Cyber location shots

Apr 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

Let’s face it: Not everyone has the deep pockets of a Saks Fifth Ave. or a Neiman Marcus to whisk models, photographers, and staff off to exotic locations for catalog shoots. Most catalogers are on tight budgets and even shorter deadlines. That’s why some mailers are experimenting with virtual location images, or using stock photo background shots instead of going on location-and saving considerable time and money in the process.

Using virtual location images is relatively straightforward. A swimwear cataloger, for example, takes a studio shot of a model against a plain-colored background most commonly known as a blue-screen, which creates a silhouette. A beach background image is added to the photo to create the illusion that it was shot on the beach.

Graphic artists can then manipulate images with Adobe Photoshop desktop publishing software and plug-ins to better portray the product in its “natural” setting. “Plug-ins are necessary if a cataloger is creating silhouettes around soft-edged subjects, such as fashion models,” says Dave Petrich, vice president of marketing at Shot on Location, a Seattle-based stock photography company specializing in virtual location imaging.

Catalogers can also create breath-taking, dare-devilish images, such as climbing the face of a mountain, or walking along the top of a city bridge. Virtual location imaging is “limitless,” says Dave Young, production coordinator and project manager for Los Angeles-based commercial printer Anderson Graphic Arts Center (GAC).

Thrilling images Bodylines, a manufacturer/cataloger of lingerie and swimwear, used virtual location photography to create excitement for its Thrills by Curves product line and catalog. To kick off its first catalog in January, the company showed models in amazing locations, such as on the tracks of a roller coaster, walking a rope bridge over a rushing waterfall, and walking along the top of The Brooklyn Bridge, according to president Julie Sautter. And for its summer catalog cover, a model was placed atop a photo of an airplane. “There’s greater flexibility in putting the product where we want it, especially in unique settings we can’t get to normally,” she says. “Plus, it speeds up the production cycle and reduces costs considerably.”

A photo shoot at a local amusement park, for example, would have cost ñ20,000, excluding the travel expenses for models and photographers, compared to the “several thousand” it cost the ñ10 million Belmont, CA-based cataloger for the roller coaster photo, Sautter says. Nearly 75% of Bodylines’ catalog will include virtual background location shots.

While Sears Canada rarely goes on location for its catalog shoots, the general merchandise cataloger/retailer (51% owned by Sears Roebuck & Co. in the U.S.) did use background stock photography in some of the pages of women’s coats in its fall and winter catalogs. “We still shoot on location for our spring and summer products such as swimwear, but it wasn’t cost-effective to go on location for the number of pages we were using for women’s coats,” says Beth McIlroy, manager of catalog page creation. The Toronto-based catalog distributes 17 titles annually; each title reaches 4.2 million consumers. “I can see using this method for our sale books, where the background is less important, or with products such as tractors and lawnmowers,” she says. McIlroy declined to comment on the total savings associated with virtual backgrounds, but admits it is cost-effective.

A tricky process Despite its many advantages, the technology also presents some challenges. Photographers must first position the model’s hands and feet correctly to create a sense of normalcy in the photo. Shadows must be properly placed as well. If a model has a hand on her hip, for example, the background should be seen through the open space created by the bent arm. “Hand and feet positioning and shadows are a big challenge, especially since they anchor the shot to the background,” McIlroy says. “It’s the little subtleties that make a big difference.”

Subjects should also be photographed in the correct lighting, because “shooting in sunlight does not have the same lighting effect as a studio, especially on garments,” GAC’s Young says. And sometimes the blue-screen background has an adverse effect on flesh tones. Bodylines, for example, found that the blue screen it used made the models’ skin look purple-a problem that was quickly corrected on press, Sautter says.–SO

Lingerie marketer Victoria’s Secret underestimated the interest in its scantily-clad supermodels. Computers crashed as millions tried to log on to its Feb. 3 live online fashion show, the site was sluggish, the 14-minute video was jagged, and the sound kept cutting out. Although Victoria’s Secret drew 1.5 million visitors to the Web show, the broadcast, run by computers set up by Broadcast.com, was only configured to handle up to 500,000 simultaneous visitors.

The simulcast used “streaming video” technology, allowing viewers to see live video without downloading large files, but the quality depends on the number of viewers, computer power, and ‘Net traffic. Some observers believe that the show demonstrated that the ‘Net can’t presently handle the traffic for such live online events. Information is passed from network to network on the same common infrastructure, and only just so much data can be sent through an intersection.

“Internet connectivity has improved with faster modems, routers and servers, and greater bandwidth,” says Tony Naughtin, president/CEO of InterNap, a Seattle-based Internet connectivity and Internet provider services company. “But none of this can help improve Internet performance as long as backbone connectivity is threatened by over-capacity.”–SO