Marketing and film festival strategy can be an afterthought on some low-budget productions, and when on a tight budget, it can be tempting for less experienced producers to skip out on a unit stills photographer. After all, your main goal is to actually get the film made first and overcome the hundreds of hurdles that lead up to that point. However, much like film treatments and pitch documents are tools that will help sell your idea to get the film made, stills help sell your finished film to audiences.
There are many creative, technical and financial benefits to having a stills photographer on set, so let me break it down for you.
You’ve finished your film. Now what?
In the modern post-covid world of online influence, social change and increasing accessibility within the world of festivals (online film festivals, for example) film marketing is an increasingly complicated and challenging task, particularly for productions that don’t have a massive budget to hire a dedicated PR and marketing team. Although a single stills photographer won’t replace a full team of hired marketing professionals, investing in a good stills photographer will save you money in the long run.
A stills photographer’s job is more than just capturing images of your cast and crew. A good photographer will think about capturing the essence of your film’s story, its characters and its unique world, with the marketing strategy and the bigger picture in mind. Different kinds of images are needed for social media posts, press releases, film festival programmes, film posters, and so on – a stills photographer is thinking several steps ahead and creating the materials and building blocks you will need for your PR campaign later down the line.
Why you shouldn’t use screengrabs instead of stills
Unfortunately, screengrabs don’t make good stills. There – we said it. And there are very simple creative and technical reasons for that.
Stills photographers are looking for angles and moments in the scene that work best for a still, not a moving image. Photographer Kirsty Griffin took the iconic still of Benedict Cumberbatch in between takes on the set of the multi-Oscar-nominated The Power of the Dog. “I took nine frames. I had 90 seconds,” Griffin recalls. “I didn’t know that that would be the key image. I just thought, ‘I’d be mad not to shoot this. I’d be mad not to tap him on the shoulder.’” A photographer utilises rehearsals, time between takes and when the cameras are rolling to capture those perfect moments.
There are also technical considerations involved.
Using a screengrab from your film instead of a still is like opening the camera app on your smartphone, but taking a screenshot of your screen instead. A screengrab will be of lower quality than a photograph and unlikely to be crisp and sharp, as most films are shot at 24fps. This frame rate ensures that nice smooth cinematic movement on screen that our eyes are so accustomed to, but it also means that there are 24 ‘still’ images per second of footage, so it is inevitable that you will see motion within most of those 24 frames.
A still image, however, is usually shot at a frame rate of 1/60th of a second or faster to freeze a moment.
A picture is worth a thousand words – we have all heard this before.
Often, one frame of a film doesn’t tell audiences enough information about it, as the storytelling is constructed through a series of images. A stills photographer’s job is to tell a story in one frame, so they will often engage with actors through their camera in a way that’s different to how the main camera does. A photographer on set is not just a fly on the wall. Whether it’s a more intimate, staged or spontaneous approach to introducing characters to the audience through a stills camera lens, their job is to direct and extract a performance optimal for a still image.
Portraits are a vital element of marketing visuals for any film and are often made from carefully-constructed collages of the film’s characters or key scenes from the film. A photographer will build a collection of those character portraits and other necessary elements.
What’s happening behind the camera is just as important as in front of it
Making a film is incredibly hard work and involves a lot of individuals dedicating their time, energy and ideas to make it all happen. Whilst the cast and crew are solely focused on creating the film, the stills photographer captures this precious process and the other happy accidents (or intentionally staged moments) that are born out of the photographer’s own unique relationships with actors and crew. Stills photographers are hyper aware of everything happening around them, catching moments and angles that would be otherwise missed.
Getting high-quality behind the scenes images of the making of your film has never been more important. As filmmaking is becoming more and more accessible (with some amazing documentary films having been shot on smartphones or DSLR cameras) it’s vital to document the process not only as part of marketing, but also as an educational tool for film lovers or the next generation of film creatives. Part of a film’s DNA is defined by who it was made by – the hard-working cast and crew that made it happen. Off-screen representation is just as important as on-screen, so great BTS shots are incredibly valuable for your crew, as well as those aspiring to one day work on a set.
As director Joachim Trier (known for his Oscar-nominated romantic drama The Worst Person in the World) eloquently puts it, “The irony is that stills photography can both be the commercialized beautification and idealization of humans on a big billboard, but it can also be the human generosity of a person—of an intimate moment that almost no other art form can get to the documentation of.”
Bonus: But my budget is too low. I can’t afford a stills photographer!
When working with low budgets, you have to make compromises and, often, sacrifices, to get your film made. Understandably, stills photographers aren’t always on the producers’ minds when you’re trying to make ends meet on a production. However, there are creative ways to go about this.
A stills photographer doesn’t need to be on set all the time. Setup and derig take a long time and don’t particularly make the most fascinating content. Decide on the key scenes that are most important or visually interesting and have a stills photographer come on for those specific hours, rather than the whole 10-hour shoot day. As with any head of department, discuss your creative vision and what you want to get out of the stills before the shoot. This will save you time on set and make the photographer’s job easier.
And if you are creating a short film on zero budget, and the rest of the crew are volunteering their time – an emerging stills photographer will often be happy to donate their time and skills to get you great images for your film, in return for use of those images in their portfolios.
And if you’re thinking of asking a runner or PA to take some stills and behind-the-scenes shots in their spare time on set, think about whether you’d also ask them to do the same with production design, hair and makeup or cinematography.
First impressions matter. Like a great movie trailer, great film stills will help excite audiences or intrigue film festival programmers. Unit stills photographers are unique in that they shift between telling the film’s story and documenting the filmmaking process. All in all, they are a real asset to any production – regardless of budget – capturing priceless moments and iconic stills that will serve as the film’s business card.
Research and content written by Anastasia Arsentyeva
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