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How We Pulled off a Mad Max Photo Shoot


To my fellow creatives, I’m sure you have clients, and then you have “Clients”.

You know the Client type: motivated with big ideas, focused, with uber attention to detail. Their operational tempo for life is more than a few notches above the rest, and they expect the same of you. They stretch the limits of what’s possible, and take you along for the ride. I am thankful/relieved to have just one Client, my dear old friends Vicky Nguyen and her husband, whom I’ve known for nearly 20 years.

For several years now, we’ve collaborated every holiday season for a Christmas card photoshoot. More often than not, the shoot takes weeks to brainstorm, research, prep, and execute. I always learn something new, and come out of it a better photographer with more grey hair.

I’m really proud of how the 2015 card turned out, and I thought I’d share with you how it came together.


Who knew Mad Max: Fury Road would be recognized as the seminal, imaginative creation it is now? I was exhausted after the first 15 minutes. The film’s richness of iconic visuals, combined with a big marketing budget means there is plenty of high resolution content available to play with. The movie poster’s ominous mood, with contrasty, saturated colors served as the main inspiration.

The movie predominantly takes place in high angle, direct sunlight, another bonus that helped cut down on production time for the Xmas card. Throw in a strong female lead, with “characters” for everyone in the Nguyen Family, and you have a slam-dunk Xmas card idea.

We initially kicked around the idea of doing the whole shoot on a green screen, but my feeling is that while a green screen gets you 95-99% of the way to complete believability, it’s that last 1% that takes a really good composite image to the next level. To that end, I’m glad we invested the time to do the shoot on-location. I think it made all the difference.

The first big challenge: where to go for a barren desert-like apocalyptic shoot in the Bay Area?

What’s more, we needed a clean shot of the horizon looking either to the north or south, since the sun would be setting in the west we needed the sunlight to come in at a sharp angle. I knew we had to head to the Central Valley for flat-ish, barren landscapes. After scanning Google Earth for a while, I found exactly what we needed on Basalt Rd, near San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area. Here are a few scouting shots:



Once we settled on the exact spot, the camera exposure, focus, and location were locked down and never touched. We were very blessed with completely clear skies, no wind, and mild temperatures. Thank goodness for Indian summer in California. Starting with him, we went from left to right.

After a few shots, it felt like he needed to do something with his hands. This particular character in the movie had a sawed off shotgun, but since we didn’t think to bring one, adding a shotgun in post was the plan. I was pretty confident we could make it work, so I had him hold a light stand tripod in the most menacing way he could.

It turns out, Amazon carries toy shotguns, but does NOT ship them to California. So I had to buy one online through Toys R Us. 

I had my daughter hold the gun in the sun against a clean background, which made quick work of extracting the selection and compositing it into the his hand.



Next up, Odessa. Here is the inspiration from the movie….


Again, the strong visual of bare skin, and clean, white costumes in the desert really pops.

Let me just say, the Nguyen kids are a dream to shoot. They take direction well, and don’t fuss or complain. In this case, it was easy. No smile, look sad. Add a cordless leaf blower, and bam, you’ve got a portable Beyonce look on the go.


We forgot to put on Odessa’s skirt, but it actually worked out for the better because I was able to composite the skirt and have it blow at just the right angle. Not sure we could’ve pulled this off this perfectly if she was actually wearing it.


As for Emmy, her shot was the easiest, with minimal compositing. Since the kids were barefoot, they had to be carried into place because there were a lot of goathead thorns around.



Vicky’s body position was dictated by the image of Furiosa’s bionic arm. That, in turn, influenced the positioning for the rest of the family. So yes, the entire shoot revolved around the image of this arm. We kicked around the idea of trying to build a replica, but thankfully didn’t have to because the arm was available in high resolution.


During any kind of creative process I’ve been involved with, a lot of ideas get thrown out there. Sometimes it works, and oftentimes it just doesn’t. This is an example of a great concept, where the end result just wasn’t where we wanted it to be. It’s a very thin line between fearless post-apocalyptic heroine and Silly Raccoon Bandit. Glad we opted for the clean face.


For the shaved hair, again, I take advantage of the simple setup of using low angle sun, and blue sky. I can’t stress enough how much time that saved me in post production. If I needed to reshoot something, I would simply wait for the right time of day and walk outside in front of the house. I needed someone with a shaved head, and our son Lucas was readily available. Once the exposure was dialed in, extracting his buzzcut, then matching the hue of the sky, and compositing onto Vicky’s head yielded excellent results, IMHO. It turned out way better than I could have imagined, and it’s good to know it’s possible to do for future projects.

TOFU (the dog)

It was unclear at first what we going to do with Tofu. She had a pink velcro collar thing, but it didn’t feel right since it was far from the post-apocalyptic look that we were going for. At first, we weren’t going to do anything, but I thought I would look around to see what options were out there. After scanning some of the available movie imagery, I decided to try to composite the mask of the main villain, Immortan Joe. His mask had the right lighting, angle, and a snout that made more sense to put on a dog than on a human. After trying to use the hoses from the original image itself, I realized I just had to shoot my own hoses in order to extend them around Tofu’s body at the proper angle.

Add in some shadows, and you have a fairly believable result. BTW, I think most of us have an innate sense of what a shadow should look like. It’s the kind of thing you don’t really notice, until the shadow is way off. I’ve become somewhat geek about shadows, studying them whenever I can. Because shadows, bro. It can make or break a composite image. Just ask the Chinese government.

On the printed Xmas card itself, Tofu ended up being no larger than an eraser head. And I doubt anyone noticed the level of detail. I consider it one of those hidden Easter eggs you find hidden in various movies and video games that only the creators know about. You’re welcome!



The final element, what to do with the clear blue sky? We could’ve left it alone, but again, I’m glad we had the time to do something. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘me’. And again, being blessed that day with a clear sky made the extraction easier. A quick Google search of “dramatic clouds” made the sky composite option a no-brainer.

One note about hair extractions…while Adobe has made some tremendous strides with its extraction tools, you still can’t get around the physics of light, IMO. Around the girls’ hair, you can see there’s a good bit contrast and saturation loss around the wispy edges. In that case, a dark sky would’ve looked too fake with a halo effect around the hair. So I put in a gradation, with the brighter sky at the horizon that gradually fades into the darker, ominous sky above. Problem solved!

And yes, I know it sounds ridiculous to fuss about hair looking fake, given what we are trying to achieve with a post-apocalyptic scene of a woman with a bionic arm, and dog with a chrome oxygen mask.



I know I say this about every project I finish, but I feel like this is my finest work to date. And sure, it’s great to have a roadmap to guide the creative process, but it’s also kind of thrilling to start with no clue how it’s going to look in the end.

Every year, during the Great Nguyen Xmas Card Photo Shoot, I think of this line from the Holstee Manifesto. It hangs in our dining room, and reminds me why we should be more deliberate with our time and our actions: “Life is about the people you meet, and the things you create with them. So go out and start creating.”


Reader Comments (1)

I wait for these Christmas cards every year - and I can speak for my family, we DO notice the details - like Tofu! When I see the card in the mail I can't wait to see what you all will come up with! And then I love reading the back story - finally got to read this one! I think this may have bene the most work to date.

I just got excited realizing you will have another baby to ad this year - let the creativity begin!

April 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLady Roadrunner

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