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Desaturated Santa

December 28, 2009 26 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.