Photographing your dreams...
Fantasy PhotoTours from Victor Ciccarelli
A lucky few who are in the right place at the right time see them: a princess-warrior, clad in skins and chain mail, emerging from the woods with her companion wolf; a green-hued ogre settling onto a decaying stump to feast on a human limb; a faerie crouching streamside, shimmering in the morning light.
If the prospect of spotting such creatures in the natural world strikes you as the stuff of fantasy, you're right. Fantasy is exactly what breathed life into them, turning them from the filaments of fertile imaginations into flesh-and-blood figures that roam American forests today. What's more, anyone with a desire to move among these creatures of legend can do so on Victor Ciccarelli's Fantasy PhotoTours.
"We provide a unique opportunity for [photographers] to photograph something that they would otherwise not," says Ciccarelli, who began offering the tours about three years ago to satisfy his own quest for more enchanting subjects for his lens. "I'll go see something like Cirque du Soleil or watch a movie like The Lord of the Rings, and it bothers me because I want to be able to shoot the same things that I'm seeing. I see these amazing costumes and this amazing imagery, and I realize that what keeps me from doing it is not having that in front of my lens. So I started doing it for myself."
That realization sparked a new direction for Ciccarelli, a computer specialist by training and San Diego entrepreneur. His enthusiasm for the possibilities that fantasy photography offered as an art form inspired his business, which has evolved into a specialty production company that offers a variety of fantasy-themed tours in various locations throughout the year.
Springing from Ciccarelli's natural love for fantasy in all its variations, the majority of the tours feature armored warriors, faerie-folk, and imaginary beasts set in the woods of California and Minnesota. Other tours pay homage to traditional horror, unleashing ghouls and vampires in an old New Orleans graveyard. The combination of elaborate visual artistry and otherworldly subjects lures a broad range of people. Recent attendees have included special effects professional Phil Warren, one of the original creators of the onscreen Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. But other attendees have included those armed with only disposable cameras. Still others simply come to watch the magic unfold.
"We target towards the advanced amateur photographer who is well-versed in their equipment and is looking for something different to shoot," Ciccarelli explains. "But the tour is designed to be open for everybody. Everybody who comes out enjoys it." The tours are "really a chance to go out and do what we want to do, without the constraints, without any bounds," he continues. "So a lot of professionals jump on board and play with these because it gives them the ability to do something fun."
During the longer tours (3-4 days), Ciccarelli kicks off each day with a group breakfast around 7am -- bright and early by the standards of anyone but the makeup crew and morning models, who by then have already been on the set for a full three hours. Photographers typically get five photo shoots during the day, with each session featuring a different set of models and moods. In the evenings, the group reunites to share dinner, laughs, and photos.
The one-day tours, offered bi-monthly, provide photographers with a six-hour shooting day and a noonish buffet lunch of sandwich fixings, chips, and sodas. Ciccarelli likes to keep the tours small and familial, with 8-10 photographers in attendance. The setting is typically structured as several unrelated fantasy scenes that are scattered among, and tailored to, the natural landscape. As photographers roam and shoot the scenes according to their own whims, makeup artists and costumers are busy behind the scenes preparing other models for additional scenes that are set up throughout the day.
"We always make sure the ratio is about four photographers to one model," says Ciccarelli. "So between people changing film, eating food, and moving from one area to another, there's always a free model to shoot."
Phil Warren enjoyed the control that such an intimate setup afforded his work. "We went off in small groups, and we could make up our own little scenarios, one photographer at a time. When you're a photographer, eye contact with the model is important. You don't get that with some of the other tours. With Victor's setup, I had control."
The former owner of Eagle Models, Ltd., of London also praised the professionalism of the models and production crew. "The models were first class, and they had to put up with hell. Eight hours in a cold, damp environment, sitting for make-up! I've worked with literally thousands of models and these were some of the best I've seen." And, he adds, "Having been in special effects, I understand the amazing amount of talent and time that goes into that sort of make-up and costuming."
"We are, in essence, a small movie production company," says Ciccarelli. "That's what differs us from most photography companies. The amount of stuff we have to put into it makes us a production team." Although a longtime amateur photographer, Ciccarelli had to learn the more tactile arts of body painting, costuming, and prosthetic construction the hard way. (Click image at right)
"Learning the skills of special effects is like learning the skills of magic. No one in special effects is going to tell how they do what they do. So we had to find out everything on our own." With no formal art training to draw on, he and collaborator Shawn Strider began studying the media that would make Fantasy PhotoTours a reality. To learn the craft of body painting, they experimented with various compounds to find out what worked, as well as what didn't.
"We learned how not to damage models," Ciccarelli jokes. "We have a general rule about returning models in the condition in which we receive them." And despite the traditional secrecy surrounding the tricks of the trade, they gleaned a few tips from movie professionals. "We got to know people in Hollywood, who, in little bits and pieces, gave us the keys to the kingdom." Another of his collaborators was his wife, Lynne, a talented seamstress who specialized in Renaissance wedding apparel. She began applying her skills to fantasy costumes, particularly glamour dresses. Learning how to put on such a show was only the first step, however. Managing the large and varied talent team that the tours require proved to be the bigger beast.
"When we go out on a shoot, we normally have a support crew that doubles the number of photographers. When we're out in Minnesota, for example, on any one shoot, our makeup can take 7-10 hours to put on a model. So you have two makeup artists working on one model starting at four in the morning to get ready. You have the support crew to check in the photographers. Then there are 3-4 animal handlers if we're working with an easy animal. When we're working with tigers or bears, we can have six or seven animal handlers on the set. So our biggest hurdle is one of human resources and the logistics of moving around the rolling three-ring circus."
Despite the huge growth of fantasy photography during the past ten years, Ciccarelli's Fantasy PhotoTour remains one-of-a-kind among photography tours. "Victor offers such a unique thing," says Warren. "It's a great concept, and it's a fairly new concept. It just needs to get out there."
Ciccarelli would welcome the competition. "I always applaud people who do what I do. I think there's a lot of room for a lot of people. When I first started doing fantasy photography, there were very, very few of us out there."
As the niche grows, he feels, so does the quality of the work it generates. "There are people whose work is just fantastic. There are people who come to our tours who do some absolutely amazing stuff with the imagery. It really is unlimited what you can do."
To learn more about Victor Ciccarelli's Fantasy PhotoTours, visit www.fantasyphototours.com.
Hope you've enjoyed this extraordinary field trip. If you know of an visually exciting place DTG readers would enjoy visiting, just let us know and we'll schedule a visit and maybe even an interview!
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