Interview: It’s All Done With Ransom & Mitchell’s Smoke and Mirrors

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Ransom & Mitchell have taken their photographic and film-making know-how, along with their love of pop-surrealist art and classical painting, to an elevated level by combining narrative themes, an illustrative approach, cinematic lighting, theatrically design sets, and a whole lot of inspiration from the Italian and Dutch Master painters. The end-result is their first fine-art exhibition, Smoke and Mirrors, which opens at Varnish Fine Art in San Francisco on Saturday, September 8.


Ransom & Mitchell are director-photographer Jason Mitchell and his partner both in business and in life, art director-photo illustrator, Stacey Ransom, who together run Purebred Studio, a San Francisco based film and sound stage which doubles as their art studio. The two are actively involved in the San Francisco art scene and are huge fans of many New Contemporary artists. In Smoke and Mirrors, artists such as Scott Musgrove, Alex Pardee and Mike Davis are the subjects of their surreal, challenging and beautiful portraits.

Ransom & Mitchell graced Cartwheel with this detailed email interview, conducted by Lee Joseph, in the middle of their dizzying schedule preparing for Smoke and Mirrors.

CARTWHEEL: How do you balance your business and creative endeavors?

Ransom & Mitchell: I think we’ve been fairly lucky so far in that we’ve not had too many conflicts.  We always have to keep an eye on our business and if a long-term client or a good paying project presents itself, we need to be mindful of the opportunity even if it means we must juggle our personal work. We are fortunate that our business helps to fund our flights of fancy, and we are always willing to avail ourselves and our studio to commercial jobs. We rent out our sound stage/studio and it’s been busy, so last year we expanded next door to open a second studio, and that has definitely helped us shuffle commercial and personal projects.
CW: Your concepts are always sealed before you start the technical process, however, are there ever circumstances where your vision changes while working on a piece?

R&M: Things change all the time, so a concept is never truly finished until it’s printed and hanging. But part of the reason we do think it completely out prior to getting to set is so that we can incorporate ideas that pop up on set. If it’s not thought out ahead of time, you end up closing a lot more doors as there are some choices you cannot accommodate on a shooting day, like changing the color of the set, or renting new props and wardrobe that better compliment the scene. And when new ideas do come up, you can compare them to the vision and see if it works, or if it wholesale changes it for better or worse. By a tightly produced shoot, we end up having much more freedom to make the best possible image. And working with talent, both as stylists and subjects, there is always the extra details that they bring in their performance. The shoot is about trying to make a symphony out of all of these elements.

CW: How long do your shoots usually take and what do you to do make your subjects comfortable during this part of the process?

R&M: Our shooting days for our personal projects (narrative and portraiture) run about eight to twelve hours. But this doesn’t include the two to five days of set building and one to two weeks of concepting and producing. Each final image also takes about ten to forty hours (or more) of post work to finish it off. And on about half of the projects we’ll do a follow up shoot of small props and set dressing items to incorporate additional details. Each shooting day yields about two to four pictures. It’s my (Jason) job to make sure the subjects are as comfortable as they should be. In many ways I need to get at the subtle nuances that lie within their characters, and if they’re not comfortable with me, or the situation, then they’ll not give their whole performance. Mainly I try to be personal, involve them in the shoot and discuss the details with them. I try to have a conversation with them before the actual shoot day to go over some of the details and answer questions so they can better prepare for the day.

CW: While doing your [portrait] shoots, are you always conscious of the fact that you are a fan of the person you are shooting? Is it your desire to not only create art, but document these artists as well?

R&M: For all of the artist portraits, Stacey has many conversations with each artist about their work and influences usually for months prior to the shoot. Our goal is to come up with a concept that not only honors their work as an artist, but one that also captures an inner story about their motivations and personality. We would be lying if we did not admit that we pinch ourselves from time to time over the sheer giddy joy of being able to spend so much time with the people we so deeply admire, but when it comes to creating the work itself, we are able to be objective and focus on the creative aspect of simply telling a good story. We hope that all of the creatives we shoot with know that if they are in front of our lens, then we are big fans of their work and that they also understand that this is our art, and they are participants in our process.
CW: You shoot between 300 and 1000 images but only end up using one to three of these images for each piece…at what size, and how quickly do you review these images? Do you review in one pass? Is there something specific you look for in your own images that put them in the running to be a part of the finished piece or are you able to simply “feel” it?

R&M: While there is no direct correlation between quantity and quality, the amount of images is getting less and less as we hone our craft and our gut. Usually the right image presents itself as I’m looking for a specific performance from the talent. About half of our images are taken as we dial in the lighting, set and scene. Once everything is settled, everyone will stand back and it becomes a direct conversation between me and the subject where i nudge them through their scene. I can usually tell when it’s the right image when the shutter releases. We’ll stop, thoroughly review the image with the whole team, and then decide to go for something more, or if we got it. We’ll rank these on set, but still go through and have another look when we get to post. Sometimes we’ll start assembling the best parts of a few different images on set, picking good legs, bodies, heads etc. that when put together can create the ‘perfect’ scene.

CW: Do your subjects see any other part of the creative process once you are done with the shoot?

R&M: Once we’re done with the shoot, if it’s a fine art piece, then the next time anyone sees it – is when it’s done. The artist portraits however are a bit more involved with the subject, so there are certain things that we may check in with them about, to make sure they represent what we were after. Mostly we choose not to share with people as it can be difficult to look at our photos in process, they’re quite jarring in the middle stages of compositing. It’s akin to looking at an old-timey ransom note with everything cut and pasted in a flat and simple manner, in time we digitally smooth out the rough edges, paint on lighting, shading, color and many other details, but in the middle phase it always feels somewhat crude. Artists are much better and looking at work in progress images, but when anyone is out of their medium, things can still be a bit jarring.

CW: Lighting is a key element in your works. What types of lighting equipment do you use for still shoots? Do you ever use natural light? Could you share with us the types of lenses you use in the shoots?

R&M: We tend not to use natural light in our projects as we need consistency and the sun tends to move a lot, and usually not where we want it. And a lot of our concepts are interiors as part of our core strength is set building, but that goes hand in hand with highly-motivated lighting. The kinds of equipment are less important than their function and intention. And we both really appreciate the lighting of the Dutch Masters, using it to bring out form and shape, create depth and help tell the story. On any given shoot I’ll use five to nine strobes, with half working the subjects and half lighting the sets. There are occasions when I could use a lot more, but time and available hands keep the number smaller. I use Profoto Pro 6 packs and Pro 7 heads as they have a lot of power. The modifiers are tailored to the purpose, from a five-foot Octobank to a three-degree grid. But I do tend to use a lot of crates and grids to give the light a lot of direction. I use a Nikon D3x, and more recently the D800, on our shoots. I tested a number of cameras when we started getting back into it and the Nikon both fits well in my hand and delivers great images. Plus it fits my rhythm just right between finger press and shutter release. I must be in tune with my tools to get the most out of them. The bulk of our work is shot on a Nikon 50mm f1.2 G series lens, with the 85mm f1.4 G series or 105mm f2.5 Micro D for portraits. Processing is done through Lightroom and into Photoshop.

CW: Are you hands on with the printing and framing process?

R&M: We both spent a number of hours in the darkroom when film was the tool of trade. And as we are so involved in the post process, printing becomes a natural extension of that, and becomes the final check on the work. Thankfully the tools have become much better, with great papers and inks. When we took a look at cranking out the forty plus pieces for Smoke & Mirrors, it was simple math that we should build out our arsenal. The cost of outsourcing printing was going to be more than investing in the tools for ourselves. Then, more importantly, it would work with our schedule and allow us to make more detailed changes. The end result was that again, by becoming familiar with our tools, we could make better choices going into the printing process that results in fewer changes during the print process. Also in preparing for the show, we did an extensive test on different papers and varnishes to achieve the best results to present the work. We knew that we had to get away from a presentation behind glass to let the details in our work come out. The end result was printing on our Epson Stylus Pro 7890 on Moab Lasal Exhibition 300 and matching the paper with Moab’s Desert Varnish spray that let the work really sing — deep blacks, great details and moisture and UV protected so it wouldn’t need glass. The finishing touches are placing the work in hand-embellished ornate frames that compliment the subject and really transform the presentation. Each image becomes its’ own unique piece of art when it hits the wall.

CW: How long have you been working on “Smoke and Mirrors”?

R&M: Smoke & Mirrors combines both our portrait work and fine art work. We had lined up the show at the end of last year, but had already put a lot of work toward building the work going into it since May of 2011. We then had to schedule out the time and energy needed to finish the concept. We ended up shooting three major fine art series of three images each that is some of our best work to date. That coupled with finishing a number of portraits that we captured in 2011 because of the subject’s availability but left unprocessed while we were taking on other projects made for a busy year. We can typically only do one larger fine art shoot a month to six weeks because of all the time and energy that they demand. The printing, framing and installation is taking the better part of August as we take down the various tasks. It will be a fun show.

View the Smoke and Mirrors press release here

Images courtesy of of Ransom & Mitchell

Smoke & Mirrors
The Debut Solo Exhibition of Ransom & Mitchell
September 8 – October 27, 2012
Opening Reception: September 8, 2012 6:00pm – 9:00pm
Varnish Fine Art
16 Jessie St., #C120
San Francisco, CA 94105

1 Comment

  1. Denise Cullen
    May 21, 2013

    I just found my new favorite steampunk artists! Your work is not only beautiful, but extremely “smart” in design. Very impressive!!!

    Denise Cullen
    Cullen’s Tannery Pub
    Benicia, CA

    “The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created — created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.”
    —John Schaar, futurist


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