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Photoshop for Kids: Stack Me Up!

This post is part of a series called Adobe Photoshop for Kids!.
Photoshop for Kids: Jedi Me!
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

I love the old visual gags. I'm not afraid to admit it. There's a certain charm to the humor of Charlie Chaplin and The Little Rascals. So when my kids and I started to think about ways we could try to recapture that classic flavor of humor, we came upon the Totem Pole Trench. It's an old gag that has been used before, but it's also very fun and good for a laugh. 

The idea is to convey a scene where the kids would need to pose as an adult, and the solution they come up with is to ride on each others shoulders to build up to the height of an adult, and wrap the whole thing up in a big, conspicuous overcoat (with stylish fedora of course!) in an attempt to hide the ruse. 

So the game was on! Join us in our version of the classic gag—we call ours Stack Me Up!

1. Get Some Photos!

The best part about this project is getting the photos to use. It's the part the kids can be most active in, and the entire process can be a lot of fun. 

We wanted to come up with a situation where the gag would make sense, but didn't want to imply the kids are attempting anything illegal. So we didn't want them to be purchasing items that are age-controlled, or sneaking into an adults-only establishment. The idea we came up with was to use a candy shop where the shop won't ring up purchases unless an adult is present. 

Step 1

There happens to be a candy shop near my house that has a wonderfully bright and colorful decor. 

Whenever working on a project like this, it's always best to be up front with the staff and ask permission first. In our case, the clerk was friendly enough and gladly allowed us to snap a few pictures. We were sure to also make a purchase too, so we weren't just there to take, but also to contribute to their business. 

The candy shop setting

Step 2

After eating the candy and returning home, it was time to set up for the other shots. The shop keeper at the candy store declined the opportunity to participate in the photos, so we needed to create our own clerk. This was accomplished easily enough with a colorful apron similar to the ones worn by the actual employees.

The shop keeper stand in

Step 3

Safety is the utmost concern, particularly when working with children. In reality, most children do not have the strength, balance, and coordination that is required to build an actual human totem. Fortunately, we can use a few practical measures to keep things safe, and then use Photoshop to make it all work.

We found a great method in just using a simple stool for one child to kneel on, while another child simply stands in front of it. 

Use a stool to make the totem stack safe

Step 4

It's the props that make the scene fun for the kids. The conspicuous trench coat is a must, but the over-sized boots and the fedora make for excellent accessories to help sell the overall effect. Be sure the child on the bottom can still be seen peeking out, as that's the critical aspect to the humor of the piece.

Put the coat on to form the Totem Pole Trench

Step 5

Have fun with this and encourage the kids to suggest poses and ideas. Take several shots and enjoy the creative process. We found ourselves laughing at the general silliness of the whole idea! 

Take several shots to have plenty of assets to choose from

If you aren't able to shoot your own photos for this project, feel free to borrow ours by downloading the attached file for this tutorial, StackUpSourcePhotos.zip.

After all the photos are taken and the lights are safely packed away, it's time to bring in the real creative force behind this project: the kids! Make sure you are available to help them with any questions or problems they might have while working with Photoshop.

2. Hey Kids!

We hope you've had as much fun with this project as we did. My girls were so very excited to see the final result. I'm guessing you are too! So let's get started.

Step 1

First pick your favorite photo of the stack-up. It needs to be one where the eyes look as if they are looking at the store clerk, and it should be funny too!

Starting photo for the stack up

Step 2

How many kids did you have helping out for the stack-up? We had three, and they are triplets, so we thought that would make it even more fun! 

If you had more than two kids working on it, you might want to add another head peeking out of the coat. 

Open another picture and use the Lasso Tool (L) to draw an outline around the head and coat opening. Then go to Edit > Copy (Control-C). 

Selecting another head to add into the main scene

Step 3

Click on the tab for the first image again and go to Edit > Paste (Control-V) and the selection you made on the other picture is pasted in on a new layer. Use the Move Tool (V) to move that layer to look as if it fits under the other kid's head.

Paste the copied layers into the first image as a layer

Step 4

The outline around her head makes it look as if she was just pasted into place. We need to fix that! 

We can do that with something called a Layer Mask. Go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. You will see a small white box next to the layer. This is the mask. Then grab the Brush Tool (B) and open the Brush Presets window with Window > Brush Presets. Click on the Soft Round brush preset.

Add a layer mask and select a Soft Round brush

Step 5

Make sure the brush color is set to black. If it isn't, press the D key to set the colors to the Default. Then use this brush to color over the edges of the layer, and you will see those edges disappear! It's like painting with ink that makes things disappear. 

Use a Layer Mask to hide the area below her head

Step 6

We thought that the second picture was much better for the arm. Maybe you think so too? Go back to that picture by clicking on the tab for it. Use the Lasso Tool (L) again to draw an outline around her arm. Then go to Edit > Copy (Control-C) to copy it.

Make a selection of the hand from the second image

Step 7

Click on the tab for the first image again and go to Edit > Paste (Control-V). Use the Move Tool (V) to put the hand into place.

Paste the new hand layer into the main project

Step 8

Now we need to blend that layer in, just like we did with the last one. Go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All to add the layer mask. Then use the same Brush Tool (B) to paint out the edges so it blends in just right!

Add in the alternate hand position

Step 9

Now that we have our stack-up complete, it's going to be easier to put the whole thing into the candy store scene if it is all on one layer. So we will use a little trick to merge them all together. Hold down the Alt key and go to Layer > Merge Visible. This will create a merged layer above the rest of them.

Create a merged layer

Step 10

Now we need to get rid of that background. Grab the Quick Selection Tool (W) and paint around the inside edge of the pretend person. The tool will create a selection by finding the edges. 

Be careful not to select the stool legs. If the tool grabs areas you don't want, hold down the Alt key to use the Subtract from Selection mode and "un-select" the areas you don't want.

Select the entire figure

Step 11

Press the Refine Edge button to get a control box to help make the selection edge a bit better. These settings can sometimes be a little confusing, but we want to make an edge that is sharp and doesn't have any of the background in it. These are the settings we used, but yours might be a little different.

  • Smart Radius: checked
  • Smooth: 3 px
  • Feather: 1 px
  • Shift Edge: -20%

Then set the Output to Layer Mask and press OK.

Use the Refine Edge Tool

Step 12

Hold down the Alt key and click on the eyeball next to the merged layer. This makes all the other layers invisible. Now you can clearly see how the mask is working to remove the background. Use the Brush Tool (B) again to make changes to the mask. We found that the stool legs could still be seen under the boot! But the brush took care of that really fast!

Remember when painting on a mask, white shows and black hides! Think of it like a flashlight: the brighter it is, the more you can see.

Touch up the mask by hand

And That's it! 

Good job kids! You built the human totem. Now stick around to help place the whole scene together.

Final Stack Up Assembly

3. Put the Pieces Together

If you think the kids did a great job putting together the stack-up, then see if they want to continue with extracting the shopkeeper from her background too. But if your kids are like mine, they aren't really that interested in this part, simply because it's not quite as entertaining as the photos of them all stacked up!

Step 1

Leave the stack-up file open while opening the shopkeeper photo. She also needs to be extracted from the background too.

Skeptical shopkeeper shot

Step 2

Extract her from the background by using the same process of the Quick Selection Tool, Refine Edge, and touch up the mask by hand. Don't worry about the trouble of selecting her socks against the white background, because her feet are going to be hidden anyway!

extracted shopkeeper

Step 3

Now open the Candy Shop photo and drag and drop both figures into the scene. If you are using document tabs, drag the layer you wish to copy to the tab of the scene file, and when Photoshop switches over to that file, drop the layer onto the canvas.

Bring all the elements together

Step 4

The store clerk should be behind the counter to reinforce the idea that she is an employee of the shop. The best way to do this is with a layer mask, but her layer has a mask. One clever solution to this is to place her into a layer group and use a separate mask on the group. With the shopkeeper layer active, go to Layer > Group Layers (Control-G).

Create a group for the shopkeeper

Step 5

Toggle the visibility of the clerk layer so the counter can be clearly seen. Use the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) to carefully trace around the outline of the counter.

Create a selection around the counter and register

Step 6

Toggle the visibility of the shopkeeper to make her visible again. Then make certain that the layer group is the active layer and go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection

An excellent benefit to having the mask on the layer group is that the shopkeeper layer can be moved freely behind the counter without having to worry about changing the mask.

Use the selection to create a mask on the layer group

4. Compositing Work

The main parts are in place, so now it's time to work some compositing magic to make this all feel like one cohesive scene.

Step 1

The shopkeeper's color doesn't quite match the rest of the shop. Add a Photo Filter adjustment layer just over the shopkeeper layer. Use the Warming Filter (85) preset. Clip the adjustment layer to the shopkeeper layer with Layer > Create Clipping Mask (Alt-Control-G).

add a photo filter to the shopkeeper

Step 2

Add the same photo filter to the stack-up layer to ensure color consistency. Clip this adjustment layer to the stack-up layer.

Add a Photo Filter to the Stack Up layer

Step 3

Add a Curves adjustment layer and clip it to the stack-up layer too. Add a point to the center of the curve and raise it upwards slightly to brighten up the mid-tones of the dark coat.

Use Curves to brighten up the mid tones of the coat

Step 4

Add a new layer beneath the stack-up layer and set the blending mode to Multiply. Use the Brush Tool (B) with the Soft Round brush and dark gray paint. Set the brush Opacity to 30% and build up a shadow under the feet and on the counter. 

Add a shadow under the stack up figure

Step 5

Shift-select the stack-up layer and both adjustment layers. Hold down the Alt key and go to Layer > Merge Layers (Control-E). This makes a merged copy of the stack-up layers that will be used to create a reflection on the floor. Move the layer beneath the original stack-up layer, but above the shadow.

Create a merged layer to use for a reflection

Step 6

Flip the reflection with Edit > Transform > Flip Vertically. Then use Edit > Transform > Scale to scale the reflection vertically so it doesn't appear stretched. Set the blending mode to Soft Light.

Step 7

Set the layer Opacity to 40% and go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Use a Radius of 3 Pixels. This keeps the reflection from looking too sharp on the tile floor. 

Add a Gaussian Blur to the reflection

Step 8

If the joke is going to work, there needs to be an obvious reason for the kids to attempt such a stunt. Most candy stores have no problems selling to children, but we will add a prohibitive sign to this one just so the gag makes sense. 

Use the Horizontal Type Tool (T) to add a few lines of text. We chose the phrase "ALL CANDY PURCHASES MUST BE MADE BY ADULTS" in big bold text.

Add text that explains the situation

Step 9

Select all the text layers and go to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Objects. Set the blending mode to Multiply and use Edit > Transform > Distort to pull the corners of the text to match the perspective of the front of the counter. 

Distort the text to match the perspective of the front of the counter

Here's how the image should be looking at this point.

5. Finishing Effects

The scene could be finished in its current state. But we felt it could use a few extra effects to make it more dramatic and appealing. The following steps are completely optional and will help give the shot a more polished final look.

Step 1

Add a new layer for the dodge and burn effects. Go to Edit > Fill and choose 50% Gray for the contents. Then change the layer's blending mode to Overlay so the gray is completely invisible.

Add a gray filled layer for dodge and burn

Step 2

Use the Burn Tool (O) with the Range set for Midtones and the Exposure at 9%. With a Soft Round tip, work the shadow areas of the scene. The effect builds up gradually, so be patient with it. Switch to the Dodge Tool (O) to brighten up the highlights of the image. 

build up the shadows and highlights with the dodge and burn tools

Step 3

Hold down the Alt key and go to Layer > Merge Visible to create a merged copy of the scene. Turn the merged layer into a smart object with Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object.

Add a merged layer as a smart object

Step 4

Go to Filter > Other > High Pass and use a Radius of 4.0 Pixels.

Use the High Pass filter

Step 5

Go to Filter > Filter Gallery and use the Paint Daubs filter from the Artistic set. Set the Brush Size to 1 and the Sharpness to 4.

Use the Paint Daubs filter

Step 6

Change the layer blending mode to Overlay. The filters combined with the overlay mode create a distinct sharpening effect. 

Add a layer mask with Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All to hide the effect. Then use Gradient Tool (G) with the Radial shape and the Foreground to Transparent preset with white paint. Add two large gradients over the two figures in the scene to focus the sharpening effect on them.

Use gradients on the mask to focus the sharpening effect

Step 7

Create another merged layer by holding down Alt while going to Layer > Merge Visible. Turn that layer into a Smart Object with Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object.

Create another merged layer as a Smart Object

Step 8

Go to Filter > Render > Lighting Effects. Use a single point light near the top center of the scene with the following settings:

  • Intensity: 45
  • Exposure: -11
  • Gloss: -41
  • Metallic: -88
  • Ambience: -41
Add Lighting Effects

Step 9

Go to Image > Adjustment > Shadows/Highlights. Check the Show More Options box to get the extra set of controls. The intent here is to adjust the Shadows and Highlights, but mostly to adjust the Midtone slider as it will increase the contrast in the midtones and give the image a more painterly type of appearance. Here are the settings we used:

  • Shadow > Amount: 43%
  • Shadow > Tone: 16%
  • Shadow > Radius: 97 px
  • Highlight > Amount: 4%
  • Highlight > Tone: 50%
  • Highlight > Radius: 30 px
  • Adjustments > Midtone: -32
Use a ShadowsHighlights adjustment

Step 10

Go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter and in the Basic tab make the following settings:

  • Contrast : -15
  • Highlights: -6
  • Shadows: 34
  • Whites: 19
  • Blacks: 32
  • Clarity: 26
  • Vibrance: 18
Camera Raw Filter Basic Settings

Switch to the Effects tab in the Camera Raw Filter and make these settings:

  • Dehaze: 30
  • Post Crop Vignetting > Amount: -16
Effects settings for the Camera Raw Filter

Although the image isn't currently distorted, forcing some lens distortion contributes to the fantasy-like appearance. Switch to the Lens Distortion tab of the Camera Raw Filter and make these settings:

  • Transform > Distortion: -10
  • Transform > Vertical: -5
  • Transform > Scale: 102
  • Lens Vignetting > Amount: -100
Lens Distortion settings in Camera Raw

Step 11

For the final effect, let's add a subtle lens blur to the outside areas of the image, forcing even more attention to the center. Go to Filter > Blur Gallery > Iris Blur. Set the blur ring to cover most of the canvas and the Blur to 10 px.

Add an Iris Blur to the final image

You Are Done!

Congratulations, and enjoy the fun Stack Me Up scene!

If you would like some more Photoshop tutorials along with some photo-manipulation projects, custom brushes, and even more fun, check out my profile here at Envato Tuts+ for my other tutorials, quick tips, and courses. 

Final Stack Me Up Scene
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