Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Go Ask Alice

I cast local actors Matt Weiss and Heidi Van who were perfect as Alice and the Mad Hatter. My styling past taught me actors bring so much more to the table than professional models, especially when it is such a styled story. (Not shown to the side, a giant green birdcage filled with black crows.)
ALL PHOTOS OWNED BY MEREDITH CORP/BHG. SHOT BY ALISE O'BRIEN, EDITOR ANN BLEVINS, FOOD STYLIST DIANNA NOLIN


Happy Halloween everyone. The issue is out!

Many months ago, I produced and styled an editorial for Better Homes & Gardens, Halloween Tricks & Treats magazine. This special edition issue is BHG's biggest seller of the year so I was honored to be asked to participate. The following pictures are from the feature story but the magazine is full of many other wonderful pictorials and ideas as well. Be sure and pick one up which are available almost everywhere now.

Read along as I give you some behind the scenes info on this shoot.

Above, the background of the title page was hand drawn by Diane Tompkins. I had asked her to just photocopy a mans shirt but she wanted to make it original! The inset shows the art I made for the party invitation (available for download).

I got a call just three days after closing the shop (January 12) from editor Ann Blevins at BHG. She had an idea of doing a Halloween feature around an Alice in Wonderland theme and wanted me to produce it. I admit, not being a reader, I didn't have a firm grasp on this classic fairytale so I rented every movie and scoured the internet doing endless hours of research to get familiar with it. Come to find out, a lot of ideas were out there as Alice has been recreated in every genre imaginable.


Ann also noted she wanted to use a different color palette than the normal orange, black and green so I chose a twist on those typical Halloween colors by using coral, dark brown- and teal and I was maniacal about it too making sure every bit of wardrobe, teapots, candles, food, and props fell somewhere in that palette.

The lovely staircase at the Simpson House.

Finding the location for the Mad Tea Party was one of the biggest challenges I faced. From Craig's List to Facebook, I sent out a search request to everyone to help with the hunt and finally someone reminded me of the wonderful Simpson House in Kansas City. This historic home was restored specifically to use for special events and many a reception and wedding have been held there. In this case, all I cared about was the staircase (for the shot below) but it also had an enormous kitchen which was perfect for the food stylist and three empty rooms ready to stage any way we wanted. It was also available for an entire week which was great because the mess of furniture, props, photo equipment, crafts and food we schlepped in would have sent any homeowner into a spin.

Small tables of varying shapes and sizes was my desire over one giant tea party table. Next came the layers of velvets and lace, teapots and teacups, platters and objects.

With only a few weeks of pre-production left, I spent a few days at various thrift stores gathering different pieces of clothing that could be manipulated into costumes for our two characters. The color palette was all I cared about so I pulled anything interesting in brown, coral and teal. The Mad Hatter's jacket was actually a two piece Dana Buchman suit for women and I had local wardrobe mistress Linda Flake redesign it into a tailcoat. We all met Linda for a fitting while she ripped and cut and rebuilt a pile of used clothes into these colorful costumes.

Doll faces I found at Round Top were glued inside giant paper flowers I sourced. I made the glitter masks from this wonderful glittered foam peel and stick paper I found at Michaels.

Next was the gathering of props; from thrift stores to flea markets to antique shops and even a van full from my own home, I gathered for three months this and that and emptied my garage to store tubs of props and furniture that started to accumulate. I also contacted about a dozen vendors asking for newer merchandise to help with the story so boxes and palettes of items were delivered to my front door. The Mad Hatter and Alice's chair proved to be the biggest problem to find. Alice's chair was so cool (a pale teal color satin brocade) which you can barely see in the story but here is a look prior to the final styling.

This crazy Victorian umbrella I found helped the actors get silly.


The masterful silhouettes on the wall are from local artists Diane & Madeline Tompkins. You can see their original art here on their Etsy shop.

I loved this little chandelier I made from antique sconce shades. I found these at Clutter in Warrenton and wired each one with a bulb. I added about 10 feet of cord to each so we could suspend it from the ceiling and I wrapped different colors of grosgrain ribbon around the cords. It is barely seen in the shot but it was really great, especially because it had all the right colors.

One of my favorite props was the owl statuary to the right.


Above as seen in the magazine; below what was not.

From my own camera.

Ann had the wonderful pumpkins above carved for the story and others stenciled using the custom silhouettes. I meticulously placed them inside the fireplace for this shot but we needed something else along side. So I ran to the thrift store the night before and bought about 30 hardback books and lined them straight up the fireplace- it looked so great but it didn't make the cut which always happens, you just never know what will work out.


From Diane's silhouettes I designed the art above to adhere to the backs of an 8x10 playing card. The background was a vintage shirt pattern I scanned and each one was printed on semi gloss photo paper and spray glued to the original card. Our goal was to make small things large and large things small and throw in a little wacky where we could.

Just one one of the many set ups the cast and crew made during the shoot. This was the master food shot on the giant buffet shown below.

Yes, it is a CAKE! The glorious Mad Hatter cake from Kansas City's master, Natasha's Mulberry and Mott.

When Ann said we needed a wonderful cake for the party I knew right where to go: Kansas City's own Natasha's. Cake designer extraordinaire Natasha Goellner and her mom Vicki have been long time fans of Curious Sofa. They even bought many of my furnishings to outfit there shop, so I knew she would be the perfect fit to design the Mad Hatter's top hat cake. Come to find out she was mad for anything Alice so they were very excited about the project. They also made the giant dice marshmallows, their famous macaroons, as well as skull and key cookies.

When food is involved in a shoot, look out. You can never have enough platters, plates, linens, serving forks, glasses, trays, and vessels for whatever the food stylist or editor needs. We had tables and tubs full throughout the house. This was the feature story so the food ideas and recipes were crucial to coordinate with the theme of the Alice party. BHG brought their food stylist and assistant in from Des Moines (and you should have seen their stash of stuff!). For two days they made and remade and tinkered with every morsel of well, every morsel.


An idea that came to me was to find a hutch that I could pile with tea sets and have it leaning to one side as the Mad Hatter might have done. I didn't want to pay for tubs of fine china so I went to a couple of thrift stores and found complete sets of cheap ivory dishes and then found a teapot here and there too. The cabinet was found on Craig's List. This vignette was one of my favorites.

The set up.

The image that was used above. We kept adding books under the right side of the cabinet to get it to lean more but then the dishes started falling out.

A set up not used in the issue: My own blurry picture above was a mantle full of owls I collected and a crazy branch I added to a teapot that was covered with teabags used like leaves. I stamped each tea bag with a picture of an owl too.

I loved the juxtaposition of the giant marshmallows with the tiny doll dishes I found.


Because this story was 13 pages long we needed to create various shots throughout the house to add to the spread. I suggested an area where the Mad Hatter would sew his crazy hats so BHG added a little top hat download to their site. I created all the hats you see behind him here as well as the little hat Alice wears. I gathered scrap fabrics from my personal stash of ribbons and trims, borrowed the mannequin from Raised in Cotton, found the sewing machine at an antique shop and once Matt sat down, this expression came naturally to him.

Lovely Heidi as Alice who announced she was pregnant that day!

Alice's top hat was made from the BHG pattern and then I printed out a clip art clock face on fabric paper, added the pleated element from an old thrift store blouse and glued everything together.


Even the little shots above were meticulously placed to see all the details everyone worked on.

So there you have it. Three months of planning, three days of shooting and about three weeks to pack it up, ship it off and write all the credits and sources. It was one big job but the project was perfect for me to hunt & gather all the unusual antiques that I love. My only disappointment was that the images were not shot with dramatic lighting to make it feel a little more halloween-esque. But then I learned the photography had to be iPad/app friendly so bright and crisp was what they needed.

Be sure and check out the issue, the app and get crafting!

The cover.

ALL PHOTOS OWNED BY MEREDITH CORP/BHG. SHOT BY ALISE O'BRIEN
EDITOR ANN BLEVINS, FOOD STYLIST DIANNA NOLIN

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