Friday, August 10, 2012

Smoke & Mirrors: The Ransom & Mitchell Interview

Ransom & Mitchell is the fine art nom de plume for the artistic collaborations of Jason Mitchell & Stacey Ransom. Director-photographer Jason Mitchell and set designer-photo illustrator Stacey Ransom create highly-detailed and visually-lush photographic portraits & scenarios. Their work is narrative in nature and draws upon the darker undercurrent that exists within all aspects of society. They aim to create worlds that cannot exist, through a unique combination of cinematic lighting, theatrically designed sets and an illustrative approach that is inspired by the Italian and Dutch Master painters. Their meticulous mind-set and skills were honed in their years of working on motion picture films and they still often create short films to accompany their photo works. 

They took some time out of their crazy schedule to answer our questions about their backgrounds, their individual and collaborative processes and shifting between the worlds of commercial and fine art. Their debut solo exhibition of photo illustrations will be on view at Varnish September 8 - October 27, 2012. Opening Reception: Saturday September 8, 6-9pm.

Ophelia, 2012
Archival Print on Paper
The two of you have created a very successful motion and photographic studio (Purebred Studio) that produces commercial work. What inspired you to begin doing portraits of musicians, artists and writers?

We both have histories rooted in photography, Jason as a photo & film journalist and myself (Stacey) as a Creative Director for a variety of 

international fashion clothing brands. From 2004-2009, we worked professionally in the commercial & feature film world in San Francisco, Jason as a Cinematographer and myself as a Set Designer and decided to open our own sound stage and studio in 2009.  We realized that having a shooting space at our disposal was a perfect opportunity for us to revisit our photography past. At first we were focusing on fashion, but our foray into filmmaking had nurtured our desire to be storytellers--so much of our imagery, though highly styled, has a strong narrative.  Around this same time, after receiving encouragement from Boing Boing blogger David Pescovtiz, I began the art blog, RansomNotes. It focuses on in-depth interviews and studio visits with artists. So I quickly became friends with many of the artists featured.  At first, we 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.

Scribe: Mike Davis (Artist Portrait Series), 2011
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Jason succinctly summed up the end result of all of Ransom & Mitchell’s artist portraits on his blog about a shoot with the mixed media artist Scott Wilson. He said, “We did him up as only we can, to embrace him, to embrace his work.”  How do you two collaborate, as a team and with the subjects of your portraits, to get to that, the exposing of the essence of the artist?

First and foremost, we admire everyone we shoot and anyone caught in our crosshairs is undeniably special. In some instances, an idea occurs to us that we feel would be a great fit for a specific person. In that case we will approach them and present the idea. Other times we just simply like a person’s creative contribution to the world and though we may no have an idea in mind, we approach them just to see if they might be interested in working with us. If they say yes, we file them into our brains and in time, an idea will bubble to the surface.

Once we have agreed to shoot with someone, the two most important parts of the process are establishing trust and understanding our subject’s point of view. We fiercely guard any conversations we have with anyone we shoot since we ask many personal questions to help us hone their scene. In the beginning, we spend a lot of time figuring out who they feel they are on the inside and how they feel the world at large views them. Within these answers we search for the visual cues that will tell their story. Sometimes we decide to place the person into a scene that resembles their work and draw upon the symbols they use most often. For painters, Mike Davis & Charmaine Olivia we literally created portraits that look like their paintings. At other times, the portraits are metaphors of the inner motivations and inspirations of the artist. We turned Alex Pardee into a Jumanji-styled monster hunter and Attaboy into one of his toys. 

Monster Hunter: Alex Pardee (Artist Portrait Series)2011
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At the end of the day, we strive to create portraits that are (hopefully) deeply heartfelt and meaningful. We believe the more honesty we can find and pull forward, the more the portrait will resonate for both the viewer and for the subjects themselves. Beyond that, we believe everyone on this planet has a story to tell and if we just ask the right questions we can find everyone’s inner hero. 

In creating these portraits, sometimes you two will shoot both still and motion portraits.  Is there something about the interplay of these two techniques that you feel you wouldn’t be able to achieve if it was just one or the other?

For the most part, when we shoot portraits we focus on photography only. We only add on a motion component if it will be a meaningful way to express the person. 

When we shot with artist John Casey, he expressed the desire to want to draw one of his characters on himself. Jason cleverly placed a 2-way mirror in front of our RED motion camera and filmed Casey looking into the eyes of the viewer while becoming a stranger version of his self. The film complimented his photo portrait and both were a part of Casey’s 2011 solo show “Tall Tales” which included a collaborative component “Hands & Pants” with about 60 other artists.

For Charmaine Olivia, we created two photo portraits and a short film prior to her 2011 solo show, “Ritual” at Shooting Gallery in SF. So much of her show was about the symbolic rituals of alchemy and the dark arts that it felt like a good fit to create a mystical space for her to move within. The film conceptually ties directly to her photo portraits and gives her HUGE fan base some really yummy imagery.

Vanitas, 2011
Archival Print on Paper
In addition to creating in-depth artist portraits, you create fine art photographic tableaus.  What is your methodology when approaching these fine art photographs? 

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. Two themes that perpetually surface are “consumption” and “alone.” The former often reveals itself as unwitting bargains or exchanges where our subjects are at the tipping point of questionable decisions, and the later is an exploration an the relatively quiet moments when one is truly alone and can allow their societal inhibitions to drop and find a place of raw honesty. 

As a matter of principle, we rarely tell the whole story; rather we allow our imagery to inspire a conversation. We prefer for our audience to shape the broader story from their own perspective and decide for themselves what the potential outcome of our subjects might be.

Absinthe, 2009
Archival Print on Paper
There is a lot that goes on behind the making of each photograph, from concept to sets, lighting, casting and styling to the actual mechanics of the shoot to the creation of the final product for public consumption. How are the creative duties divided between the two of you?

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.  I am the set designer/builder and prop maker, I usually oversee wardrobe, FX, make-up and styling. In post-production, I photo illustrate our photographs, 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 Day We Stopped, 2010
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Can you describe a typical day on the set and how that results in such amazing photographs?

On a typical shoot day, we might have a crew of three or a crew of fifteen. It really depends on the scope of the concept. We custom build sets, props and use real-life FX so we can create a reality of our choosing (so much of the content of our work defies the laws of gravity and logic.) Then we shoot photographs of everything we need for the final scene because for us, it's the way cinematic light hits actual objects that matters the most. The majority of these days are 10-12 hours long since we only have THAT day to shoot what we need.

During the shoot, we might capture between 300-1,000 images, but only 1-3 will make the final cut. Once we select our photos, they go through a great deal of manipulation in Photoshop. Many of our final images will have 20-100 layers of pieces stitched together. Though we do not use CG drawn imagery, we manipulate the photograph in a manner that requires drawings skills and a sense of form and we certainly rely on fine arts training to help further craft the light. We draw great inspiration from the great Italian and Dutch master painters and we employ the concepts of chiaroscuro constantly. It is our desire to create imagery that blurs the lines between photographs and paintings.

The process you describe is extremely intense and requires close collaboration. Talk about how you and Jason came to meet and become collaborators in both art and life…

We met in 1999 when we both moved to San Francisco. Jason was relocating from Japan where he had been working as a broadcast journalist for the US Navy and I had recently left my role as Creative Director for Columbia Sportswear for a partnership position at the branding and design firm VIA. We both were feeling the housing pressure of the boom and we actually met Craigslist searching for roommate opportunities. Needless to say, we hit it off, but realized we might like each other more than just roommates... by 2003 we were married.

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.
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.

We feel our wide variety of professional and filmmaking experiences honed our creative vision and gave us the foundation to create our own fine art work. We are fortunate to have a space where we can create our projects, and we are grateful for the collaboration opportunities we have with many Creatives (both in front of and behind the camera). Above all we are both extremely grateful to have a partnership that nourishes our creative sides, as well as our personal lives – we know it is a special relationship, and we never take it for granted.

BONUS: A Peek Behind the Curtain

By encouraging others to create what stokes their fires, we in turn are inspired to challenge ourselves to try new approaches in our own work. We also believe knowledge, passion and inspiration should never be hoarded and we are always appreciative when people we admire share with others.  We created a website called Fake Believe that is devoted to sharing behind-the-scenes photos of our shoots and many step-by-step breakdowns of how we do our work.

We often create pre-production creative treatments to help communicate our ideas to the team. Example 

A typical shoot day is illustrated in this Hi*Fructose Blog post on our shoot with Mike Davis. This was the size of the crew.

Examples of what we do to our images in photoshop here and here.