An Interview with Set Designer Raffy Tesoro - Digital Photography School
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An Interview with Set Designer Raffy Tesoro

In this post Dustin Carbonera interviews Set Designer Raffy Tesoro. Raffy has answered a number of questions as well as walking us through some of the shots he’s been involved with creating sets for.

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Everybody seems to be into photography nowadays. Everyone wants to be the person behind the lens and capture a beautiful frame. Everyone wants to be that person who’ll be praised by people because he was able to come up with a perfect shot, of course, with the help of the oh-so-powerful Photoshop.

Sadly, it seems that the name of the game today (for some) is not really how well you do in Photoshop, not how well you know how to get a good shot. For example, we need a surreal set for a model. We shoot a model and render a nice background. Less hassle, and faster processing, and viola! A nice photograph.

Then comes Raffy Tesoro– a man who I can say is the Creator…of set designs. He is a man in between worlds; a man who knows and loves to build his set by hand, but does not fail to see the ease of using a 3D world. I had a wonderful chance of interviewing him online and learned so much about a world not ventured by most.

As note, I did not edit his answers as they were perfect as they are, at least we get a grasp of Raffy Tesoro on a more personal approach.

1. How did you start in this industry? Why did you choose this path?

I guess I was just born into it.  My parents are both artists.  My mom is a fashion designer and my dad is a lawyer by trade but an actor & theatre denizen by heart.  So I was learning how to bead and embroider when I was a kid and just kept moving on from there.  As for production design specifically, I got into it because my friend Jay Tablante sort of egged me on into it.  I started by making one set because I was bored and he thought I should just do it regularly.  I think I was too stupid at the time to say no… and here we are.  All in all I think that the path chose me more than I chose it.

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Art Endures – I made this shot in November 2008 with Jay Tablante.  I wanted to show how beauty and art can and will survive the test of time.  My reference was how archeologists dig up bones and pieces of the past.  Clues to our history through art… which basically is the only thing that does survive.  Well in this case… what if they uncovered a beauty untouched by time?  To give it a sense of realism… I buried the model in 200 kilos of sand, flour and cornstarch.  Then the rest was posted in.

 

  • Photography:  Jay Tablante 
  • Hair & Makeup:  Lanie Acedilio for Paul & Joe 
  • FA:  Genald Tungol for Whitewall Industries 
  • Model:  Nadine Howell

2. Humble beginnings, a little history of who you are. Perhaps background on how were you as a kid?

Growing up was different for me.  When most kids were out playing, I was helping my mom make clothes.  At 12 or 13 I decided to try doing events and shows full time so I asked my mom’s director, Ogee Atos, if I could apprentice.  I was basically juggling school, fashion shows, pageants, design and a whole gamut of things.  Somewhere in between I was a bouncer, a dyer, a t-shirt maker, a talent agent, a bum, a secretary… whatever..  It seems like a lot of rubbish at the time and I was definitely finding my way through life but I wouldn’t change it for anything.  All these experiences help me with my work, my passion and my outlook in like.

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Rogue – This was for Jay’s exhibit.  He wanted to make something interesting so I suggested doing a comic book character.  Together with Gelo Lico, we came up with this concept.  It was kinda fun!  I had to make that pillar and break it up so it would look more realistic.  Gelo came up with the layout and I figured out the storyline and look. 

  • Photography:  Jay Tablante 
  • FA/AD:  Gelo Lico 
  • Model:  Rhian Howell

3. Raffy Tesoro is synonymous to…?

Strange.  That’s about it really…. ask my friends.  I never get anything normal in this life.

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Rock & Roll – Nadine wanted a kinda rock & roll concept for herself.  So I took inspiration from the old Rolling Stone mag covers and came up with this. 

  • Photography:  Wesley Villarica for Parallax Studios.
  • Model:  Nadine Howell

4. Set design is…?

 

…is all about creating a world. May it be a glimpse, a touch… or an entire panoramic view of reality and/or fantasy.  Production designers like to joke that our job was the first one ever since God created a world to his liking… lol.  But yes, we create time (periods, timelines, etc.), space (rooms, worlds, props,) ideas (genres, concepts, fantasies) and whatever else.  Production design isn’t only about making things to be placed in the physical aspect of the job… but also to design an aesthetic and create concepts that are pertinent to the work at hand.  Its more mental than menial but don’t let that fool you… there’s a lot of hard, dirty, hands on work involved.  PDs are usually the first on the set and the last to leave… plus there’s a lot of prep time before construction even starts.  Photogs usually just have to show up and set lights, or MUAs just need to bring their kit and brushes.  We’re there hours, even days before anyone else is.  I’m not saying that our work is more important than anyone else’s in the team… but rather, everyone has to realize that each profession has its requirements.  This one is ours.  Gotta put in more time than the others.

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My Sorrow – This one was totally on the fly.  Well okay not really… I made the mask and had the idea in mind… the execution of it was a bit of a bitch tho. We ended up using one light and even that was gobo’d.  I wanted to convey a feeling of sadness and solitude with this but not make it come out so much in the expression.  Actually the mask was there to show how we conceal our true emotions especially when it comes to our own sorrow. 

  • Photography:  Genald Tungol of Whitewall Industries
  • Model:  Karen Pamintuan 
  • Makeup:  Noel Flores

5. I think your Flickr site is just a little glimpse of your work and they sure are mind-blowing. How do you come up with these ideas? Any weird rituals before coming up with a design? Any memorable story?

Guh I really need to update my flickr more often.  I just think them up!  Okay that’s not the whole story but in a nutshell that’s how it goes.  I can just be watching TV and I just start thinking that it would be fun to make people fly naked through clouds of creamy cocoa.  But no… its more like a product of just being immersed in the arts for so long.  The experiences, the lessons, aesthetics, rules, etc… all go in and out in a flash but leave a mark on the idea.  A good example of this is a story I heard about this big company that wanted to update their logo… so they hired a very talented big name graphics designer to do it.  During the preliminary meeting, she was doodling on a napkin while they were talking about what they wanted the new logo to signify.  So at the end of the meeting she showed them her napkin doodle and voila… there was their logo.  They loved it.  But they didn’t want to pay her so much since they thought… she just scribbled on a napkin!  To which she said that this design didn’t come out of thin air.  Sure it was made out of nothing really… but behind it, her experiences, her travels, her studies, etc.  That cost her a lot of time, money and personal investment.  That’s what they were paying for.  Her Vision.  And this is something that most people don’t realize about artists.  We may create something out of nothing… but that nothing had to come out of something.

As for my stories…. well… they’re just too weird to be published I think.  Sometimes people think I make it up… but truth IS stranger than fiction sometimes…

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Power – This is part of my personal headshot project. I’m doing a series of head shots that convey a word and a story. I get actors to do the shots and work out the emotions pertinent to the word then get my team together to create the setting, graphics, styling, makeup and whatnot in order to complete the effect. This one is “Power”. I wanted to show how the use of colors, effects, layout and placement could control people’s minds. It’s a very effective tool used by authoritarian regimes.

  • Model: Gino de la Peña
  • Photography: Jay Tablante
  • Makeup: Noel Flores
  • Styling: Raffy Tesoro
  • Graphics: Gelo Lico
  • Concept: Raffy Tesoro

6. How is it working with one of the best fashion photographers (referring to Jay Tablante) in the local scene?

They’re the best?  Wahahaha!  No really, they are.  I mean… with the likes of Jay Tablante, Wesley Villarica, Doc Marlon, Genald Tungol, Erik Liongoren, Dix Reyes, Neal Oshima, Wig Tysmans, Dominique James… All these guys are awesome..  I just can’t see how it can’t be fun and productive.  But we can’t overlook the rest of the team either.  The makeup artists like Omar Ermita, Xeng Zulueta, Josa Primero, or stylists like Hannah Sison, Guada Reyes… models, designers, art directors, graphics designers, and whoever else.  I mean I could name all the guys I’ve worked with but that’s gonna be a long and boring read. Regardless, they’re all an intrinsic and important part of the project.  You may have a great photog but if your model is bleh… you’ve got a problem.  OR a lousy MUA but the model is drop dead gorgeous… still won’t work so well.  We are only as strong as our weakest link after all.

It tends to spoil you in some ways since you can just pull something out of your ass creatively and they’ll understand you immediately.  God knows how many times I’ve done that to a newbie and they would just stare at me, completely flummoxed by whatever insanity I was spouting out at the time.  They all have their styles, their quirks and their perceptions… but what makes them good and talented is their versatility, smarts, creativity and experience.  It’s hard to make anything that would please yourself if the people you’re working with can’t execute the vision to your liking.  That’s just how it is.  I’d like to think I give them the same options as well.  Most of the time.

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Strings – Did this shot with Jay Tablante and a bunch of other photogs for our Singapore workshop. I created a concept for them where I wanted pure elegance… like timeless jewelry shots… but using only the simplest of materials… like white thread.

  • Photography:  Jay Tablante
  • Model:  Rhian howell

7. Any favorite style (?) that is you see is prominent in your work. It’s like if we see ___________, that’s Raffy Tesoro.

I don’t think I have any defining style really… other than that I like detail.  Not just detail in the sense that oooh there’s so many things going on… but more like how the whole thing was thought up down to the last few bits here and there.  I have some pretty ornate stuff and I also have a good number of minimalist work… since for me even the lack of detail is a detail in itself, as long as you thought about it first.  Plus I always need a story or an idea in the shot.  If it doesn’t than its just a snapshot, no matter what it is.  Unless your concept WAS to make a snapshot…

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Temple Warrior – Made this for a fashion show some time back.  Decided to give it an amazon feel… and like she was guarding something important.  Heh.

  • Photography:  Jay Tablante
  • Makeup:  Omar Ermita
  • Model:  Michelle Fedalto

8. Opinion on the digital age: with advanced (?) technology on our side now, we can make sets through clicking. Some photographers even use shoot the model and render a 3D background. Any thoughts on this?

Not that keen about it.  I don’t hate photoshop or digitech.  They are tools just like any other.  The beef I have with it is that its extremely abused and creates a veneer of laziness in everyone.  I just love (insert sarcasm here) how people would shoot something… then when they check the LCD and see things off here and there… they’d just say, “oh we can photoshop that” instead of fixing it in situ.  If that was the case… I’d solve every design problem with my favourite tool as well:  A hammer.  “Oh… wall’s not in the right place.  A hammer can fix that.” Or,  “Hey the model’s not in her light.  No prob… gimme my hammer..”  See what I mean?

Any good piece of art has to be convincing…  and that means there has to be a healthy balance of all the skills, talents, tools and ideas involved.  I use graphics if the shot calls for it.  Same way that I call for a nude if I think the concept needs it as well more than “oh… the model’s hot, let’s strip her.”  Believe me I’ve heard that line waaaay more times than I’d like to.  But yes, there is a reason to making art… and doing it well means you have to draw the audience into the world you’re creating.  A one-sided world made by one tool or thing usually doesn’t make it very appealing.  Despite the fact that most who look are laymen, always remember that everyone has the capacity to detect a lie.  If you look at it in a certain way, all forms of art are lies.  So be a good fibber.  :p

I’m a huge advocate of learning the old techniques.  It instills discipline and a deeper understanding for the craft.  I usually explain this to people when they question why I push for this by telling them about my Zombie theory.  Imagine that you’re in a reaaaaaalllly bad B-movie situation where you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and a gazillion shuffling zombies are comin round lookin for a lovely brrraaaaaainnns buffet.  Guess what… you’re on the menu!  This scene is never complete without managing to escape long enough to find a decrepit barn with a battered Ford inside.  YOU’RE SAVED!!! Except when you discover that its a stick shift and you’ve only ever driven an automatic.  Poor, poor you.  Hope you find a shotgun…. except… dammit you don’t know how to reload the thing since the only time you’ve EVER used a firearm was for Time Crisis 2.  And the list goes on and on…

Bottom line is:  don’t gimp yourself by not learning the old ways.  Yes, technology has made things more convenient, but to deny oneself of a proper learning experience isn’t good for the artistic technique or creative output.  Its part of earning a proper education in whatever career you’re passionate about.

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Priscilla – This was for a men’s magazine that never launched.  Got our friend Priscilla to model for us… and when I got to the venue I found out that it was basically a blank hut made out of concrete and steel pipes.  So I had to make do with some wood, cloth and whatever else I could find to make this into something shootable.

  • Photography:  Wesley Villarica for Parallax Studio
  • Model:  Priscilla Mereilles
  • Styling:  Rachel Lisbeth So

9. (Cliche question, well, all of them are) Tips for the starters in this field?

Sure… this one’s easy.  Don’t get into it.  LOL.  Unless you’re passionate enough, stupid enough and stubborn enough to really want to… then go ahead!  I’m just saying this because a lot of people want to get into PD, Fashion, Photography, etc… because it’s hip, cool, fun… whatever.  Sure it’s all that.  But behind it is a LOT of hard work and a lot of heartache.  Be prepared for it and don’t bitch when you find out the hard way.  That’s just how life is.  Well okay you can bitch from time to time but every artist needs to cultivate patience, discipline, mental stamina, open-mindedness, morality and thick skin with a thick skull to match.  People are either going to love your work or hate it… but I take both as a compliment.  The worst thing that any artist can hear is when their work doesn’t illicit an opinion at all.  Ouch.

There’s that and there’s that one other uber-important aspect:  Education.  PDs need to know a lot about construction, safety, materials, surfaces, textures, spacial reasoning, etc… but you also need to know a little about everything.  You’re creating a world after all, down to the pots and pans, nails, bedbugs and whatever else is there no matter how big or small.  Like I said… you’re a god… even if its for a little while.

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Wedding Essentials – Did this for Wedding Essentials magazine.  Made a few paintings for it and set the theme… kinda like sitting in an art gallery or something.

  • Photography:  Jay Tablante

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://jasoncollinphotography.com Jason Collin Photography

    Would be really nice someday to get to a level where I could regular hire and work with a set designer.

    I like the sets shown in the final, bride shot and the archaeology one.

  • oliver

    Jay Tablante.. you rock!

  • http://weddings.yourlifephoto.co.uk Alex Suffolk Photographer

    Something I think of lot of newcommers to the industry don’t realise is that professional photographs are actually, for the most part, a combination of various peoples talents all coming together in a single image.

    I always prefer working with set designers, art directors and stylists as it lets me concentrate on my own technical aspects.

  • http://www.muditinternational.com Garnet Necklace

    Hi,

    Just found this Blogpost from Technorati top Ten News feed, I thing this post already indexed by search engines. Well writen post. Keep it up.

    Thanks,
    Jennifer

  • Alicia Santos

    What i find most interesting with this interview are not the accomplishment of Mr. Tesoro but the advices he gave on those who are aspiring either to be a PD, Fashion, Photography, etc… “every artist needs to cultivate patience, discipline, mental stamina, open-mindedness, morality and thick skin with a thick skull to match. People are either going to love your work or hate it… but I take both as a compliment. The worst thing that any artist can hear is when their work doesn’t illicit an opinion at all. “… Mr. Tesoro may not know me but He does incalcate something in me which will remain in me for the rest of my life in pursuing these career as a photographer, a female in a male dominated world.

    Thank you,
    Alicia Santos (not my real name)

  • citmariñas

    I had a feeling that the set designer, Mr. Tesoro, is a Filipino.. Great artist!

  • Raffy Tesoro

    Thanks for all the comments! I just keep trying as I always do. I hope to work with some of you someday!

    Raffy Tesoro

  • Tess Rivera

    I’ve known Raffy even as a kid and as far back as I can remember, he has always though outside the box. A naturally creative person. Kudos Raffy!

  • Jensen

    I love what you do! You are very creative!
    I am a photography student at the Art Institute, and I’ve been wondering the average cost of adding a set designer to some of my shoots? If you have an estimate I’d love to learn more about it!
    You’re work is incredible! (:
    -Jensen Maze

  • Barry Thomsen

    Hey there would you mind letting me know which webhost you’re using? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different internet browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most. Can you recommend a good web hosting provider at a fair price? Kudos, I appreciate it!

Some older comments

  • Barry Thomsen

    August 20, 2013 08:11 pm

    Hey there would you mind letting me know which webhost you're using? I've loaded your blog in 3 completely different internet browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most. Can you recommend a good web hosting provider at a fair price? Kudos, I appreciate it!

  • Jensen

    January 20, 2012 06:30 am

    I love what you do! You are very creative!
    I am a photography student at the Art Institute, and I've been wondering the average cost of adding a set designer to some of my shoots? If you have an estimate I'd love to learn more about it!
    You're work is incredible! (:
    -Jensen Maze

  • Tess Rivera

    July 27, 2011 12:55 am

    I've known Raffy even as a kid and as far back as I can remember, he has always though outside the box. A naturally creative person. Kudos Raffy!

  • Raffy Tesoro

    May 7, 2010 04:11 am

    Thanks for all the comments! I just keep trying as I always do. I hope to work with some of you someday!

    Raffy Tesoro

  • citmariñas

    May 6, 2010 06:00 pm

    I had a feeling that the set designer, Mr. Tesoro, is a Filipino.. Great artist!

  • Alicia Santos

    May 6, 2010 12:30 pm

    What i find most interesting with this interview are not the accomplishment of Mr. Tesoro but the advices he gave on those who are aspiring either to be a PD, Fashion, Photography, etc... "every artist needs to cultivate patience, discipline, mental stamina, open-mindedness, morality and thick skin with a thick skull to match. People are either going to love your work or hate it… but I take both as a compliment. The worst thing that any artist can hear is when their work doesn’t illicit an opinion at all. "... Mr. Tesoro may not know me but He does incalcate something in me which will remain in me for the rest of my life in pursuing these career as a photographer, a female in a male dominated world.

    Thank you,
    Alicia Santos (not my real name)

  • Garnet Necklace

    January 2, 2010 02:12 am

    Hi,

    Just found this Blogpost from Technorati top Ten News feed, I thing this post already indexed by search engines. Well writen post. Keep it up.

    Thanks,
    Jennifer

  • Alex Suffolk Photographer

    December 1, 2009 09:46 pm

    Something I think of lot of newcommers to the industry don't realise is that professional photographs are actually, for the most part, a combination of various peoples talents all coming together in a single image.

    I always prefer working with set designers, art directors and stylists as it lets me concentrate on my own technical aspects.

  • oliver

    December 1, 2009 01:05 pm

    Jay Tablante.. you rock!

  • Jason Collin Photography

    November 30, 2009 02:57 pm

    Would be really nice someday to get to a level where I could regular hire and work with a set designer.

    I like the sets shown in the final, bride shot and the archaeology one.

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