Photography: Dan Turkewitz
Photography can be glamorous work. But usually it isn’t. Few photographers spend their time lining up celebrities as they leave nightclubs, persuading the Queen to sit still long enough to strike a pose or hanging out with supermodels as they reveal their Victoria’s Secrets.
For most photographers, work means driving from one event hall to another, getting the light exactly right on a bottle of detergent or trying to hide the retainers during a senior portrait shoot.
There is a middle way though, a type of photography that’s not quite as mundane as shooting a wedding but which doesn’t run the risk of being covered in baked beans by Hugh Grant. Part of creating a movie includes shooting still images that are used in promotional material. It’s a job for the Unit Stills Photographer, someone who hangs around the set taking pictures and trying desperately not to get in the way.
The Second Most Important Photographer on the Set
According to Dan Turkewitz, a screenwriter and editor who was recently asked to shoot stills for short film “Sodom by the Sea,” Unit Stills Photographers have to create two kinds of images. The first documents the making of the movie and includes close-ups of the actors and crew, wide shots of the crew shooting the action, the set and the equipment.
“The second was, for lack of a better term, artsy shots,” Dan told us. “Cool lighting and shadows stuff that might never appear in the film…. [S]ome images, of the set and Coney Island in general (where the film takes place) would be used in the credits, on the DVD box and website, and generally for promotional materials.”
It all sounds like straightforward stuff – and fun too – but shooting on a film set does pose some very special challenges. The biggest of course, is that the photographer’s camera is the least important on the shoot. The best position will always be taken by the movie camera which means that you have to work knowing that you’re missing the composition you’d really want because someone else’s gear is in the way — and theirs is much bigger than yours.
And you might miss the best moments too. Once the director shouts “action” the photographer has to stop working, says Dan, even though that will be when all the drama begins.
“[U]nless you’re far off with a zoom, don’t snap away while the actual filming is taking place. You’ll end up pissing off the actors, or the sound man, or the director, or all of the above.”
While much of the crew and actors are standing around and waiting, you’ll be free to shoot as much as you want. But as soon as it looks like the fighting’s about to begin or the lips meet, you’ll have to put your camera away.
Common Sense and Film Sense
Toss in the fact that it’s the cinematographer, not the photographer who sets the light levels – and that often, according to photographer John D’Agostino, the cinematographer will aim to use as little light as possible – and you might think that this kind of photography is a frustration too far.
In fact, says Dan, much of it relies on common sense – and more importantly, film sense. The most important knowledge that a still photographer on a film set can possess isn’t just how to use his own equipment but what everyone else is doing with theirs. Like a photojournalist, the photographer has to document the action without getting in the way of the lighting crew, the grips or the boom. And, even more crucially, without getting in the shot itself as the scene develops.
That means understanding what’s happening around him, and what’s about to happen too.
For Dan, who used to be an architect but has since worked as a movie editor and has seen one of his own scripts optioned, that’s relatively easy. For a photographer with little understanding of the film world though, it might mean that the first job or two could be a little uncomfortable, however experienced they might be in other forms of photography.
In practice, that might not happen very often simply because without familiarity of the film world it would be difficult to land that first job. Director Johnny Salvatore asked Dan to shoot the stills for “Sodom by the Sea” because Dan had edited his first movie. He also asked Dan to be the second assistant director, edit the credits and prepare the DVD. Dan agreed as a favor, an experience he’s now trying to translate into paid photography work.
“[I]n the movie industry, it’s all about who you know,” he warns. “Nothing means more than connections. You could have the top gear Canon or Nikon sells and have a portfolio that rivals Ansel Adams’, and still get beaten out for a job by a photographer who knows somebody.”
Breaking into movie photography then might mean spending as much time as possible around movie people rather than standing behind the camera. That might not result in a paid job, but at least it will be glamorous and fun – and if you do get to use your camera you’ll be able shoot some stars without getting covered in baked beans.