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Desaturated Santa

December 28, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

As an art project, the Desaturated Santa costume definitely exceeded my expectations.

(image from the Burning Man blog, Moze's post- click photo for link)

A more full-length view is here on Flickr.

When I decided to do a black-and-white (desaturated) version of a Santa for SF SantaCon, it was something of a lark. I knew it would be amusing, and I sort of knew WHY it would work, but no idea that I could pull it off so well.

3rd party conversations with a friend of BenZero’s have solidified in my brain WHY it works.

Santa is an immediately recognizable figure, and a Classic Santa has a fixed set of signifiers. The red and white suit, the black belt, the black boots with fur on top, the hat with the pompom on the end. These things add up in our brains to a Platonic Ideal of Santa.

SantaCon attendees are encouraged to play with this ideal and bring forth variations on the theme, but there’s only so far you can stray from those signifiers and still be recognizable as a “Santa”. The particular Santa Red colour is perhaps the most important visual cue.

When I decided to make a Desaturated Santa costume, I realized that to remove the visual cue of Red but still be recognizable as a Santa, I had to maintain as many of the other signifiers as I could. The illusion of a walking black-and-white-photo of a Santa wouldn’t be as effective if I wasn’t wearing a very classic Santa outfit.

Side note: Which is also why the ‘desaturated version’ of a costume for other events wouldn’t work as well- Santa is SANTA- that ideal image in your brain is pretty much the same as everyone else’s. Other themed events have so many costume variations that you’d lose some of the immediate recognition of what you were trying to accomplish.

Back to the process:  I purchased a Santa suit sewing pattern, and chose a neutral darkish gray color fabric that looked like a desaturated red. (This was the hard part).  After I made the costume, I took a fabric swatch to Kryolan SF and color-matched a light skin-tone gray that also worked with the fabric. Add to that a gray wig and gray contacts (purchased online) and I was good to go.

The morning of the event, I was having second thoughts even during the makeup application. Indoors and with other color next to it, the gray body paint looked blue. It wasn’t until I finished the body paint application and put on the gray contacts, wig and suit that the illusion really tied itself together.

The entire day was filled with people reacting strongly to the costume. From double-takes, incredulous laughter, constant questions and requests for photos- it was like being famous! People applied their own filters- I was ‘robot Santa’, ‘zombie Santa’, ‘old movie Santa’, &c. It was fun blowing people’s minds, even the ones who couldn’t understand “WHY?” (the #1 most asked question. Response? “Why not?”).

I got home after the end of a long, amusing day, washed off the paint and thought that it was over.

Apparently not. What I hadn’t imagined was the response that the PHOTOS from the day would elicit. In 2009 when people are used to seeing digitally manipulated photos, the Desaturated Santa costume looked TOO good. In other words- many people thought it was Photoshopped to remove the color. And then the fun began as it was circulated around Twitter, various blogs and aggregator sites. The best photo of the day that’s surfaced so far (linked from Flickr above) has had almost 100,000 views as of this writing.

Many people find it hard to believe that someone would go to all the effort of creating a gray & white Santa suit and painting their face, when it’s “so much easier just to do it in Photoshop”. (Yes, but where’s the fun in THAT? Heck, why visit Paris when I can just Photoshop myself in front of a picture of the Eiffel Tower?)

I think this also speaks not only to the prevalence and ease of digital manipulation in daily life, but also that it’s perhaps replacing authentic experiences in some areas? It’s easier, faster and cheaper to use a green screen, to use Photoshop to desaturate or to add crazy color…but I’d rather travel, sew and paint, or get naked and bodypainted anytime.

I’m not sure if it’s a GET OFF MY LAWN response to digital manipulation vs authentic experience, or if I’m Monday morning quarterbacking-style overthinking this. All I know is, it sure was fun, and that’s what I was going for.

  1. December 30, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I only recently discovered photos of your wonderful Desaturated Santa costume, and of course I was blown away like everyone else. 🙂 As someone who has long enjoyed costuming as art myself, I’m so happy that you decided to write about the experience here.

    You’ve shared an intelligent essay on the subject, raising many insightful points. A big huge “yeah, what she said!” to your remarks about the influence of digital effects on our daily lives and perception, people missing the whole concept of your costume (“why?”– really, who asks that?), and the recognizable elements that make an icon such as Santa.

    Thanks again, for both your wonderful creativity and the inspiration you’ve offered. 🙂

  2. Donna
    January 4, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    I did a blue djinn in ’04 for similar reasons…why the He** not?

    My best response was a manager who joined us in a conference call, his face buried in a report, and didn’t look up till he was in the middle of a sentence. Lost his train of thought, he did!

  3. January 5, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Life is so much more fun when you live it! Beautiful job and oh so inspiring!

  4. Mirage
    January 6, 2010 at 4:02 am

    Wow, I readed this post in this brazilian blog: http://brogui.mtv.uol.com.br/
    and I really liked your costume.. you became very highlighted in the crowd. Congrats for the really good job!

  5. tommy d
    April 22, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Okay. I *heart* your wacky sensibility, you badass, ninja, rockstar, artchick from hell! You made my day, as well as my FB status post. Ha!
    Cheers! Drop a line if you ever make it to Portland. We LOVE your sort of ilk. 😉

  6. September 10, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Brody, I am trying to repeat this effect with a costume of my own(not a santa suit) I am struggling to find a proper gray skin color, what color swatch did you use exactly? And what was your preferred site you used? If you don’t mind me asking. Thank you.

  7. Diana DeMeo
    December 5, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    I saw you in person, and it was freakin’ awesome – yours was the only costume I told non-Santaconners about this morning. It was like you were walking around in your own black-and-white movie while the rest of us were in technicolor. Thanks for going to the Eiffel Tower for us all!


  8. William H. Brewer
    December 7, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    I saw you last Saturday as well, and it was great–even more disorienting in person than in the photos. Amazingly well done.

  9. phil langone
    December 7, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Just saw you on a blog post in the LA Times. Two things about your costume that I find cool: The first is how the intense reds create a little bit of reflected light off of the white areas of your costume. A little gets into the grays, too. It sort of adds to the strangeness of it all. The second thing I noticed is how in the top picture here, the guy in front of you is so intense next to you that a slightly dark outline is created. It feels like to me that you have been “collaged” into the image.

    Very cool.

  10. tj
    September 20, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Hey Brody!!

    Love the costume!!

    I was wondering if you had ever done this with any other costume? (for halloween?)

    • Brody
      September 20, 2011 at 11:24 pm

      No. Santa doesn’t come out for Halloween.

  11. anthrosciguy
    September 28, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    It’s obvious to me why you’d do it. Who wouldn’t want to be walking around and see a living B&W photo, esp. as just part of the whole scene. It’s doing what we know can be done with effects on photos and film. Actually, I don’t think it would have been nearly as impressive an effect in the days before we were familiar with that kind of selective special effect in films. Because we do see it there, we know what it looks like, and we’re familiar with it.

    On the screen.

    When we see in real life something we know can only happen on the screen it’s like having a movie special effect come to life.

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  13. domitype
    May 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    It looks like someone in Oaktown has worked on your concept – there is a woman in a gray 1860s era dress and parasol with gray makeup posing at farmers markets and street fairs. I have only seen this picture, no further info is known by me. (this is just a screen grab from facebook.) http://www.flickr.com/photos/80907640@N00/14329148043/

    • Brody
      May 30, 2014 at 5:00 pm

      Yeah, it’s not by any means an original idea. Where is “oaktown”?


      • domitype
        May 30, 2014 at 5:28 pm

        Oakland – thought every Santa knew that…

  14. May 28, 2015 at 5:46 am

    i am hoping to do a similar costume but with my actual hair and beard, I think i know how to get them to the appropriate colors, what advice would you give on the face makeup?

    • Brody
      May 28, 2015 at 6:24 am

      I’d suggest reading the post on this blog where I talk about makeup. 🙂

  15. May 28, 2015 at 7:26 am

    thank you

  16. Nautilus
    April 6, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    Hullo! I am so in love with this costume you put so much into!
    Would you mind specifying which shade of Kryolan paint you used??
    Did you use Kryolan Aquacolor Gray 089
    or Kryolan Aquacolor Grey 32B??
    As they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery
    and I can only hope I can imitate your flawless desaturated look for Dapper day!
    Thank you for your time! ♥

  17. November 27, 2016 at 8:36 am

    You have got incredible stuff here.|

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  1. January 23, 2010 at 11:04 am
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