Unit Stills Photographer on WW1 Feature Film ‘Clay Kickers’
What I love about this is the different ways my unit stills on film ‘Blue Iguana’ have been used to sell the film in different markets. Here we have the Japanese DVD cover with a lot of photoshopped guns!
A few released stills from SKY TV series 3 of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man filmed in London.
On set filming unit stills photography with Stan Lee’s Lucky Man Series 3
Behind the scenes photography on feature film 'London Town' with Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing Joe Strummer of The Clash
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Creating the illusion you have made a Hollywood worthy film
The beauty of marketing a film in the correct way will give the illusion that you made an expensive looking film. Expensive looking means bigger budget and more likely to attract a certain type of audience. A bigger audience! One way you can achieve this illusion, is through hiring the right stills photographer. Because you need a set of production stills that can reinforce the words high production value. This will make your life so much easier when you finally come to sell the film as sales agents need an angle, they need ways that will differentiate you from everyone else.
How to create high production value using production unit stills:
1. Plan a specials photoshoot for the films key art
It's pretty obvious but a lot of filmmakers don't get specials photography done of the cast. Specials photography is when your stills photographer photographs the main cast on a clean backdrop (usually white or grey) which can be used for film posters. In an ideal world you will get single portraits of every cast member, in a varying number of poses and positioning to give your poster/graphic designer options. From a logistics standpoint, the stills photographer needs to arrange which day is best for the shoot and liaise with the AD department on best time to do it. This is varies from film to film, but overlooking key art is a common mistake! And this is probably the easiest, cost effective way of producing images on the same level as a Hollywood production. Do have in mind you need an experienced stills photographer who can use studio lights as this will give the highest quality style of image.
For example, in the production still below, this was the key art for short film 'Sex Ed' directed by Alice Seabright and produced by Anna Hargreaves. I was doing the usual unit stills on set and as time was tight, we set up a light outside over lunch, grabbed Mark our lead actor for 5 minutes and photographed him in varying positions. I chose this dark wall as it looked like a school chalk board which could have given the graphics team an option for the poster in terms of look and fonts.
Photographer: Laura Radford
2. Capture scenes that tell the films story
Stay true to the film you are making. Identify which scenes you feel will tell the story in one quick snapshot or find the days which your lead cast members are all in on set, so you can create a set up production still. If you are making a drama about a mother and daughter relationship, then you would need a key production still on these characters. If you have a well known name in your film you need to have options of images that can used, as don't forget depending on the actors contract they might be able to 'kill' up to 80% of production stills.
I was hired as stills photographer on feature film 'London Town' starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Dougray Scott. The film centred around Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing the lead singer of The Clash. So the primary still was him as frontman Joe Strummer. I know, this wasn't a low, low budget film, but in the scheme of things it was still made on a low indie film budget.
Photographer: Laura Radford
3. Scale - get unit stills that showcase the productions scale
If you spent a tone of money on a specific location, make sure you have the right production still to show it off in your marketing. If you were shooting in a really crappy location for the majority of the shoot but have one day shooting at one stellar external location, make sure you have a stills photographer on this day. And scale can also be used in any behind the scenes images if you are using specialist equipment for certain days like a crane or car rig. You want to make sure the production still shouts large budget feature film! If you're shooting the film on a friends DSLR, do not reveal this as this shouts student production! Unless you are aiming for, we shot this on an iPhone type marketing campaign that seems to be an awesome trend.
Below, on set behind the scenes production still of BBC series Father Brown Season 6. Photographer: Laura Radford
4. Get striking Character Portraits during the take using sound blimps. Capture that raw emotion or action shot that grabs peoples attention
Again, all simple stuff. I subscribe to Screen Daily and have the daily newsletter which is a great way of seeing what unit stills are being published. Try it out, see which images grab your eye. You have to train yourself to understand the formula of why something stands out and when it doesn't. If you get your stills photographer to look for iconic moments. Those moments that capture the raw emotion of your scenes. Or the key selling point of a action sequence or a still absorbing a sweeping landscape. Always think about your intended audience and the films core theme. Genre, genre, genre! And the beauty of shooting during the take is sometimes you capture a moment in time that could not be recreated in a set up portrait with the actors afterwards. So it is imperative to get as many stills taken during the shoot as possible. If you're really strapped for cash, then a few days hiring a stills photographer is better than no days!
Anyways, do let me know what your experience has been with production stills and any pitfalls or nuggets of information you want to share with us, please leave a comment.
Having an experienced stills photographer can make or break the success of your film
*Full unit stills portfolio on www.lauraradford.co.uk
Scary as the above statement sounds the success of your film will depend on your marketing strategy. And any filmmaker who says they don't have any budget for marketing should not make the film. As they are obviously not ready to venture into this crazy, busy world that is the movie business! Obviously, I'm really talking to the filmmakers who want to reach the wider audience and increase their chance of success.
How we achieve this is done simply by being proactive opposed to reactive. Here are a few pointers to help you on your way. I'm going to assume for the purpose of this post that you have limited to no budget for your marketing your film:
1. Identify your genre and research how previous films in your genre have approached their marketing
This is pretty obvious but what type of film are you making? Does it fit into the tried and tested model of a standard horror, romantic comedy, sci-fi, drama, LBGT, action, thriller genres? As sales agents will need to know which area your film falls into, as this will determine how your film can be marketed to reach that specific audience. And in turn your films attractiveness to a potential buyer and distributor.
A good way to start is to do as much research on the films that have come before you. Looking at the ones that succeeded in your chosen genre. For instance the horror genre is a hard area to break into but is an area of film that has a high chance of global success if the film hits the right audience at the right time. I would be looking at the recent phenomenon that is 'Get Out' and how the filmmakers went all the way to the oscars and secured a major breakout performance from leading actor Daniel Kaluuya. I know you may not have their $5m budget and access to the same level of contacts.
Do a hashtag search on all the social media platforms of #getout and look at the content that was published. Search google for PR articles and the type of organisations and media they were reaching. As this will help paint a picture of the audience they were trying to reach. And at the end of the day, it was a bloody great film, so word of mouth made the rest happen. I should emphasize, making a beyond great film in the first place is just the foot in the door. This is a necessity. Then if people like it and want to talk about it then this is the fuel to the PR explosion!
2. Social media and Buzz - you can start your film PR before production begins
Word of mouth is such a throw around term and one that you have to earn! As a filmmaker you want to connect with your audience, you want to ruffle their feathers, evoke a reaction and create a conversational piece for people to share at the playground, the pub or over dinner with friends and family. And what if this general chat goes beyond our normal circles and around the internet, into different segments of the online world, then you have successfully created what we call Buzz Marketing! And this is a beautiful thing we all strive for! As the awareness surrounding your film has the opportunity to go viral and better yet, for free!
How can you create buzz on social media?
Well there's a question. This is when you can get creative or plain simply use your brain. I would suggest you start straight away, in the preproduction stages of making your film. If you follow magazines and current film news outlets such as Deadline and Screen Daily you'll see how producers announce their project. Detailing their lead actors, information on locations and specific details on the screenplay. These are called press releases. But you don't have to aim for the leading publication, there will be other film related blogs and enthusiasts on the internet. You need to make an effort and contact them, private message them, just connect. Start that relationship. Which in turn can grow, as they grow.
Make a promo trailer, a kickstarter type video on introducing your project and excitement to the world. If you've got a break out star, interview them. If you've signed up a costume designer who's worked on some proper hollywood movies, get them on and talk about their ideas on the project. Their involvement, their process. This could even create sub content and ideas that could progress throughout the shoot. I think you just need to document. People are interested in how movies are made. You can start to grow an audience, starting with reaching out to fellow filmmakers and friends. You have to start somewhere! You get the point, filmmakers are story tellers. Find ways to tell stories that can be used across all the different social media platforms and utilise different techniques that are suitable for that particular feed. ie. Upload images to instagram and start using popular hashtags like #filmakerfriday #filmmaking #indiefilm. Post 5 photos a day, using 15 hashtags. Tweet 7 times a day. Don't have time? Find a student to help? Everyone wants an internship! But most importantly you have to keep up the momentum and understand your engagement. See what people are reacting to and create content that they like. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Often I get a phone call a week before production starts or sometimes the day before! Hiring a stills photographer is often overlooked by first time filmmakers and those moving from short films to feature films. Unfortunately, it really is a necessity. Producers need all the media they can get their hands on. It astonishes me how producers think they can launch a film simply by using a few screen grabs from the film footage. If this is you, you really need to reset your mindset. You need to adopt a mindset of embracing modern publicity and using it to your advantage. The first steps to achieving this is to get yourself a stills photographer, even if it is for a few days covering key scenes.
If you hire the right stills photographer, you can elevate your film. Striking, iconic images will be used for the film poster and can tell an audience in a split second what your film is about or indicate the genre of film. You are then already, talking to and targeting specifically to your desired audience. How great is that? Have you ever been to Tescos and seen all the new release DVDs on the shelf? Or next time you're there, look at what is standing out? Or not? I can guarantee you will make a judgement on the film by looking at the DVD sleeve in a split second. Now imagine yourself in Cannes and pitching your film to sales agents. Do you want to be proud of the product you are selling or will you be embarrassed? It doesn't matter if the film is amazing, they don't know that. They will make a judgement. Will they take you seriously or put you into another bottom shelf indie movie category? And that is just the film poster.
A stills photographer will create vital content for the films marketing campaign. Key scene stills, character portraits and behind the scene images will be used to accompany press articles, blog posts, TV guides and magazine covers. Producers need to understand that every image can tell a different story in different markets. For instance I worked on Sky One's 'Delicious' where the producer requested images of the food technician on set in her kitchen so there were images to go alongside PR articles with various food magazines. Tapping into the shows likely target audience. See where we are going here. You need to have a stills photographer who thinks like a marketing person. As on set, time is tight and opportunities to capitalise on PR stories are lost unless you have the right person.
The exciting thing is what other content can we produce? As a stills photographer always looking forwards and always looking outwards into the film industry, what other pieces of content is being used by the likes of global distributors Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Paramount etc. I have seen the moving image is on the rise and if used creatively, can add another area for storytelling. So I put it back to you. I think it is vital producers and filmmakers consume the content that is current, is trending, is being liked and shared. How can we use this information to support our film, our marketing and efforts to create buzz.
Another key point is organising a specials shoot during production. This in turn can save you money as all the cast will be present, in costume, in hair and makeup and can be done in 5 minutes if the stills photographer has everything set up and ready to go. The tricky part is when do you do such a shoot? You will need a stills photographer that can be flexible and willing to adapt around principal photography. Communication and co-ordinating with other departments is vital. As with budget filmmaking, resources are stretched and you may only have one head of department for costume and hair and makeup. Both of which are needed for a stills shoot to perform checks. Having chatted to Helen Sloan, the principal stills photographer on hit HBO series Game of Thrones, Helen does a portrait shoot once a week and has set up a studio everywhere and anywhere. My favourite being in a cave! Whereas my personal set up favourite was on a film called 'The Bromley Boys' and production had given me a space in the mens locker room. It honked! And I had to share with 2 other departments. #nightmare but doable!
I wanted to round off the stills photographer segment with this inspirational production called 'Ren' which I worked on in 2013. I think this is the perfect example of showcasing how marketing can change the perception of a low budget shoot. The sheer force that was the team behind Ren helmed by writer/director/producer Kate Madison alongside actor/producer/writer Christopher Dane, producer Michelle Golder and director of photography Neil Oseman. They understood the importance of capitalising on social media from the start and continued to document the creation of ren throughout the development stages, to the shoot and story afterwards, entering festivals, taking the audience with them on the journey. And even creating their own world of Ren in terms of merchandise and vlogs.
I suggest you spend some time checking out the filmmakers website here Ren the Series. And also worth a mention is director of photography Neil Oseman goes into great detail over the intricate details of shooting a project of this scale with little resources and over great lengths of time.
Below are some of my unit production stills, the second production I had ever done at the time! Thanks to producer Michelle Golder who requested we needed an iconic unit still of lead charater Ren played by Sophie Skelton (Outlander). So one afternoon, we booked in 10minutes of Sophie's time and recreated a scene with the bow and arrow she had previously done at a location in Wales. I used a reflector and my beautiful go to portrait lens the Canon 85mm 1.2F lens, shooting at 1.2 to give that deep connection to Sophie's eye and keeping a blurry bokeh background.
4. Hire a film publicist
Now should you hire a film publicist? The chicken and the egg scenario. You know what, I really think you need to reach out to filmmakers who have and haven't used a publicist and ask how it was for them? I think many budget filmmakers think they can do all the press and publicity themselves and don't need to spend money they don't have on external help. But publicists have vital contacts in the industry which could be paramount to your films success. They can pull favours and get you coverage in leading publications and get you that 5* review that will basically shift the momentum in the right direction. You can't simply rely on a successful festival run to launch your film. Part of a publicists job will be to elevate your films positioning so that is worthy to be considered for entry into the top tier festivals. And this is all before the film has a chance of a life with say theatrical distribution, distribution with Netflix/Amazon or straight to DVD and in the home entertainment market.
I was fortunate to work with Zoe Flower, a unit publicist, on a BBC films backed feature called 'The Visitor'. Zoe's previous credits including 'Free Fire, The Girl With All The Gifts, Journeyman'. She was a rock. For the first time, I had someone in my corner. She pushed me to get the shots that we needed to sell this film. As it was an ifeatures feature film, you have to understand the feature being made had an 18 day shooting schedule. And to shoot a feature film in 18 days is fast. Super fast! There were 15minute lunch breaks and constant shooting. There were often days of pure steadicam, 360 movements and nowhere for a stills photographer to hide. But Zoe and another contact through the ifeatures mentor program felt we needed more staged portrait shots for the PR. So they helped secure time for us to shoot with the cast for an hour. We set up 3 types of set ups. One outside the main location, which was a beautiful mansion in Norfolk where the film was set. Once inside by a roaring fire, to showcase the inside environment of the house. The third set up was my idea of recreating a key scene the cast did down a tight corridor the day before. Leo our gaffer Kindly recreated the same lighting set up, and we created some key images that will fit the horror/psychological genre the film is going for.
The lesson here is. We created the key art that was going to fit the distribution strategy. To tie this movie into a tight bow and sell the film using the locations high production value which was the mansion. That in itself makes the film look more expensive! Then we have a series of cast images that if required can be used for all sorts of media, as there is plenty of choice. And because we had Zoe onboard, who understands the current market, we produced stills with intention.
In conclusion, I'm afraid there are no excuses in todays world to say you don't have any budget for marketing. There are so many different areas to explore that can really help your film succeed, you just need to adopt a positive, can do mindset and plan ahead. Really understand the final road map for your film and identify your audience. It's going to be a long journey. But you're making a film, making your movie! It's only polite to ensure you get your film to the widest audience as possible!! Because we want to watch it!
Hopefully we can all learn from each other. What are your experiences with trying to launch your film? Did you have a stills photographer or hire a publicist? If so, who? And feel free to leave some questions or different ideas for future posts.