The secrets to achieving a hyperreal look through the eyes of the Canadian photographer and CGI expert Dan Couto


Have you ever wondered how an image of an ice cream commercial looks so real that you just want to grab it and have a bite? The truth is CGI plays a key role in order to achieve this effect. In this interview, the Canadian CGI artist and fashion photographer Dan Couto reveals some of the techniques that are a must for the creation of his imagery. He also talks about his 25 years of experience in the photography and film industry, his self-learning, interesting events that happened throughout his career and what the role of Production Paradise is in his professional path.

Production Paradise: You have 25 years of experience in the film and photography industry. How did it all start and where did you learn how to shoot and to do CGI post production?

Dan Couto: It all started when I went to the bookstore and came across a book called ‘Shooting Your Way to a Million’ by Richard Sharabura. It was packed with gorgeous images of models and products and introduced me to a world I’d never before encountered – the world of Advertising Photography. And that was it. I was hooked. I started devouring everything I could about photography, took a few night courses and started sending out letters to established Toronto pros essentially letting them know I would do anything for an opportunity to work with them. One thing led to another and after a few freelance gigs, I was able to get a job as a full-time assistant for one of the city’s top photographers. It was essentially a trial-by-fire apprenticeship. And after two very intensive years, I struck out on my own.

As far as CGI goes, I am self-taught. Imitation, experimentation, iteration. There are no failures. Everything leads to something else. Cross-pollination is the key. Natural media meets digital sculpting meets 3D meets texture photography meets dance and kinetic capture. Really, it’s all about The Work. There is no substitute, there are no shortcuts. But what you can do is look at tutorials, follow them but morph them using subject matter pertinent to your client base and artistic and commercial direction. That way you are constantly learning but at the same time constantly building and evolving your skill set and portfolio.

Production Paradise: How do you achieve the hyperreal look in your images?

Dan Couto: I am very much classically trained so it’s all a matter of lighting, really. But you quickly discover that the thing you took for granted in real-world situations because it is for the most part immutable – texture – is, in 3D, a world unto itself. So you find yourself working from the other direction, in. By that, I mean that conventional product photography starts with the ‘sort’ (to find the best-looking samples), or a product model. This is then styled and lit to perfection. But the final image invariably has flaws, which are then retouched out. In 3D, you come at it from the other direction, starting with something that is essentially often too perfect, then carefully adding flaws to eliminate that computer-plastic look that is the bane of CGI food and product work. Dialing in those flaws is where the infinite latitude of mutable texturization comes into it in 3D.

Production Paradise: What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you in your professional career?

Dan Couto: There are many. But one of the most interesting was developing a photo competition called Naked in the House that eventually made it on to national television. In essence, 12 photographers, each one with camera, one lens, one roll of film and half an hour to photograph a nude model in a location they had only seen pictures of. Three months later, they each submitted three prints that hung in a one-night-only gallery show/party where, without knowing who shot what, they decided who took the best photo. The coolest part of the whole experience was walking into the party and immediately obtaining 11 new sets of eyes because each photographer took a very different approach to the same visual problem.

Production Paradise: You have been shooting ice-cream as part of your commercial photography portfolio.  What’s the biggest challenge in shooting ice-cream and how do you go about it?

Dan Couto: All the ice cream is actually CGI. No photography whatsoever. Ice cream is a world unto itself. The differences in ‘barking’ (the classic ice cream ripple texture) between brands and between ice cream substitutes is nearly infinite. The special texturing software is used to create ‘albedo’ textures. These are textures that use at least four different light positions so that the four resulting images can be combined into one that effectively eliminates highlights and shadows. This results in a true representation of the actual texture. This albedo is then used to displace geometry in the 3D program to create a very realistic result.

Production Paradise: Post production has become very important in photography. Do you rely more on capturing the perfect shot or on making the adjustments later on?

Dan Couto: It’s really a combination of both. I plan my shots very carefully, and when shooting models, I strive to create an environment of ‘controlled chaos’ whereby lighting, clothing, make-up, and hair are all brought to as close to perfect as possible, leaving the model free to deliver that “je ne c’est quoi” moment.

Production Paradise: You have had clients such as Pepsi and worked for various magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar. How did you manage to land contracts with such important clients?

Dan Couto: You have to get on specific people’s radar. People you have a potential affinity with. You scour sources such as Lürzers’s Archive and Communication Arts Advertising Annual and look for campaigns that really resonate with you personally and with your style as a creator. Then you reach out to those creatives and let them know what about the specific campaign you saw that resonated with you. And why it did so. Then you offer a link and open yourself to the possibility of collaboration. There is, however, one caveat: do NOT do anything on spec. If they like what they see and they like your approach, they will offer you something. Never. Ever. Work. For. Free.

Production Paradise: What are you working on currently? Will we see some new work in the upcoming Photo Post Production & CGI Spotlight?

Dan Couto: I am currently working on a large ice cream job (32 ice creams) for a client from Dubai. I am also working on more gummies for DARE. And this year will see principal photography completed on my first feature film, a low budget indie called Dark Tastes.

Production Paradise: What is the role of Production Paradise in your professional career?

Dan Couto: Production Paradise is for me both a resource and an outlet. It keeps me in touch with what is going on in the world of photography and image creation while at the same time letting me reach out to that world so that I can bring something to the party. It is an amazing time to be a creator and Production Paradise offers a showcase of what is best, brightest and most on that oh-so-seductive cutting edge.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Dan Couto for his collaboration and time for making this interview happen! If Dan’s photography caught your attention, we invite you to visit his portfolio page on Production Paradise and his website.

Check out more Photo Post Production & CGI Spotlight magazines and the best creatives in Showcase Canada.

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