Behind the Scenes

Shooting the XoHo Ad campaign by Gidi Meir Morris

Oh no, we missed it?

The day before the scheduled shoot, after closing time, I went by Cafe Xoho on Mapu street in Tel-Aviv to drop off some equipment.

As I was chatting with the master Chef, Zoe Komarin, about the plans for the next day’s shoot, two American tourists walked in and, noting the chairs already piled on the tables, asked with a worried tone: “Are you guys still open?”.

When receiving the bad news that, no, the cafe had already closed for the day, one of the tourists made a saddened face.

"Oh no, we missed it?" he exclaimed.

Cafe XoHo has become more than just a coffee spot, it has become over the past three years a reputed and mandatory pit stop not just for tourists, but also for many Tel-Aviv based Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs  artists, musicians and creatives in general, generating a following of loyal regulars, yours truly included among them.

When an opportunity to shoot an ad campaign for the cafe came up I found my self at a bit of a loss - how do I reflect what XoHo is in a handfull of photographs?

The approach

I knew early on that I wanted this campaign to reflect to it’s viewers what makes Cafe XoHo such a powerful experience - the mix between it’s clientele and it’s visual vibe.

I consideredapproaching this project with a more documentary approach, photographing the real clientele, in real situations, but very quickly I realized that this would not allow me to achieve the visual precision I wanted nor would that be a good reflection of my skill set and striving to improve my portfolio, I realized, I would need to close off the Cafe for a day and stage the scenes I wanted to photograph.

The incredible Xoli Ormut-Durbin, owner and manager of Cafe XoHo, had made a decision a long time ago that in order to keep the Cafe’s staff energetic and happy it would be ideal if the Weekend was a rest time for them all. With that in mind, she keeps Cafe XoHo closed on the weekends.

This offered us a great opportunity- we could open the Cafe on a Saturday for the photo shoot without the Cafe actually losing a day’s work and without disrupting it’s clientele.

So we scheduled the shoot for a Saturday and I moved onto the next task - assembling my team.

The team

Putting together the team was easy.

When planning a shoot like this you need to think first and foremost- who would you feel the most comfortable working with?

A team member can be the most professional person in the world, but if you don’t like being around them, it will affect your ability to do your job as a photographer.

So I approached people I knew I’d feel comfortable with and which I knew I could count on their professionalism even if not necessarily on their experience.

In fact, I’ve found that a less experienced person can be much more professional than an experienced one, when given an opportunity that they have not had before. Keeping that in mind I approached people who are, much like myself, early on in their careers but which I already knew I trusted, based on previous interactions.

For my assistants I approached two photographers with whom I have developed great friendships with - Fashion photographer Eden Gvili and budding Photojournalist Danielle Shitrit.

For makeup I approached Yossef Ashkenazi with whom I have worked in the past and which did the makeup for another project of mine - the Queen Bitch.

For styling I brought on a new name on the scene, but a promising one, Tal Weismark, who proved herself a valuable asset through out the shoot.

Another addition to the team was one I had never used before - Videographer Shani Brill, who shot a behind-the-scenes video for us which in now in post production and should be ready for you guys to view soon.

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The shoot

The  Cafe XoHo photo shoot began early in the day as we had five frames to shoot and each frame had to be posed and lit in various ways as we planned on lighting individual actors separately and then composite them into the same image for every frame.

This meant we had multiple photographs to put together for every frame with five final frames in total.

The lighting setup was rather simple - a two light setup, consisting of a main light using a large 135cm diameter octa box, which gave a soft wrapping light which we used to portray a sun lit scene, not unlike the one which naturally occurs in Cafe XoHo on a daily basis, thanks to it’s large windows.

A second light, using a 44cm gridded beauty dish which we jelled yellow to resemble sun light, was used to create a nice rim light around our subjects mimicking the bright sunlight we often get from the direction of the windows.

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The experience

There are a few lessons I learned while shooting this ad campaign which I feel I should share.

  • Always have backups. While shooting the image of the three friends we found that one of our flashes, the one placed outside with the beauty dish, wasn’t firing with the main light. For some reason the radio receiver inside the unit simply wasn’t receiving the signal after which was only ten meters away.
    It isn’t clear why.
    At this point I pulled out the backup Elinchrom Quadra system I brought along. The Quadra is a battery powered flash system which provides a more powerful light than the normal strobe units that Canon provides and can use all the Elinchrom lighting modifers I use with my main lights, which are the Elinchrom 500BXRi flash units.
    The Quadra, which was there as a backup only, proved up to the task and worked flawlessly.
  • When you wish to portray friends - try and cast real friends.
    For the same image as mentioned above, of the two girls and the guy, we brought along three people who are friends in real life. This made their interaction in the image that much more convincing - because it was real and not acting.
    Same, obviously, applies to the “Family” image and “Creatives” image, as you can see in the following image and contact sheet.
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  • When you can - tether.
  • While shooting I was tethered to my laptop, which allowed my stylist, Tal, and assistants, Eden and Danielle, to keep an eye on my work as it came through.
  • Quite often they noticed things that I missed, as I was busy directing my subjects and was concentrated on their behaviour more than on the scene.
  • When setting up your crew - bring in friends when possible.
  • I wouldn’t have had such an easy time working through the long photo shoot if it weren’t for the fact that the crew was made up of friends whose presence kept me calm when faced with problems throughout the day.
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Results

The final images, which I feel portray exactly what Cafe XoHo is- a colourful, happy and homely place, are now being used by the Cafe for its own promotional needs and I can feel pleased not only with the fact that we managed to put together such a complex shoot, but also that we had fun doing it.

Here are the final images:

The making of Queen Bitch by Gidi Meir Morris

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Within commercial portraiture you’ll find many different subcategories.

When using this term different photographers may actually be referring to a multitude of different fields of work - celebrity portraiture, advertising, high school seniors, budoár etc. Put simply, anything which deals with the art of creating portraits of people which can be sold to a client could be referred to as Commercial portraiture.

There is a term used in Israel for photographers who deal with a handful of these subcategories, specifically portraiture of celebrities and people from the entertainment industry - Image photographers.

An Image photographer deals with a person’s public image, not to be confused with graphic image itself as portrayed by the photographic product, as it is seen by that person’s audience.

Each person’s audience is different - for a musician, for example, this would be both his fans (or target audience to convert into a fan base) and the people in the industry he wishes to work with, such as agents, producers and other musicians.

The Image photographer’s job is to identify what the person’s image should be and reinforce that using imagery.

In some form this subfield of photography deals with lying, but in a very deep sense, it can deal with showing the truth about a person, that very truth which that person’s audience simply hasn’t yet seen and the person needs them to finally take notice of.

This is where photographer Ronen Akerman comes in. Ronen has been in the industry for 25 years, can be credited for being one of the reasons for how well the Israeli photography industry is doing and I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a five session course with him in Image photography.

After an introductory session, in which we discussed the role of commercial portraiture in the entertainment industry, Ronen gave as the task of coming up with a concept that we would then have to produce and shoot in time to present at our final session.

The concept we had to each pursue was this- invent a character, for whom Ronen will then give us the task of producing a photoshoot, from concept to realization, where the goal of this photoshop is to create a “Public Image” for the character.

The idea is to simulate a real scenario in the career of an Image photographer.

Concept.

The character I invented was a make believe queen, of a make believe Israeli monarchy, within the context of the very real, and very topical, social protest which began three years ago and is still playing a big role in the public debate.

This queen, the daughter of the former king’s Hound Master, chosen by the then prince and now king of the Israeli monarchy, is in desperate need of a public relations boost, following some remarks she made regarding the people’s cry for help from the monarchy due to their financial plight.

To provide this boost, the crown historian, has been charged with the task of writing a biography of the queen, in which he defends the queen from the public criticism she has faced.

A small cherry I decided to add to the top of my cupcake of a character is the small fact that being the daughter of the Hound Master, she has two of her very own Great Danes who follow her around and act as her bodyguards.

Task.

My task was simple enough - photograph a cover for this book and a portrait of the author for the book’s in-sleeve.

Approach.

I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to shoot - an image which portrays the queen as a very regal character, who knows her place in society and reflect that, yet I also wanted to show how important her two Danes are in her public image. I came to the conclusion that to create this image I’d need to photograph her in a very dramatic light, something which made her stand out of her surroundings and decided to go with a gridded beauty dish with jelled CTO (= Color Temperature Orange), creating a soft but direct light to bring out her features.

As you can see in the following BTS photograph, I lit my model Jasmin, with the help of my two assistants, with a very close light from above,creating sharp dramtic shadows but still lighting her face in such a way that her beauty would strike at the viewer and her character more so.

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I realized very quickly that finding two Great Danes in Tel Aviv would be no easy task, let alone the logistics of organizing a day where the whole crew (assistants, make up artist and model) and both dogs would be available for shooting. That led me to the decision of shooting a single Great Dane in the studio and then composite her into the queen’s photograph separately, duplicating her to create two bodyguards, instead of one.

The problem with such an approach is that once you shoot more than one location you are going to have to tackle the problem of different lighting characteristics falling on your subjects which make the composite unbelievable and non-convincing.

To tackle this problem I took great care to reproduce the same kind of lighting in-studio as I’d encountered in the field when shooting the model.

As you can see in the following image, I shot the Great Dane, named Julia, on a white background which I overexposed using two boxed flashes to help with her compositing and lit her directly with a similar setup to Jasmin - a beauty dish, jelled CTO, just above eye level (which is lower for a dog than for a person… even for a Great Dane).

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Once I had Jasmin and Julia photographed the way I wanted, it was a simple enough task to composite the three characters (one of Jasmin and two of Julia) into the final book cover.

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As an additional option for my theoretical book publisher I photographed several more images which served as additional  art for the in-sleeve and back of the book.

In-Sleeve image

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Back image

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For the author I wanted someone who I could portray as a kind of Ernest Hemmingway, respectable bearded type, and though he insisted he saw himself more as a sort of Terry Pratchett, I decided to shoot yet another portrait of my father for this role.

In his case I wanted less of an even light than the beauty dish would provide and photographed him using an octagonal softbox made by Elinchrom which has a very deep build (hence the name- Deep Octa) which creates a dramatic light falloff which I feel adds more dramatic light than a normal softbox.

Knowing that I only have one light to work with, as I had to make it to my parents’ house in the country side with one backpack containing the flash head and battery, camera and lens slang over my shoulder, traveling by bus and train, I opted to use the setting sun as a second light - which provided a lovely backlight which seperated my father’s head from the background.

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Result.

Once all the imagery was ready, and a mock book cover designed in photoshop, I printed the cover on two large sheets of 25x30cm photo paper and used my skills using ruler and super glue to put together a nice book cover to give Ronen at the final class.

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