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Behind The Scenes and FAQ: A McKeePhoto Holiday Card

The Annual Studio Holiday Card gets lots of questions! Although, generally, they are along the lines of “Why did you do that??” But, some people do ask the question “How?”
The Annual Studio Holiday Card gets lots of questions! Although, generally, they are along the lines of “Why did you do that??” But, some people do ask the question “How?”

Behind the Scenes and FAQ for the McKee Studio Christmas Card

A long time ago, my Creative Muse and I were debating the merits of the Studio/Family Christmas/Holiday card. I loved the idea of doing something creative and interesting. And, she wanted to feature our latest creation: our first son.

Standard family portraits never really interested me. To my eye, they never fulfilled the magic feeling I get around this time of year.

Sure, it showed off the family to friends and relations. They are nice and let me know what Peter and Nancy looked like now. But, they all felt, somehow, generic to me.

And, on a long car ride, our First Studio Card was born.

A few years later, the boys realized what was going on. And, they got involved!

How We Make The Studio Holiday Cards

Every picture tells a story. But, that story has to come from somewhere, right?

In the beginning, my creative muse and I would start throwing around ideas on a long car ride. 

But, then, the boys got old enough to want to play, too.

We usually start brainstorming a scene that we think will be visually interesting. Through that process, the story of the book comes out.

Sometimes, it is really dark, too! The Candi Canes story started with Santa’s illegitimate daughter having an addiction to candy canes.

We, ah, dialed that back a bit.

Then, after spending time editing the picture, I start writing as if I was an author. (No, I am not an author. They have way more words than I do.)

But, I do my best and plunk down an action scene, as if it was a page from the middle of the book.

Oh, and one rule is that one of the characters has to make a bad joke at the bottom of the page.

When Gears, er… Hunter, our oldest, was born, we wanted to create a photo studio holiday card to send to family, friends and clients.

However, I was not a fan, creatively speaking, of the standard generic family portrait. So, my wife and I collaborated to create something a little more interesting. It kind of snowballed into … well… photography, photoshop and general mayhem

And, has continued to snowball for the last 20+ years…

My favorite comment was from my young second cousin.

She mentioned how much she loved seeing the cards every year.

And, that she really wanted to read the “books”!

Yes. I have heard that before. (Thanks, Aunt Peggy!)

In the beginning, it was just my wife and I spitballing ideas and trying to figure out how to show people how the boys have grown and give me an opportunity to show off my retouching/compositing skills.

Now, however, the planning process for the photo studio holiday card usually starts with pitch meetings in the first quarter, followed by various updates.

Such as: “Wouldn’t it be cool to do it in a library that could be attached to last year’s office? What would that look like?”

Unfortunately, we have never gotten around to writing the actual stories in full.

The excerpt pages were created to just tease things a bit.

At one point, we had planned out a video shoot that would be a behind the scenes of a RocketBoy and Gears Adventure movie.

Sadly, we never got past the script stage. But, we had a lot of fun giggling about on set temper tantrums, green M&Ms and the director storming off the set. We never did deciee who was going to play the director.

When my wife and I were growing up, The Hardy Boys Mysteries and Nancy Drew Mysteries were always on our respective reading lists.

And, I was always excited when I saw a collection of those books lined up on a bookshelf. To this day, that still gives me a thrill.

When the Rocketboy and Gears concept really gained steam for us, those book covers, which have shown up as excellent memes now, became a touchstone for our creative process.

Like any client based shoot, it starts with analyzing what we need to accomplish. And, then, we build a plan.

If the boys are going to be standing in the Slipper Tub 2000, what should they be wearing? What are they holding? What’s the action?

Just as important, we start to discuss what the background should be. Do we need to shoot background plates? How much can we do in camera and how much needs photoshop and 3d work?

After the planning stage and prop shopping/building, we plan some studio time.

Post shoot, it’s time to get busy assembling the digital assets in the computer.

Obviously, the tech to make images has changed pretty drastically.

In the beginning, we were shooting film and scanning the image for some retouching. Nothing too serious.

Then, with digital cameras, we got much heavier into compositing.

The last few years, we brought heavy duty cgi, through the magic of Blender, to the party.

That is when the sets got a lot more minimal and the world the boys played in got much bigger.

This is obviously a labor of love.

So, therefore, it takes a long, long time!

The concept gets bantered around almost as soon as we finish the last one. We usually decide on something the week before we shoot.

Then there is the prop shopping. One year we needed a climbing harness so we could safely suspend RocketBoy from the ceiling in the studio.

The shoot is usually the shortest part of the production. With the post photoshoot lunch, we probably have 2-3 hours invested.

Post production, however, can get a little intense. The longest session lasted 3 days.

That is an excellent question! We have out grown the cute little boys battling the giant robot. We are even starting to push past the YA version.

The boys college plans went a little sideways this year, so scheduling the shoot was fairly easy.

But, at some point, I am sure they are going to be out of the house and then it will be much more challenging to organize these.

The short answer, for me, is that I will keep on making these holiday cards as long as my fellow collaborators want to come and play with me!

I can see, someday, hopefully in the future a few years, RocketBoy and Gears may pass on their batons to a new generation of crazy McKees…

Then, perhaps, I will write the rest of the stories.

The Complete Rocketboy and Gears Adventure Book Series

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

Stay Safe and Healthy out there.

Related Holiday Card Stories from the Studio . . .

All was quiet on Christmas Eve as Gears looked over the scope. Suddenly, Rocketboy spots a blip coming out from the North Pole!

However you celebrate the winter solstice, may this season bring you happiness and peace. Never pass up an opportunity to be creative!

Last year's Holiday Card was such a hit, we just had to do it again. Luckily, a new cast member has joined the production!

Another Box of Holiday Cheer!

The boys take their love of the workshop out into a Raiders of The Lost Ark warehouse!