This site is dedicated to sharing behind-the-scenes images and how-to guides. That’s a pretty unusual approach to take in the art world – I take it you don’t follow the belief that ‘a magician must never reveal his tricks’ then? Do you think this attitude towards sharing should be embraced by other artists?
Yes, we hear that a lot. Though we can’t speak for others, we believe knowledge should never be hoarded and inspiration should be celebrated as the very fuel of innovation, exploration, and creativity. It’s imperative for any creative inventor to have original ideas, but it’s also necessary to have skills and an ability to turn concepts into reality. We are not giving out blue prints that can be followed to the letter, rather we are sharing our experience with materials and explaining our overall process. We hope that others will be able to interpret this information in their own way and create works of art that are unique to them. If by sharing what we do inspires someone to roll their sleeves up to build something AND it helps them develop a technique of their own, then that is a double win.
We are personally inspired by exploration and discovery and we look up to people who have created wholesale shifts in people’s world views just because they SHARED what they loved – people like Mark Frauenfelder, the founder of Boing Boing & editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine (the publication behind Maker Faire), Jeff Moss the founder of DEFCON (one of the largest hacker conventions) and Ron Turner of Last Gasp Books (publisher of “unpublishable” underground comics, erotica and art books). We adore fellow artists who share their techniques like Jason Freeny, Emi Slade, Dan Reeder, and Tom Banwell. We also read how-to blogs to learn from others and our favorites are propnomicon.blogspot.com and instructables.com.
You’ve cited the work of Italian and Dutch master painters as major influences. What is it about their work that you find influential?
Primarily we are drawn to the sophisticated lighting and shading of chiaroscuro that is in the works of Johannes Vermeer and Caravaggio. These painters used light & shadows both literally and metaphorically to further the narrative of their works. We believe the lighting of a scene strongly influences the overall emotional portent and by allowing areas to fall into darkness it furthers the tension and emotional discord that we find compelling.
Your shots typically have a strong narrative edge. What kind of themes and scenarios inspire you both?
For our narrative pieces, we try to combine scenes of lush grandeur with uncomfortable emotional themes that address issues of obsession, consumption, and longing. We are personally drawn to stories that provide cognitive dissonance. We seek out scenarios that are visually beautiful, but the message is disconcerting so that (hopefully) our work creates a need for emotional reckoning. Some of our favorite artists who constantly combine lush scenes with themes that prod the psyche are Joel-Peter Witkin, Ray Caesar, Erwin Olaf, Carolein Smit, Jessica Harrison, H. R. Giger and someone “Don’t Panic” recently featured, Eric Van Straaten.
For our portraiture, we seek to tell personalized stories about our subjects and fill their scenes with clues about their inner truths. This sensibility also holds true for our on-going artist portrait series. Though they are celebrities in our eyes, we do not put them on glorified pedestals, but rather we try to create a sense of connection and curiosity in the viewer. We hope that if a fan of theirs sees the portrait they think, “AH! this is what I had hoped this artist was like… it’s what I suspected all along.”
Tell us about your Artist Portrait series. What motivated you to shoot other artists?
SR: Back in 2009, after receiving encouragement from Boing Boing blogger David Pescovtiz, I began the art blog, Ransom-Notes.net. It’s focus is in-depth interviews and studio visits with artists. Because of these exchanges, I became friends with many of the artists featured. At first, Jason & I began to shoot portraits of these artists as a fun side project to honor the people we admire. It quickly proved to be an extraordinarily rewarding and stimulating exercise to constantly be able to collaborate with other creatives who were willing to throw inhibitions out the window and embrace the true nature of storytelling.
How long do your shoots usually take and what do you to do make your subjects comfortable during this part of the process?
JM: Our shooting days for our personal projects (narrative and portraiture) run about eight to twelve hours. But this doesn’t include the two to five days of set building and one to two weeks of concepting and producing. Each final image also takes about ten to forty hours (or more) of post work to finish it off. And on about half of the projects we’ll do a follow up shoot of small props and set dressing items to incorporate additional details. Each shooting day yields about two to four pictures. It’s my (Jason) job to make sure the subjects are as comfortable as they should be. In many ways I need to get at the subtle nuances that lie within their characters, and if they’re not comfortable with me, or the situation, then they’ll not give their whole performance. Mainly I try to be personal, involve them in the shoot and discuss the details with them. I try to have a conversation with them before the actual shoot day to go over some of the details and answer questions so they can better prepare for the day.
What’s the best part about working as a duo? Are there ever any creative differences?
SR: There are many, many best parts. It’s amazing to have someone to bounce ideas off of who has a vested interest in the results, and will give truly honest feedback. The only time it’s tough is when we’re hunkered down on a project, working really long hours for days on end – invariably the dishes get stacked in the sink and our laundry piles up – but then we’re able to just look at each other, know that the art we’re making is more important and shrug it off.
JM: I wouldn’t say we have creative differences, but we each have ideas that haven’t moved forward because both of us aren’t on board, which might never see the light of day… but that might be a good thing.
Creating such complex fine art images must take exhausting amounts of time and energy.
Yes. Yes it does.
What are your opinions on today’s prevalent instant photo culture, with millions of effort-free images being taken on apps like Instagram every day?
SR: I love it! Everyone is an artist inside, and it’s great that Instagram has encouraged people to just LOOK around them and share things they find interesting. We’re both happy Instagramers! Our work as Ransom & Mitchell is @ransom_mitchell , Stacey is @hld4ransom & Jason is @misalignedhead
JM: Those with a unique style and voice really stand out in this commodisation of images. Our ability to build and light a set helps us to differentiate ourselves from the crowd technically, as our style and themes do narratively.
What would be your dream shoot to work on, if you had an unlimited budget?
SM: I’ve typed three answers, and each time I’ve said, “Hmmm… that’s good, we should do that”. So, instead of getting specific, I’ll reiterate the various things that make us happy: sumptuous decay, heart-breaking circumstance and longing. We don’t need endless money to chase our dreams, just resolve and time. Hopefully, we’ll get to hang out on this earth long enough to escort all our ideas to the other side.
The questions above are via an article in “Don’t Panic” by Charlotte McManus.
Do you consider yourselves avid readers? What are some stories that inspired the tales you created for this series?
Yes and no. We wish we had more time to read long form narratives though it seems much of our time these days is devoted to computer screens. However, Stacey has been a long time fan of surrealistic horror writer Thomas Ligotti and is actively rereadingNoctuary. She also enjoys non-fiction, popular science by authors Jared Diamond and Mary Roach and other books relating to pathology, parasites and forensics (no shocker there, right?). We are presently reading the entire Harry Potter series aloud with our seven year old son and are just finishing book three. We all agree Sirius Black is a fantastic character (whose name is perfection). The next pile of books to tackle with him will be The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Reliving our literary childhood through him is such a treat!
It’s fascinating how you have used Tumblr and Instagram so thoroughly to document the work in the months leading up to the show. Do you see social media as a modern-day form of folklore?
We view it as more of a modern campfire where we share ideas, songs, and culture. We have always viewed our work more as a conversation than a statement, so it’s been natural to extend that into sharing the process of creating the props and other odds and ends that we use as part of our complete experience. We also have benefited so much from watching the process of others so we want to do our part to contribute to the community at large. We really feel like we are all in this together (artists, creatives… all humans) and the more we reach out to each other, the better we all will be.
Was there a lot of craziness on set? Care to share any stories?
There are some stories only to be shared in person. Truth be told, production days are long and there’s a lot of work to be done. If there is craziness, it’s only to blow off steam, but mostly they are designed to not be crazy. The only way you can work through the amounts of content we try to capture is by having everything organized before we start, and then move through them as efficiently as possible. As these are self-funded projects, we have to keep the crew and amenities as lean as possible, sometimes forgoing an extra pair of hands or two that would make things faster or more detailed. We’re lucky that we have overlapping skills that compliment each other’s strengths, and can help work as the support team for the other’s lead. That being said, it’s this level of organization that leads to the possibilities of finding that on-set synchronicity where those amazing little details come from that pushes the project over the top. Some folks do have an idea that our sets are something out of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus or perhaps an ’80s hooker and blow party … I’m afraid they will be startled to find that our type of magic only comes from focus and work.
There is so much to your process and we are constantly amazed by the things you guys are creating. Can you first start by describing how Ransom and Mitchell take an idea from conception to completion?
Our fine art methods focus on the development of a strong narrative that will draw a viewer into our imagery. Our scenes are often the time before or after conflict or they capture a painfully honest moment. The stories are born of our own basic desires and experiences, yet we dress them in a grandiose manner to breath passion and depth into the metaphors.
On all of our still and motion projects we both act as creative directors, developing the concepts together. After that, we divide the various responsibilities of our shoots between us. Jason is the photographer, and if we shoot a film, he’s the director and cinematographer. He handles casting, on-set directing of talent, composition and lighting. Stacey is the set designer/builder and prop maker, she usually oversees wardrobe, FX, make-up and styling. In post-production, Jason will finalize the composition and perform a rough composite. Stacey will then photo illustrate the still images, while Jason edits and colors our films.
We both spent a lot of time in the motion picture world so we approach the making of our photos in the same way. We conceptualize everything in advance — the cast, set design, wardrobe design, hair and make-up styling, lighting design, all of it. Nothing is left to chance. After the concept has been established, we bring in teams to assist us that are responsible for the various departments (wardrobe, make-up, special effects, lighting, etc.). Much like a film crew working on a feature film, though we are in charge of the realization of our ideas, without the help of skilled team members, we’d never ever be able to accomplish the complex scenes we so often strive to create.
The detail of your set design is astonishing. In a day and age where Photoshop and computer editing is prevalent and over-utilized, how important is it to you to accomplish as much as possible, if not everything, using sets, props, and in-camera functions?
It is important for us to do a lot of practical work when creating for a couple of reasons. Primarily, it’s because we believe lighting is important as we love the way it falls on objects to give them true dimension and can really help set the mood for a story. Secondarily, many of our notions, artifacts, environments, etc. just don’t exist. They only way to have a live human or animal in our setting is to make the set or prop for them to interact with. However, our works involve a great deal of digital painting and photoshoppery to achieve the effects that defy logic & gravity. We are huge fans of the digital realm and our work would not be possible without it.
How did you first get into set design, and at what point did you meet Mitchell and start working together as a team?
I got into set design by accident – it is not my training per say. I spent the better part of my 20s in the fashion industry working for a couple of corporate giants on their marketing teams. I was in charge of in store marking and fashion shoots for the various brands. It was good experience, but nothing I was particularly passionate about.
Jason had been working on film and commercial motion works since coming back to the U.S. In 2004, he was the cinematographer on a short film for a mutual friend of ours, and the project was in desperate need of a producer. He encouraged me to take on the role, reassuring me my years of art directing and producing photo shoots was the experience I needed. As it turned out, he was right; I was bitten by the filmmaking bug. I realized pretty quickly that my interest was not on the producing team, but rather in the art department. I loved getting my hands dirty to build fantasy worlds.
We worked on a variety of films together after that and found we truly valued and admired each other’s points of view and aesthetics. When we decided to open Purebred Studios, Jason suggested we begin shooting photographs together. We quickly realized we could apply all of the techniques and disciplines we had been using as filmmakers to create photographs that expressed our own unique style.