I don’t really enjoy horror movies, but…I have been a fan of the improv comedy group Blood Squad for years—since early 2007, I think. They’re straight-up amazing, and I don’t say this of many things, but I couldn’t enjoy them more even if squirrels were involved. (I really get a kick out of squirrels.) The next time you’re in Seattle, if you have the good fortune of timing your visit during one of their runs, you should really make good on that opportunity.
Blood Squad consists of founding members Elicia Wickstead and Brandon Felker—both longtime improv performers and instructors—as well as Molly Arkin and newcomer Jon Axell. All four are incredibly talented and together form an improv group quite literally unlike any you’ve ever seen. Blood Squad builds their funny out of the horror movie genre(!), and they do it in a long-form improv format. That means that at the start of each performance, the group takes a suggestion from the audience for a horror movie that’s never been made (say, “Killer Prom at Murder High” or the very festive “Santa Claus Your Face Off”), and then they just…go. And not for a series of short sketches, like ten minutes at a time, but for an entire show running somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 uninterrupted minutes. Each group member invents several characters to play, and every one of them enjoys a full story arc during the course of the performance. They narrate character, set, title, and action descriptions from the improvised “script”, and when the time comes, they off themselves and each other in the most graphic (yet not) ways they can dream up. It’s all done without sets, props, costumes, or anything else typically associated with theater or film, though they do usually have a guest at the side of the stage performing improvised mood music during key moments. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard enough to do without worrying about being funny, and these guys are effortlessly hysterical. Every. Time. I swear I never get tired of watching them pretend to kill each other, and seriously, I can’t recommend them more.
I think it was in 2007 that I introduced myself and asked if photography was of interest to them in their promotions. They had been using, and would continue to use, brilliant illustration and design work done by local artists Devin Sheridan and Alex Thomas. That worked really well because the shows in each of their runs are unified by a single horror sub-genre (summer camp slasher, haunted house, psycho hillbilly, zombie, etc.), and Devin and Alex would draw up a poster for each theme. It worked so well, frankly, that I actually wondered if they’d be interested in having photography. It was decided, though, that promotional images of the actual group would be good too, and so it happened that Blood Squad and I collaborated a little later in the year. That’s when we came up with the morgue headshots below, which I still love today.
Blood Squad’s founders: Michael White, Elicia Wickstead, and Brandon Felker (2007)
With a new official group member and the departure of Michael, Elicia got in touch in September and asked about the possibility of doing a new shoot to reflect the changes. The idea this time was to photograph them in the woods somewhere, near dusk or at night, with the four of them emerging or having already emerged from a grave. They’d look dashing and done up, yet still bruised and battered (beautifully done by hair and makeup artist Jana Hutchison), and looking either annoyed and inconvenienced or simply non-plussed and blasé about the situation. I liked the concept a lot, but it was clear right away it wasn’t the kind of thing we could just casually shoot. More on that shortly, but first, here’s the final image:
Left to right: Blood Squad’s Brandon Felker, Molly Arkin, Jon Axell, and Elicia Wickstead
If you’re interested in reading about the production of the shot, then by all means read on. If not, have a great day and don’t forget to see Blood Squad. Their next show is at the Balagan Theater at 8pm on December 22nd. Be there.
So, when Elicia presented the idea to me and asked if it was do-able, I did the same thing I always do (the same thing any photographer does, frankly) when asked to do a shoot that poses problems not encountered before. I said, “Sure, absolutely, totally” and then set about figuring out how to do it.
As is often the case, one of the first things to sort out is finding the right location. We wanted something that appeared remote but wasn’t. We wanted trees, but we also needed a good amount of open, uncluttered ground. In my mind I had this idea that they were buried on the crest of a hill that looked out over nothing but wilderness, and that they stood out against this dark and sort of ominous sky. I was sure such a place existed but had no idea where to find it, and knew that wherever it was, it was likely to be far enough removed from Seattle city limits that shooting there wouldn’t be practical anyway. And who knew if we’d get good clouds on the day of the shoot? Pretty much right away I struck the possibility of finding a perfect location that had everything. What made the most sense to me was finding a suitable foreground (one with trees, open space, and a clear horizon line) that I could drop in front of a totally new background of mountains, trees and sky, which I would shoot later.
Seattle’s Woodland Park was a no-brainer to check out (although honestly I wish I’d thought of it a little sooner), and it did in fact have a great spot with scattered medium-size trees and lots of bare earth. Well, almost bare—there was the small, half-hour matter of raking away several inches of fallen leaves. When I saw it, though, I knew. If I were going to bury someone, or four someones, I’d definitely do it there. Here it is, in a photo taken after a brisk raking. Yes, that’s a dog park in the background.
Woodland Park—a fine place to bury a body. Or four.
You might notice a couple changes I made to the foreground in Photoshop, namely the removal of the two trees on the right. Behind and to the left of the main foreground tree is another tree just barely peeking out, which I also removed because it was visually confusing. To the right of the main foreground tree is another, slimmer tree that I nudged left a little bit so it would frame Brandon and Molly a little better. And then I copied the main foreground tree, reversed it, and put it in the far right of the frame to balance out the composition.
The background image of the trees and sky I found while scouting in Sand Point. At the top of a residential street, I could stand on my poor car’s roof and shoot a clean skyline above the houses.
The skyline in Sand Point, as it existed before my landscaping work in Photoshop.
I darkened the sky, of course, and flipped the image horizontally. The reason for the flip was to make the light part of the sky line up more closely with the rim lights on the Blood Squad members, as though a setting sun were creating them. I had to carve up the background a bit and shuffle pieces of it around, hiding the seams behind the trees in the foreground image. That was necessary to make the treeline coexist with everybody in the shot, and not intersect in a distracting way behind anyone. I also made the treeline dip down behind Elicia so her broken shoe would stand out against the sky.
After location, the second issue was the nighttime nature of the shot. You’re not going to have an easy time shooting something like this if you actually try to do it at night because, well, all your light is gone. Duh. When every last bit of natural light is gone, you’re left to bring any and all the light that you want and to try to work in the dark, which doesn’t work very well at all. To do it at night would mean filling in considerable shadows and dimly lighting a pretty large area, and good luck with that without big lights on lifts. The simple(r) answer is to shoot during the day, and manipulate the color and density later to make it look like late evening. Here’s the shot with all the shading, but without the nighttime color layer.
The edited photo, minus the color.
I went with the Profoto 7B for lighting. I love my Paul Buff Einstein monolights, which I use for most things and would have used for this, were it not for the fact that I needed more output than their 640WS. I lit everyone from camera right with a four-foot octobank at the top of a rather high stand, and used a softbox from camera right, about three-quarter rear, for a rim light. The ambient light from the afternoon sun filled it all in.
Opting to shoot in a park meant the hole in the ground would be a problem too. I didn’t want to dig a hole in a public park without asking but at the same time, I didn’t much want to ask, either. It didn’t seem like a lot of good could come from that, so it made more sense to me to shoot Jon elsewhere. We laid some dirt down on the ground at the park to make a burial mound, photographed that, and then after shooting outside moved the party to my studio. Jon was great, and ran through a series of expressions and actions that were as entertaining as they were varied. Really, just the kind of model you want. Here’s an outtake showing the studio setup for the hole shot:
I totally almost used this frame.
I copied the camera angle and lighting from the outdoor shot as closely as possible, using the same high octobank and softbox rim. To Jon’s right, camera left, was a 4×8 sheet of white foamcore to do what the sun was doing, just filling in the shadows. The foamcore behind him was only there to make it easier to cut him out in Photoshop. It’s the same idea with the dirt he’s leaning on—it makes blending him into the scene a world simpler.
I photographed Molly and Elicia in the studio as well. Shooting them on location was worth trying, and we did, but it was cold at the park and the soft ground made it difficult for them to stand in heels. It wasn’t a problem. I’d kind of figured we’d need to shoot them inside anyway so we had budgeted time for that. Like Jon, I cut them out, placed them into the scene, and drew reasonable shadows behind them. Obviously, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of shadows when you’re doing this kind of thing. If you get them wrong, or worse yet don’t add them at all, you’ve lost. See what I mean?
A shadow fail. There are few sadder things than poorly executed Photoshop composites.
And that’s pretty much it for the broad strokes. The rest was mostly detailing, because I’m kind of detail-oriented. The smoke was added in Photoshop by blending a couple smoke brushes I found online. I also added the color to the end of Brandon’s Nat Sherman cigarette with a Hue/Saturation layer set to Colorize, not necessarily because I think it shows up, but because it was the right thing to do. It only takes a second.
I broke the heel on Elicia’s shoe in Photoshop. Also, the shoe was entirely black on the inside, and while it was still clear she was holding a shoe, it didn’t read immediately the way I wanted it to. I added a liner, which I think looks way better.
It’s a lot of work but I actually enjoy the process as much as the result. Visualizing a concept, breaking it down, solving it, photographing it, and bringing the elements together over a cup of tea and some good music (a lot of Rolling Stones and Black Keys for this one) on a rainy November day is definitely my idea of a good time. Big thanks to Blood Squad for being amazing, and for coming back and giving me this project to chew on. It was a blast, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.
The final image, again.