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Set photography questions (1 reply and 4 comments)

jzakko
4 months ago
jzakko 4 months ago
Hey, just starting up as a set photographer, I’ve done a few sets casually but I’ve got my first paid gig coming up and have some questions for Wilson and any other set photographers on this forum, cinematographers' perspective on the set photographer’s role is also appreciated—
 
First off, I’m a bit of a prima donna when it comes to shooting on film and only shoot digital out of necessity but really don’t enjoy it.  I don’t know yet whether I’d want to pursue this if I couldn’t shoot both formats on set and have like a quarter of the images I hand over be on film (or even up to half if I have a director enthusiastic about film who wants to spare a little budget my way).  Is shooting on film something you can only snap a few shots just for you and then focus on digital unless you have a Paul Thomas Anderson running things?  Speaking of which, how much of an inconvenience was it to do a 4x5 portrait on Inherent Vice?  Was PTA so game for it he made sure to have his AD clear time to set something like that up?  I would assume you just found a large block of time when Joaquin wasn’t needed but was in wardrobe and found a space to do it?  Have you ever shot 4x5 for promo before or since?
 
Now on to more practical, less prima donna questions:
 
-How are you capturing your shots?  Obviously you’re snapping images as they go, during rehearsals, during takes when sound doesn’t matter, and during takes with sound with whatever your quietest cameras are (mamiya 7, dslr w/blimp, etc.)  But for moments that you just can’t make interesting with the chaos of a film set, do you ask the 1st AD or whoever’s permission to have people clear the frame and direct the actors yourself when the crew has wrapped the shot and is setting up the next?  Does a set photographer have that kind of clout or do you have to operate in such a way where it’s almost like you’re not there?
 
-This leads me to my next point.  As a set photographer, I feel tremendously in the way, although I’ve been getting better at it.  Every last person on set is concerned with executing the shot being captured by the motion camera, so I feel so superfluous with this other camera, even though it’ll be important for any promotion (maybe part of this is all but one of the sets I’ve worked on were student sets with no set plans to go to festivals or release or anything, so they just wanted BTS for facebook or whatever).  Wilson, for an image like this (https://www.instagram.com/p/BKQzUgUBzQJ/»), I feel like if I were looking through the viewfinder and the coens looked into my lens as they were directing an actor, I’d shit myself that I’m interrupting their moment and worry I’m getting fired that night.  Is a moment like this totally normal and ok?  How concerned are you with being invasive?  Do you ever feel lonely as a one-man-crew when every other department is like a family or do you feel like a part of the camera dept?
 
-How much discussion do you have with the director, the cinematographer about what they want aesthetically in advance of you taking any shots?  I always ask for a talk with either the cinematographer or director, and they always agree but end up too busy and I just figure it out on set.  Should I stop trying?  The thing I really want is enough info to know which filmstocks to buy, but that’s back to the prima donna issue since most other set photographers are exclusively shooting digital.
 
-On to more aesthetic concerns: to what degree are you adopting the aesthetic of the cinematographer?  One cinematographer told me to just match his frame for all promo, but it seems pointless to exclusively match the DP's frame, otherwise they might as well just take stills from the film itself and use that for promotion.  I sometimes try to capture moments from scenes composed in a way that’s better for a still moment and sometimes shows a side we wouldn’t necessarily see in the film itself.  Like this (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55c904c9e4b0883aa238047f/57b349d0ebbd1a3f653c00b9/57b349f2f7e0abf27fcd2bcb/1471370254226/Promo+-+At+the+Whiteboard.jpg?format=2500w») where this character only went to the whiteboard in the background of a wide shot in the actual film, but I thought was visually interesting and keeping with the overall aesthetic they were doing for me to focus on him.  I still more often capture perspectives seen by the motion camera itself, only a bit wider so the promotion team can do more with it cropping wise for posters and what not, but I feel like I'm contributing more with shots like the one I linked.  What are your thoughts?
 
More to the point, how much are you adopting their aesthetic outside of composition?  Surely you’re not preflashing all your film on Inherent Vice because they are?  Or shooting 35mm and push-processing for grain on Carol?  Do you ask for samples from the film in post and edit your images to match?  Do you expose it to keep it flat and malleable and send the unedited raws and tifs to the production to do whatever editing they want?
 
thanks, appreciate any advice, and if anybody's interested I've got a page for my set photography on my website (jzakko.com) and more set photos scattered across my instagram (@jzakko).  Most sets I've also shot digital, but I only display the film shots (it's ok to judge me for this, I can't help but judge myself).
mnwebb
4 months ago
mnwebb 4 months ago
 
Hey Joe,
 
I'll dive right in. 
 
I love shooting film, but in this day and age I believe that you will be hard pressed to get away with shooting more film than you will shooting digital. I feel fortunate to have worked with a lot of Directors and Producers that value the film side of my work, and realize its place in the history of the medium.
 
I would guess that my film to digital ratio is somewhere in the 1:40+ range, I (mostly) only shoot B+W, and mostly Ilford hp5. I always have 2 or 3 film cameras close by but more so on day exterior scenes. I shoot more during takes than rehearsals, and often with a camera blimp or sometimes with a mirrorless (silent) digital body.
 
I have never been the type of photographer that asks for time with the actors after a scene. Once and a while I will do so but most of the time people do not want to use the time waiting for stills. Often I feel that I already have captured what was needed by the time the scene is over.
Shooting with my Graflex 4x5 is a rare event on set, just because of the extra time that it takes. PTA enjoys film so I was able to shoot many different formats, and many different stocks. Those luxuries are few and far between, but always make for a great experience.  
 
"Does a set photographer have that kind of clout or do you have to operate in such a way where it’s almost like you’re not there?" 
I believe I partly answered that above but the latter is certainly the rule for 95% of shooting. Your job, as an on-set photographer, is to be everywhere at all times and to never be a distraction to anyone. Oh yes, I spend a lot of time being concerned about being too invasive. Not only do you need to be out of the way of the crew but of the actors as they all have a different comfort level.
Learning as much as you can about the motion picture camera will help, the lenses and also the lighting. The job is often more of knowing where NOT to be during a take.
A big part of that is knowing everyone's limitations and comfort levels. That comes partly with experience and also learning who is comfortable, with what, as the shooting goes on.
It's a very fine line, our job is to mostly be a documentary shooter and we have a very limited time period to stake our claim and establish our place on the set. The old saying goes.. .the film can be made without 2 people that are on set, the still photographer and the publicist. I would suggest working on all these skills if you hope to be in the right place at the right time.
As far as the photo of the Coens that you referenced..I believe that I was just to the right , and slightly behind the big film camera. They are looking slightly to the right and therefore I was not as much in their line of sight as it appears that I was. This reminds me of another important tip...Never take a break. What I mean is that some of my best photos happen between takes, always look for a shot. 
 
"Do you ever feel lonely as a one-man-crew when every other department is like a family or do you feel like a part of the camera dept?"
I often feel lonely, but each camera crew has a different dynamic. What is comes down to is who do you personally like and get along with. There are some crews that respect each other and know that we are all part of the same team, and those are always the most enjoyable crews to work on. On the other hand, it can be liberating to be a "one man band" because I am able to float anywhere and do not have many limitations or someone always telling me what to do. Remember that respect and kindness always go a long way.
 
"How much discussion do you have with the director, the cinematographer about what they want aesthetically in advance of you taking any shots?  I always ask...Should I stop trying?"
It varies with each job but normally DP's are easier to talk about a look because that is their main job.
No, never stop trying. You just have to find the best opportunities, maybe during a slow set-up or waiting for the rain to stop, or maybe at the lunch table. Everyone wants the images that will represent their work to be as true to their vision as possible. Often a DP will show me some of their color timing or send me screen captures. 
As far as different stocks for shooting film I would say that you have to go with your gut, but ultimately that is digitals strong point. Why would you want to limit what could be done with your image by shooting more film than digital? I don't think that you will have much luck winning that argument with the studio or a Producer.
 
 
"-On to more aesthetic concerns: to what degree are you adopting the aesthetic of the cinematographer?"
Again, if you were to ask a photo editor which shots are more important, most would say get them all...what the camera sees as well as other interesting shots. The shot the you referenced is certainly more interesting than a wide of the same action. It's a little of both, but remember that you are also being hired for your perspective and creative attributes. 
 
"More to the point, how much are you adopting their aesthetic outside of composition?  Surely you’re not preflashing all your film on Inherent Vice because they are?  Or shooting 35mm and push-processing for grain on Carol?  Do you ask for samples from the film in post and edit your images to match?  Do you expose it to keep it flat and malleable and send the unedited raws and tifs to the production to do whatever editing they want?"
 
Again, it's give and take. I am always trying to shoot in a style that mirrors the feelings and emotions that are being captured by the DP, but often with my own framing and style. I will often know the shot they are going for because of their lens choice (and their monitors) and will get some that are similar and some that ar more advantageous for a still image. I believe that Roger stated that it was harder for him to make a good still image than a moving one just because the still has to tell a story in one frame, opposed to many over time.
For Vice I did shoot some old film and more color film than I ever have, but with digital post I had the flexibility to make it look closer to the film output. On CAROL I shot the way that I thought people did for the time period, and taking into account how the character might see things. 
The lab gets raw images and sometimes I will send along my own graded images for them to model the rest from. We are talking about far too many shots for me to spend the time grading them all.
 
Great work J, keep on shooting. Remember that everyone finds their own path in this career and what works for one shooter doesn't work for another. Get in there and figure out the best way for you to make great images. 
jzakko
4 months ago

Thanks so much for the thorough response!

To be honest, after sending that I instantly wanted to take back the 50% ideal, because that's not actually something I aspire to on a professional set, but more casual student sets where they don't need as huge a volume of images and I can do things more my way, especially since I've been working for free (only the last few sets have even covered those expenses and the one next week is the first with an actual personal rate in addition to covering film expenses).

But after shooting a night exterior shoot exclusively on film for my last set, even I want to shoot more digital. Both my cameras' shutters stopped functioning half the time in the freezing cold and the lighting was barely sufficient for the 800 speed film when they were at like a million iso, so it's miraculous I gave them results they were satisfied with.

Realistically I thought 25% film could be my ceiling on paid sets but I'm not surprised at all to find that that's still untenable for legitimate studio-financed movies.

That you accomplish all your work in the actual takes and rarely work outside that is pretty incredible and is right now the most daunting part for me. A ton of the shots I've done in the past I've asked for a few minutes with the actors after camera clears out. Sometimes it's just impossible to frame without crew or equipment in the way, the motion camera is just the only vantage point that sees just the action and I can't be where that camera is because physics.

One setup the space was tight so the camera department wouldn't let me behind the camera and nothing else was camera-safe so I just had to sit out on that scene by the monitor doing BTS of the director watching the monitor. I guess if it's truly impossible all I can do is tell the 1st AD and he/she can advise on the possibility of jumping in after and it's my job to make sure it's actually impossible to get what I need during the take before letting that happen. Part of the problem is my overreliance on medium format with its shallow DoF where I want to spend more time focusing and can't check after, so shooting more digital will definitely be the key.

I guess there must be a lot of shots you snap between takes that are effectively BTS but are able to be appropriated as promo since the frame's clear of crew and the actors appear to be more or less in character?

thanks again, this has been so helpful.

mnwebb
4 months ago

Your welcome. Yes, you have to pick and choose your battles. If you know that an image that you want to shoot is very important tell the story, but you can't make your way in the set, ask the AD for a minute afterwards. Finding places to be takes up a good part of my mental activities sometimes.
Again, film is great but even some of the best digital cameras are having a hard time keeping up with the Alexa and Red. I will sometimes use a monopod and shoot iso5000 f2.8 at 30th....you do the math on what you would otherwise miss with a film camera.
-Wilson

Mike
4 months ago

Very interesting discussion. It doesn't matter how long you've been in the business there is always something new to learn. I take off my hat to people taking candid shots of actors on set, you must be constantly searching for that one shot that match's your brief. Some actors will bend over backwards to help you get your shot but then there are others who make you work that extra hard just to be awkward. Keeping that energy going is a feat in itself. But it is a definite skill which only a few fully understand and not many people can master.

mnwebb
4 months ago

Very true, on all points,
Mike!

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