Anatomy of a Super Boutique [Part 1]

January 29, 2015

Anatomy of a Super Boutique [Part 1]

We sat down with the team at retouching/CG super-boutique, Impact Digital, to learn about their approach to creating some of the worlds most iconic visuals.

This three part series kicks off with “The Creative.” In part 1: Caitlin Ryan, Sharon Liverant, and Sophie Norton, Impact Digital’s Visual Directors, share their unique perspective on the artistic process of high-end retouching.


Sophie Norton, Visual Director at Impact Digital.

How did you get started in Retouching?

My education started in Paris. I was lucky to grow up in a city where amazing Art, Fashion and Architecture was all around me. From an early age I loved going to the Louvre, the Grand Palais, Musee d’Orsay and so many other museums all the time. My inspiration also comes from what I see everyday, like observing the sky, the different colors of the same tree endlessly changing. A reflection from a window or mirror, or a movie can inspire me.Giorgio Armani

I knew I wanted to be a retoucher after watching a photographer working on his photography 17 years ago. I took a chance and I allowed myself to tactfully make suggestions as he was making his model look too illustrated. He started to call me over for my opinion more and more and I helped him to make his work look more natural and real, therefore they looked more beautiful. At this point I still had no idea how a computer worked and even less about Photoshop, the ultimate tool that was going to be part of my life for the next 17 years.

What is your approach?

My main goal in retouching is to make the subject as beautiful as possible while still keeping it natural even when asked to retouch it a great deal. It’s important to respect and stay true to the photographer’s vision while bringing it to another level. I always want the photographer and client to be happily surprised and excited about the results. At the end of the day, it’s the photographer’s image no matter what you do with it. By respecting this, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the most influential photographers for the past 15 years, including Paolo Roversi, Emma Summerton, Patrick Demarchelier, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, Tom Munro, Guy Bourdin, Mark Seliger, Craig McDean and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. The photographer/retoucher collaboration brings the visual to an incredible place that is so rewarding. A recent example is the new SS15 Armani campaign shot by Sølve Sundsbø. We developed ethereal and sophisticated tonal palates for the collection that gives an emotional connection to the visual and brand that’s unique to this collection.

My approach to an image is always the same but distinctive to the particular image, or campaign I’m focusing on. I begin with establishing the right contrast throughout the image. I focus first on the color and contrast of skin tones as the model has to look beautiful before you even start retouching. Then I look for what can be distracting and subdue or play with tonality so it’s not overpowering the main focus and beauty of the image. Next I establish the look of the image that is almost finalized in my head. This helps me to know where I want to bring the image and how best to get there. From this base, the visual evolves, and sometimes takes another direction. If you build a good base, you have a lot of flexibility to propose different versions. It’s also important to be your own critic and ask others for their opinions, as sometimesGiorgio Armani you need a fresh pair of eyes. It will reinforce your creativity and challenge yourself. We are always learning and growing.

Your images are iconic, what is the secret?

The secret for me is simplicity. There’s such beauty and power in subtle adjustments, but it takes years of experience to understand how to get it just right. A simple curve can make a huge difference between making a decent image to a beautiful one. Photoshop is just a tool. It’s so easy to ruin an image and sometimes a small detail can ruin it. In our world, the details are everything. The image has to look photographic, organic, rounded, volumetric, harmonious and of course beautiful always. But the image is not created in a vacuum. We need it to align with the photographer and art director’s vision. We consider the brand message, what the image is about, or what it is selling.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

My advice to junior retouchers is to see as many photography exhibitions as possible, look at books by the masters. Go to museums, galleries and study the work. Anything you can do to develop your eye is extremely important.

Caitlin Ryan, Visual Director at Impact Digital.

When did you decide to become a visual artist?

I’ve always been passionate about photography and had the opportunity to study and earn my MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design. I knew NYC was for me and quickly ended up in retouching. It was relatively new and a fast growing part of the industry. I started by practicing on images that I found on the Internet and taught myself enough to land my first job within a year. Retouching was very natural for me. I was immediately hooked. Learning from my peers and years of rigorous practice working onUnderwater_crop thousands of images was the best way to challenge myself and advance my skills.

What are the keys to successful retouching?

Communication is incredibly important because retouching is a collaboration with the creative team that includes the photographer, art director, and the retoucher. It’s important to understand the vision and direction while contributing your creative ideas. When all is in sync, the results are amazing, so we make sure our team and internal processes are very tight so we can spend the most time focusing on the creative.

It’s critical to get the basics right and to maintain the photographic quality of the image. Very often the images are beautifully shot to begin with and the retouching just elevates them to and even more premium level and balanced across the story or campaign. There are so many elements to a successful visual including overall density, color, lighting, focus, composition, background, foreground, mood, atmosphere, detail, product, skin tones and texture, just to name a few. Very often we work on very big files with a lot of compositing and layers so seamless integration of many elements and establishing perfect realism is a major factor for success. A true test is when the viewer has no idea the image was ever touched.

Freud - Hunter & GattiAre there misconceptions about retouching?

When people hear the word ‘retouching’ today it can have a negative connotation. There’s still a belief that retouching equals ‘airbrushing’ or just cleanup.  Most poor retouching comes from doing too much and without any real vision. There’s a lot of that out there but it’s not what we do at the high-end. A better title for high-end work is visual artist. Masterful retouching starts with a very skilled eye and deep mastery of technique. We pay very close attention to the soul of the image from the widest view down to every little detail and pixel. We don’t just gloss over an image with tricks and quick fixes. We may spend many hours on an image but you should never know it. It should look natural, photographic or intentional.

What is your personal artistic focus? 

I love all aspects of retouching but trend towards Beauty and Editorial work. One of my favorite recent projects was a Hunter and Gatti spread for Flaunt magazine that ended up in their beautifully curated book Carne. I also love photo editing and have the opportunity to collaborate with talented photographers to help them edit their work for a variety of different projects. This personal collaboration is a very rewarding part of my job. One specific project that was particularly exciting was collaborating on an edit with Mark Squires for his underwater stills ‘Submerge’ from a stunning video he shot with acclaimed underwater cinematographer Pete Romano.

I also have an illustration background that I find a lot of top retouchers have in common. Often times we need to create an entire image using different source images or even make an image look intentionally illustrated, or extend a scene from nothing. For this kind of work, illustrative talent is very important. This type of retouching is fun and creative. It’s part illustration, part compositing and a lot of problem solving. It’s cool to put the visual puzzle together and often surprise yourself with what you’ve created.

Sharon Liverant, Visual Director at Impact Digital.

How did you get your start?

I was always into Art in all its forms like Painting, Sculpture and Illustration and moved to NY to study at SVA as an Illustration/Cartooning major. After graduating, I took a computer graphics class and got the bug for retouching. I worked for a photographer before making the jump into agency work. My focus was on the creative side and earned a reputation for tackling the tough projects at agencies like McCann Erickson. After many years at agencies, I wanted to work at a top boutique and joined the team at Impact Digital several years ago.

What is your specialty and what makes it special?

All of us work in any genre, but I tend to focus on high-end product retouching – working on still photography or collaborating with our CG team when the project involves CG. We work on all types of still life including cosmetics, beverages, jewelry, automotive, fragrance, accessories, and conceptual. Like all high-end work, the devil’s in the details. We pay special attention to the materiality, composition, color and lighting. Very often, you simply can’t shoot all you want to say about a product in a single capture. The work we do represents the product and brand for many years and in all media around the world so it has to be iconic and perfect.

Describe your creative process?

Retouching can be a lot like painting. It takes a lot of moves and layers to get to the final visual. The creative process isn’t always a straight line. I like to start with bigger moves and am not afraid to make “mistakes.” It’s OK to trash your work if you’ve gone in the wrong direction. You need to reserve some time to experiment and get feedback. I like to zoom out, zoom in, step away and look at the visual with fresh eyes. Once I establish the artistic foundation, the rest is more about technique and execution.

What is your secret to achieving realistic work?

I usually start with the lighting to capture the right weight and emotion. It’s important to maintain the integrity of the photographer’s vision. There’s a reason why our clients select a particular photographer for their campaign, so we need to respect this relationship and work to perfect the image whether it’s a single product or a complex composite. We make sure everything is perfect. It’s very important to pay attention to the reality of everyday things. Reflections, refractions, color, shape, light, shadows, everything makes a difference. For example, there are thousands of variations and subtle differences in metals, glass, plastics, woods, and organics like brushes or powders and liquids. You have to understand what makes a piece of metal look like platinum vs. silver, or white gold. They are very different to a trained eye and relate directly to the products’ brand value. The same can be said for all materials.

You mention CG, how is the industry using CG today?1Johnny-W

We started CG at Impact Digital about 10 years ago to offer this incredible creative technology to our print clients when it made sense. Back then the medium was just crossing over from motion picture animation to be a viable tool for print, but since the CG process is different there was a lot of resistance early on. It took many years for the technology to advance and for the talent pool to embrace and master CG for still. Today the tools are amazing and the talent pool of photo-realistic artists is growing. The industry is much more comfortable with CG now and we see everything from cars, consumer products, cosmetics and pharma converting large libraries to CG. The cost is comparable with photography and once you have the products modeled, you can easily repurpose the asset including animating for motion.

What is your role on the CG side and Impact Digital’s advantage in the market?

I collaborate closely with our CG team from the creative brief through delivery. Our clients are not interested in being involved in the CG pipeline process; they evaluate the renders the same way they look at still photography. They expect to see amazing renders on the first round. So I bring the same visual direction support to CG that I do with traditional photography. Also, I act as a consultant with our account and production team to help with budgeting, deliverables and timelines.

CG is amazing but might not be the best approach every time. Very often we can find a better way to deliver what the client needs. We may go with photography or a combination of CG and photography to deliver the best result. Also, it’s very important to decide when we want to finish a render in Photoshop vs. the CG program. What can take hours in CG, may take a few minutes in Photoshop, so having the best of both worlds gives us a great advantage to be efficient for our clients.

One of the projects we’re currently working on is building a library of 2,400 high-end cosmetics products in CG for a global brand. It’s been an amazing project that takes perfect advantage of our resources and experience. We use every major CG program like Nuke, Maya, Houdini, 3DStudio Max, V-Ray, Mental Ray, Arnold and Mari. We’ve built our pipeline around the Shotgun production tracking system and take advantage of our in-house render farm to deliver high quality work at high volumes. The render farm is actually a really important part of the equation. We need to be able to render dozens of internal rounds per product in addition to final high res renders to the client for review. Super fast renders are vital for the creative process.

Read the series ‘Anatomy of a Super Boutique’: Part 2 – Part 3