Filmmaker and Unit Stills Photographer Samuel Dore talks to us about the rewarding but challenging role of capturing insightful and candid images from a film shoot without getting in the way.
Ever since my 80’s childhood I’ve always been fascinated by photographs of film shoots showing the crew and cast working together, the production design, how special effects were done, and, in those pre-internet days, they offered a tantalising peek into the latest films.
These photos are called ‘unit stills’, ‘publicity stills’ or ‘production stills’ documenting the making of films, of the key crew, actors, characters or scenes as well as ‘set ups’ with the actors or ’specials’ of the characters against plain backgrounds to be used for marketing purposes.
Unit stills are usually taken using top end digital cameras instead of screen grabs taken from the film as the resolution of cameras are considerably higher than the film and this gives the department flexibility in creating a range of materials.
Years ago I was Executive Producer on a few short films and I decided to try taking some unit stills for fun. It was then that I realised I could combine my on-set experience as a filmmaker with my photography skills – to indulge in my love for unit stills.
To date I’ve taken unit stills for short films covering a range of genres, a TV sitcom, web series comedy sketches, a children’s programme for CBBC, a BBC4 documentary and a short film being made by school pupils.
Some of my memorable experiences are documenting Brendan Cleaves’ short film Roger (2016) starring Game of Thrones’ John Bradley and comedian Seann Walsh – more so for the challenge of being creative when most of the film was set in a car!
Photographing the world’s first 'deaf and grassroots British Sign Language' sitcom called Small World allowed me to document a groundbreaking production in which the set was a reconstructed apartment – offering me many photographic opportunities.
Also there was photographing Jamie Hooper’s Unto Death (2016), a very low budget horror film. Hooper directed it with lots of hazy back-lighting and contrasting imagery which was a haven for my photos and I came up with a lot of great stuff.
Film shoots can be long, busy, cramped, chaotic (in an organised way) and not-to-mention stressful with tight schedules – but at the same time collaborative, exciting and creative so you have an important responsibility to document both behind the scenes and narrative scenes whilst respecting the film set and trying not to disrupt anything.
It is important you are on good terms with the 1st Assistant Director as they run the set. You will need to politely ask if you can take some quick set-ups of the actors re-recreating some certain moments of a scene before the crew set up for the next shot or scene and sometimes the producer or director will ask you to take certain photos.
It can be very challenging trying to photograph scenes or actors without disrupting takes – it helps if you have a sound blimp, a bulky and cumbersome piece of kit that your camera goes inside allowing you to quietly take photos during takes but this is depending on the volume of the scene –the sound recordist may still hear your camera inside your blimp!
If you don't have a blimp then you need to always be ready to grab photos of the scene and actors before and after the camera rolls. It also helps if your camera has a silent shutter function, there's a growing number of mirror-less cameras that have this function, so use this as much as you can.
Building a good rapport with the film crew can help with finding the good positions on a film set that offer the greatest view. I often have to credit the cinematographer and his crew for their lighting efforts in making my unit stills look great!
There’s a bit of a mantra within unit stills photographers – if there is a shot you really want but can’t get – you can’t get it. This is because of the tightly-scheduled nature of film shoots without much leeway for photographs.
To get your unit stills career started, expect to find yourself working on low budget shoots and take into consideration you have hundreds of photos to whittle down to the best ones to edit. Don't hesitate to take on unpaid gigs if the film offers you opportunities to give your portfolio a boost.
In these times of social media it is acceptable for productions to use smart phone photos of their shoots – helping spread the word. Many low budget productions find this to be a cheaper alternative to hiring a unit stills photographer and they also use screen grabs for publicity purposes.
However, if all the productions have to offer as publicity materials for film festivals and distributors are smart phone photos, this does not present the film in a professional light so it is worth budgeting for a dedicated unit stills photographer even if it’s just for certain scenes that best represent the whole film or to just photograph specials of the cast for posters as well as a handful of photos of the key crew during production.
Just a few high quality photos of the production makes a huge difference to the publicity of your film.
It also is a matter of who you know in the film industry – the more contacts you build with film production professionals – the better chance you have of getting work and, with the exception of industry professionals such as Clay Enos, David James, Jaap Buitendijk, Jasin Boland, Kimberley French, Jonathan Olley and so forth, it isn’t usually a full-time job.
Unit stills photography can be a tough career with it's long hours both on set and editing stacks of photos, but you get to revel in the atmosphere of a film-set full of people collaborating together to create wonderful that you capture with your camera. Seeing the film's publicity showing your work all around the world contributing towards the film’s success is worth it.
Check out Samuel Dore’s unit stills work at his website.
You can also follow Samuel on Twitter: @Bursteardrum