Mark Ruff working in Channel 10, 1989
Mark Ruff working in studio, 1980

‘Farming Pixel Man’ Mark Ruff

A visual entrepreneur, Mark takes risks in image making for a life. Developing new techniques in photography can be an interesting task, and without people like Mark who spend time experimenting, we wouldn’t be where we are today in terms of technological advances. From being the technical director and controller at Channel 10 in 1980, creating Australia’s first film based S.L.R camera array in 1999, and now being awarded ‘Master of Photography’ in 2013, Mark Ruff has certainly come a long way, but it has been a hard one. We caught up with Mark Ruff for a little chat about the process behind his 3D images. 

Hi there how are you?

Pretty excited – a great time to be involved in image making.

Tell us a little about yourself..

I consider myself a ‘visual entrepreneur’. I take risks in image making by developing new techniques and bring them to the market place. QTVR, Multiple camera arrays for broadcast and film production special effects and 3D ‘glasses free’ portrait printing.

What drove you into becoming a photographer?

I suppose farming has been in the blood, but instead of farming primary produce, I farm pixels.

How did you find yourself working in the 3D photographic industry?

We are familiar with 3D when we go to the cinema – this is ‘stereo’ 3D where we need the assistance of glasses to perceive a virtual image with depth. I perform ‘auto-stereo’ 3D where glasses are not required, however, you require more than 2 images for this. 3D is not new with capture previously requiring just a single scanning camera for capture.

However, this linear approach meant that nothing moving could be captured. The solution was to capture a moving subject with multiple cameras at once. My work involves capturing a subject instantly with the use of between 5 and 9 cameras, and then creating up to 48 images that are interlaced together to create a single image that can be seen to have depth. Secrets of such a system involve synchronisation of cameras, positional stabilisation, colour and luminance variations, vector based interpolation, image alignment and printing.

In terms of techniques, what are the processes behind taking a 3D image for someone who is looking for a portrait?

The process is quite similar to regular portraiture except that I use up to 9 cameras.

This system is not as flexible as a single camera, so the approach is more cinematic where you have the subject (or talent) directed toward the camera (Which one? – The middle camera) as opposed to a single camera photographer moving around the subject. The process is efficient and have demonstrated on several occasions that I can have a print manufactured in 1 hour after principal photography.

Copyright 2013 Channel 10 Australia
Copyright 2013 Channel 10 Australia

You worked on the opening sequence for Australia’s ‘Offspring’. Tell us a little about what the actors thought of the 3D process and what happened on the days of filming?

Well, actors don’t really have much say. A production company approached me to create the original series opening titles and the actors are essentially, told what to do! It was really just another day on the set for them. Naturally, when working with professionals, they adapt to the situation readily and perform appropriately. The fact that there were 10 cameras instead of one did not impact on their performance. We did all the lighting and with the near real-time system, the producers were able to see results within seconds of capture. They could select the best take on the fly which made our post easy.

Are there any challenges that come with working with so many cameras on a shoot?

Not really. This was a simple 10 camera assignment – not a 60 camera effort. The more cameras on set, the more nervous I get – it’s just the way I am. I have complete confidence in the system, but I am always relieved when the ‘results are in the can.’ Seasoned actors are used to hitting their mark and performing an action to the camera. In this case, the camera is the middle one and they perform accordingly.

Offspring was a relatively simple assignment. Production started at around 5:30 am. We set up and were ready to photograph several hours later and the entire day wrapped at about 1500 (3:00pm) with lunch!

The production went as planned and there were no delays. We chroma screened the environment and I performed the post production.

Although 10 cameras were used, in post, we time stretched each sequence to 5 seconds, that is, instead of the sequences lasting just 10 frames, or less than half a second, we successfully created an on screen duration of 125 frames. Isn’t nature wonderful!

It’s great to work with professionals, although, I am surprised that more Australian production people have not embraced the effect. It is not that expensive and I am surprised that the thought of having a unique production effect has not had more impact.

I suppose this reinforces my comment that there is little competition and a lack of risk taking to do something new and creative in Australia, and I suppose this is why true creatives at the top edge of the pyramid choose to go overseas to claim recognition. (Australians are so well respected overseas)

Although, this effect is not new. I am just a modern re-inventor of the multi camera technique originally developed by Eadward Muybridge in early 1870’s.

Copyright 2013, Channel 10 Australia
Copyright 2013, Channel 10 Australia

You also create fantasy portraits. What are your inspirations behind those and is there lots of planning involved beforehand of each photograph?

3D is difficult to market and ‘get out there’. My wife and I decided to offer another product to our clients with Fantasy Portraits of children. Apart from our own children, we have not photographed children at all, however, after our first test, we learned quickly that we had a chemistry with the children that creates wonderful results. The genre has been done very poorly in the past here and overseas and I think we have lifted the quality. Planning is not difficult, however, like any retail photography business you have to be disciplined with business systems and learn sales to gain success.

Kate, my wife, really has the inspiration – all I do is capture the expressions and she sorts through the thousands of backgrounds we have to match up a great pose and background. Fantasy is a great business model and I intend to license this successful concept to other photographers soon.

Where do you see 3D printing in the future? Do you think it’s going to advance more so in the advertising world and how?

Commercial 3D printing will always be limited due to its expense. It is more popular overseas where budgets are larger and the industry is more competitive. I have now made the decision to pursue 3D as an art form with limited edition prints.

Why do you think 3D still images are interesting to the human eye?

For portraiture, it is ‘like the person is there’. There is a realism that 2D cannot compete with.

What is it like working in Melbourne? Have you ever lived somewhere else and does living in Melbourne come with any advantages/disadvantages when compared to any other city?

I have worked in most countries in the world and there is no better place to LIVE in the world than Melbourne.

However, Australia’s small population with little competition and little desire to take risks means that doing BUSINESS here is very difficult.

What are five things you wish you had been told before beginning photography?

1. Learn Psychology,

2. Learn Business,

3. Learn how to sell,

4. The ‘make it and they will come’ approach does not work,

5. Learn marketing.

You can view Mark’s work at his website down below.