Saturday, March 5, 2016

An African Pygmy Hedgehog in the Garden

Khaleesi in the "garden"
Click here to see this image bigger.

In April of 2015 we adopted my son's class hedgehog as he had pretty much been elected her primary caretaker, being the only kid who could confidently handle this grumpy little ball of spikes. Since then I have often wondered what her life would have been like out in the wild, and I like to imagine her scuttling about in an English garden at dusk, even though, it turns out, she is actually an African Pygmy hedgehog, not a European. Regardless, I envisioned a beautiful hedgehog portrait/still life: somewhat along the lines of an Old Master painting (a common theme in my personal work).

I thought we should give her lots of time to get used to her new home before we subjected her to modelling in a photo shoot. I also worried about the flash possibly stressing her out and/or bothering her small nocturnally optimized eyes. But after a significant period of observation and familiarization, I decided to give it a go, with my son's blessing and commitment to wrangle.

I constructed the basic set a week ahead of time to give myself the chance to be with the foundation of the image. And I made sure our schedule could accommodate a flower sourcing expedition the day before a few hour long period the following day during which we would shoot. So the day before the shoot I headed over to flower shop central: Toronto's "Ave. and Dav." and bought a pile of flowers, not, unfortunately, including peonies which I really wanted, because I gather they are not in season.

Once I got back to the studio I did an initial stem trim and staged all the flowers in vases so they could breathe and hopefully bloom a bit more overnight. Weirdly and disappointingly two hydrangeas I had chosen specifically for their unusual colour died shortly after I got them to the studio even though I trimmed and "smashed" the bottoms of the stems as instructed. So I had to go out again, and quickly hunt down new hydrangeas. I wasn't about to to drive all the way across town again, either to complain about the dying flowers I'd bought or buy replacement potentially also doomed ones, so I settled for more standard coloured blooms from a local shop. Ironically these lasted for days. Kind of disappointing...I wish I could remember which shop I got the dead ones from so I could be sure never to go back there!

Anyway, shoot day dawned and after collecting together a large set of much smaller glass vases and vessels to use in the arrangement, with some trepidation I set about the somewhat stressful business of building the "garden", stressful because trying to make flowers do what you want them to do is not easy...they are fragile and often uncooperative, as much as an inanimate object can be thought to cooperate or not, and you can break and kill them if you're not careful. When I do an arrangement like this I'm never totally sure I will "find the magic" I'm looking for, and on top of that we couldn't know if after all this flower arranging the hedgehog would even cooperate, as sometimes when she comes out of her cage she just curls up in a ball, puffs up her spikes and refuses to move.

We had actually sat her on the little pedestal bowl earlier in the week as a test and she seemed O.K. with being on it. I would love to have had her meandering though a more loosely arranged "garden" but because of her low profile and down-turned face I realized we wouldn't be able to see her properly if she was standing on the "ground". Furthermore, sometimes it actually helps to put animals on some kind of platform as it creates a bit of a psychological barrier to their just walking away. (I've used this technique with cats.)

Thankfully, she was in a  good mood, so after letting her run around, and pee and poo (which she does quite frequently and randomly when not in her cage) I got behind the camera, and my son gently placed her in the set, with the instructions not to let her crawl off the bowl, or to back-up (off the bowl), which she often does when she doesn't want to be picked up, because the set would not be able to withstand a rampaging hedgehog, or even a stiff breeze, really.

Khaleesi looking around

She sort of cooperated for a few frames, so we sort of had a shot, and my son figured we were done. We were not. While he's right that you don't ever want to cause an animal stress, and you can't make an untrained animal do anything she doesn't want to, it seemed to me, to my great relief, that she wasn't really bothered by the flash; she just wanted to explore. We think she liked the flowers. We just didn't want her to eat them for two reasons beyond the most obvious: 1) they might be poisonous to her, and 2) hedgehogs do this funny thing people refer to as self-anointing whereby they nibble on something and deposit a foamy substance onto their backs, presumably, some think, to blend in with their surroundings. It does not look good.

Once we had her back on set, after a few back-ups and attempted crawl-offs which E thwarted successfully, she finally stopped trying to leave and stood reasonably still for a bunch of frames. A great lesson for E regarding the value of patience and perseverance.

Because the flowers moved a bit whenever Khaleesi bumped them, I realized early on in the shoot that I was going to have to accept a little variation from frame to frame in terms of flower position. I could have shot a "plate" (the scene minus the subject) to facilitate later close-cutting (which would have involved painstakingly cutting around every single quill) and compositing the hedgehog into a perfectly arranged background frame, but I decided that as long as the set still looked good I'd let the slight variations happen, adjusting anything that moved too far as we shot. This project was supposed to be fun, not painful.

Ultimately I did do a few extra shots to capture elements for possible compositing, the main one featuring a rose in the left side of the bowl where I knew there would be empty space if we chose a shot in which she was off to one side, which she frequently was. It was impossible to shoot the rose in position while the hedgehog was in the bowl.

The whole time I was setting up and shooting I was conscious of the highly arranged look of the image I was creating. I have always, as a person and an artist, tended towards neatness and order, but the art that turns me on is often the antithesis of that...much more organic. So I have to fight against my nature to create work that surprises and delights me. Once we had the hedgehog shot "in the can", I gave myself permission to mess up the flowers, and paint with light (which doesn't work with moving subjects). Very quickly an image appeared that I really liked, looking much more like a moonlight dappled, more random and loosely composed "garden". 

As always, staring at the image later I started to notice things that bugged me, but I liken styling sets to styling hair, or baking, or some point when it feels pretty right you have to stop and walk away before you pass the point of no return and wreck it. As on-set prop stylists know, it really is an art to style a set to look random and accidental without creating a distractingly unbalanced mess or overcorrecting back towards too tidy.

Messed up set - I like it (click here to see it larger)

In the end, I have two different, stand-alone shots that I like, but that you can't view together because they look just different enough they actually clash. Interesting exercise. Bottom line, I pretty much always question the choices I've made in an image, and wonder what I might have done differently to make it better, but I am reasonably happy with these ones. And now I've added few more hours of practice to the 10,000+.

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