Filmotography: Shooting on Set

Tue 01st May, 2007

Posted by Staff in Business Advice

By David Strick

© David Strick. Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman, "Galaxy Quest," 1999

Virtually every film or TV set has some sort of so-called "unit" photography, whose main purpose is to provide stills of important scenes for continuity purposes and potential publicity and some candid photography between scenes.

In addition, productions often hire photographers to do what's called "special" photography, which is usually portrait work for advertising purposes, and is mostly commissioned by the advertising departments of studios. As advertising, this portrait work is the high end of things, and photographers hired on this basis are called "specials." However, the unit photographer sometimes does the movie poster photos in addition to the scene-by-scene unit work, so the categories are not entirely rigid.

The portrait work done for most movie posters is shot in a separate session away from the working film or TV set or when the set is inactive and is more like shooting a magazine cover than covering a production. Since portrait work is well-documented in other forums, I will confine myself to the mysteries of the set itself.

The high end of unit photography on union films is based on membership in the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, or I.A.T.S.E., local 600 of the Cinematographers Guild. This, in turn, is based on a set of complicated entry requirements. They are, basically: (a) work on a non-union show that happens to sign a union contract; (b) work for 100 cumulative days in a one-year period on a non-union production and provide payroll stubs to prove this to the union when applying for membership (c) be "grandfathered in" by a producer or director who insists upon working with you and will settle for nothing less. You will still be required to pay a union entry fee of around $6,000 plus yearly union dues.

As I understand it, the general food chain of unit photography often involves beginning by working on student films for free, working on low budget productions for somewhat more, and eventually working on larger shows for somewhat even more, plus union benefits.

Whether the work is union or non-union, this is regular employment with regular work rules. You're part of a large crew, and clock in and out at appointed times. As with the rest of photography, digital skills are becoming increasingly valued

The biggest downside of both union and non-union unit photography is that it's all done on a Work For Hire basis, meaning that at the end of a workday, the end of a production or the end of a career the photographer owns no rights to the photographs and can derive no further income from them. With a significant amount of production having moved outside the U.S. there is less domestic work available, period, and overseas work usually involves lower pay and fewer benefits.

For those paying a visit to a set for the first time on behalf of a newspaper or magazine, here are some suggestions regarding comportment:

It helps to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible, including wearing dark or distinctly unflashy clothing. Moving carefully and deliberately is recommended - cords are everywhere, people are everywhere else. During sound recording, use a sound-deadening enclosure called a "blimp." A company called Jacobson makes them, and they can be rented from places like Samy's Camera in Los Angeles.

It's a good idea to consult with the unit publicist about sensitivities the actors may have. Some actors are particularly (almost comically) touchy about what is called the "eyeline" - the direction in which they're looking during a scene. They're used to people in their eyeline standing absolutely still during takes, and some find a photographer's raised camera to be very distracting - mostly because photographers move - focusing the camera, shifting its axis as an image is reframed.Some actors will only allow outside photographers to shoot during takes, others only during rehearsals.

The fact that actors manage to endure endless red carpet photography without physically assaulting the paparazzi doesn't mean they will necessarily be anything other than professionally indifferent to your presence on set. Do not be chagrined if or when your personal culture heroes ignore you -- indifference is a good deal better than some of the alternatives.

Be as sensitive as possible to your effect on the other working people on the set. The act of photographing involves shutting out the world while examining it through a camera, and it's very easy to forget that dozens of people are moving themselves and an array of large and even larger objects around a working set. Take the phrase "watch your back" very seriously - on a set it has a physical rather than a social meaning.

A personal accessories note: I wear kneepads when working on sets. I'm also the only photographer I've ever seen who wears them. I am subject to a certain degree of standard ridicule, but they allow me to be even smaller and more inconspicuous when I want and enables me to squeeze into areas of the set that would otherwise be uncomfortable and unlikely. The rest of my effort involves standing around for long periods of time without falling asleep.

A personal disclaimer: Apart from the preceding I know almost nothing about how to become a unit photographer, break into or out of anything pertaining to the above, and am mostly unresponsive to people who ask me follow-up questions. So please, I beg of you, no cards, letters, phone calls or emails requesting further elaboration.

Vaya con Dios.

© David Strick. David Hasselhoff, "The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie," 2004

David Strick Biography
David Stick has been documenting Hollywood and the film industry since 1975.In 1988 he published a book of behind-the-scenes black and white images of Hollywood and the film industry entitled "Our Hollywood" which featured an intro by Bret Easton Ellis. Strick continues his questionable activities as a contributing photographer for Premiere Magazine, where he has a monthly photo column, and to work for film and television studios. His pictures appear regularly in magazines including Time, Business Week and Life, and are syndicated by Redux Pictures in New York. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.



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