The Making of a Cover: Day of Shoot (plus video)

Welcome to the most in-depth, behind-the-scenes, play-by-play account of how a cover is born, from the point of view of the Art Department. We’re charting the conception and birth of the Shadowdance series by David Dalglish.

So far we have talked about the first real step of a book, Acquisitionand then what goes into Cover Briefing. Then we let our minds wander and collect inspiration and form Directions for the cover. Then we agreed on a Photographer and Illustrator. We’ve even found our hero, the Cover Model. And we found a Trampoline for him to do stunt work on safely. We decked him out in book-specific Costume & Props. And now it’s the day of the Photo Shoot!

Photo shoot days are stressful and exhausting—there’s always a ton of people to coordinate, and we were doing this shoot in a studio that wasn’t home base for anyone. We had to make sure everything was set up for stunts, and keep Bryce, or ninja, safe while he was flying around. On top of all of that, we were trying to shoot enough material for six covers at once! Never mind we also had a two-man video team taking all the behind-the-scenes footage. Photo shoots always go like this: Over-caffeination high, anxiety, concern that nothing is getting together on time, then you start shooting and it’s not quite there…then everything clicks into place and it’s magic. Watch the awesome video below and you’ll get a feel for how good it feel when everything starts going right:

Art Director Kirk Benshoff on the day of the shoot:

This was it. The day of the shoot was officially happening. After months of concept development, sketches, interweb searches, field trips, interviews, scheduling, and planning… we were finally going to shoot a ninja. My childhood dream come true!

In true OCD form I went into the shoot with an outline to give everyone that mapped out goals and what I really wanted us to achieve by the end of the day which included the shot list Bryce and I worked. In my experience, it’s better to be over prepared than realize by 4pm that we didn’t get everything shot we need photographed.

Watching everyone do their thing is so exciting. Michael is setting up his lights and camera equipment. Gene is unpacking the costume and laying out the various weapons and armor. Bryce is warming up kicking and stretching. The stylist is getting her “MacGyver” tools out to wrangle that costume in the way we want it for the shot. The staff of Hollywood Stunts was moving around crash matts and trampolines, cause that stuff is WAY heavier than you think. I have to admit, it was a proud moment watching it all unfold.

The coolest thing is when you get that first shot. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. But that first image that come up on the screen is everything all of us have been working for. We have all day to tweak the lighting, clip the costume, and capture that perfect shot. But that first picture Michael took of Bryce in the air wearing Gene’s costume. It was awesome. A shoot like this is more than just getting an awesome image, it’s a convergence of trades/talents to an end product. An end product everyone involved should be proud of.

And here’s a play-by-play from the POV of our flying ninja, Bryce:

It’s amazing to me the number of components any event has and how they all come together. By the time I arrived at Hollywood Stunts the camera gear was already in place, the fan was ready for use, crash mats were on the ground, mini tramp set up, costume was ready for me to try on and a box of fantastical weapons was open ready for me to play with like a kid at LegoLand. All the pieces had arrived seperately and were now ready to join together to become this construct of a cover. It was a good lesson for me to see how differently people see their particular aspect of the shoot and how what I believe to be the correct moment for a picture, the proper angle for my four fold cape, placement for the fan, is not what others feel is correct. Everyone has a different eye for what they do and when they all come together with a single goal in mind, magic can really happen. The best part about this day was that not once was an ego involved. We all listened to each other, took other people’s suggestions and all worked together for the good of the project.  It’s hard to ask for a better work environment.

After a couple minutes of warming up I got into the costume and immediately felt invincible. It was fantastic, with all these small details that really make it a costume. With help, I got myself into the armor and strapped it all in place, no small feat, and began to jump around in it.  I wanted to know how it moved and what my limitations were. Was the chest piece going to keep me from bending? Were the bracers going to keep my arms from folding? If I had to roll out of a jump were all the fasteners going to realign my spine? It’s the little questions that plague the mind and the last thing I wanted was a moment’s hesitation or fear when the camera clicked, because the camera tells no lies! After a couple dive rolls, seemingly to the astonishment of everyone, some jumps off the mini tramp and a little swishing of weapons we were ready for the first shot.

Kirk and I looked over the shot list and put it in the most logical order so that we would have to move pieces around minimally. The giant green screen was in the back so we knew which way we were shooting. Having picked the first pose, we decided to shift the crash mat on an angle so that I was better squared up with the camera when I was in the air. We were a little hesitant to use the big swords to start with in case something went wrong and I had to roll out of a jump—I didn’t want to hurt the mat and Lauren didn’t want the swords to hurt me. It’s nice to know that everyone was looking out for everyone else. I had brought along a pair of Kali training blades I own so we decided to use those because they were smaller, lighter and had better rounded edges. I took the blades, rotated them in my hands a couple times and lined myself up for the first shot.

I hit that mini tramp like I was going to get this in one shot. I launched myself into the air, hit my pose, locked it in, pushed out my intension and felt it was perfect….then my hood blew off my face. It’s moments like these that you realize why it take so much time to film a movie— everything, needs to be right to get the perfect shot. Or they fix it in post…but here, it was clearly time for take two. Take two became three, three soon lead to five and after about a dozen jumps we finally got the hood to do what we wanted. We ended up clipping it to my hair in the back, so it wouldn’t show in the picture, I had to twist my body slightly against the fan, tilt my head down a bit more on takeoff so the rush of wind didn’t blow it back and then raise my head ever so slightly for the shot. Simple. Now we were ready to take the actual picture. After my renewed ‘first’ jump, I’m not sure my feet had firmly hit the ground before I ran to the monitor to see what the picture looked like, I was so excited.  The photographer had a great eye and a spectacular sense of timing for motion. What did I see? I needed to point my foot more.  Again, here we were all focusing on different aspects. Another dozen takes and we had it. Twenty four jumps to get one shot, I was beginning to be very grateful for asking for a crash mat. My knees would not have taken much more. But the shot turned out great and the results can be seen on the cover of DANCE OF MIRRORS (US | UK | AUS).

From that point on things moved much faster. We had the temperamental hood managed, understood how the cloaks reacted in the air, the team had figured each other out and we were locked and loaded. The second on the shot list only took eighteen jumps or so (but so far is my personal favorite, the cover of A DANCE OF CLOAKS [US | UK | AUS]), the next slightly less. After every shot I ran to the monitor, made the corrections I felt I needed, received adjustments from anyone with advice and then ran back to place. I’m a perfectionist by trade so getting the exact right position was important for me but most of all it was just cool! A perfect example of how different people see different things are the covers of  A DANCE OF BLADES (US | UK | AUS) and A DANCE OF SHADOWS (Coming 2014). We took a break from the mini tramp and the crash mat and just started playing on the floor. I had put it in our shot list to do, what we call in dance, a barrel roll. I feel that I have a pretty good one and thought that the landing of one would look amazing, blades flashing with cloaks flowing behind. I showed the move a couple times for camera and then put my training knives away and picked up the big swords. Everyone jumped out of their seats (if they had one) for fear that I might kill myself with these things. I did my best to verbally assure everyone that I was ok with this move and added to my argument that the weight of the blades actually helped me get around. With trepidation in the air I made my first jump. The photographer looked at me and said “Right then.” And from that point on the blades never left my hands.

Now, if you can imagine a big barrel, wrap your arms and knees around it and roll in mid-air, you now have a barrel roll. I’ve always thought they looked good on stage and I didn’t see why they wouldn’t look good here. It was difficult with full momentum to stick each landing but I put all my effort into it. Turn after turn I tried to make my landing look bad ass. I got into the zone before I took off, found my spot to rotate on, measured my distance to my mark, summoned up the acting intension and went into my roll. After I don’t know how many, we finally decided we had the shot. A Dance of Shadows was another take on what the artist sees vs. what I thought was interesting. I started playing around with the swords to see what I could do with them. They were exceptionally heavy weapons and not very friendly. I had a hard time getting them to flow, change their direction smoothly and not knock out my knees out when I flung them around. So here I am working on my own stuff and I hear a ‘pop’ from the camera. We spent the next 15 minutes taking pictures of me playing around with the blades, and that made the cover.

We broke for lunch and when we returned the rest of the day continued in much the same vein. At the end of the day I had put on a harness and we were taking pictures in the air, so much fun. My only regret from the day is that I wanted to get a shot of me in a spider drop, hanging upside down, swords reaching to the ground, legs wrapped around the rope. It was proving to be a difficult shot, we had been there all day and had more than enough pictures so we decided to let it go. Never got to do a high fall shot either. I’m a little disappointed I have to admit. But perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to get me in that shot gracing the cover of another book. Hint, hint, Orbit!

I feel I do some pretty cool work all the time and my life has never lacked for excitement but I am geeking out over these book covers! The people were amazing, the process was amazing and the pictures look amazing. I am eager to read the next three books and grateful to be a small part of them. My thanks to David Dalglish, the photographer, graphic designer, costumes, props and especially to Kirk and Lauren at Orbit books. This will keep me in my position of ‘coolest uncle’ for a long, long time.

Thanks again to Cover Model and Martial Arts Expert Bryce Bermingham, Michael Frost and his assistants on the cameras, Gene Mollica who doubled as illustrator and prop master, and Eric Westpheling and his crew who interviewed all of us and put together these great behind-the-scenes videos.