A few weeks ago, Puck Junk got some internet buzz with our Best of the Worst article about this year’s Upper Deck Series Two. That caught the busy eyes of our cardboard muses at Upper Deck, who enjoyed the light-hearted ribbing we gave them. We asked if we could interview one of their photo editors, because we want to know what goes into the production of hockey cards. What are some of the challenges that Upper Deck employees face to make cards that they’d be proud of?
Fortunately, Upper Deck photo editor Austin Castillo was kind enough to play Twenty(ish) Questions with us via email, and provided some pretty insightful and provocative things about the world of cardboard sports icons. Where do their new product ideas come from? What kind of guidelines do they follow for selecting card photos? Let’s find out!
Jim Howard: What is your job and what are your duties with Upper Deck?
Austin Castillo: My job title is Photo Editor. I maintain a huge archive of digital and film assets (slides and negatives) and pick the photos that go on cards, as well as some Photoshop work (CMYK conversion, color correction, etc.).
JH: How did you find your way into this field?
AC: I studied photography in college and then found the job via Indeed.
JH: To what extent do you edit the pictures? Obviously color, contrast and brightness are tweaked as needed, but I’ve seen older cards where the ads on the boards were removed or altered.
AC: We generally don’t retouch the image too much, but we’ll airbrush out cuts and bruises, sticks or hands that get in front of the player if he’s supposed to be isolated on the card. Since some of our products are sold to children, we try to avoid showing things relating to alcohol, tobacco and gambling.
JH: What are some of the other things you can’t show on hockey cards?
AC: We don’t like to show injuries or guys getting checked in the face for obvious reasons — think of the children! Sometimes, we have to blur referees or people in the background, especially kids.
JH: Where do you get your photos that are potentially used for the cards? Do you have a team of photographers, or buy them from Getty Images?
AC: We have a stable of freelance photographers located across the US and Canada that we send to games and events. Those guys account for about 80-90% of photos in most of our products. The rest we get from Getty and team photographers. We also use photo providers like the Associated Press, ThinkStock and USA Today for some products.
JH: Are their general guidelines you follow in looking at pictures to use, or just whatever looks interesting?
AC: We have a general direction for each card base but are free to use our best judgment.
JH: Are there times when you look at a stack of photos of a player and say, “he really doesn’t have a ‘good’ side?”
AC: Some players have fewer “great” photos than others. Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar seem to have more bad photos while skating with their mouths open or with a sneering look. Other players like James van Riemsdyk and Johnny Gaudreau always chew on their mouthguards. I hate that.
JH: How in the world do they get those extremely low-angle action shots?
AC: Some arenas have cameras in the baseboards and in the net.
JH: What is the best arena for photographing hockey games?
AC: I think every arena can produce great images; it’s up to the photographer to do all the work. Some arenas have better lightning than others and night games are always difficult, but the skilled photographers can always make it work.
JH: Do you monetize these photos for other things besides cards?
AC: For the exception of other Upper Deck products, not that I know of. We wouldn’t want our photos to get into the hands of our enemies.
JH: It sounds like the National Hockey League has a pretty strong grip on the products you produce. What’s the process with them? What kind of hang-ups do they have when it comes to pictures and information on your products?
AC: The NHL, like any licensor, has approval over any licensed product that goes to print. We send them files, they strike out anything they don’t like, rinse and repeat. They generally accept everything but will reject photos where the player has a weird look on their face or if they deem it inappropriate, like players fighting.
JH: Weird looks on their faces? No! I’m guessing the NHL hasn’t come across much of my work on Puck Junk, but I’m sure everyone is busy with more important things.
AC: They league is all business all the time. Their social media team seems fun, though.
JH: What was the best hockey picture you’ve seen that didn’t end up on a card?
AC: This photo (below), which would have been used on Benoit Pouliot’s card in 2014-15 Upper Deck Series Two. I think he would have liked it.
JH: Yeah that’s got some emotion to it! That’s a shame it wasn’t used. Do you know why some card sets are almost devoid of players from a certain team?
AC: If it’s an auto or patch card, it’s because we either don’t have an autograph deal with that player or we don’t have any memorabilia available. Generally, the product development team tries to put the best current players and newest rookies in sets. Not everyone wants to see Kyle Clifford in The Cup.
JH: Poor Kyle.
AC: Poor Kyle indeed. Cliffy is the man.
JH: How do you come across the memorabilia (jerseys, skates, sticks, mouth guards, etc.) that go in the card? Are they in such disrepair that they can’t be used anymore?
AC: Memorabilia comes from a few different sources but the league and/or teams will send us stuff most of the time. I’m not sure about things being in disrepair, but I know some players like replacing their gear every so often, and you can only wear an All Star jersey so many times.
JH: When a game-used card says the jersey swatch was used in an “official photo session,” is it from a real jersey or a replica jersey?
AC: It means the authentic jersey was worn at a photo shoot or other event. No foolery there.
JH: When a card or sticker is autographed “in the presence of an Upper Deck representative,” does the rep just chill out with the player for a couple hours while he signs his name 500 times, or is it in small batches at a time?
AC: Yep, our guy just hangs around. I imagine they would like to get all their autos done in one take since athletes have spotty availability, but it’s different for every situation. Getting autos from some athletes is difficult, unfortunately.
JH: I can only imagine what it would have been like to hang with Shawn Hunwick while he signed 699 times. What a guy! Who’s the lucky lackey that goes out for the field assignment to watch them lay down their John Hancock?
AC: That’s our athlete relations team. They’ll go just about anywhere to get the job done.
JH: How do you guys come up with new product ideas? Brainstorming sessions? Suggestion box?
AC: The product development team works hard to come up with new ideas for every product and we have a very talented design team to bring those ideas to print. It’s not always easy since we have multiple hockey-based properties. We don’t have a suggestion box, probably because I would fill it with dumb ideas.
JH: Does Upper Deck ever take outside suggestions for new ideas, or use outside help in creating fresh new looks?
AC: I’d guess not. Our development team works in-house along with our designers.
JH: Any sneak previews of exciting new product ideas?
AC: Nope, no sneak previews unfortunately. 2015-16 UD Portfolio Hockey is coming out soon and it looks great. I’m happy with how it turned out.
JH: I was partial to the short-lived PowerDeck — I might have been the only one — and while no one has a disk drive any more, slapping a QR code on the back of a special card that brings up highlight reels on a phone seems pretty relevant. What were some of your favorite gimmicks of the past?
AC: I don’t know much in the way of gimmicks, but I thought the audio/video book cards were fun.
JH: Are you looking forward to Vegas getting a team so you can jet out there for “work?”
AC: That would be fun, but we only send people to big events like outdoor games.
JH: Somehow, Pat Sajak photobombed Sidney Crosby on his 2011-12 O-Pee-Chee card; I wonder if anyone in the office saw that before it went out?
AC: I’m willing to bet someone noticed.
JH: Speaking of which, he would have been a good Fanatic for your Contours series. Same for Jon Hamm and his filthy Blues hat!
AC: I’m sure the development team would love to put good ol’ Pat in Contours, but I doubt he’d ever sign for us.
JH: What’s one piece of advice you could give budding sport photographers out there?
AC: Always be in the right place at the right time. Sports photography is incredibly difficult, so you’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on and have an idea of what’s going to happen on the next play and be prepared for it. Sometimes it’s just pure luck.
JH: Last question: how do you explain that Ryan Johansen had the same exact photo used in two consecutive years?
AC: We use a simple system to make sure we don’t use the same photo twice and somewhere along the way that photo wasn’t included in our database. I blame the new guy. Might have been me. ■
Jim Howard is a Carolina Hurricanes fan and reformed baseball card collector who is trying to keep the hockey collection from becoming overwhelming. And while he wishes he could give Crosby the business with his mitt, he is in fact NOT the goalie for the Red Wings.
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