Back when we used to buy our music on vinyl, something magic happened with each album purchased. All fidelity issues aside, the magic thing lost with the advent of the compact disc in 1982 was the art. With a 12-inch diameter record you got 144 square inches of art on each side. Sleeves inside also often had artwork. Two sides of a jacket and two sides of a sleeve gave artists 576 square inches of graphic eye candy potential, and the buying public couldn’t get enough.
All this real estate gave artists, illustrators and photographers room to run. Sure, many covers were lame. Others achieved icon status. One studio which made the most of this photographic opportunity was Hipgnosis, the British design group founded by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell. The studio lasted from 1968 through 1983, and was responsible for many of the greatest rock album covers of the era. From Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin, many of their covers are still impressive today, despite the lack of digital photo editing software at the time.
Now we’re in the digital age of commercial art. Album covers have shrunk to CD case booklets (just 81 square centimeters), but other opportunities abound. Direct mail, catalogs, magazines, and the Internet have created more venues for photo-rich content, including both editorial and advertising, than what was available during Hipgnosis’ reign.
Addressing today’s need of clients around the world is a talent-packed studio outside of Dallas. Imaginary Lines, Inc., is proudly following in the footsteps of Hipgnosis, and they’re doing it with more powerful tools than Thorgerson and Powell ever dreamed of. Chris Stoll, Studio Manager in charge of sales and production, was kind enough to discuss what kind of magic goes on every day in Terrell, Texas.
The studio services an incredibly wide range of clients, most of which don’t appear on their Web site. “The things we really enjoy are working with photographers who are artistically driven. They visualize things that are difficult to do.” This is where lead artist and company president Mary Brandt leaps into the breach. With a background in fine art, Brandt is pivotal in bringing concepts to life. Although Imaginary Lines was started in 1994, Brandt had previous experience on large, dedicated systems of the day, such as Quantel, Crosfield, and the Kodak Premier Image Enhancement System. The studio now runs on Apple Macintosh computers.
Being in Texas does not limit the studio’s client base. Recent location jobs include shoots in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Virginia, and Madrid. “We bring all our own gear wherever we go in the world. It’s a turnkey system,” says Stoll. While Brandt is on top of the creative compositing, Stoll shoots product replacements shots and any elements Brandt may call for.
Boasting client relationships which have lasted many years, an impressive final product is not the only thing Imaginary Lines can do well. Part of this success is based on the philosophy of the studio. “It’s our objective to not be imposing on the creative visions of photographers,” explains Stoll. “We follow their lead. Their projects dictate what we’re doing. We don’t have a typical look out studio puts on everything. Our position is to put the photographer forward, whatever their project is. We troubleshoot in whatever way we need to achieve the result they’re looking for.”
The studio relies on Mamiya cameras for two different scenarios. The first is when they need to photograph elements such as a sky or a texture. The second is for instances of a photographer’s inadequate insurance to cover expensive products on set, such as jewelery, or when a new product isn’t yet available. Stoll and his colleagues then shoot just those missing elements and insert them digitally into a photographer’s work at a later date. “We’ve been using Mamiya 645D’s since they came out,” he says. “Originally, we were shooting on film, and then scanning. We started using digital when the Leaf C-Most was introduced. We’ve been upgrading periodically since then. We now have a DM56.”
“We used to have 500-series Hasselblads, and we were looking to go to something more modern, with autofocus, and things of that nature,” says Stoll. “Going to Mamiya was a comfortable transition. We knew there was going to be a movement toward digital technology, and it seemed Mamiya was headed there before anyone else. We own the entire inventory of lenses, and multiples on some focal lengths. I think we’ve only sent in one body for service and one lens in all these years. The turnaround time was very quick, and the service department was great. The field people have been great. There were times we needed a product that was on backorder, and the field reps have always come through.”
Imaginary Lines relies on PocketWizards as part of their photographic gear. On a recent shoot in New York, a camer was mounted atop a Condor bucket truck. “We were monitoring the captures from an RV down below, but the photographer was walking in the plaza, directing people while firing the camera remotely with PocketWizards. The fact we can use them for camera operation as well as flash is really cool.” For a recent job in Spain, the team was called upon to capture water flying through the air and freeze the motion completely. Hypersync technology made it possible.
When asked about other equipment used on a daily basis, Stoll says, “I wouldn’t recommend setting Profoto gear out in the rain, but it survived. The water wasn’t that deep,” he laughs. 7B’s are their Profoto packs of choice.
“We’re definitely a production and post house, but we work extremely closely with the photographer on the photography side of each project,” says Stoll. Part of his role every day is researching and quoting different ways of completing the effects a shot calls for, including CGI modeling, practical modeling, or building a lifesize prop.
Stoll feels fortunate Brandt and her fine art background lead their team. With careful planning from the beginning of each project, everyone at Imaginary Lines knows which elements need to be captured, and what the shot order is. This prevents rework inevitable when they’re brought onto a project after the fact. “We’re always comping on-set with our Macs,” says Stoll. “There’s not a lot of times where we feel we didn’t get a shot because we were actually there making sure perspectives are correct and everything is accounted for. Our team works cohesively all the way through the production, and everyone knows what everyone is responsible for.”
Although Hipgnosis and big album art are gone, Imaginary Lines continues to alter reality with astounding work. Wielding digital tools unheard of thirty years ago, imaginations are no longer shackled. As creative directors continue to dream up the impossible, Brandt, Stoll and company will continue to deliver realistic, yet unreal images.
*Although all the art in this post was created in whole or in part at Imaginary Lines, some of the photographers work featured include Geof Kern, Jim Fiscus, and Phillip Esparza.
Written by Ron Egatz