Photography Compositing Insanity, A Dress Made Of Hands

Photography Compositing Insanity, A Dress Made Of Hands

I ran across the incredibly imaginative portfolio of John Flury a few weeks ago. When I viewed his image "Provincial Uprising" where a womans dress was made of human hands I couldn't figure out how it was made. When I first saw this picture I assumed that the hands had been shot separately and then copied over and over again in Photoshop. I quickly realized that this wouldn't be possible because of the directional lighting from camera right and left. You would never be able to dodge and burn the hands to make them look realistic with that type of lighting. Then I started to assume that the hands were simply CGI. How else could you get this look? 

Well the answer is far more simple and at the same time complex than I imagined. John shot 4 hands moving over his models body over and over again and then composited them in post. Watch the video here. 

I asked John to write up a bit more information about the shoot for those of you who are interested:

In Provincial Uprising, we are telling the story of a queen and her struggle to maintain control over her loyal subjects. The hands aren't just there for aesthetic reasons or because they make the image look creepy. These hands are her loyal subjects, there to protect her, cover her and define her as a figure of political power. As the riot starts in the southern province (hence the title "Provincial Uprising") the queen realises that if she can't regain control and stop the revolt in its tracks, it's more than likely that this uprising will propagate towards her body. And in the end, the hands who protected her will tear her appart. 
This project called for some research and experimentation, because nobody had tried something like this before. Sure, we've seen milk or water dresses, but none with body parts as far as I know! We quickly learned that there are a few fundamental challenges. First of all, hands are almost always attached to pesky arms (and worse, people!) and these need to get out of the way as much as possible in order to keep the surface neatly structured. I wanted the dress to look clean, so that people only see the hands on closer inspection. Secondly, hands and arms just don't always bend the way I needed them to. This is why we did a couple of test shoots, exchanged sketches and finally compiled everything we learned together into a clear game plan for the main shoot. 
The shoot started with the queen herself - finding the perfect pose and expression. A little marker was put on the spot where the end of the dress would later be, the dress part that signifies the revolt. This allowed the model to focus her eyes on that marker. She was lit by two strip lights on the side, a large octa behind her (forming the basis what would become the moon in post-production) and a beauty dish on a boom directly above her. Two larger V-banks on each side helped filling in the shadows.
We worked with two additional hand models, so six hands in total (including the queen's own hands). In the BTS video you can see that the queen was wearing a black, stretchy dress - just in case there would be some holes somewhere in the mesh of hands. To create this mesh, an individually tailored approach was needed for separate parts of the dress: the leg region, the torso and then the tail of the skirt. 
For the legs I used textile chalk to draw horizontal and vertical lines, creating cells of the size of 4 hands next to each other (2 by 4 inches, roughly). This would allow us to A) see how the fabric would stretch, fold and twist when being worn by the queen and B) we would now be able to work our way systematically down these lanes, cell by cell, mimicking the dress's physical properties and flow. So while the queen (model) was sitting in the pose we agreed upon, her helpers would cover a specific cell, I would take a shot and they'd move on to the next lower cell, until we covered the whole dress part. 
The queen's torso had its own challenges. We wanted to make it look like a chest plate, but still femine. So in the belly region we found a hand pattern that would resemble something like a six pack, a sign of physical strength. Her chest region should be very pronounced, showcasing her female beauty, but with an element of a elegance, resembling a cocktail dress. Luckily there was no time pressure on the shooting day, so we tried out a lot, which left me with plenty of material to work with.
The tail of the dress was the last part of the shoot. The flow of this dress part is straight forward here, since it doesn't follow the shape of a body. There was no real dress underneath here. Rather I guided the hand models to create arches with their hands. To keep things consistent, a ruler was lying on the floor underneath. After each arch was shot, they progressed by about 2 inches and created the following arch, continuing the direction and shape of the previous arch. Meanwhile I sat right next to them and helped to keep the shape as consistent as possible. 
Towards the end of the dress, the revolt is breaking out. I had everyone's hands (including mine and my assistant's) covered in the same make-up as the hand models. It's a bronze tone (to separate the hands from the queen's pale skin) and some "wet look" hair spray on top to make it look a little metallic. There was no need to approach this part of the dress systematically. It was meant to be mayhem and chaos! And that it was - plus lots of giggles.
Shooting "Provincial Uprising" was the fun part. But then I had to combine all these shots together in Photoshop. Roughly 70 individual layers of hands. Hands, hands and then some hands. Creating a zillion little masks, cast shadows, correcting color and brightness, etc. I kid you not, I had nightmares of hands all week and I did curse myself a little for tackling such an insane project. But after about 40 hours of work, finally the queen was all dressed up and it was all worth it.

Make sure you check out John's other work at his profile and if you like his style make sure you "follow" him by clicking the green "follow button" next to his name and you will be alerted every time he uploads new work. 


Lee Morris's picture

Lee Morris is a professional photographer based in Charleston SC, and is the co-owner of

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Insane, crazy ... and of course super great !
I really love this kind of craziness !!! It's lead to really nice achievements !

Gotta admit, I'm a little creeped out. It's cool, don't get me wrong, but it is a little freaky. That may have been in the intention :)

haha, not necessarily. But like I wrote, I had nightmares too that week..

insanity indeed, but cool! :)

Insane. The model probably had to sit there for hours and hours waiting for them to figure out how to place the hands.

Yes, she sat there for quite some time, about an hour for the upper body part and 2 hours for the lower part. That's where her background as a flamenco dancer really helped, she was able to just keep going. For the lower part (from waste to the floor), it was easier, sincer she was able to sit and the position of her feet was marked on the floor, so we could do little breaks in between.

I love me some compositing in Photoshop but this would completely drive me over the ledge and is out of my league!!

Truly amazing and well executed. Love the concept behind it.