Behind the Scenes of Renaissance

The making of the Renaissance Project

How this project came to life

The idea of creating a 17th century atmosphere and a story involving ballerinas and a rich baronness came to me while watching The Red Violin, the beautiful movie by Francois Girard. I was particularly impressed by the creamy quality of the light in certain scenes, along with the almost dreamlike atmosphere created by the settings. A few months after watching the movie, I happened to drive by a beautiful old convent in the western part of Montreal. The settings, the architecture, everything was perfect. I went in, and after explaining my project, the landlords agreed to let me shoot there on the promise that I would let them have prints of the final photos.

Styling

The success of a shoot like this depends heavily on the styling (costumes, props, hair and makeup). My go-to stylist for complex projects is the multi-talended Vanessa Borris. We’ve already done several challenging concepts together, so I knew I could rely on Vanessa for her imagination and resourcefulness. Since this was a “creative” shoot where nobody gets paid, it was important to keep the budget for costumes, hair and makeup to a minimum. This was a real challenge for the stylist, because 17th-century costumes are rare and very expensive to rent (if you can find them at all). Fortunately Vanessa is a great seamstress, and she was able to craft and sew the costumes by herself using pieces of clothing and various materials around her shop. The results are incredibly realistic, and I can truly say that the Renaissance Project would not have been possible without Vanessa.

Vanessa Borris
Success on this type of shoot depends heavily on the styling.
Every little detail counts, because the camera sees everything.
You musn’t leave anything to chance.
Vanessa BorrisStylist

Preparation

It goes without saying that you cannot just walk onto a set like this and start shooting randomly. There are too many people involved and too many things to arrange. Before the shoot, we had several meetings with the stylists, makeup artists and assistants to discuss what the story line would be and how the shoot would unfold. Then we invited the dancers to the studio for a rehearsal one evening, so the makeup and hair people could see them in action and get an idea of the poses and arrangements that would be needed. Doing this kind of rehearsal is very helpful in getting your ideas straight and making sure you know where you are going once you’re on the shoot. You can never be too prepared. Besides, rehearsals are usually a lot of fun, since there is no pressure to perform, no stress. We basically goofed around for three hours, getting to know each other and making the necessary arrangements for the shoot.

Model selection and direction

I’m very picky about the models I work with. For a shoot to be a success, the chemistry has to be perfect, and that requires models who are physically and emotionally in tune with the concept and the photographer. You simply cannot get a good shot from a model who isn’t emotionally involved. It’s really like acting. But even the best models can only perform what you communicate to them. That’s why I think it’s very important to discuss the shoot in advance, and to continually exchange and get feedback from the models as the shoot unfolds.

Esthel Racine

Working with Richard doesn’t feel like “work”.
We have a lot of fun even though we strive for perfection.
We talk a lot, we share ideas. I feel I truly contribute to the result.

Esthel RacineModel - Ballerina

Some photographers are very strict when they direct their models. They have a very precise idea in mind and they want to make it happen. My style is different. I’ve learned to be very open to suggestions and insights from the models, because very often some of the best shots come from letting them interpret the concept in their own individual way. I give broad directions, then let the models freely create by expressing their true self. I find that this approach gives the most natural and durable images.

Lighting the shoot

We did the shoot on a cold Saturday in December. Light outside was dull and grey, typical of an overcast winter day in Canada. This was actually fine for some of the shots (the ballerinas waiting at the window, for example) because overcast light is very diffuse and neutral, and lends itself perfectly to these low-contrast, creamy ambiances you see in many 17th-century paintings. The front rooms in the convent had huge, ceiling-high frosted glass windows, which further contributed to the diffusion. Most of the shots where you see only one or two ballerinas together in quiet waiting were done in that natural light. We added some artificial fog and used white reflectors to get the final result.

For the other series of shots, I wanted warm, late-afternoon summer sunlight. Since there was none of that on a cloudy December day, we had to simulate it using studio flashes. I carry a very lightweight Elinchrom kit on almost all my shoots, and we used a single flash with a 8-inch round reflector and a full CTO gel to give the warmness of early evening summer light. This is the light you see on every shot that appears lit from outside. The lights were about 5 or 6 feet outside the windows, facing inwards. We installed lace curtains to give a bright effect with nice shadows. One of the key tricks was to balance the outside light with the light from the chandeliers in the ballroom in just the right proportion. It had to look real, just like what you would see in a classic oil painting. To me, any shot where you can say “Oh, yeah, he had a flash here and here.” is not natural enough. Note that there is very little retouching on these shots, just a slight ajustment in tone. It’s always worth it to spend the necessary time to get the shot in camera.