to create and invent new things, it also means having to let go of things that we’ve grown attached to during the creation process (“I have to showcase this, I spent so much time on it!”). Let the image decide if you are on a good path.
Progress and Flexibility – The Right Workflow
The challenge of creating a good image is that all the elements have to work together in concert: the composition, the lighting, the model, the expression, the colors, the readability, the details, etc. It’s very easy to get stuck in a corner where for example there are a ton of little details in the image, but the overall composition isn’t great – or when we have great looking lighting on a model, but it doesn’t work together with the scene and it’s own light sources (windows, lamps, sun, moon, …). In order for all of these elements to work together, a very flexible approach is needed. My workflow is very much inspired by Erik Almås. But I also learned a lot for digital painters: how they think about composition, how they build a scene and how hey keep things very “loose” in the beginning of a project, to be able to make rapid changes, mostly by sketching. I tried to make myself think like a painter. But I always ran into the same issues: finding the right location, battling with elements inside the frame that are distracting, finding the perfect props, catching the right time of the day and/or weather conditions. It can be quite frustrating. That’s why I started learning 3D software. It gave me back the flexibility I needed – along with some big caveats.
Today, my workflow could be summed up as: Basic story concept, general idea composition (perspective, who or what is the “hero” of the image, how do I lead the viewers eyes there), basic lighting design, story refinement, 3D asset modelling, (human) model search, lots and lots of revisions and tweaking (and getting feedback from peers), real-world props and costumes, studio lighting setup and test shoot, test composite, actual shoot, final composite. This workflow takes quite some time of course, but the advantage of it is that the project is constantly improving. And this is precisely what makes it so enjoyable. It’s like being immersed in a great video game or a good book!
Finding the Right Model
It wasn’t easy to find the right model for The Cloud Makers. I wrote to so many people and tried to connect with the Persian subculture in Zurich. But in the end, as so often, it was pure luck. Browsing through the webpages of Persian musicians, I found him! His name is Firouz Fallah and he is a master percussionist from Iran living in South Germany. Not only is he visually PERFECT for this story, but we also share a great common passion, oriental percussion. While I’m only a hobby percussionist, Firouz is THE Iranian Percussian authority in Germany and he even teaches students here in Switzerland. And if he isn’t the best-looking, most kind-hearted old soul I’ve ever met in my life…
My compositional concept, just like the rest of the image, came about through evolution. In the end, what carries the image are a couple of important key points.
There is first of all the lighting. It emanates from the center of the image giving the whole scene a mood of tranquility, intimacy and warmth. The placement of the light also decided the fact that there are TWO cloud makers (aka chain smokers) in the image. Backlighting, while being an extremely beautiful light setting sets some limitations on the body position, specifically the angle of the head. Would the person look forward, we would see almost nothing of their expression! So, due to the light placement, his head position needs to be sideways in order to show as much of his expression als possible. That’s why having two of them makes a ton of sense – they would look at each other!
I also made use of a little trick I learned from Gestalt psychology, continuation. The lights along with the other brightest areas of the picture (the lit surfaces of the two men) form a hidden oval shape. Neat little trick to add some harmony to the image!
Then there is also the question of how to “embed” the two in the scene – and how to lead our eyes towards them. First of all, the architectural elements in this image have the job of supporting the main characters – I know that sounds weird! But visually, the architecture should lead our eyes to the center of attention and that’s the two cloud makers. The two most prominent, twisted columns lead our eyes vertically towards them. And there is a series of shapes in the image that are like abstract houses that hold the two men within. This technique is often called sub-framing.
The three lights, along with the lit sides of the two men are the brightest parts of the image. Any photographer knows that that’s not actually possible. You simply cannot have a light source AND the surface that reflects that light at the SAME brightness. Technically impossible. Yet, if you look at old paintings, that’s precisely what you see. It’s an eternal tradeoff we visual artists have to make – either use as much of the dynamic range in our image as possible and create a contrasty, vivid, engaging image – or have realistic contrast ratios in our image. Anybody who ever tried to make a photo of a sunset knows exactly what I mean. What you capture in camera isn’t what you perceive. So for me it’s perfectly okay to compress the dynamic range of an image in order for it to pop!
Our eyes are drawn towards different aspects of an image: bright places, saturated places, sharp places, etc. By deciding on where these areas are and placing important story bits in this “hotspots”, we can exert a ridiculous amount of control over how the viewer navigates through the image. We can either make it very easy for him to find the important parts of the story, or we can intentionally hide parts in darker, less contrasty, less saturated parts of the image, maybe in order for the viewer to find them only after a while. The string instrument on the right wall is an example for this – most people don’t immediately see it there. And even less people see the actual percussion instrument leaning against the back pillar next to the Cloud Maker on the left ;).
As for color harmony, the primary color range in this image consists of warm colors in the red to orange-yellow color spectrum. The secondary color range that is complementary to the first one: blue to turquois (the sky in the background). Anyone remotely familiar with color theory knows this trick as “complementary colors”. And it’s the single most useful trick in the color harmony book. All other colors besides these two main color must subordinate themselves, meaning they must get reduced in saturation or shifted towards the primary or secondary colors. That’s the only way to make sure that nothing distracts the viewers’ eyes from the color scheme. Very effective.
The last important composition technique used in this image is separation. Separation is the staging of bright image areas over dark image areas (or vice versa) in order to separate them apart. This improves the readability of an image. It’s often hard to achieve good separation with frontal lighting, another reason why I often prefer back-lighting. Separation isn’t just a some theoretical side-note in my images. Separation is the fundamental approach I take to build an image and make sure that even at the size of a thumbnail the image is well readable. It even decides the selection process when culling through the images. I pick the shots that work even when the image is very small.
The Final Image
Due to a series of unforeseen consequences, it was a very busy year for me and my wife. And so it took much longer to complete this image. But I’m delighted to finally be able to show it to the world! I hope you like it too.
Software: Cinema 4D, Vray For Cinema4D, Adobe Photoshop
Camera: Pentax 645z @F/11, 1/125s, ISO 100
Lens: Pentax FA 645 120mm F/4
Model: Firouz Fallah