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While I was in the middle of writing the background material for Realm, there was a discussion about the need for more artwork for the website and I wondered if it was possible to use photographs to achieve the same visual impact as drawings and colour art in a roleplaying or wargame. I knew that they had been used to great effect by live action roleplaying games – particularly the rulebooks and websites for Profound Decision’s Odyssey and Maelstrom games which make great use of the medium – and in theory there was no reason why it should not work for fantasy games in other formats.

The lighting set up around Andy as he plays Edvard

The main objections to the use of photos seemed to revolve around the old ‘LARP does not look as good as what you can imagine when playing a wargame or tabletop game’ argument. This is a fair argument, though one which is becoming increasingly stale in light of improving kit standards across the board at UK based LRP events over the past decade. The other main argument seems to be tradition – wargames and roleplaying games have always had artwork rather than photos. Why change what people expect to see?

There is nothing which can be done about the latter opinion other than to be a trailblazer and let people see what you have done and decide based on that. I am not trailblazer though hopefully others might follow my example here. For the former, I could take more direct action and attempt to set up a photoshoot to try to achieve something as good as what can be achieved with artwork.

The lights and fans around Jess as she plays the Empress

My initial plan was to take my camera, a couple of models drawn from the LRP community and a load of kit to some locations in and around Manchester and take some photos. However, a photography keen friend by the name of Lucy put me in touch with a professional photographer (Ste Manns of Quattrophoto) who was interested in doing some fantasy themed shoots to expand his portfolio. Suddenly, my modest plan became a complicated operation and we had access to a studio…

So, yesterday saw myself, Lucy and two friends by the names of Jessica Newey and Andy Mason travelling to a small town near Dewsbury to meet with Ste and his family at the studio he uses – a small corner of an industrial estate modified with the equipment and other requirements of a professional space.

It was a long, tiring and very educational day. Both myself and Lucy learned a lot about photography using a proper studio set up and I got to play with a 50mm Prime lens belonging to Ste and see the difference in the quality of my shots with it. Andy and Jess may also have picked up some information about lighting but mostly they seemed to get an education in patience and how to follow direction (specifically how difficult it is to convey an emotion or action on cue).

The plan for the day was to create images of two characters I had written into the Realm background history. One was the Empress of Onryo – the undead Necromancer who was trapped by a curse to live forever in the caves beneath her palace on the Island of Onryo. For this we needed a vague mythical Japanese theme. The other character was Edvard Vermogen of Hohle, the author of several important magical texts in the game. For Edvard, we needed to get the idea of a civilised scholar who had headed off into the wilderness to research his books.

A compromise: Turn the photos into a pencil sketch, using photo processing software…

We decided to start with the Empress so Jess got dressed into her kimono* and made herself up to look undead. There was then several hours of test shots – trying to get the exact lighting effects that were desired. As this was largely an experimental shoot, there were no standard lighting set up guidelines for this so there was a lot of trial and error. Once the correct conditions were achieved there was even more work to try to get the right poses and facial expressions to ‘tell the story’ of the character. Fans were used to make the kimono flutter and many attempts (some more successful than others) were made to try to time Jess making a movement to coincide with the shutter on the camera being activated. Each shot was transmitted to two laptops (one connected directly by a wire, the other using a wireless internet card in a slot on the camera) and critically appraised by all involved before the next shot was set up. To my limited technical experience, almost every shot looked fantastic (yeah, ok, quite a few were amusing due to mistimed movement or inappropriate facial expressions) but to the experienced professionals there were minor flaws with almost all of them which needed to be corrected with either another adjustment of the lights or a new set of instructions to the model. By the end of it, Jess had sore muscles from holding poses and was a little chilly from standing in front of a fan in a flimsy kimono.

The Empress

We began photographing sometime between 11 and 12. We finally finished with the first model at around 4. That’s a lot of time to be standing in a big white space with lots of people telling you what to do. When we finally got round to shooting Andy, I think Jess was pleased to be able to sit down and relax.

For Edvard Vermogen, I had brought along a selection of wool and fur clothing – including a heavy wool cloak covered in a patchwork of fur**. I also brought along a selection of props that a magician or scholar might happen to have on his travels such as a staff topped with an antler, a small chest and a selection of bottles and stones. Andy then posed with these while there was another series of lighting changes and more critical appraisal of the results. Tricks used this time included hiding a wireless remote flash filtered with a coloured gel (first purple, then green) inside the box so that it appeared as if a magical light was coming from it. Andy’s main hazard here was looking down at the wrong time and getting an eyeful of flash. There was also an issue of his hair being too clean and brushed. This was resolved with some backcombing and a handful of leaves and twigs.

If you look closely, you can see the wireless flash in the box

Lucy and I spent the time when we were not helping with the shoot or making sure the models were ok (including finding a drink that could be drunk without spoiling make up) taking photos. Some of Lucy’s can be seen on the blog post linked above and are fantastic. Some of mine are shown on this post, the rest can be seen here. Our main focus was not to take phenomenal quality shots of the models with great artistic quality (we both left that to the Pros) but rather to take photos of the process – behind the scenes footage of the equipment used and the people involved. I hope that between  us we manage to convey the way the day went.

Sometime in the next few weeks, once Ste finishes doing whatever arcane things he intends to do to them with computer software, I will hopefully be able to share some of the final processed photos from the actual shoot and show you all the dramatic difference between the shots taken in ‘ambient light’ and those taken using the special lighting rigs…

Also, in a few weeks time we should be getting prepared for ‘part two’ of this shoot where we take some models to the woods and get some images of some other fantasy characters… One of these will hopefully be the second half of the Empress shoot, involving some undead samurai in a woodland.

*She made this herself. She is a talented seamstress.

** This belongs to and was made by Sarah, my wife… yes, I know a lot of talented people who can do wonderful things with material… It was originally made for a norse based LRP character but has been used several times since. The furs, by the way, are all second hand and some of them date from the 1950s. They were acquired from a re-enactment market.

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