Compositing Photography – The Work and Concept behind One Player’s Ready

I love compositing images. It’s fun, it’s creative and it allows me to create things out of my imagination that I wouldn’t normally see every day and it allows me to make scenes that I have dreamt up in my head. For instance, and the point of this post, my photograph that I titled One Player’s Ready (for obvious copyright reasons). I’m a huge video gamer, I’m 38, I grew up playing the Atari 2600 (a friend had one) and the Intellivision (I had one) and later the Nintendo Entertainment System and virtually every video game system since. I also grew up in the 1980s, so naturally Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One” didn’t just speak to me, it yelled directly in my ear, “READ ME!”

The gist of Ready Player One is like a pseudo-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets National Treasure, all jammed packed with 1980’s movie, music, and video game nostalgia. The latter of which is the real focus of the book. Cline wraps the “hunt” for the book’s MacGuffin, a video game “easter egg,” in video game history and lore. It’s literally jammed packed with so many 1980’s tributes, mentions, and nods that someone born outside of the 80’s may be a little lost. To sum it up, I loved it. But for me, there was a scene in the book (missing from the 2018 movie of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg) that really just peaked my imagination, mainly because as a child, I knew a place so similar, that I could just close my eyes and picture the setting exactly as Cline described it.

When Wade Watts, the book’s protagonist, is searching for one of the book’s easter eggs, he goes off course and finds himself in a pizza place, where there is a sole Pac Man machine (unplugged) with a silver quarter affixed to the marquee on the top of the cabinet. Wade realizes he needs to score a perfect game of Pac-Man in order to beat the leaderboard’s high score. The way Cline described this scene immediately made me remember a place from my childhood, the Orange Bowl, located in our local mall. It just hit a chord with me and I immediately wanted to create that scene using photography.

Because of the nature of the scene, I had to find an arcade, which in 2018 isn’t as easy as it would have been in 1985. But I found one, a “barcade” called Fire Betty’s in Tallahassee. I contacted the Fire Betty team via Facebook and told them of my intentions and how I’d like to come in before they open with my camera, tripod and studio lights. Surprisingly, they said sure. Next was to find a model, someone who could pass for a teenager, playing the Pac Man game. This was easy, I told asked my son, who was 13 at the time, I needed him to pose for this picture. I told him all he needed to do, was just stand in front of a video game cabinet. Simple.

So here is where the how-to starts, if you want to call it that. I had a set/location, I had a model, I had a prop (I gathered a Super NES controller for his back pocket from my collection), now I just needed to think about the shot. How to shoot it, where to put the lights and so forth. I went back to the book and read that whole part over again, then it clicked in my head. I knew what I wanted and so when we arrived, I set up my shot, but there was only one problem. They didn’t have Pac-Man, they had Ms. Pac Man. I stood there, disappointed, but I figured I’d just photoshop it later with the real Pac Man marquee in post and just continued. However, when editing the shot, I loved the colors from the Ms. Pac Man arcade cabinet and after seeing the original Pac Mac cabinet, I decided to leave the Ms. Pac Man unit in the shot instead, because I liked it better and to give the image my own flavor.

When I shot the first image, I didn’t like the background wall and the open floor around him, I wanted a row of machines leading the viewer to him. So, after I photographed my son with the right pose and exposure, I moved my camera 90 degrees and shot the arcade cabinets from the side, which I knew I could flip later, change the colors and the marquee and get the effect I wanted.

The whole process wasn’t nearly as hard as you’d think. I went out, found a brick wall and used that for the new background. I found two images of posters for the wall as decorations, one of Drew Struzan’s classic Back to the Future poster and one based on the game, Joust, which is also a big part of the book. Then I cut out my son, added the floor, added the wall and the arcade units on both sides. I then went out and found old arcade cabinet marquees for two of “my” favorite arcade games, Street Fighter II and BurgerTime and placed them on a cabinet on each side.

Once the image was composited together, I then went and applied my “style” of editing, sharping, coloring and texturing to the overall image. To top it off, I used a texture from concrete I photographed earlier and placed that over top of the whole image and changed the blend layer to give the whole image a sort of old, distressed 1980’s vintage look. I made two final images, one with the “Ready Player One” font from the movie (not for sale, just for me) and one with no text, just the image alone (the version I have hanging in my office).

I’ve been thinking of doing a video tutorial on this or a similar project and putting it on my YouTube channel, I’d love to get some feedback to see if anyone would be interested. Below is a gallery of a few images of the process.