Chrissie Macdonald and Lydia Whitmore Created a Monster
The Internet is a volatile place. When anonymity is the standard and shaming is the go-to response to the unsavory, lives and careers can see destruction in a matter of days if not hours. The list of casualties from the mob rules of the Internet is long and growing, with any number of causes. Whether it’s the result of a single ill conceived tweet (like in the case of Justin Sacco), or a private photo made public (like Lindsey Stone), the calls of an anonymous public deafen reason and careers, relationships, and in the most drastic cases, lives can be lost.
Covering last weekend’s The Guardian was a story by Jon Ronson about the danger of the internet mobs, detailing his own troubles, and examining other, better known cases. To illustrate the idea, and communicate the emotional issues behind it, The Guardian tasked Chrissie Macdonald for the cover and a spread. She partnered with B&A still life photographer Lydia Whitmore to help her bring it all together. And they didn’t have much time.
The concept, shepherded by Guardian Weekend Art Director Maggie Murphy, was using emojis to illustrate the emotions behind the dangers of the anonymous masses. “It was quite a quick turnaround, but I quite like the idea of trying to create emotion in everything in as little mark making as possible,” explains Chrissie. “It was about keeping it bold and graphic and playing around with the different expressions to see how it worked.” After spending a few days playing with a number of materials and applications, Chrissie created a literal monster. Since she was using a paper cut technique on balls, she found she could alter the projected emotions of each character with a slight movement, doctoring each face to ensure it told the story precisely.
Once Chrissie had made her figures, she brought Lydia in to get the composition just right. For Lydia, communicating the power of Chrissie’s creation was about angles. Shooting the monster was about placing the camera to look up at it, giving it the illusion of scale and strength. For the cover, it was the opposite. “Since we’re looking down at the guy getting squashed he’s kind of more pathetic,” explains Lydia. We find ourselves feeling sorry for a little squished yellow ball.
Both Chrissie and Lydia are very sensitive to the mysterious whims of the internet masses: both have largely shirked social media. “I avoid all of that stuff,” says Lydia. Once you put something out into the world on social media, you cannot be sure how it’s going to be interpreted. Lydia explains her hesitance: “I don’t like that you have no control over the audience.” For Chrissie, once those interpretations are solidified, things can get out of hand. “It’s kind of easy to gang up on someone en masse on social media in a way that maybe you wouldn’t in the real world,” says Chrissie. As Jon Ronson explains it, there's a fine line we all have to walk, less we squashed.
Chrissie Macdonald Constructs Consumer Confidence
CGI is incredible. Literally anything is possible by painting pixels on a screen. Any reality can be synthetically manufactured, but that kind of unbridled creation is not always what you want. When AT&T and BBDO conceptualized their latest campaign, they could have gone anywhere to create any world or image they could imagine but they came to Chrissie Macdonald who would sculpt something in the real world. Where CGI is about trickery and fooling the eye into believing what it sees is real, Chrissie works in paper craft, so everything you see is tangible and real.
Using cut paper, Chrissie created the images completely by hand, and then photographer John Short shot them in the studio. Finally, they added a few retouched enhancements. Those minor enhancements add an extra level to the feeling of the images. Chrissie explains that it "does give them a sense of hyper-reality although once viewed closer up, the paper textures and slight imperfections are visible." Imperfections are inherent in anything that is handmade, and even if they're not registered consciously, the eye does perceive them and incorporate them into the experience of the image. It gives a tangible feeling to the pieces making them accessible and fosters affinity.
That minor perception of reality is important, especially for this campaign. At a time when digital cloud storage is under a microscope, the consumer is hyper aware of confidence and security. This is a time when form helps tell the story. The tangibility of Chrissie’s work roots it in the real world, while also adding an extra level to the production of the image. “I enjoy the physical process of creating the objects and positioning them on set to achieve the most effective composition,” says Chrissie. Even if it makes for long nights.
Working on a tight deadline meant that Chrissie and her team had to construct all the images in a protracted timeline, but that’s okay when you surround yourself with the right people. “It was really fun working with my assistants who are so funny and upbeat,” she says. “They always keep things cheerful even when you're up against it in the wee early hours.” Her assistants weren’t the only wonderful people to work with. “There was a lot to get done in the time due to my process so there were some long nights but John, the Creative Director from BBDO was always quick to respond and really positive,” she says. That kind of creative, collaborative relationship is crucial when working on pieces as labor intensive as fully constructed cut paper images.
Setting up everything around her, including wonderful people and flawless techniques, Chrissie was able to construct her complex and provocative images that told the story in a way that no other style could have.
The Guardian's March Do Something Cover by Chrissie Macdonald
Chrissie Macdonald made a box full of free fun – no added costs and no added boredom – for The Guardian's Do Something magazine, a monthly guide to stretching one's horizons, learning new skills, and living more intensely.
"This is the first time I've worked with The Guardian so I was really excited to be asked to create a cover for them," Macdonald said. "The magazine's art director Chris Clarke asked me to create a box of fun incorporating a 'Free' starburst and cover lines to look like the ingredients, and I was given the content breakdown to select which items should burst out of it. We decided to make the masthead from card so it could be photographed with the box to place it in the same world."
Macdonald submitted a rough sketch of the composition and content to be approved, with various color and typography options to choose from. "Once this was agreed on, I set about designing the box and elements on my computer, drawing up a set of templates that could be cut out of colored cards either by hand (with a scalpel) or with a plotter via my computer," she explained. "These pieces were then constructed to create the 3D forms. On set, I composed the elements against a Colorama background – some with the aid of clamps and stands – which were then lit and shot by photographer John Short, and refined by a retoucher." The Guardian team also animated the items springing out of the box for its iPad app using the photographed objects.
"The scale of my pieces are often a bit of a mystery, as well as the question of how the image was created – whether it was made in the real world or not," Macdonald noted. "I hope the viewer is aware of the evidence of the handmade; although, I don't mind that it's a little ambiguous." As for the client, The Guardian folks were great to work with and "always very appreciative, which made the project a real pleasure to be part of."
Photographer: John Short
Art director: Chris Clarke
Editor: Emma Cook