Monday, November 15, 2010

Movie Posters

As a photographer on film sets, having one's pictures become the main element of the film's poster (aka one sheet) or paid advertising is, at least for me, a prominent objective.  In fact, it is something of a mantra, an inner chant that influences my choices and attention through the course of each work day.  I'll see something that will trigger the thought: "This is a 'money' shot that could be a poster and help draw people to seeing this film."

All of my photography (also referred to as "art") is turned in to the studio (ie Paramount, Disney, Warner Bros., Fox etc) where people in the Creative Marketing department scrutinize it, also on the lookout for images that to them fit the bill of being poster (one sheet) art.  Sometimes, often in fact on big budget films, they will do a separate photo shoot apart from what is done on-set (which shoot may be done by the on-set photographer as has been the case with me several times but usually commissioning a different photographer for this in order to get a complementary look or to cover more portrait style imagery of the film's stars that the on set photographer may not have been able to get). 

But even when a photo shoot is done, it does not ensure that imagery from the shoot will become the poster.  At the end of the day, the creative marketing team will use what works best for them, the marketing executives, the filmmakers and others in the chain of approval in creating "key art" (the art making up the poster) that does what in their view is the best possible job of marketing (drawing people to see) the film.

In my twenty one years of doing photography in the film and entertainment industries, I have worked in both capacities - as the on-set photographer (known as the Still Photographer) and as the photographer doing the photo shoot.  Sometimes I have done both, but usually, it's one or the other.  There have been times when I was the Still (on set) Photographer and a 'big name' photographer was brought in to do a photo shoot where the poster ended up being one of my on set photographs. Examples that
come to mind are "The Crow," "National Treasure" and "Deja Vu."  The image for The Crow, of Brandon Lee walking thru the cathedral doors in a shaft of light and enshrouded by smoke, became a defining, much emulated image.

On "Training Day," Warner Bros hoped that I, as Still Photographer, would get in Denzel Washington's good graces and persuade him to do a photo shoot (which he is not crazy about doing). Fortunately, I did get on his good side but he told me "for this film, the poster shot is going to come from the street."  Near the end of filming, Denzel said, "I'm going to give you your photo shoot."  We did a photo shoot with lights and a backdrop, etc., but sure enough, the poster ended up being a picture I had done on set (downtown L.A.) on the very first morning of filming, here again a defining, iconic, much emulated image.

There have been films where I've been the on-set unit photographer and a 'big-name' photographer has been brought in to do a photo shoot and my photograph (or photographs) from the set win out to become the poster image, The Crow being one of them, also, National Treasure, Bad Boys 2 (the six month teaser campaign) and Deja Vu among others.

There are instances where I have been brought in as that 'big-name' photographer to do just the photo shoot, which is not only more lucrative, but considered more prestigious as well.  Although I can tell you that, having worked in both areas, on-set photography demands at least as much, if not more, experience, know-how, tenacity and ability as doing a photo shoot.

On the poster shoot for "I Know What You Did Last Summer," for Sony Pictures, in which I photographed four young stars at the beginning of their phenomenal careers, I was hired through Intralink, one of the leading film design/ad houses (designing posters and cutting trailers for films and tv shows). Working with Intralink's prime force Mark Crawford, we went to Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock filmed "The Birds") and found a local photo studio where mostly product photography for incense and the like was done, and had a great, albeit challenging shoot, but that's another story.  I was told that the resulting poster, also iconic and emulated, was among the highest test marketed posters for Sony up to that point.

On "Pursuit of Happyness," for which the great Zade Rosenthal was unit photographer, Will Smith personally requested me for the poster shoot.  In the year leading up to this, I had photographed his "Lost & Found" album cover as well as done family portraits at his house. Will has keen radar into the world at large and keeps his eyes out for talented artists (including directors) with whom he wants to work. I've been blessed to be among those. Filming was being done in a large warehouse-like structure in a shipping yard area near Oakland, CA. The film sets were built on one end of the huge industrial structure, so me and my team set up diagonally at the other end, beneath a bank of thick, semi transluscent windows that diffused the incoming light. These windows gave me an idea. I set up a bank of strobe lights outside these windows, pointing in from high up and angled down, to create a warm, sunlight effect coming through the diffuse windows.  This created a light that was natural, beautiful and strong enough from the strobes to be top quality exposure-wise.  For the image that became the final poster, Will and Jaden stood together, holding hands, with the warm strong light coming through the windows giving a natural rim-backlight effect while also, bouncing off the concrete floor to create a natural reflected front light on their faces, front of their bodies and clothes.  So while the light source was studio strobes, the effect and look was natural, warm and real. Also, good fortune was with us as a little glow-y starburst of light perfectly surrounded Will and Jaden's clasped hands - which burst may or may not have been enhanced by the wizards at BLT, the company which designed and finished the poster - and bless you BLT for keeping it simple, clean and real.

Around the time the film came out, and even still to this day five years later, I receive lots of praise for this image.  I was told that in a Writers' Boot Camp, almost an entire session was spent discussing how this image/poster served the purpose of a three minute trailer in conveying the essence of the film.  I was told that in New York, people were observed just standing and gazing at this image. And I was told even that even recently, this poster/image was discussed in a classroom as effective advertising imagery for a film.

To me, this kind of feedback is the best affirmation one can get - to do something that helps the client's success and makes filmmakers, actors and viewers feel good, be attracted to and remember this project/film.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


The other night I went to the crew screening of "Unstoppable." It's been nearly a year since filming completed and I've just been through the whole experience of working on "Transformers 3", so seeing all the crew members and watching the finished film brought back memories and stirred feelings, all good. 

Every film job is a unique experience and working on "Unstoppable" was just that, a unique experience. It was filmed in freight yards, railroad tracks, on moving freight trains in the rolling countryside of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York State from late summer, through beautiful autumn into winter, under the direction of the great Tony Scott. I say "great" not only in reference to his ability and career as a director, but also to who he is as a human being - magnanimous, caring, considerate, loyal, protective, loving and so much more.

Many people on Tony's crew have been working with him on and off for decades and want to always do their best and be there for and with him on his missions.  And it shows on the screen.  Tony's films are visual, sensual and tasty, down to details of gesture, palette, sound, movement and dialog, brimming with energy and everyone's passion, care and professionalism.

As I said, everyone gave their best on this film.  From production, to locations, to spfx (John Frazier and team) who did an unbelievable job recreating full size trains, to the AD department and the loyal pa's who stood watch all day long in the middle of nowhere along a ten mile stretch of country road, to the grip, electric and of course the camera department (led by DP Ben Seresin):  with his bank of monitors and through intercom, Tony talks with care and passion to each of his camera operators during the takes, referring to them by his affectionate nicknames: "That's it Chief," "Go Skotch," "Brilliant Marscher!" and more.  I could cite each and every deparment here and I know I'm leaving out some key ones, but they're all there.  Transpo, catering, crafty, the railroaders (professional railroad people who moved the trains for us on command), the chopper crew, the Pursuit vehicle, Gabriela the amazing, caring publicist, makeup and hair, wardrobe, so much more! Oh, and Gary Powell and his stunts team - amazing! And of course Denzel, Chris, Rosario and the entire cast, producers, office staff, the list goes on and on. The sound department, Bill Kaplan the wizard, getting clean dialog on a freight train moving 45 mph on the tracks in the rain.

Each morning and at the end of the day, Tony, our general, would stand by a makeshift table, a plywood plank on supports, in the middle of a field wherever we were, and, using miniature trains and helicoptors, would plot out and choreograph the day's movement of trains and choppers in relation to the moving trains.  The movements of these tiny trains and choppers in Tony's hands would then come to life in full-scale realization across miles of rolling countryside.

One time, while I was standing at the roadside near Eldred, PA, waiting for the train, choppers and police cars to round the bend, a large black bear emerged from the woods about 200 feet away from me.  It went and put one paw on the rail, as if to feel if a train was coming, paused, looked at me, then turned and went back into the woods.

Often, at the end of a long day's work of humping over rail tracks and climbing up on freight trains, which for me, because of my disabiltiy, was quite challenging (here again, thanks to fellow crew members who where always there to help me)then having to drive thirty or more miles back to the hotel through the rolling, tree-lined roads at dusk or even nighttime, i'd light up a cigar to help get me through the long ride home, and in honor of Tony Scott, "mon général."

All photographs are by Robert G. Zuckerman and are © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, All Rights Reserved.