Colin Anderson and the 1,000 Cranes

Based out of Australia, but finding himself working worldwide, conceptual artist Colin Anderson will often build a final still image from hundreds of other images and graphic elements. The commercial photographer finds himself in demand with clients looking to build deeply symbolic narratives that must be told through only a single still image. With a talent for fantasy, computer work and studio lighting, Anderson has  plenty of advice on cobbling together the needed components for composite work and conceptual commercial photography. Recently, he was given Chimera equipment to try for the first time; see how Chimera improved his workflows! 

In Japanese folklore, the allegory of the1,000 Cranes says that a single wish will be granted by the Gods to a person that can fold one thousand origami paper cranes. In 1955, 12-year-old Sadoko Sasaki was a girl irradiated at the age of two by the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima who popularized the tale while dying from resultant leukemia. In addition to a statue of Sasaki at Hiroshima, where locals to this day leave folded cranes in memory, a display to memorialize her efforts had been planned by Hawaiian Historic Parks for installation in Pearl Harbor to stand symbolically as a plea for peace.

“We were talking to the Hawaiian Historic Parks about another project when they asked if I would be interested in working on the exhibit,” Anderson explains, “As soon as I read this story about the 1,000 Cranes I could see an image in my head. The Pearl Harbor staff had mentioned that they see the facility as an instrument of peace rather than a war memorial, as previously portrayed. This story lent itself so beautifully to supporting their direction. I was very inspired and moved by it.”

The model standing in for Sasaki Sadako was shot in the studio with the same lighting used on the major visual element: 500 hand-built paper cranes. Using Chimera gear for the very first time, Anderson’s goal was to construct a large image for the display using several hundred composited elements, including model in kimono, the cranes, which he doubled and placed in the composition through intense Photoshop layering, and, finally, background components that he gathered himself by shooting in Hawaii and several other locations.

Anderson completed the project in only two weeks, but is quick to point out that with only a single day of shooting in studio, he would have had a much quicker turnaround on post if he hadn’t been juggling multiple projects at the same time. Anderson says his 50.6 megapixel Canon 5DS R proved particularly suited to the project, as he needed to gather several background composite items in tropical climates. In addition to the camera being submerged in salt water and dropped from a car as well as onto rocks, it was also been subjected to plenty of mud, sand and dirt. “I shot for weeks in Bali,” says Anderson, “when the temperatures averaged 30-33 degrees a day with 95-100% humidity. It never missed a beat.”

“I use the EOS 5DS R mainly for the size and quality of the file,” he continues. “It gives me a lot of scope to crop in, isolate and extract elements. I also find Canon equipment very durable and dependable as a workhorse system. The Canon 5DS R is practically bullet proof. Some awful things have happened to this camera. It’s been subjected to some crazy climates and conditions, but it always just keeps on working.”

While shooting in studio, Anderson tethered via the Capture One Pro image management software. He has employed Broncolor equipment for years, choosing the Broncolor A4s power block for travel in this case, which also allows up to 0.02 sec recycling at minimum power to meet the fast bursting needs of his Canon. When traveling overseas, Anderson will generally bring the Elinchrom Ranger because of its light weight to save on packing and hence shipping costs. For local field work, he relies more often on the Broncolor Mobil packs. He hasn’t used Chimera for location work, but given his experience with the system on the Sadoko Sasaki shoot, he says that he plans on working them into his location shoots and element-gathering-efforts soon.

“Lighting is the most critical factor when making these images believable,” he explains, referring to his compositing work. “Preplanning is necessary. Also perspective is another aspect that needs to be worked out when combining elements. The human eye is very adept at recognized when something is not quite right. So matching all these elements is essential. The number one aim is to match your lighting with your composited background. I often find it best to construct my background first, where my light source is determine and then match the studio elements accordingly.”

For the Sasaki Sadako composition, the final layered Photoshop file weighed in at around 4 GB for just one image file. Anderson puzzled in mountains, trees, koi fish, mist and a number of other subtle natural elements like leaves, skies, rocks and even pond ripples. “One of the technical challenges was to incorporate the Japanese Crowned Crane into the background,” he says. “I photographed many egrets (a local bird) while I was in Hawaii, and later, in Photoshop, transformed them to resemble the Japanese red-crowned crane. As the Japanese crane is endangered and native to Japan, as well as one of the rarest birds in the world, my options were limited.” 

Though Anderson jokes that a few may have “flown out of frame” during final composition enhancements, Anderson set the 500 cranes by hand and then duplicated them in the composition to showcase exactly 1,000 birds. Anderson says thanks to the Chimera light banks he was able to use the same lighting setup throughout the studio shoot. “This made for a believable and matching light between the model and cranes,” he explains. “This also allowed us to get our perspective correct. To mimic realistic water reflections, we placed the paper cranes onto mirrors. Reflections can be done in Photoshop, but this is much more accurate as you get to see the “underneath” of the crane rather than just a flipped image.”

As they are very portable and lightweight to save on packing and cost during travel, Anderson brought two Elinchrom Ranger 400 Ws heads to Hawaii for the studio setup and element gathering.

Referring to it as his “new favorite light”, he had an “expandable” Chimera 5’ Octaplus on hand alongside the Medium Video Pro II Strip softbox at 14” x 56”, which he used more or less as fill with the Octaplus as key. Chimera claims a fairly remarkable light falloff of only 0.2 f-stop from the centre on the larger 7’ Chimera Octaplus addition, and Anderson had hoped to use the 7’ extension, but as the added weight seemed a bit too heavy for his Elinchrom Quadra Reflector MK-II adaptor, he opted to stick with the Octaplus in 5-foot mode. 

“The result with the 5-foot Octa was perfect regardless,” he says, explaining that he had all of the illumination that he needed despite two layers of inner baffling diffusion and the Elinchrom Ranger strobes that topped off at only 400 Ws. “The fall-off ratio is extremely impressive and that’s what appeals to me the most with this light. The light quality is absolutely amazing, it wraps around the subject beautifully. This is my favorite type of lighting.” 

He was also enamored with the design and ease of use of the Chimera brand speed rings. “The build quality is superb,” he says. “A lot of speed rings can be cheaply made, flimsy and poorly designed. You immediately notice the quality of Chimera speed rings. It’s the little things like this when you’ve worked for years with various brands. Chimera equipment has been seeing a lot more use in Australia lately thanks to several new outlets there, and though Anderson wasn’t as familiar with their products as other systems he has used, he says the transition from his previous equipment to be extremely easy and pleasurable. “So much so,” he laughs, “that they are now our main “go to” lighting system.”

“We literally set the lights up and after the first frame, we all went wow!” Anderson says. “The quality of the lighting was perfect, and we were good to go. What was even more remarkable was that this was my very first time I had ever used these lights. So to be honest I was holding my breath.” For anyone interested in compositing, he says that it can be very complicated to step up to learning software in the 3D space, but as it is available for free, he recommends the open-source Blender animation software as a good place to start.

In his own work, Anderson relies principally on Maxon’s Cinema 4D for 3D compositing needs, while occasionally dipping into software like Poser from Smith Micro Graphics or Pixologic Zbrush for other animations. “It’s not the first thing I reach for when I’m trying to solve a visual problem,” he laughs. “The more proficient you become in it, the easier it is, like anything. If I can do it photographically, it’s more ideal. When it’s not possible, I have to resort to using 3D. When it works it’s fantastic and amazingly powerful. However 3D is not an easy solution especially if you don’t spend a lot of time in it, which I don’t believe I do in comparison to a professional 3D artist.”