Set Design, and "They're in the Walls!"

Making a Picture Book On Location — Part 3

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After five years of Dinovember, one photo book, and two children’s picture books, we’ve taken hundreds of pictures of plastic dinosaurs. If dinosaur photography were a legitimate discipline, we’d be the experts.

There are a few ideas we’ve come up with that we’ve never had the chance to photograph but continue to stick with us months, even years later. One idea in particular just wouldn’t let go. 

We wanted to shoot the dinosaurs in a ventilation shaft.

Maybe in a cross-section of wall, or a looking down from above—the details didn’t matter. It became my white whale. Too intricate (and expensive) to shoot for Dinovember, too far outside the simple narrative of What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night, the idea languished in the ‘someday’ file for more than two years.

This is Why God Made Editors

During a call with our publishing team, our editor Mary-Kate mentioned that she wanted to know how the dinosaurs were sneaking from room to room without staff or students noticing.

Susan and I looked at each other and smiled. The time had finally come.

“We have just the thing.”

We sketched a quick storyboard and sent it over. Mary-Kate loved it, we loved it—it was going in the book.

Now we just had to figure out how to pull it off.

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Duct Tales

The size duct we needed wasn’t available at the normal hardware stores. The tallest dinosaur, Rex, is about 10", so the duct would have to be at least a foot tall. That meant we had to find a commercial supplier.

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We’ve remodeled the kitchen since this was taken and looking back at this photo I want to die a little.

We ended up with a 12"x24" duct, about 6' in length, with an elbow curve for depth. It took up the entire kitchen. 

It became clear early on that we wouldn’t be able to achieve the cross section effect we originally envisioned, but there was a happy holdover— bright pink insulation gave the set a pop of color.

To light the inside of the duct, we cut fan blades out of a piece of cardboard to use as a flag for that classic Die Hard look. A soft light at the front opening highlighted the dinosaurs and their props. 

“We’ll fix it in post.”

We’ve got a rule of thumb we try to stick to when we’re making these books. Over and over again, all through the process, we ask ourselves, “If we were illustrating this scene, is this how we’d draw it?”

Traditional illustrators have much more control over the details of their art; colors, proportions, scenery, light. We can’t even change our dinosaurs’ facial expressions! We only have what we can physically create in time and space.

Sometimes, this means relying on post-production. In the ventilation shaft scene, the metal was highly reflective. The colorful dinosaurs cast red, purple, and green across the walls and ceiling. It distracted from the action of the scene. The silver also came out looking very washed out, especially next to the pink insulation. It was so…utilitarian. So unillustrated.

We erased the reflections (leaving a few that we felt helped keep the set feeling real) and bumped the blues. We also enhanced some of the shadows and messed with a few other things. It ended up being one of our most time-consuming spreads, but we were too thrilled with the results to care.

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It’s a great feeling, after all these years, to take a picture that makes it all feel new again. We only hope the kids who read our book enjoy looking at this scene as much as we enjoyed making it.

What the Dinosaurs Did At School is available anywhere books are sold.

Location Scouting and the Curse of the Flooded Third Grade Hallway

Making a picture book on location — Part 2

Shooting a picture book in your home is challenging. You have to clean, for one thing. (Yes, even if your entire premise is built on making a mess.) And where do you stash your kids?
Shooting on location is even harder. Especially when your story takes place in a school. ESPECIALLY when your story calls for the use of a commercial-grade foam machine to send a tidal wave of bubbles crashing down a flight of stairs in that school.

From the first day of planning What the Dinosaurs Did at School, real locations were non-negotiable. Plastic dinosaurs, real messes—it’s the Dinovember way.

The locations also had to live up to the schools in our imaginations: blending that universal, nostalgic quality with their own unique character to give the art a quirky sort of timelessness.
We visited a lot of schools around our hometown of Kansas City and ended up with some great options. No single school had everything we needed, so we gathered our reference photos and notes and stitched together gyms and classrooms, cafeterias hallways. In all, the fictional environment of What the Dinosaurs Did at School is a composite of three schools and a public library.

Our biggest constraint was that photography had to happen over summer while the kids were away. Two of the schools offered summer programs, leaving us with only one open week per school to take pictures.

It was going to be tight. What was worse, we were going to have to shoot our most difficult scene first.

Read more at Permanent Marker.

Storyboarding and the Origami Dinosaur Battle that Almost Was

Making a picture book on location — Part 1


I often imagine traditional illustrators at work. Desks littered with sketchpads and pigment markers and little jars of India ink, their latest work taped to the light box, crumpled paper in a halo around the wastebasket. Spreads begin as thumbnails, thumbnails become sketches, sketches are traced and redrawn. It’s iterative, solitary.

What we do is nothing like that.

The art in our books is photographed. The What the Dinosaurs Did series features real subjects, real props, and real locations. Movement and action rely (almost) entirely on practical, in-camera effects.

That was challenging enough when the stories we were telling took place in our home. For our latest entry, What the Dinosaurs Did at School, we took our act on the road.
Storyboarding For the Seat of Our Pants
Our process began the way most visual storytelling processes do, with storyboards. Storyboards serve two purposes:

  1. To communicate our vision to our editor.
  2. To help plan individual shots, including necessary props, location attributes, and production complexity. (Along with a more on a detailed shot list.)

Confession: Susan and I haven’t always given our storyboards the attention they deserve, as you’ll see in our example below. Plans change too quickly. Something always comes up that torpedoes some aspect of our original vision, or we find a new angle or gag we can’t resist. (Susan is basically a savant of last-minute creativity—you learn to roll with it.)

That seat-of-the-pants approach has, on occasion, come back to haunt us.

Read more at Permanent Marker.