Transforming Celebrities Into Supermodels
by Ethan G. Salwen
September 01, 2010 — Wrapped in sci-fi silver and gold sequined garments, the woman sits in a small crater in the moonscape, seeming naturally at home in this fantasy world in which moon dust stretches to the horizon, rising into hills evocative of the images taken by the Apollo astronauts. The sky is a stunning swirl of red and blue galaxies and billowing orange nebulas dotted with luminous stars. In front of the woman floats a metallic orb, marvelously reflecting the galactic skyscape that envelops her. This image is one of the many captivating, otherworldly fashion photographs from “Fly Me to the Moon,” a story that recently appeared in Harper’s Bazaar China. Photographed by Benjamin Kanarek, the success of the images is that, although clearly the result of complex post-production compositing and retouching, the story reads as natural. The post-production wizardry that made “Fly Me to the Moon” possible was performed by DigitalRetouch, Inc., a boutique retouching company that specializes in fashion, beauty and celebrity imagery. “If it doesn’t look like we did anything, then we did our job,” says Andrew Matusik, who founded DigitalRetouch with Stewart Price in 2004.
“Retouch work doesn’t really look that impressive if you only see the final, retouched image,” Matusik says. To share just part of the work he put into the “Fly Me to the Moon” images, Matusik explains, “To create each one of the different moonscapes, I had to work from a single, 6 x 7 image from NASA that had crosshairs over it.” Matusik extracted pixels from that one NASA image, and then duplicated, rotated, flipped, expanded and blended these building blocks using hundreds of layers in Photoshop as he crafted, in a painterly fashion, the photo-realistic moonscapes. This required dozens of hours of work and extremely sophisticated digital post-production skills. But even the most basic retouching jobs require an amazing attention to detail. “The most difficult aspect of retouching, and also the most underappreciated,” Matusik says, “is to make sure all shadows in the image naturally match the lighting on the model.”
“No one gives proper respect to post-production efforts,” Price told me in his mellow, laid-back manner of speaking. “It’s like film editors in Hollywood. Movies would be nothing without the editor, but who gives a crap about the editor.” Matusik, who speaks about his retouching skills with a charismatic combination of mellow humility and cocky confidence, echoes these sentiments. Both are photographers with their own, individual, successful fashion businesses, and they only take on DigitalRetouch projects that are of interest to them.
When Matusik and Price speak of the underappreciated role of retouching in modern photography, they don’t focus on complex compositing jobs, which are easy to spot. They say that it is “basic clean-up work” and that “body shaping” is the hidden hero in fashion and beauty photography. What’s more, its successful application is having a tremendous impact on who is landing on the covers of today’s leading magazines. (Celebrities, not models, but we’ll get to this topic in a bit.)
DigitalRetouch’s Web site (www.digital
retouch.net) features “before” versions of retouched samples. The images that seem less retouched best illustrate the company’s role in helping imagemakers achieve photographic success. To see a simple close-up of a model’s face—smooth, beautiful, natural skin—is not remarkable at all. To reveal the photographic starting point is jolting. Her pores, facial hair, blemishes and caked makeup are almost revolting. This is what DigitalRetouch is all about: making stunning beauty look utterly natural, hiding what even the best of today’s beauty photographers capture in-camera, counting on retouchers to finish the job.
Brilliant Boutique Retouching
DigitalRetouch has retouched more than 150 A-list celebrities for scores of A-list magazines. Brad Pitt, Halle Berry, Jude Law, Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey are just a few of the celebrities Matusik and Price have made cover-ready for magazines such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, People, Shape and Rolling Stone. Most work comes from photographer clients, but DigitalRetouch also serves ad agencies for major commercial jobs, publicists wanting their celebrity clients to look the best, and even celebrities themselves. For her program, Germany’s Next Top Model, Heidi Klum works almost exclusively with DigitalRetouch, trusting the company’s ability to work wonders on skin, make colors pop, smooth wrinkled clothes and gently reshape body angles to transform good poses into stunning ones.
“We are blessed because we have never wanted to be too big,” Matusik explains. “We have never advertised, the clients come to us. This is really what it means to be a boutique service.” Resisting the easy business opportunity of creating a major post-production house, Price notes, “If we let it get any bigger, we would be consumed by it. And we wouldn’t be able to focus on our own photography.” This is the real key to the quality of services offered by DigitalRetouch. Both partners are working photographers with extensive experience in the fashion industry, ensuring they have the insider know-how critical to meeting clients’ real-life needs.
Matusik and Price both work out of New York and Los Angeles. Matusik’s photography prominently features complex post-production compositing, in which he creates environments that exist only in his imagination, making him DigitalRetouch’s master of compositing and heavy manipulation. Price’s focus is on cleaner, more traditional beauty and fashion photography, which requires the exquisite skin retouching techniques and softer shaping manipulation he puts to work for DigitalRetouch. “Andrew is brilliant at compositing and can do it all night long, while I find it tedious and boring,” Price explains. Inversely, Matusik praises Price’s “skin work,” which he would just as soon not do. Nonetheless, both partners are involved in all jobs. “Once you get into a really complicated retouch you lose all objectivity,” Matusik explains. “Like cleaning a messy room, you lose objectivity, and you need a second pair of eyes.”
A Powerful, Symbiotic Partnership
“I was held up at gunpoint,” Price joked when I asked him how he came to collaborate with Matusik. Commenting on how the partnership functions, Matusik said matter-of-factly: “Like an old married couple.” The team is in contact daily, but rarely in person, communicating by cell, email, iChat and Skype as they juggle various DigitalRetouch jobs among their own photography jobs. They FTP files back and forth, commenting or working on the next version with a kind of symbiotic fluidity.
The partners, who were introduced by a mutual friend in 2004, hit it off right away and quickly began seeking a way to work together. They shared the same sensibilities regarding retouching, both having studied painting seriously before turning to professional photography. Also, they both worked extensively in fashion photography in the pre-digital days, and then embraced digital early and feverishly. They explain that this combination of factors is the key to their retouching success. Their painterly abilities allow them to create symmetry, which they say is the hallmark of beauty in portrait photography. Their knowledge of how to create beauty in-camera using traditional techniques—lighting, lenses and angles—allows them to retouch photographs with “photographic aesthetic intelligence.”
“We contributed to the death of the supermodel,” says Matusik, referring specifically to DigitalRetouch as well as excellent retouchers throughout the industry. “Fashion magazines would always feature models on their covers. Models are freaks of nature—skinny, perfect skin, unusual symmetry.” He explains that the new possibilities of digital retouching have allowed celebrities to take the place once reserved for models. “Celebrities on the cover of every magazine is very new. It’s hard to remember that six years ago, when we started DigitalRetouch. It just wasn’t being done.” Today, of course, magazines put a celebrity on every cover possible, and celebrities are also featured in print ad campaigns like never before. “Think of it this way,” Matusik suggests. “In your Revlon ad, do you want to feature a model that 10 people have heard of, or a celebrity that is known to 99 percent of your global market?”
“Supermodels look really good, and celebrities really don’t,” Price notes of the retouching challenge that has come with the celebrity takeover. “In the photographs we work on, the celebrities have to look like themselves, but they also have to look beautiful. We are really good at making normal-looking people look beautiful and still look like themselves. It’s all about creating symmetry and removing faults. But we do leave in some faults so they still look real.”
“Retouching is really the fine art of knowing what reality is,” says Matusik, who notes that, “Ultimately, all fashion photography is fantasy.” Regarding the interplay of reality, fantasy and retouching, Matusik says, “It’s all kind of relative. If I retouch Halle Berry to appear how she would in nice lighting, am I evil? Am I distorting reality?” He notes that if he were talking to Berry in a candlelit restaurant she’d look a lot better than in bright sunlight. “There’s a reason they invented mood lighting. With candles and a few beers everyone looks attractive.”
While candlelight and beer is a sure recipe for improving looks, Matusik explains that there is no recipe for making a celebrity look more dreadful than plastering an unretouched close-up of his or her face on a magazine cover. “The cover of a magazine is a moment frozen in time with a magnifying glass over it,” Matusik says. “Imagine I’m meeting you for the first time and I grab your hand and stare into your face from two inches away, and then I just keep on looking. I can see every single one of your pores, every nose hair, every blemish. Every single little imperfection stands out. That is the reality of a magazine cover.”
Too Perfect, Too Bad
“When it comes to retouching workflow options in Photoshop, there will always be six ways to skin this cat,” Matusik told me. He is happy to share his techniques, but he believes strongly that any specific techniques are far less important than a retoucher thinking like a photographer and seeing like an artist. “Don’t overdo it,” is Matusik’s key advice. “It’s inevitable that you will, so I always keep versions that I can come back to—especially before flattening layers, as they become unwieldy.” Matusik says that clients often change their minds, so being ready to step back is critical. “In the retouching business, the finished product is never the finished project.”
Matusik says that, almost inevitably, clients ask for further alterations. “There are too many cooks in the kitchen on big commercial jobs,” he says, “so we will intentionally give them work that is not quite finished, knowing that they will ask for further adjustments.” This preemptive, under-retouching is a subtle weapon in DigitalRetouch’s arsenal for dealing with clients. “To me, so much of retouching looks bad because retouchers are making every eyelash look perfect, and no one looks like that. I put in as much work as I need to make the image look real, and no more.”
An All-electronic Workflow
DigitalRetouch’s workflow is 100 percent digital—from initial client submission to delivery of the final file. Although this was always the team’s intent, way back in 2004 it was not entirely possible. For the first few years, some clients wanted to see printouts of versions and many requested color match proof prints for final files. “Today, the industry is much more color calibrated as a whole,” Price says. “And no one has the time or money to FedEx prints.”
The workflow begins when clients upload RAW files to DigitalRetouch, typically accompanied by JPEG renditions of the color quality they are seeking, along with a description of their needs. The team works in a 16-bit editing mode to maximize possibilities and delivers Adobe RGB (1998) TIFF files, refusing to make CMYK conversions, which they feel should be done on a case-by-case need, depending on output requirements.
DigitalRetouch bids job at a flat fee, based on anticipated hours of work, taking into consideration if it is commercial or editorial and the complexity of the job. Prices range from $400 to $5000 per image, from the most basic editorial work to complex commercial jobs, with $800 to $1200 being the typical average. “For commercial jobs we expect extra rounds, even though we stipulate no more than four,” Matusik says. “The last rounds can make you totally insane, with art directors asking for minuscule adjustments. But we already know that this is coming, and the price reflects this.”
The Genius of Revealing Rollovers
When DigitalRetouch launched, Price came up with an idea that has proven key to the company’s success. They submit each version to clients via the Web with a mouse rollover feature that reveals the previous version. “The rollover function has really been key in showing clients that they are getting their money’s worth,” Matusik says. It also seriously speeds efficient communications. Clients simply drag a JPEG of the latest version to their computer, mark it up with further instructions and email it back to DigitalRetouch. “They can see exactly what has been done,” says Price. “And this is such an easy, quick and effective
When the DigitalRetouch team invited me to view their behind-the-scenes world of private client rollover submissions, I was blown away. Each retouched image looked great, but not awe-inspiring. They are the kind of high-end images I see all the time. However, rolling over the image to reveal previous versions of the image was like a wonderful slap in the face. The work of DigitalRetouch makes colors come vibrantly to life; body shapes shift in dramatically flattering ways; glorious hair appears out of nowhere; distracting objects disappear; a dull summer scene transforms into a winter wonderland. And now that I appreciate the retouching power of Andrew Matusik and Stewart Price, I watch again and again as celebrities who look like regular people are transformed into supermodels. To see more of Price and Matusik’s work, visit
Ethan G. Salwen is an independent photographer and writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He specializes in Latin American cultures, and also covers a wide variety of topics for professional photographers, including digital technology, marketing techniques and industry trends. Salwen received his training in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. Visit his blog at www.aftercapture.com.
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