On-Set Photography: An Endorsement

On-Set Photography: An Endorsement

Nobody likes to "hold for still," I know. On set a few weeks ago I probably called for this a total of five times. Mostly, I had no idea how to use it. I'd never been on a set with a stills photographer before, or maybe I had and I'd thought someone was calling for physical quietude.

Each time I called for a still, it was the end of a scene. Before I called cut, after someone like Olympia Dukakis or Rose Gregorio had wrenched their heart out with their bare hands on camera for a 3-4 minute take, I would bark or whisper "hold for still!"

I was parroting what the stills photographer, Yvette D'Elia had told me I'd do. She had shot stills on the set of "The Artist." Ironically, another one of my friends, Evan Robichaud, was the Key Set PA on "The Artist." "The Artist"! Just talking about it like this has made me wonder whether you use quotes or italics or underline with movie titles.


The bottom line is I trusted Yvette further than I could throw her. I haven't worked out in a few months, but with that language in mind, I trusted her infinitely. She was right, of course.

However, not everyone likes stills. Our first AD, Darya Zhuk, didn't seem to. Indeed, she had good reason. Every day we were behind, and "making days" is something AD's say when they've had a good one. "It was a tough shoot, a real ball-buster, that Jean Smart really had it in for me; but hey, we made our days..."

We didn't make our days very often. On a three day shoot, it became clear by nighttime day 2 that "making days" was going to be usurped by "the actors didn't leave due to breach of SAG contracts." Though I took pains to prepare the actors to "shoot the rehearsal," we would often do two or three rehearsals and then two or three more takes. This was "my b."

Holding for a still, while only taking a few seconds, works the hierarchy as everything does on set. A light must be moved and you are not in the electric/lighting department? You must call for electric. A prop must be repositioned? It is not your place to do so, unless of course you are the prop master or the art department head. This tedium is actually extremely necessary for trust and karma, but it's not exactly the point of this entry.

The point of this entry is on-set photography, which some may roll eyes at. To clarify: a stills photographer captures moments in the world of the film. They take what are essentially to-be-screenshots; they don't manipulate light, they notice the angle and framing on the monitor, they duplicate as best they can. Behind the scenes (BTS) photographers shoot exactly that. Behind the scenes. An insider's perspective from a pretty lens! Thrilling! It is.

At one point Rose had finished a particularly harrowing ad-lib to her character's deceased husband. She stands at a memorial in her home and collapses with grief. I called it just before I whispered "...and cut."

"Hold for still!" I said. Yvette snapped. Snapped. Snapped. She couldn't have taken more time, I would have started crying again, not anymore for the scene but now, suddenly, for my actress.

At one point, we had three on-set photographers, all friends of mine, snapping photos at once. They were bumping into things, falling over each other, lurking, hounding for that shot, that perfect shot. Corey Stein had a medium format camera; Emily Long had a Nikon something-something she'd borrowed from her school; Yvette had something else, like a Canon-thing, with a nice big lens. She was the one from The Artist. There were murmurs of misplaced ranks, of three on-set photogs and two PA's, things like that.

At one point I heard whispered over walkie, "would someone lock the photographer in a closet?" I was not on walkie, as the director never is, but I could hear it because the person whispering was standing beside me. She was the producer, so at her word this threat might have actually come to fruition.

Though we had three, and that number is high, the weeks after wrap belonged to these dark-corner citizens. I began to see negatives from my medium-format friend, splayed across lit x-ray boards. The text accompanying this was pure excitement as only our generation can express it: "!!!!! OMG"

As photos began to leak out of my Inbox into Facebook updates and letters to investors and backers, excitement for the project grew, as if these were bits of the film itself.

Of course, they were bits of a film, though not the film so painfully cut into paper and printed for all to analyze (Amina, lovely script supervisor) and embellish (actors who, at 80 and counting, actually are biologically wiser than me) and cut into setups and budgetary constraints (everyone else in production and beyond). The film these iconographers handle is the story of the story; by my mind, a more fascinating tale almost 80% of the time. A film strives for x minutes of iconic imagery and dialogue and storytelling, but the process itself is one of tens, often hundreds of hours. They must be made iconic as well.

Think of the great sets; think of the breakdowns and intimacies that crashed and sullied the color-by-numbers promotional campaigns of classic works. Those sets were wars, those sets were romances, they were stories as rife with intrigue, betrayal and specificity as any cinematic creation.

Whether the set is one for Raymond Carver or Jack London there are stories, there, there beyond those hills of memory.

Thank God, then, for the on-set photographer. Thank God for the documentarian of behind-the-scenes. Thank God for lurking and hounding, whatever the verb, contextually their journey is ours.

And if they snapped a shot or twelve in between tears or anger, be glad they got it; because in the hustle of the next gig or the cold, real avalanche of self-promotion you may forget that amidst the bureaucracy and the hurry-up-and-wait and "does ANYONE have waters?" there was a time when you were doing what you've loved since you were twelve and, while doing it, something fought through the stress of "doing it" and hit you in your gut like you were in front of the camera and there was no camera.

Thank God, then, for the on-set photographer because in one frame, they caught a glimpse of why you do it, after all.


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