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October 2nd, 2014

“How Come This Stuff Isn’t Animated?” The Story of Mr. GIF

Pop star Miley Cyrus and the rapper 2 Chainz backstage at Jeremy Scott's S/S 2015 show at New York fashion week. © Mr. GIF

Pop star Miley Cyrus and the rapper 2 Chainz backstage at Jeremy Scott’s S/S 2015 show at New York fashion week. © Mr. GIF for Milk Made

Mr. GIF wants to animate the Internet. The creative duo has made photographing and illustrating GIFs—the 27-year-old bitmap image format that supports crude animation—their calling card. They’re the team that Marc Ecko, Evian and Transamerica tap when they need to quickly make strong, easily shareable moving images for whatever they’re selling. In just a few short years, they evolved from a pair of daydreaming MTV plebes to shooting Miley Cyrus and 2Chainz backstage at fashion week. To them, still images that move were obviously taylor-made for the Internet and its thousands of screens. But can you really make a career of making GIFs?

The duo, Jimmy Repeat and Mark Portillo, are college buddies. They studied advertising design together at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Their studies were almost irrelevant—Portillo didn’t even finish—but the renowned art and design school is where the two would meet. Less than seven years later, they would quit their jobs to make GIFs—the full-time for clients like and others. Even an insurance company.

Having gone their separate ways after school, Repeat and Portillo reconnected under the umbrella of Viacom, at MTV’s “Geek” vertical, which covers cartoons, comics and videogames. Doing research for work, they devoured the same comics, but were struck by the format’s limitations.

Maria Sharapova for Evian at the U.S. Open © Mr. GIF

Maria Sharapova for Evian at the U.S. Open © Mr. GIF

“We were like, ‘How come this stuff isn’t animated yet?’” Portillo remembers. “We read Akira and we were like, “If this background was giving me seizures, it would be so much better.’”

So they dreamed up a GIF comic over smoke breaks outside Viacom’s Times Square HQ, and quickly learned why animation was so expensive (it’s a lot of work!). They abandoned the book idea, throwing the frames they’d finished up on Tumblr. But they were having fun. Illustrations gave way to photos, and a thought: “How is the GIF better than the JPEG?”

“We saw the potential,” Repeat says. “Everywhere you look, there’s a screen.”

As relative neophytes—Repeat especially—they were intrigued by the technology of photography. They experimented with odd cameras well-suited to the medium; at first, digital models like the Fujifilm FinePix Real3D W3, but they would later become obsessed with the aesthetics of analog. Toy cameras like Lomography’s Pop 9 (a nine-lens camera that makes nine exposures at once) and ActionSampler (four lenses, four consecutive frames), even 3D film cameras like the Nimslo 3D. The multi-exposure cameras helped streamline their workflow—helpful, as they had to develop and scan each frame to animate their GIFs. They found creative ways to merge digital and analog, using a DSLR to make time-lapse clips of instant film as it developed. They have a lot of cameras.

Marc Ecko, founder of Eckō Enterprises, Mr. GIF’s first big client. © Mr. GIF

They spent their nights and weekends making GIFs and posting them to Tumblr for free. It wasn’t long before Mark Ecko came calling (tweeting, actually) with their first paid gig, animating his upcoming TEDx presentation. They powered through it in three days. “I think we made 200-300 GIFs in one night,” Portillo says. “It was intense.”

“That was the beginning of the end for our day jobs,” Repeat says. “Like, ‘Oh, this is what a good client’s like?” Ecko dug the work, and they started to get more gigs. They GIF’d the U.S. Open for Evian, and fashion week for Tumblr. By 2013, they had quit MTV, and would soon score a huge project: a year-long Tumblr promoting the San Francisco-based insurance company Transamerica’s “Transform Tomorrow” campaign.

The pair convinced Transamerica to send them across the country making GIFs of America’s cities. They flew drones over rooftop gardens in Detroit, Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota and, of course, San Francisco and the iconic Transamerica building. They booked a room at a luxury hotel with the perfect view for a 24-hour time-lapse of the skyline. Transamerica was skeptical of the format—until they saw the popularity of the first clip they posted. Now, when you go to www.transformtomorrow.com, their fancy hotel view of San Francisco graces the background, the current time of day reflected by the time of day in the 24-hour time-lapse they made.

A time-lapse GIF of the San Francisco skyline, that Mr. GIF made for Transamerica, prominently featuring their iconic headquarters. © Mr. GIF

A time-lapse GIF of the San Francisco skyline, that Mr. GIF made for Transamerica, prominently featuring their iconic headquarters. © Mr. GIF

Now certified pros, they’re still almost instinctively inventive with their resources. When a client that was supposed to fly them out and put them up in Austin, TX, to shoot a SXSW panel told them that they had to pay their own way, they got their drive down to Texas sponsored. Their friends at Tumblr would connect them with Transamerica, but it was the GIFs they shot on the trip to Austin that would help them land the gig. When a job for St. Ives took them to Hawaii, they stayed an extra week and shot Honolulu for Transamerica. Since they like to shoot film (which is expensive to buy and process), rather than go to a professional processing house, they trained the local CVS employees how to prep and cut their negatives, adding a healthy tip for their trouble.

One thing they learned early on is that new work leads to new work. They needed to show clients they could make the work, so before they had paid work to show, they just did it for free, and for fun. The fun shows up in the work, and it works.

September 15th, 2014

New $10K Grant Will Send Newborn Babies Home From Hospital As Photo Collectors

A new $10,000 grant to support programs that engage new audiences with photography has been awarded to Pittsburgh photographer Matthew Conboy. The photographer won the grant, which was established by the non-profit Crusade for Art, for a proposal to send newborn babies at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh home with signed prints from local photographers.

Conboy took his inspiration for the project from a program created by a local hospital. There, they send each newborn home with a “Terrible Towel,” the yellow towel waved by fans at Pittsburgh Steelers NFL football games.

“While I am a proud Steelers Fan, I believe that babies could be sent home with something else that could change their lives and the lives of those around them: art,” Conboy wrote in his proposal.

The jury that awarded Conboy the grant included Museum of Contemporary Photography curator Karen Irvine, Colorado Photographic Arts Center executive director Rupert Jenkins, and New Yorker photo director Whitney Johnson.

Irvine and Crusade For Art executive director Jennifer Schwartz hailed the creativity of Conboy’s idea in a press release announcing the award. “We are excited to award this grant to someone whose idea feels completely original and unique,” Irvine said.

Conboy chose 12 local photographers—including himself—to participate in the program. Their work represents a broad spectrum of photographic interests. The program will run for one year, and Conboy estimates the group of artists will send 3500 newborn babies home with an original artwork. He also hopes to expand the project to include other hospitals in the region “and beyond,” he says.

September 12th, 2014

Friday Fun: David Yellen Shoots on Location with a Snapping Turtle and Uninvited Alligator

10_COVERThis month’s PDN cover features Ernie Brown Jr., aka The Turtleman, posing in a swamp with a large, irritated snapping turtle on his knee. For photographer David Yellen, the shoot–to promote Animal Planet’s Call of the Wildman–was more harrowing than it looks.

It took place last February on the edge of a swampy pond in northern Florida. Location scouts had certified the pond as alligator-free. But Turtleman announced upon arrival that there was an alligator about. “We called bullshit on him, but he said, ‘See those air bubbles over there? They’re going to start moving.’ And five minutes later we saw the alligator’s eyeballs,” Yellen recounts. Animal wranglers took up their guard with alligator nooses. Turtleman, who specializes in ridding people’s backyards of unwanted reptiles, started diving for the gator. “He was saying, ‘I’m going to get this guy,”” Yellen says. “Luckily, he didn’t. It was a nine- or ten-foot alligator.”

With the alligator lurking around, Yellen struggled to get just the right picture of Turtleman holding the 80-pound snapping turtle. “I kept getting closer, wider, and lower,” Yellen says. “I was really pushing it.” Yellen, who had never worked with a snapping turtle before, didn’t know that large snapping turtles can extend their necks 12 inches or more. Behind him, the animal wranglers, the producer, and eventually Turtleman’s manager issued increasingly urgent warnings for Yellen to “watch out.” He was also looking through a wide angle lens, so he was getting closer to the turtle than he realized. “I thought they were being paranoid,” he says of the worried crew.

Finally the turtle got Yellen’s attention by taking a lunge toward the camera, and missing by not much. The resounding snap of its jaws unnerved Yellen, but he pressed on. “I was like, I don’t care, I’m going to get this. I just didn’t feel like I was getting it. I felt like it needed to be more intense, and I needed to try harder. So I got lower and closer.” He got so low that pond water finally flooded into his waders. “It was disgusting,” he says. With his camera—a Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One back—within half an inch of the pond’s surface, he finally got the image he was after. “It’s not an intense stare-down” with the camera, he says. “[Turtleman] is not totally connecting with me. He’s just out there in the wild, and it kind of feels like that.”

October 9th, 2013

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue a Key to Walter Iooss’s Access to Top Athletes

iooss coverWhen you’re trying to get access to top professional athletes, there’s no calling card like a steady gig shooting swimsuit models for Sports Illustrated.

Walter Iooss Jr, whom we interviewed in our October issue about his close professional relationship with basketball legend Michael Jordan, has been photographing sports and athletes for 50 years, and photographing the models for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue for about 40 years.

“You have to ingratiate yourself [with athletes],” Iooss told us. “I’ve done it for so long, so my reputation helps me. They [star athletes] already think you can do something, so you’re not wasting their time.

Then he adds, “The swimsuit issue is obviously a big help with all these horny athletes. They love that. It’s remarkable how I could walk into a clubhouse and photograph anyone, as long as I give them a phone number of someone (in the SI Swimsuit issue).”

Not that he ever does that. “I’m not going to give it to them. They have their people contact the [model's] people.”

But he shakes his head with wonder. “They think I can pimp for them. Some days I feel like a 69-year-old pimp. It’s disgraceful that they need me to find a woman.”

See more about Iooss and his work with Michael Jordan at PDNOnline.

September 11th, 2013

Video Pick: Chris Buck And Jimmy Fallon Get Surprise on Shoot for Variety

When we interviewed Chris Buck last year about his book Presence, which features a series of images in which a famous person is present in the frame of a picture but is invisible to the viewer, Buck told us that one of the secrets to his ability to deliver interesting editorial images is his lack of awe while working with celebs. “I’m definitely not precious about famous people,” Buck told PDN. “I’m making pictures for my clients and for the audience, and not for the subject.”

In this behind-the-scenes video of Buck photographing Jimmy Fallon for Variety we get to see Buck in action, convincing the late night host to work pretty hard for the camera. Check it out, and make sure you watch until the end. Turns out Buck isn’t the only one who is unfazed in the presence of a celebrity.

Related: Hide and Seek: Chris Buck’s Conceptual Celebrity Portraits

April 23rd, 2013

Eggleston to Photo Community: Don’t Bother Me

Reclusive photographer William Eggleston has deigned to take a few written questions from photographers, curators, and fans, and the questions, along with his responses, were published yesterday in British newspaper The Independent.

Among those who posed questions were Martin Parr, Nina Berman, Alec Soth, Jason Evans, Tate Modern photo curator Simon Baker, and Brett Rogers, director of The Photographers’ Gallery in London.

Eggleston’s terse, deadpan responses reveal so little beyond his disinterest in the exchange that readers might be left wondering: Why did he bother? One possibility is that he needs to come out periodically and remind everyone that he doesn’t talk about his work, so stay the heck away. That said, if Eggleston has to put up with the type of bizarre, irrelevant questions that he was asked (e.g., What building would you like to blow up?), he might be forgiven for hiding.

April 12th, 2013

Ballet and Skateboarding Mix in Limited Edition Decks From Henry Leutwyler

leutwyler-ballet-skate-decks-pulse

Earlier this year we wrote in our Exposures column about Henry Leutwyler’s project photographing the New York City Ballet. One of the photographs in his book and exhibition depicted the grit behind the grace of ballet, contrasting a ballerina’s bandaged and bloodied bare right foot with her left foot as an audience might normally see it, wrapped in a pointe shoe.

Leutwyler, an appreciator of both the artform of ballet and the sport of skateboarding, sees the parallels between the two, so he created a limited edition set of decks from the image. Check them out, here.

March 12th, 2013

Photog Uses Crappy Client Photos to Get Hired

crap-and-snap
Photographer James Hodgins of Sudbury, Ontario has come up with a creative visual solution for a perennial marketing challenge: Convincing clients who think they can shoot their own photography that they will get better results if they hire a professional photographer.

“People are visual. When you start talking lights, they tune you out,” Hodgins says.  One day it dawned on him to invite a client to tag along on a shoot with her own camera. “I said, ‘You take the picture you would have taken, and then I’ll take mine the way I would.”

And that’s how his Crappy vs. Snappy showcase was born. He dedicates a page on his Web site to side-by-side comparisons of his pictures and clients’ pictures, mostly of mining and industrial subjects. On a regular basis, Hodgins features Crappy vs. Snappy updates on his blog.

Hodgins says it is one of his most effective sales tools. “It’s all about educating the client. They get it.”

He has adapted the technique for all types of clients. When shooting business portraits, for instance, he’ll stand his subjects against a wall, and photograph them with a camera-mounted flash before photographing them in a studio setting with professional lighting. It makes a lasting impression on the subject, and Hodgins uses the before-and-after pictures to sell other clients on the difference.

“If every photographer did that, a lot more clients would understand the difference between picture by a professional and the average Joe,” Hodgins says.

July 6th, 2012

Video Pick: Making a Leica M9-P ‘Edition Hermès’ Camera

This summer, as part of its ongoing collaboration with the French fashion house Hermès, Leica announced a special “Hermès Edition” of the M9-P camera. Above is a video that shows the care and attention to detail that goes into making one of the limited-edition cameras.

The calfskin leather that’s wrapped around the camera’s body was supplied by Hermès and various details of the camera, including the top and base plates, the shutter speed dial, the multifunction wheel and the shutter release, were redesigned by Walter de’Silva. The camera comes in two sets: the first includes a Leica Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH. lens; the second includes Leica Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH., Noctilux-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. and APO-Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 ASPH. lenses as well as an Hermès camera bag and a book of photos by Jean-Louis Dumas.

Dumas, the chairman and artistic director of Hermès from 1978 to 2006, was a well-known photography buff who was rarely without his Leica camera. He invested in the camera maker and decided that the Madison Avenue Hermès store in New York City should have a photo gallery on its top floor. To learn more about the retailer’s unique exhibition space, read our interview with curator Cory Jacobs.