There’s a new twist on the ubiquitous photo shoot behind-the-scenes video and it looks less like something you’d see on YouTube and more like something you’d see on MTV (well, back when MTV played music videos). F STOP photographer Michael Levin recently showed me a stylized short film of him shooting on the south coast of Japan. It’s stylized, it’s slick and it’s a far cry from the BTS videos that only photo geeks can relate to. At close to 75K views in just two weeks of being released it also seems to be doing a damn good job at introducing Levin’s work to lots of eyeballs. I asked Michael a few quick questions about this project; our brief interview follows below.
What was your goal in having this film made?
The film was actually the result of another project I was working on. A production company needed footage of me at work in Japan for a documentary and that’s when I decided to contact Brad Kremer. So my original intentions for the video grew into something much more as we stared filming. Brad recognized while we were shooting that the footage might be used in a couple of different ways, one of them being a short video set to music. So this is the first video in a trilogy of projects we’re working on right now. The video has provided me a platform to help expose my work to a larger audience. I think with some creative marketing I’ll be able to promote the video in areas that are photo centric based websites or magazines.
Why did you want it to be different from other behind-the-scenes video?
Well, I don’t think this is a true behind the scenes video in the traditional sense. I really think it’s a story about a day in the life of a photographer at work. It captures some of the small moments that i encounter yet isn’t really revealing in a “oh that’s how they do it” way. After studying my photographs Brad came up with some interesting ideas on how he might want to tell this story and we ran with it. It became clear that neither of us wanted a straightforward video of me standing in front of some picturesque scene, that’s not what my work is about. From the onset Brad wanted to film me in ways that took my photographic style into consideration and he tried (and succeeded) to incorporate those elements into his filmic style. I think the scene at the 3:01 point demonstrates his ability to place me within the frame of something that I might shoot, yet I was shooting something completely different. So in a way he’s taking a voyeuristic approach to filming me and I’ve unknowingly been placed within one of my own photographs. Because of the technique I use for my photographs I’m often in one location for a number of hours at a time. I was concerned that this might not be that interesting to a videographer as there’s really nothing visually dynamic going on. This proved to be quite the opposite as Brad clearly was able to make unremarkable scenes into something much more.
Why did you think Brad Kremer would be a good fit for this project?
I really enjoyed a short film he did called “Hayaku” shot entirely in Japan. I’ve visited those places that he filmed in a number of times and I really thought he had captured them in a spectacular way. It was clear to me that he also shared a true fascination with the Japan that exists outside of the big cities. The other factor was that he frequently uses time-lapse photography to create video and I thought this would be the perfect style for capturing me at work as I stood there for a number of hours in one spot.
How did you convince him to come on board?
I sent him an email basically outlining the project I was working on. We had some back and forth dialogue and within a month we were having beers and sushi in Japan.
How long did it take to create the film?
We did all the filming over 5 really long days in the beginning of January 2010. Brad and I met up in Kyushu, Japan and as soon as he arrived we started discussing concepts. Once Brad was back in the States he started assembling the rough edits over the next two months. During that time we had numerous phone discussions about the sequencing and clip choices as there was a lot of footage to go through. He then worked with his team coloring and editing the final footage to a song by Röyksopp which I think worked out quite well.By the end of May the final edit was completed, so about 4 months from start to finish.
How have your results been so far?
Once the video was completed we both realized that this was something really unique and we were both proud of it. I’ve seen videos of photographers at work before before but nothing like what Brad had come up with. Brad posted it on his Vimeo page and it really took off and has received considerable attention and favourable praise from around the globe. It’s been viewed over 40,000 times in less than two weeks which I think is very promising.
Shooting motion has become the new it topic in the last two years. It used to be ‘film versus digital’ and now it’s ‘stills versus motion.’ Opinions about where the still and motion industries are headed and if/how/why still photographers should learn to shoot motion run the gamut. One thing’s for sure though, there are a lot of questions. I wanted to get some answers.
Liane Thomas is an executive producer at the Toronto based commercial production company Sons & Daughters. They represent nine very talented directors (including F STOP’s very own Mark Zibert who shoots both stills and motion) who shoot top-notch television commercials and online projects. I recently interviewed Thomas about topics I thought still photographers would want to know about motion: what equipment is used, what the fees are, how to transition from stills to motion, what strengths still photographers offer and what skills they need to learn.
A few fantastic commercials from the Sons & Daughters’ portfolio along with our detailed interview follow below. Please note that frequently when still shooters make the move to commercial motion they take on the title of Director; hence the constant talk of what Directors think and do.
Seckler: How has the your industry changed in the last couple of years?
Thomas: Our business is strictly commercials, we do a ton of advertising so the shift has been towards the digital age and doing more online stuff. We’ve been forced to look at new technology and new camera equipment. We shoot less and less on 35mm film. We are really into the Red and the Phantom and all these new cameras, this new technology. Although the 30 second format hasn’t changed that much, a lot of the technology has.
Seckler: Does a director’s fee go down substantially if they’re working on an online project versus a television spot?
Thomas: One of my directors put it like this “they are commercials with no money”. I think the industry is in transition right now and I feel that everybody is trying to figure it out. I think that there has been a lot of misconceptions in what shooting for the internet is really all about and what it really costs. And I think our job is to help educate our clients about how to do it and do it well. Anybody can strap a camera on their head and go do some YouTube type thing but I think that’s quite limited in terms of watchability and in terms of communication. I think there’s so much more you can do and I think as long as we work closely with our clients and the agencies we can grow that medium into something that is actually quite interesting and exciting.
Seckler: Are directors less interested in doing online work because there’s less money?
Thomas: No they sometimes are more interested because creatively you have so much more freedom. You don’t have the rules and restrictions of the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission) there are a lot of rules and regulations in North America television.
Seckler: So directors are okay with the movement towards online productions?
Thomas: Totally. I think we’d all like to figure out a positive business model around it because realistically we can’t do what we do for nothing because no one would be open anymore. I think we are all hoping for a model that works and I think it is a matter of time. We are all transitioning into this new world and it’s about education and working closely with people and people seeing positive results and people wanting to put more funding towards doing it.
Seckler: Can you give me an idea of what directors would get in fees for doing a television spot versus an online piece.
Thomas: It depends on the budget that comes to us. Canadian directors are usually somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand dollars a day Canadian [for television spots]. We are doing some higher priced online stuff right now and the director is getting his fee. We like to align the right type of guy to the new media stuff so he is going to get his full rate. There are a lot of great guys that have lower fees and they are more appropriate to do the online rough and tumbly type stuff.
Seckler: HDDSLR (High Definition Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras are all the craze right now, do any of your directors use them?
Thomas: We own a Canon 7D and we use the Red a lot and a lot of our guys love using the Phantom. So those are kind of the predominate cameras we are floating around but there is some new stuff coming out, it is ever changing. We look with both visual and performance based directors so all of them have different needs and different interests. Obviously it is more of the visual guys that tend to want to work through new technology and test out what’s going on out there. The performance comedy guys are really more into the performance and the actors.
Seckler: With cameras like the 7D coming out, which are so affordable and available to the masses, how has that impacted the industry?
Thomas: It is allowing them to think about new ways to shoot. It is exciting. It is just another option to us. I think creatively if the 7D or the new cameras are relevant then we will apply them. But we are not changing the way we do business because of these new cameras.
Seckler: So ad agencies aren’t saying ‘well you’re able to use this cheaper equipment, why don’t we bring down your fees now?’
Thomas: No it’s amazing. What it has done is open up new creative opportunities.
Seckler: That’s fantastic, what kind of creative opportunities?
Thomas: For example there was a really interesting spot that we quoted which was sort of from an interesting perspective, taking a bunch of stills on a road trip. Often times when we want to use something other than film cameras, clients get a little nervous because they aren’t used to it. But creatively this job lent itself beautifully to the Canon 5D Mark II and we pitched it and they loved the idea and we got to use that camera. So it’s allowing us to create a different look for a creative spot if it needs it.
Seckler: Have you seen many people the move from still photography to motion?
Thomas: I have worked with a few successful ones, one of them of course being Mark Zibert I have also spoken with quite a few others who I think have a ton of potential but haven’t quite made the leap yet. I find it is a very exciting transition.
Seckler: Tell me about making the leap.
Thomas: This business, and I am sure it is the same in the stills industry, is a lot about who you know, not always about what you know. I think knowing people in the advertising agencies, which a lot of these still photographers know, is the first step. A lot of these photographers are suppliers to agencies for their stills work so they form a great relationship, there’s a trust there and they work quite closely together. What tends to happen is there might be a commercial that might have a stills component and the creative has enough confidence to say ‘I would like to give you a shot.’ Usually they are going to be called upon for a spot that has a more visual stylistic spread. A stills photographer brings a very unique visual perspective which sometimes a motion guy doesn’t. A motion guy often thinks about pacing, thinks about performance, thinks about other things, while a stills guy is really a lot about framing, lighting, techniques, lenses. They come to the party with a really strong visual language that sometimes the other motion guys don’t have.[For still photographers who] come from more editorial and art backgrounds, it is sometimes harder for them to know the language of advertising. I have met with some great artistic photographers and the transition is way harder because it is much more of a challenge for them to understand the needs of advertising. They might have an amazing look but they don’t know how to sell that product at the end of the day.
Seckler: What advice do you have for still photographers who specialize in non-commercial genres?
Thomas: Go take an acting class. In moving pictures you’ve got to know how to move your talent. You have actors, people, and oftentimes, the number one thing I find is you have to know how to work with actors. I think [non-commercial still photographers] do get some experience with that but when you are creating moving pictures, you have to carry an emotion, a conversation, you have to know how to motivate your actors to give you the performance that you need.
If you take an acting class you are going to better understand what you need to do to get your actor to perform. Even if it’s just a spot with a girl walking down the beach…she’s not just a prop anymore she’s a person, you have to carry the commercial with what she’s doing and what she’s thinking, and saying. It’s this element that still photographers don’t have a ton of experience with. I am not saying when they are doing a stills spot they are not talking to their subjects and motivating them but it’s sustaining that.
Seckler: What suggestions do you have for still photographers who want to build a commercial reel?
Thomas: When you look through a lens you have a point of view. Carry that point of view into motion, that is what people are going to want you for. If you already have a strong portfolio in stills, chances are you’re getting hired a lot and that’s a perfect calling card for these other people that will hire you.
Seckler: How did the directors that you represent start out?
Thomas: One guy came from being a very successful editor, another was a creative art director, another guy was a very successful stills photographer for advertising agencies, another guys’ mother was in the agency [world] and he was a treatment writer. You have to work in the business I guess.
Seckler: So what do these directors do on their first one or two projects that gets them repeat business and ultimately helps them become a successful director?
Thomas: They have a distinct point of view. They can work within the limitations and expectations of the client. They understand the art of advertising. We want to make something that looks really neat or has a different perspective to it, but at the end of the day we still understand we are making a thirty second spot. They want someone who will bring a unique perspective to their project, bring their script to life but understand they are still working within the [commercial] framework that has been established for many many years.
Seckler: As online media is consumed at an ever-growing pace where do you see motion content going in the next few years?
Thomas: I like to think it is going to be the good old television that’s going to dominate, because that’s my main business. I think quality is going to go up. I don’t think the homemade type of video is going to sustain people’s interest forever. I think people will always look for something that is going to stimulate them. I think with the onset of 3D TV the bar will be set quite high in terms of things looking good. [In the online world] things will improve tremendously. Things are going to start looking better and streaming better, and sounding better. I think we will be bombarded by visual stimulation all the time, the phone, billboards, who knows.
For stills photographers this is your time. You guys know how to make things look good. It is about coming to the table with a different perspective on visual style.
Platon was recently on Charlie Rose and spoke in detail about a series of images he shot for The New Yorker about the people who created the Civil Rights revolution. The images are truly moving and one can’t help but wonder how the photographer got his subjects to reveal such intimate moments in front of the camera. Fortunately, Platon reveals all. He discusses how he worked with these icons and mentions a few tips for building repport with portrait subjects. The interview goes on for about eight minutes, definitely worth your time.