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Still the One: An Independent Film Guide to On-Set Still Photography

Dan Mirvish points for the camera (Photo by Jennifer Rose Pearl)

In an excerpt from his recently released and highly recommended book, The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking, filmmaker Dan Mirvish explains how to work with — or deputize — a film set photographer. The Cheerful Subversives Guide to Independent Filmmaking is now available from Amazon and other retailers.

Back in the pre-digital days, still photographers used SLR cameras buried in giant, black, soundproof boxes, so that the shutter-mirror click didn’t interfere with sound takes. Usually they were shooting black-and-white stills and sometimes color slide film. The main reason you needed a separate still photographer was that many distributors and newspapers wouldn’t accept the resolution from a frame grab from your 35 or 16mm negative. Even if they did, it was a pain to isolate the negative from a motion picture frame and find a lab that would turn it into a still. Hence, the still photographer would shoot side-by-side with your motion picture film camera.

Things have definitely changed technologically, but not contractually. My foreign sales contract for Between Us said we had to provide 200 stills, each with a file size of at least 18 megabytes. Nowadays, if you’re shooting 2K or higher resolution, that’s probably close enough that you can pull a frame from your actual movie quickly and easily within the comfort of your editing system. You may need to goose it up in Photoshop a bit and turn it into a TIFF, but you can get away with it for most purposes, and it won’t cost you a cent extra. That said, if you can afford an extra body on set, you should still get a still photographer.

Most decent still photographers that you’d be able to get on a low-budget film will use a DSLR but might not have that big, black, soundproof box. That’s cool — have them just shoot during rehearsals (though keep in mind that the shutter clicks can still be irritating for the cast and crew in the middle of a take, especially a heavy, dramatic one). It might be better to find still photographers who use mirrorless Micro Four Thirds cameras that are whisper quiet, and then have them shoot your actual takes.

Getting Your Kill Shots 

Given that pulling frames from your film is more viable now, shots of the actors in the middle of a take are nice, but what you really want the still photographer for are the behind-the-scenes shots. Not necessarily because you will ever use a lot of those pics, but mainly because your cast may have “kill” clauses in their contracts, giving them veto power on a certain percentage of the stills they’re in. Actors’ agents and lawyers are notorious for overreaching in their kill clauses, and you’ll need to push back when you’re negotiating.

For example, if you have four people in your principal cast and each has 25 percent veto power over group shots, you conceivably could be in a situation where your still photographer has shot 200 stills with all four actors and because they each kill a fourth of them, you wind up with no usable ones at all. At least with frame grabs, it’s a lot harder for the actors to kill them, since they’re part of the movie itself. But for the behind-the-scenes photos, the solution is simply to have your still photographer take a ton of shots. Remember, even if a photo is out of focus, and overexposed, you can still put it in the pile of stills you show your actors, knowing full well that it’ll be one they kill and will count toward their percentage. So you need to have enough bad pictures in there to stack the deck to make sure you wind up with enough approved good pics. Sound like a passive aggressive manipulation of your actors? Well, yeah, it is.

On the other hand, you also need to be respectful and protective of your actors — especially your actresses. Just one still photo with an errant nipslip could be given on Dropbox to your foreign sales agent, who gives it to your Sri Lankan pay-per-view distributor as part of your 200 deliverable stills. The next thing you know, your lead actress is splashed over every tabloid on the Indian subcontinent and beyond, and a blurred version of that shot will be the lead story on E!’s Fashion Police. Now, on the one hand, that might be good press for your film (assuming the film is even mentioned). But on the other hand, that actress, her agent, her manager, her lawyer, her publicist and even her stylist will never want to work with you again. Actresses these days are so hounded by the paparazzi that they are incredibly skittish about their personal images, and rightfully so. Even if they’re not famous yet, they all hope that one day they will be.

On Between Us, we had a situation where we had to do an elaborate still shoot during our rehearsal period since two of the characters were photographers. A couple days later — even before principal photography started — I sat with Julia Stiles for several hours since her character was the model in most of the photos. We pored over hundreds of photos to select the ones we’d use on set; some would be printed and framed for one location, some on a rotating gallery on a plasma screen in the background of another location. I had a wonderful time with Julia, who’s got a keen creative eye in her own right, and it was a good bonding experience for the both of us prior to the big shoot. It was also a good lesson for me: Actors know their own visual oeuvre better than you do. Julia realized that some of the shots were too similar to posters from one of her old films, something that I never would have noticed. For me, it was also a preview of the “kill” process that we’d have to do again a year later with all the actors.

Some shots of Julia that were appropriate for set dressing, she and I mutually agreed, weren’t right to put out with our publicity stills since they could be used out of context. Specifically, there were some really cool, artsy, black-and-white shots of her biting a coiled phone cord. But as I told her, she had to think about the worst-case scenario: How would she feel if the images showed up on a creepy Japanese phone-fetish site? We decided to kill the shots from our deliverables, even though you can see them in the background of the film itself.

Point and Shoot 

It’s sometimes very tempting for the still photographer to take lots of shots of the crew hard at work on the set. These people have become the still photographer’s buddies, at lunch and milling over the craft service table. On the one hand, these shots are a great ego boost for the crew — much like shooting EPK interviews with them. They can be used for crew members to post on Facebook or Instagram, and that can be good PR for the film (just so long as they don’t have the actors in the background — make sure everyone on the crew knows that!). But tell your still photographer not to overdo it: At the end of the day, you can’t really use too many behind-the-scenes crew shots for real publicity purposes, and ultimately they won’t “count” toward your required deliverable stills.

What you do need, though, is plenty of shots of you, the director, looking directorial. Usually, that means standing next to the camera and pointing decisively. The “director points” shot has become a fun cliché (in 2014, actor/filmmaker Kentucker Audley started a Facebook meme with scores of pointing-director shots). But it is a necessary one. Many film festivals and a great many press will ultimately need a headshot and/or wide shot of the director on set. If, by the end of your shoot, your still photographer hasn’t gotten that definitive shot of you (and chances are, they haven’t since you’ve probably spent the whole shoot away from the camera, huddled behind a monitor in video village), then take five minutes at the beginning of a lunch break and pose behind your camera with your still photographer shooting away. It sounds dorky, but you need to do it. Second to that, you also need a similar shot of your DP, but this time, with one eye squinted behind the camera viewfinder. DPs don’t need both eyes visible in their PR shots, but directors do.

To Infinity and Behind-the-Scenes 

Whether your still photographers are shooting a DSLR, Micro Four Thirds or some other camera, chances are their cameras will also shoot video. Even if they pride themselves in being “still” photographers, make sure to hire ones who also can shoot video. Formal EPK crews probably won’t be on set most of the time, but still photographers will. You need to deputize the still photographers to also capture moving pictures in addition to stills. Ideally, they’ll have some halfway decent way to capture sound (like an onboard Rode mic), but even most internal mics on still cameras will likely be good enough. If they’re shooting an actual take, make sure they get a shot of the slate when it claps, so you can sync up the audio with your production tracks if need be when you’re cutting your DVD extras. Their tendency may be to mirror your production camera and just shoot the scene or cut when you say “cut.” But make

sure they’re also getting plenty of shots of you and the DP before the takes and right afterward. Also, make sure they get lots of flattering shots of you talking to the actors between takes, actually looking like you’re giving them meaningful direction. In a perfect world, the still photographer will get a shot of you telling your lead actor to pick up a vase with his left hand, not his right, and then you can intercut that with the next take in which the actor does indeed use his left hand. See, now you have footage of you working with fancy actors who actually listen to what you say!

There are other advantages to having a still photographer on set most of the time, always potentially shooting video. Call it “the Christian Bale effect,” named for the regrettable incident where the actor was heard in an audio clip cursing out a DP on the set of Terminator Salvation. No actors want to have a hissy-fit go viral on YouTube. So they’re much more likely to stay well-behaved if they have a legitimate fear that every outburst might be captured by your video-shooting still photographer or EPK crew. But wait, what about your own David O. Russell-style outbursts? No self-respecting director wants those leaked either. That’s why your still photographer and EPK crew both need to be absolutely loyal to you. Even if that means that they’re turning over their SD cards to you alone, discreetly at the end of each day in a sealed envelope with the Sharpie-written code words “crystal meth for director only.” If they’re turning over their cards to a potentially disgruntled producer, DIT or assistant editor, then there’s no guarantee that unflattering images of the actors, or your own off-color outbursts won’t leak without your permission. Just don’t let the actors or the rest of the crew know that the still photographer reports quite so directly to you. That way, if you spitefully do need to leak a YouTube video of an actor’s childishness, you’ve still got plausible deniability.

The other reason to have the still photographer comfortable shooting video on set is because you never know when you need an extra camera for your film itself. When we had to climb a mountain to shoot one shot in the snow on Between Us, we had Nancy Schreiber bring the “A” camera — a Panasonic, I think. But we also had a second DP, Sandra Valde-Hansen, who was there primarily to shoot EPK footage on a Sony. Since it was such a remote location in extreme conditions, we had Sandra use her camera as a backup — shooting in parallel to Nancy’s for a few usable takes. Sure enough, I think there were some problems with the Panasonic and we may have wound up using some of Sandra’s footage in the film.

What if you can’t afford or can’t find a good, dedicated still photographer who can also shoot video? Then you need to find someone who’s already on the crew and put them in charge of stills and behind-the-scenes video. Sometimes that might be camera or lighting assistants who are budding cinematographers themselves. They’ll love the extra responsibility (and credit) and work twice as hard for you. Other times, it might be one of your producers or financiers who would otherwise just be hovering around video village nervously worrying that you’re going over budget. Put them to work with their iPhone and make them your still photographer: A distracted producer who feels useful is a happy producer! And as a worst-case scenario, take shots yourself: I’ve definitely used my own stills and behind-the-scenes video on a number of my films. On Open House, I had my 35mm SLR strapped to my back for half the shoot.

Whoever you get as a still photographer, make sure it’s a nice, affable person who gets along with the cast and crew. On the kickboxing movie I worked on in the Philippines, there was this awesome still photographer named Juan, who only knew one phrase in English. He’d line up shots of cast members, give them a big smile and say, “I like your style!”

The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking is now available from Routledge/Focal Press.

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