This was probably the most experimental and preparation-intensive shoot I’ve ever done. As many of these things, I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to embark on something like this, but a combination of a number of factors meant I could pull it off (albeit with quite a bit of expense and effort). First of all, though: my absolute thanks to the cosplayer Sairla, and her partner Eric for making this shoot happen. And I cannot express my debt of gratitude to my assistants Jane (The Photojaneic) and Itakoaya for agreeing to help me out on this crazy venture.
Given the scale and effort that an Ultimate Madoka cosplay demands, and the fact that the costume is one of the symbols for the climax of my favourite series in recent times, meant I felt a compulsion to accord it the proper effort to create a shoot which would replicate the ethereal settings during which this outfit is unveiled.
What ended up happening was a shoot where I took the obsession with “getting it right in camera” probably a bit too far.
In fact, some may rightly call me a Luddite for taking so much effort to do something which would be easily achievable in Photoshop. Still, I wanted to push the boundaries of what could be done in-camera.
Is it practical? Well that’s for you to decide.
Is it educational? Yes.
Is it fun? Hell yes.
The thing with Ultimate Madoka is that all of the action which involves her (in that particular costume) takes place in space. So just having a good location isn’t enough: you pretty much need a custom backdrop – to start with. That part was easy and obvious: I used a projector for the background. The projector, at 5000 lumens, pushed the image onto a black velvet background so I could get some true blacks. Of course, that also meant much longer exposure times to allow whatever little light is reflected back to “soak in” to the sensor.
But just having a projected background is kinda ordinary.
I realised I wanted light to become part of the costume – not just having LEDs or EL Wires in the costume, but actual light.
I also wanted to do a highly detailed light painting by replicating Madoka’s magical circle in the photograph.
But traditional light painting (referring to getting people to stand in the frame and write/draw things using a light) is overdone, and actually rather unappealing to me, because the lines were always scribbly and unruly. You couldn’t get precise and detailed effects with it (unless you were using rope-based painting techniques like spheres and such).
To achieve the precision and reproducibility in light painting, I turned to light stencils [Photojojo explanation].
The technical stuff behind it is pretty simple: print out the stencil design on a piece of paper, and lay it over a softbox. When the light in the softbox goes off, the white part of the paper lets out the light, while the black part of the paper (covered with ink, or better yet, toner from laser printers) blocks or absorbs the light. The camera only sees the lit-up parts of the stencil (given your settings are correct). Result: you can simply print out detailed designs, and stencil them onto your long exposure photograph.
A lot of application of light stencils thus far has been in the small scale: making characters appear to be walking across a road at night, or butterflies of various shades and sizes. For this shoot, I’d be aiming at somewhat bigger stencils, and instead of DIYing the softbox, I’d just use actual softboxes. The wings for Ultimate Madoka utilised the rectangular softboxes in the studio, while the magical circle would end up populating a 140cm octagonal softbox.
Since I actually suck at drawing (and proof will be given for this later on in this post), I got the basic patterns for the stencils by simply taking them from the Ultimate Madoka 1/8 figure. I took out one of the wings, set it on a black surface, and photographed it. I did the same with the card in the box, which contained the magical circle.
Using Photoshop, it was a simple matter of increasing contrast, playing with curves, and cleaning up the image to get a simple white shape on a black background. I then scaled that stuff and got it printed as black-and-white posters at OfficeWorks. It’s not the cheapest thing ever, but actually black and white large scale prints aren’t too expensive.
The only issue was that the magical circle, to properly fill a 140cm octagonal softbox, had to be printed on two A0 size prints, then manually stitched using clear tape (light neutral). I also cut along the stitch to reduce overlaps as much as possible – the black would block a lot of the light, but if light does come through, you want it to be consistent.
As it turned out, the attachment of the stencils to the softboxes during the bump-in process for the shoot took the longest. A mixture of black card material (from Reverse Garbage) and gaffer’s tape got the job done, sealing any light emitting parts of the softboxes except for the white parts of the stencils.
Our prep time for the shoot clocked in at around 3 hours, I think. The shoot itself took around 2 hours.
Above: a BTS photo of the set-up process, showing a completed magical circle stencil, and a partially blacked out wing stencil. Thank you to itakoaya for the photo!
I had two awesome assistants providing crafting labour (again, another weak area for me): Jane (The Photojaneic) and Itakoaya did the whole stencil attachment thing, and also helped with handling equipment (I had basically brought 80 percent of all the equipment I own). I did the rigging and stuff.
My current approach to the camera craft around light painting can be traced back to the EVA 05 shoot, where I solo’d a shoot which utilised sparklers, and put together the use of the Black Card Technique as a virtual shutter, in conjunction with light painting.
What the Black Card Technique does is it overcomes a lot of the traditional hazards of long exposure times: avoiding unwanted light trails, ambient light build-up and pollution, movement blur (to a degree), etc, because it effectively reduces the amount of time that the sensor is actually exposed to the scene. What it means is I can black out the sensor when I need some extended time to set up the light stencils.
The actual shoot process is planned for step by step to ensure the proper layers of the picture are imprinted onto the image in the correct order. I’m not going to replicate it here because it’d make this blog post too long, but the details, for the interested (and the masochistic – because you would have to be, to subject yourself to my sketches) are contained in the shooting recipe I made during my preparation for the shoot.
>> [shoot recipe] <<
Note that a few of the other experimental aspects that we tried out failed, and so the actual procedures differ a bit. For example, the smoke machine ended up not being used because it introduced too much complexity into an already-complex setup, and manual light painting the light ribbon and arrow did not yield good results.
Additionally, as I did not have a large-enough black backdrop, I was unable to use the magical circle stencil obliquely for the floating-in-mid-air kind of look (detailed in the first target shot) – nor could I go wide enough to utilise the bow flame template, which we had also prepared.
Anyway, if you are interested in any particular aspects of this shoot, feel free to leave a comment below, or message me on Facebook.