Hollywood Still Photography
Lights, Camera, Action
I'm a shooter, a gun for hire
in Hollywood. In many respects, it's a cowboy's life. A typical
scenario goes like this: the studio hires me because they need pictures for
their publicity department. So I ride into a new town--a television show
or film set--where I quickly size up the situation. I'm an outsider
and the townsfolk are wary, especially the actors and the director. Others,
like the cinematographer and his crew, accept me as soon as they see that I'm
hard working and capable. Once I'm into position and the moment is right
I pull out my Nikon D1X and shoot the place up. I've got eight hours to
do the job. After I've taken the shots I need, I ride off into the sunset,
Sunset Boulevard, that is.
When I first considered shooting stills for film and television shows, I was warned that still photographers are routinely humiliated and fired by hypersensitive, prickly actors, often on a whim. Well-meaning show business veterans painted a discouraging picture of a field that is so competitive and political that it is nearly impossible to find work. So far I've not found this to be true. Not only am I working steadily, but I've yet to have an unpleasant on-set experience. I assume that unhappy day will come, but so far I've been able to dodge the bullets that have taken out many still photographers before me.
A Bit Of Perspective
Historically, the still photographer was the most despised person on the set. In the early days of sound movies, when the actors were finished with a scene they would have to re-create it for the photographer. This extra work made the photographer a never-ending source of frustration and resentment. In the mid-1960s, when Irving Jacobsen designed and built the first sound blimp, life improved for the lowly set photographer. The sound blimp effectively silenced the camera's shutter, which allowed the set photographer to shoot the actors while they were in the middle of a scene.
One of the first questions a prospective employer will ask is: "Do you shoot film or digital?" If you're shooting film, chances are you won't get the job. In the past four years the industry has gone almost completely digital. For speed of delivery, 35mm just can't touch digital, so grab yourself a professional digital camera and a couple of fast lenses. I use a Nikon D1X and have a Nikon D100 as backup. For lenses I use two telephotos to cover the focal spectrum: a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 and a Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8. I also use a 50mm f/1.4 and an 85mm f/1.8 for situations where more light is needed.
In addition, I use a sound blimp. There's only one place that manufactures the sound blimp and that's Jacobsen Instruments of North Hollywood, California. The sound blimp looks like a turn of the century box camera. You plug your camera into the belly of the sound blimp, latch it shut, and with two buttons on the exterior of the blimp you can effectively focus and fire your camera. Specialized acoustic foam inside the blimp renders the camera silent, and you can fire away knowing that the actors and the microphones won't hear any shutter noise.
In order to work as a photographer on a film or television show, you have to get into the union. The I.A.T.S.E. (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 600 Cinematographers guild is reputed to be one of the top unions in the country. Local 600 does a lot to help their members, and the benefits they offer working members are outstanding.
The bad news is that not only does it cost $6000 to join, but it's very difficult to get in. There are three ways to qualify: (1) work and get paid for 100 days on a non-union show where you earn at least $50 a day; (2) work on a non-union show that happens to go union; (3) be "grandfathered in" by a producer or director who insists upon working with you, and you only.
If you don't have personal relationships with producers who can open the magic curtain and usher you into Oz, you're not alone. I pity the photographer who tries to get into the union by schmoozing producers over cocktails at the Sky Bar. This is the fool's way. The only surefire way to join the union is to do the legwork, take non-union jobs, and build a portfolio. If you're truly motivated to shoot for the film and television industry, you will find a way to get the workdays you need to be eligible for the union.
How I Started
My break came when I heard about a new sport called SlamBall. SlamBall is America's first extreme team sport, a four on four full contact basketball game with trampolines built into a raised floor. I started documenting the games with my 35mm camera back in 2001. A year later, SlamBall got a national television contract, and by its second season, I was promoted to official league photographer. It was a dream job--not only was I paid to learn how to use high-end digital equipment and strobes, but I had total creative freedom to create the stylized "look" of the show. I did two seasons with SlamBall and realized, after the fact, that I'd worked 100 non-union days. I decided to play my hand in the film industry and joined the Local 600 this past October.
The pay isn't staggering. It's just under $50 an hour. However, it's very good if you're working long hours on a feature film. After eight hours you get paid time and a half; over 12 hours and you get double time. Considering that most feature films are pulling 12- to 14-hour days for a two- to six-month period, you can do the math and see that it adds up. Television is less lucrative because they put you on an eight-hour day. The upside to this is that, while the crew continues to slave away, you get to go home early.
You have to get to know the people who work in the studios' photo publicity departments. The best way to do this is through a recommendation from someone else who works at the same studio. Yes, the game is political, and you do have to know people, but if you're proactive, and personable and talented, you will find a way to work. As you're paying your dues in the non-union arena, you'll make valuable connections that will help you to score jobs when, down the road, you get into the Local 600.