Tutorial: Creating a Crowd — Using Layers and Selections in Second Life Photos

If you use image editing software for your Second Life photographic work, such as GIMP, Paint Shop Pro or PhotoShop, you’ve probably encountered references like “masks” and “selections” in the documentation at some point.  However, have you ever used them before?  I’ll admit, I’ve been slow in learning all the capabilities of my image software, when I could probably produce more luxurious photos without spending a fortune on luxurious costumes.  But, for a project I’m working on now, I had an idea for a photo that I needed help on.  I wanted to produce a scene with more than two people in it.  I wanted a man in the shot — but I didn’t want Conan for this particular photo, as I was going to “meet” him when I got off the ferry boat.  What do I do?

It was time to throw out contacts, and also to try new techniques.  Jem Sternhall was willing to help, of course; but I don’t know that many men in SL.  The solution:  use Jemmy twice!

And here’s how you do it, for newbies and those who haven’t tried something like this yet:

1. Decide where you’ll be shooting, and from what angle.  I nail this down dead solid perfect now, if possible, since I’ll need to do it all again if I change my mind.  The trick here is that I will shoot a photo from the one spot, but at least two times.

2. Decide where you will be standing or sitting.  I will be the fixed point around which everyone else will be appearing.  Once I get myself positioned and posed, and set my camera view into the right location, I will not move until the session is ended.

3. It’s time for Jem to get dressed and into her initial position.  Unlike me now, Jem can move around as much as she wants.  This allows her to go to the places where she’s needed to increase the crowd level.

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4. We select Jem’s pose, and take the photo.  This will be the first photo, which will be the base photo for the final product.

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5. Jem now moves to a new position, and changes appearance.  In this case, Jem not only moved and changed appearance, she changed sex.  However, any of several different tricks  can be used here; for instance, Subject 2 changes clothes and hair, and then turns around in their new location to show a profile or back view to your camera.  Remember, you’re not moving your camera angle at all, not a millimeter; the other avatar will be doing all the work.  Once Jem is in position, I shoot the next photo.

6. Repeat as many times as desired, each time with Subject 2 changing their appearance.  I would have asked Jemmy to do a few more here; but this particular location only has 11 working seats, despite the number of chairs, and most of them are off camera from where I’m sitting.  That finished that up quite nicely….  (Remember when you’re done to thank your friend, and maybe buy them a nice gift — which I did, of course!)

And, believe it or not, that’s the sweated labor part of the routine here.

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7.  Time for the editor.  I open my first photo, which I will be using as the background image for all the other photos.  For most of my work, I prefer Paint Shop Pro, with GIMP the next choice; from here on, things may vary depending on what you use, but probably not by much.  The key thing is that your editor must be able to handle multiple layers.  (PhotoShop is too bleedin’ expensive; but that’s a whole other issue.)

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8.  Also I open any other images I’ll be using — which, in my case, is only one other.  That being the case here, I copy the entire second photo, without any modifications, then return to the base photo, and (in Paint Shop Pro) paste it over the base photo as a new layer (Ctrl-L in Paint Shop Pro).  The man-Jem will seem to disappear as the new layer is pasted over.

9.  Important:  Make sure that you are now working on the new layer!  This is the one you want to do modifications on, not the original background photo.  Once I am certain of this, I choose my selection tool, and draw a selection box around the added person — Jem in my example.  I make sure I have all of Jem “boxed in,” then I choose the correct command to invert the selection.  Now, instead of a “marquee” around Jem, the marquee is actually surrounding everything but Jem.  I press Delete, and all the selected area is removed in the layer, leaving Jem behind.  Your software might make the layer look like the following — what I’ve done is temporarily shut off visibility for the base layer.

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The checkerboard is all alpha region.  So, when I turn the background layer back on for you to see the results, it looks like this:

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10.  I choose Selections / Select None to remove the selection frame, then merge the two layers together by right-clicking on the layers at the right of the screen, and selecting Merge / Flatten.  Jem is now merged seamlessly into the seat behind me, as well as sitting beside me.  Repeat this for as many times as you need or desire, and you’ll have a far busier photo than you can often find in a Second Life region outside of The Blarney Stone, one of the Frank’s clubs, or even a sales event on the first day.

You should keep a definite demarcation space between “moving” avatars, to avoid blank space surrounding one iteration from covering up a lower iteration.  For instance, if someone were sitting in the chair directly behind female Jem, it would be very difficult to keep one or the other from having a square of “unoccupied” space partially obscuring the other avatar when the photos were merged, unless I managed to do a very tight selection.  I could also use the “magic-wand” selection tool, though, if I was good at freehand selection work; such a tool allows the user to draw a series of points around the selection area instead of a straight geometric shape like a square or oval.  Once the path is closed, the path becomes the selection marquee, and then you can invert the selection as normal.  I would also, in cases like this, move from the back of the photo forward toward the viewer.

If you have a good, strong computer, with enough horsepower to run two client windows, and you also possess an alt account, you can even do this multiple-photo technique by yourself.  Log in with the alt in a new client window, and make the alt your “moving” avatar, then follow the same instructions as above.  I would keep the graphics set low on the alt client to lessen the strain on processing two versions of the same region; both avatars near each other is almost as bad as meeting yourself at the same point in the timestream1.  Getting one or two friends to help you keeps you down to one client, enabling you to run maximum allowable graphics for your machine, and thus improves the chances of creating a good photo, with all the SL bells and whistles we have available to us now.

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1  —
KIRK: Do you know what you’re saying? Matter and antimatter have a tendency to cancel each other out. violently.
SPOCK: Precisely. Under certain conditions, when two identical particles of matter and antimatter meet
KIRK: Like Lazarus. Identical. Like both Lazarus’, only one is matter and the other antimatter. If they meet.
SPOCK: Annihilation, Jim. Total, complete, absolute annihilation.
KIRK: Of everything that exists, everywhere….

Star Trek, “The Alternative Factor” (first broadcast March 30, 1967)

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