Filmmakers! Don't Overlook Production Stills
Hermine Muskat talks with professionals in the field about how and why to prioritize still photography during production.January 23rd, 2013 | Hermine Muskat
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In their minimalism and stillness, photographs can capture the essence of a movie. They tell us the mood of the story we can expect to see unfold on screen and particular still images have become iconic in the world of cinema. Think of Jack Nicholson’s wild-eyed, unshaven, sinister grin captured by Murray Close for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, for example.
“Just one photo can become a movie’s brand if it’s the right one,” says film journalist and editor of The Independent, Erin Trahan. She regularly searches through film press kits and websites to find the right photo accompaniments to stories about independent filmmaking.
Aimee Spinks, a UK-based photographer specializing in publicity stills and advertising for feature films agrees that an intelligent, evocative, and well-placed photograph can be important to audiences even before they’ve read a review or heard about a movie from their friends. How many times have you thought It just doesn’t look like something I’d like before a film has come to the theaters or the small screen?
Although still photographs are an invaluable part of a filmmaker’s storytelling repertoire, their importance is often neglected or overlooked during production, especially those operating with low budgets. “We never had a professional photographer with us and I think it was a big mistake,” says independent filmmaker Liz Canner, director of the multi-award winning feature length documentary ORGASM Inc.. “We should have been creating a visual archive of stills from the beginning. Often I would have a small camera with me and shoot some stills but that wasn’t nearly enough.”
Mikki Ansin has worked as a still photographer for close to 40 years. She is fascinated with documenting behind-the-scenes activity, and has done so most notably for Merchant Ivory productions. She says, "Someone has to document the film’s progress, what the crew and actors are doing between takes, how things are designed and coordinated."
However, the ideal often eludes independent filmmakers. Skilled crew costs money. And then there are differences between how documentary and more script-driven narrative filmmakers feel about an additional person on the set. David Tames, media arts studio manager and instructor at Massachusetts College of Art, who is working on a documentary about humane animal slaughter warns, "The mortal sin is to interfere with a shot."
An important reality is this: stills are used for posters, postcards, for print media, for online media, for social networking, for the film’s website. They are projected on big screens during festivals and used in festival and distributor catalogues. Having close ups, wide shots, different angles are all very important. It is all part of a film’s collateral and a filmmaker needs to be prepared for every possible use.
The four above-mentioned people spoke to Hermine Muskat about the process and purpose of capturing still photographs during production:
Hermine Muskat: Why are production stills so important for filmmakers?
Aimee Spinks: Because more people see the stills from a movie than actually see the movie itself. You may have made the best film in the world but without good quality stills and specials* photography [arranged advertising shoots usually done in a studio setup] to support a solid marketing campaign, no one will see it. Stills entice a potential audience. They will be used across the movie’s PR campaign and might be used alongside print and online articles or on promotional social media pages. Aside from trailers, the stills are the only visual way to capture the public’s interest.
David Tames: Films with compelling photographs often end up in a better place in a [festival or distributor] catalogue, an online catalogue, or on a webpage. The photograph can say something on a less literal, more emotional level. The still photographer is another set of eyes and ears for your film.
Mikki Ansin: Someone has to document the film’s progress, what the crew and actors are doing between takes, how things are designed and coordinated. It is essential to have stills of people at work and behind the scenes.
Erin Trahan: A lot of editorial decisions— in terms of what films to cover or not, how much attention to give a film—are based on how a film presents itself before an editor has seen it. So photographs can be a big clue to the level of a film’s professionalism and production quality. Also, filmmakers are often trying to raise money during all phases of production. Photographs are evidence that your project exists, that you are getting the job done, and can be indicators of your progress without giving the story away.
HM: At what point in a film’s production is a photographer necessary?
Tames: The moment you start production.
Liz Canner: The thing with docs is that you never know exactly how the story’s going to unfold, which characters are going to end up being important. So you probably ought to be taking stills all along the way. It can be costly but if I had the funding, I would do that. I didn’t get many director photos. I think we had just one. So, I recommend that people have photos of themselves, their camera people, and others on location because they might be asked to submit production stills of their crew.
Spinks: On very small independent [narrative] productions, it’s common to be contacted directly by the producer or director a few weeks before they are due to film and they give you a copy of the script so you can get familiar with the characters and identify key moments to capture. Scheduling is usually very last minute. I have often been contacted the night before to be on set somewhere 100 miles away the next morning, which can be a pain.
I believe in order to allow the still photographer to get the most out of the production, they need time to look over the script and really understand the production in order to identify how they might approach each scene and which moments they might choose to capture so that it best reflects not just that scene but the film as a whole.
Ansin: It depends. I worked on a Ted Demme film where I was involved before they actually began shooting because they needed to create old-looking photographs for the film. The movie was Monument Avenue with Martin Sheen. There’s an off camera photo of Martin being kissed by Ted on the set. They are both laughing. It’s one of those moments photographers talk about, one that would have been missed if I hadn’t been there with my camera, watching and ready.
HM: Isn’t it just as easy to pull stills from your video after you’ve finished shooting?
Canner: Often video pulls were insufficient [for Orgasm Inc.] but it depended on who I was working with. Some of the larger national newspapers were fine with video pulls but smaller papers were not. Some festivals wanted high res images and some didn’t care. There were definitely places that would only accept high res. Sometimes they would say, ‘We love this video clip. Do you have the photographic representation of it?’
Tames: Clearly you can do that. The downside is A, not everyone shoots with a DSLR and B, it’s distracting to be shooting pictures and video at the same time. Typically, your DP is shooting the best video in the moment and not going to focus on getting the best stills. And they are very different.
This is difficult to put into words but with a moving image we have a very high tolerance for things being out of focus. Our attention is being skillfully drawn. Whereas the moment you look at a still image from the video you notice, WOW, that doesn’t look very sharp. It looks great as a motion image but not as a still. You take an HD image that is two megapixels, it’s not that big, and you can project in on a huge screen and it looks good. But that’s because you’re looking at 30 frames or 24 frames a second. You’re also sitting far enough away from the screen that the slight out of focus doesn’t look that bad. Turn that into a still image printed for a festival catalogue or website and because you do not have the context of the moving image suddenly you notice that frame is not all that sharp. That’s why still photographers need 14 megapixels or 18 megapixels of resolution whereas video people can get away with two.
So, with video, you may have to slog through a ton of footage to find the exact moment where the camera was steady enough, with no blur and someone looks just right, whereas a good still image with a still camera will be more intentional and considered, crisper, sharper, and on the money.
HM: What skills does a still photographer bring to production?
Spinks: Composition is the most important skill. Knowing how to frame a shot in a way that suggests the flow of narrative. And you need to have a lot of patience and awareness in the course of hours of filming to spot and then capture those ‘decisive moments.’ Being a good technician is not enough. You need to identify angles and compositions that allow an audience to get what a scene is about, and suggest what’s about to happen. Suggestion is what subtly whets viewers’ appetites. Now they want to know more. It’s up to me to light and compose the shots to reflect the film’s aesthetic and mood while working as unobtrusively as possible.
Tames: The stills do not have to match the look and feel of the film perfectly but they ought to be consistent with it. Having an idea of the framing and composition and the selective focal lengths allow you to produce photos that are more closely matched with the look of the film.
Ansin: There is a pecking order on the movie set and I find it best to squeeze myself right next to the film camera. Once I stepped into a shot and the cameraman was wonderful. He covered for me. The director asked, ‘What’s wrong? I never said cut.’
HM: When do still photographers have opportunities to exercise creative autonomy?
Spinks: Last year I was asked to do some set-up shots for an independent film and told that I could shoot anything I liked as long as it reflected the theme of “vigilantism” and revolved around a male protagonist and his female interest. I was given full control over the storyboarding, location scouting, casting and crewing as well as the editing. And what started out as a simple set of themed portraits evolved into an entire short film made entirely out of the images I’d shot. It was great to be given that amount of freedom to create the work. You can check out the project I’m talking about here. This level of creative freedom doesn’t happen that often though. There have been may times when I have to forego the shot I’d love to get in order to capture something else that will provide better PR for the film. But generally, once you understand what the director wants you to achieve and he or she trusts your skills, you’re left to work autonomously. Then it’s up to you to know how to light and compose the shots to reflect the aesthetics of the film.
Ansin: Sometimes when you’re on a higher budget people think in stereotypical ways so it’s not unusual for the photographer to be seen as the least important member of the crew. I agree with Louis Pasteur who said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ I believe in being at the right place at the right time and being ready and somehow one thing leads to another that you don’t expect. It’s difficult to break into the industry, let alone operate as a creative artist once you’re in it. You have to know a lot technically and you have to start to accrue a track record. But once you do, it’s great.
HM: Any other advice?
Trahan: Make sure the still photos on your festival submission site, your website, and in your press kit credit the photographer and have accurate captions. And only select photos you'd actually like to see go viral as a visual representation of your project.