Tech Talk – How to run a “Specials Shoot” Part 1.

A specials shoot is a publicity shoot for a film or TV show that is specifically to capture promotional stills. Promotional stills are integral press and publicity resources and are usually shot in a studio environment with the key cast. On high profile film productions “Specials” photographers are often iconic photographers such as Annie Leibovitz (via Vanity Fair), Mary Ellen Mark and Douglas Kirkland. On On many shows however, the unit stills photographer will be engaged separately to do the specials shoot and this is an excellent opportunity.

Going Nowhere - Specials shoot results in action

I’ve run four specials shoots thus far in my career – for ABC TV’s I Rock (Official Site), Marmalade Production’s The Syndicate (Official Site) and for Disclosure Production’s Ladies and Gentlemen (Official Site) and Going Nowhere (Official Site). Specials shoots ROCK! Imagine having the cast there to work specifically with you and having make up, wardrobe and even a photographic assistant or two at your disposal. It’s an amazing experience, but also one that is very different to working on set.

Part one – Planning

Working on film sets as a photographer is, in general, very much reactive. By keeping an eye on the Callsheets you can be prepared and plan for what lies ahead, but you’re almost entirely out of the planning loop. For a Specials Shoot – the photographer plays an important role in planning for the shoot – its the time for you to use your expertise to ensure the very best of results. Its been my experience that the more planning and preparation applied, the better the end results. Producers may want a shoot at short notice and minimal information, but realistically, it will undermine the end result, so where you can fight the good fight to increase your planning and preparation and everyone will be glad you did.

I have found that you need to have a strong concept to work with. When you first get (or have pitched for) the the commission you need to establish with the producers a strong previsualised end result. This means that we’ve sat down, talked concepts and purposes for the images from the shoot and we’ve planned (venue, resources, crew). If the images are going to be posters then you’re going to me wanting mostly portrait oriented images, if the images are for the web, then Landscape is likely to be more useful. Does the website concept entail a banner that has particular dimensions (a common design requirement for many websites these days will use a banner in the order of 950px wide by 150px -250px tall). If you want your actors to be well displayed in an unusually shaped space pace you’re going to need to consider how best to shoot to shoot the them to achieve the result.

Venue: Obviously film making and photoshoots often involve compromises, but things I consider really important to consider and account for are whether you have adequate space. If full length images or groupings of more than two cast per image are required you’re going to need to plan for a very big space indeed. You should also consider the need for work space for makeup and wardrobe as well as space for the extra bodies around you during the shoot – expect at least a producer or two!

Resources: If its a smaller production you’re going to need to advocate for the production to resource your shoot properly this should absolutely include refreshments and or meals for the crew, but also any equipment hire you’re going to need to achieve the desired results.

Crew: It is absolutely imperative in my experience that you have costume and makeup on set with you throughout the shoot. Its also necessary to have someone who can take on the role of “First AD” on the day, and who is familiar with the schedule and and keep the whole process flowing while you’re working with the cast. As with film making if you have the luxury of a gaffer seize it gratefully because on the day messing around with lights will interrupt your work with the artists. Finally, having an assistant is also important, because you’ll be run off your feet on the day and having someone on hand to take care of things as they crop up is a huge benefit.

Finally, you also need to consider how you’re going to shoot it. With my the relatively large ensemble casts of The Syndicate and Ladies and Gentlemen she shoots were split over two days to allow for actor availability. Also, given the space constraints I shot cast members singularly or in small groups in a fashion that enabled the graphic designers to work their magic into the ensemble images. With I Rock and Going Nowhere I shot the whole cast in one session.

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Ladies and Gentlement - 14 Cast over two full days

There’s no one correct way for going about a specials shoot, but the key in my experience is to plan and prepare for the day from concept through to logistics to work out what can be best achieved with the resources available. To compromise on planning will more likely compromise the shoot.

In the next installment I’ll talk about my approach to the day(s) of the specials shoot.


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