The Poison Apple: A Cosplayer’s Best Friend, Interview with Photographer Bruce Heinsius
Josephine Chang as Silk
I wanted to preface that when I first met Bruce, we were both working as Still Photographers in Hollywood, and he was on Power Rangers, which has made a comeback with a new feature film after twenty-five years or so.
BH: I worked on the television show the first season shooting everything from action on the set to special shoots for calendars, trading cards, video box covers and magazines.
You and I have been out of touch for a while, but we reconnected on Facebook, because you took photos of someone else I was already friends with, and that’s when I noticed you started taking photos of cosplayers at conventions. Why don’t you share with the readers how you got involved with that?
Back in 2006, I was supposed to be doing a movie shoot. When I showed up, the person who hired me apologized and said he forgot to tell me it was cancelled because everyone was going to a cosplay event instead. So, I tagged along and was surprised how many comic book and animé characters were there. I wasn’t really doing action photos on that first event, but I still tried to create good portraiture while photographing people in costume.
Did you set up a green screen?
I didn’t do any compositing for the first time several years. Then I realized, while at convention centers, or hotels, I couldn’t always get good backgrounds or scenery to shoot my subjects, or there will be distracting people walking around in the background, or the location didn’t suit the character well. Often I collect backgrounds when I travel and shoot what I find interesting, knowing that the images will come in handy later.
What kind of lighting do you use?
I used to drag a lot more equipment around, but now I try to streamline it. Basically, I use an on-camera flash that I can mount on a light stand with an umbrella and hope that it doesn’t get blown down by wind, radio triggers to set off the flash, a couple of battery-powered slave lights to get secondary rim lighting. Sometimes I’ll recruit someone to hold additional lights.
Most of these shots are done outside or indoors?
I do a good balance of both, but I do a lot outside photos at night. Some costumes are designed to look best at night.
I’ve been to the NY Comicon and it’s insanity. Try getting to the Dealer’s Room and you feel like it’s worse than a NYC Subway during rush hour, because you’re bumping into wings, tails and axes — all the extra appendages people have with their costumes. Are all the conventions you attend that crowded?
Some are extremely crowded. That first one I attended in 2006 was Animé Expo in Anaheim, California. It wasn’t that crowed then. Now, it’s in the LA Convention Center, and the crowds in the past years have been crazy crowded. The best place for me used to be to shoot under the skylight in the lobby, but often it’s so packed I can’t shoot it the way I want, Lately, I have been doing photo shoots outside more, where the crowds are much more manageable to work with.
Do the subjects of your photographs seek you out or do you tend to pick them out of the crowd and ask if they want to be photographed?
Mostly, I seek out the people with the costumes that inspire me. I like action type characters, like super heroes, or super villains. There’s a lot of direction involved on my part, because most people when asked to pose for a still photo are used to be standing still, but I love to photograph them when they are moving. Movement really brings authenticity and dynamics to the poses.
Sailor Moon, Before and After
And they don’t realize that your strobes will capture and freeze the action.
Also, not all the photographers there might be professionals and might not know the right shutter speeds to use. Most people are used to looking directly at the lens. I usually break them away from that habit and would rather have them look off camera.
As if you were shooting a movie.
Yes, I’m capturing them in the moment, as opposed to just having them pose for the lens. This is especially important if they are holding a weapon. If they’re looking one way and pointing the sword or gun in another direction, it looks silly, unless they’re James Bond and can get away with it. I also like to get their hair in motion, their costume flowing, and their muscles tensed up more when they are physically moving.
Bruce posing in front of toy dinos used in final image
So you basically seek your clients out?
Sometimes, I’ve put an ad in cosplay.com, along with a small portrait of myself. You have to realize that so many people walk around with their smartphones taking pictures for free, so I have to let people know that I can offer extras that others don’t. People will stop me, because we’ve worked together before and they want a shot in their new costume, or they recognize the photos from my online galleries. It’s generally a combination of a handful of people booking me for an elaborate shoot ahead of time, combined with on-the-spot interest. Even the small, spontaneous bookings that I don’t charge a lot for turn out to be a win-win situation, because I always embed my logo in the corner of all my photographs. Word of mouth publicity goes a long way. Some of these people are professional cosplayers and get paid to be sent all over the world to pose in their costumes.
Are these professionals creating their own unique character or playing one that is already established?
Most play one that’s already established.
So, they’re more like impersonators. I worked on a movie with a grip that was a dead ringer for Bruce Willis. When Armageddon came out, a publicist spotted him working on a film set. Then he was hired to dress up in an orange space suit and double for him at an event. He was signing autographs at that event, and people actually thought he was Bruce Willis. Bruce, tell me a little about cosplay.com.
It’s mainly for cosplayers that post their photos, but they do have some photographers there. If you check out my User Name: brucer007 on that site, you’ll pull up some of my photo shoots. Right now I have over 800 images on that site. I also have photos on Deviantart.com, and also my personal photography website at bruceheinsiusimages.com. I also have a modeling website, on ModelMayhem.com.
You also do a lot of romance novel covers.
Yes. Those images would be on romancenovels.com or jimmythomas.com. Jimmy is similar to Fabio. He’s a model that has put together a stock photo website dedicated predominantly to romance novel covers, but we also do vampire, paranormal images, and genres like super spy, or Highlander. Jimmy has probably broken the world record for being on more romance novel covers than any other model, including Fabio. Jimmy is on more than 9000 covers!
I went over to the Ripped Bodice in Culver City, CA the other day. It’s a specialty bookstore just for romance novels. They had all sorts of subgenre sections in the bookstore — regency, pirate, paranormal. Now, I know that the romance market is female dominated, but what about cosplay?
Maybe it’s 60/40 on the female advantage.
In general, do you find that people pick a character to cosplay that they resemble to a certain extent?
Some do. Some strive to look like that character, but sometimes they like to be an alternative version of it, like zombie Mickey Mouse, for example. There are so many reasons why people love cosplay, including a lot of gender-bender stuff, where someone might be a male version of a female character, or vice versa. I remember walking up to a woman who was dressed up as Captain America. My friend asked, “Are you a female Captain America?” and she said, “No, I’m Captain America.” Many times people just like the character and want to imitate them for positive reasons. There have been all sorts of controversy about trying to make your skin darker with makeup. Personally, I don’t understand why people think something is not okay, or consider certain things as offensive, even when it’s intended as a positive tribute.
Well, also as a photographer your role is to be as impartial as possible and make the person look good. Your role is not to judge.
I always support the cosplayer having the freedom to do what they want. It’s unfortunate that sometimes they experience backlash and threats. Often these threats are out of jealousy from other cosplayers who portray the same character that feel they are doing a better job, and they are the “real one.” But there is no “real one.” It’s ridiculous. Just enjoy the experience. I’ve heard some pretty dramatic stories regarding this.
Since I’m a writer, I attend a lot of speculative fiction conventions. I get the impression that getting into cosplay is a coming of age thing for many people. It appeals to one’s inner geekdom, and many take it personally. Somebody might be spending a fortune and travel all over the world to do this, but I didn’t realize that online chat rooms could become vicious.
I heard of an incident where a “rival” showed up at someone’s apartment and stole their costume. This was connected with someone overseas who was threatening someone in the States, and she knew people in the States who could threaten the other person.
That’s criminal and reminds me of the stalking issues that used to happen to actors and actresses in Hollywood. That’s so sad, because it takes the fun out of it. Changing the subject, what are some of the backgrounds that you use. What kind of options would you offer someone besides the mundane backgrounds of the actual location where you are shooting?
I photograph whatever catches my eye, but mostly I like to photograph buildings, sky scrapers, Asian temples, deserts, interesting rock formations, jungles, dilapidated structures, even clouds, so I can make a boring sky much more interesting. I tell the cosplayers in a general way that I want to photograph them here, because the lighting is really nice, but I’m going to change the background to something really amazing. Sometimes I don’t even know what that is yet. One time I saw a guy dressed as Batman sitting on the floor leaning against a pillar. I told him, “Don’t move. Don’t change a thing. Stay exactly as you are! Click!” Then I told him I was going to put him on top of a building at night overlooking Gotham City. The final result turned out really well for him, because it took no effort at all.
Going forward, is there anything you’d like to be doing with this?
That might be one direction to go in, but I’ll have to take into consideration the costs. My end product can be very time consuming, so it might be challenging to find customers willing to pay appropriately for my time. I really like a high quality result, especially on the edges when I cut people out from one photo, and realistically blend them into another location photo. I don’t want my model to look like they’ve been just dropped into a photo. I want everything to match seamlessly. No matter whether I’m getting paid or not, my images may become seen by the public, so I want them to look great.
I also have a background in video and film production, so I’m capable of shooting a video for anyone who wants documentaries, commercials, actor’s reels, music videos, interviews, and even feature films.
Bruce Heinsius is based in the Greater Los Angeles area. He has images on deviantart.com, cosplay.com and bruceheinsiusimages.com and hollywoodifa.com/bruce-heinsius.
Elizabeth Crowens is a Hollywood veteran, journalist and author of Silent Meridian, a 19th century X Files / alternate history novel series. It won First Prize for Chanticleer Review’s Goethe Awards in Turn of the Century Historical Fiction and was short-listed as a finalist for their 2016 Cygnus Awards in Speculative Fiction, Paranormal and Ozma Fantasy Awards. www.elizabethcrowens.com, Facebook: @BooksbyElizabethCrowens, Twitter: @ECrowens