Greg Williams has pioneered the crossover into short films shot on the Red camera. This shoot with actress Carla Gugino, was used by the LA Times Magazine for the launch of the iPad edition. Image © Greg Williams.
You could never accuse Greg Williams of being afraid to embrace change. He started out as a self-taught photojournalist, covering conflict in places like Chechnya and Sierra Leone, before realising he’d “probably get killed if I carried on working in war zones”, and deciding to focus on longer-term projects instead.
One of these, a three-year study of the British film industry in the late 1990s, led to another major career change. Given exclusive access to dozens of film sets, including Elizabeth and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he published a book of his work, On Set in 2001, and embarked on a lucrative career as an on-set “special photographer”, shooting portraits of the Hollywood acting elite.
More recently, he’s shot fashion stories for magazines like Vogue Italia, where he says he honed his narrative skills. When the Red camera came along in 2007, delivering film-like motion footage from which you could pull high-resolution stills, he immediately got on board.
“You can shoot a movie and then use stills from it as double-page spreads,” he enthuses. “I found that fascinating.” He was the first photographer to use the camera this way, shooting a story for Vogue Italia that was published in 2008. Since then he’s made several more, including a short film for Agent Provocateur.
But his signature approach to still/motion convergence is the format he dubs the “moto”. These “moving photos” use video as you might shoot a still, filming a subject in a static portrait pose, and then introducing movement – from something as slight as a blink to the subject turning and walking out of frame. They have come into their own with new forms of digital media, and for the last Bond film, Quantum of Solace, his motos added an extra dimension bringing Daniel Craig to life on electronic poster sites and online. He also created a series of motos for Esquire in the US, shooting Hollywood stars such as Megan Fox for the front cover, which when seen online are activated and seen as motion.
His motos are a perfect match for the iPad and the new generation of digital magazines being designed for it, so it’s no surprise that he’s been an early pioneer here too. “I was talking to the LA Times about a shoot and I mentioned that I’d made this film noir-style short,” he says. “It turned out they were doing a whole noir-themed issue, so we decided to do a cover story based around it featuring interactive content. And just as we did so, the iPad was launched. The magazine came out the next day with all the images used as stills in the print version, but joined with moving content in the iPad version. The cover image moved and talked to the viewer.”
In fact, Williams adds, he’s frustrated with many of the publications launched on the iPad so far, which simply take the print content and reproduce it electronically. He’s now investigating moving imagery further with the Epic camera, the latest offering from Red, which delivers 5000×5000 pixel images where most HD-DSLRs offer 1920×1080. It’s the most sophisticated hybrid camera on the market, and Williams got involved with it while it was still in development. “I’ve been working with Red since the Megan Fox shoot, so I was the first to get my hands on the Epic,” he says.
He stresses that the Red units are primarily motion cameras that also deliver high resolution still images, so he’s had to learn to work with a camera crew and how to use lighting in a different way. But while pulling stills from video is not the same as shooting stills, the whole process of capture and edit is not so very different.
“My moto images are set up like stills so there’s no real difference,” he says. “And my portrait shots are often very carefully set up anyway. It’s not like I shoot stills on the fly like a photojournalist. At the other end of the scale, if I’m doing a fashion story I may be running down the road firing off thousands of shots of the model with the motor drive. It’s not like shooting 100,000 frames in a movie, but there’s still a lot of luck involved [and a lot of picture editing afterwards]. Who knows what images I miss.”
His ambition now is to make a full-length feature film, he says, but he doesn’t underestimate how hard that’s going to be to achieve. In particular, he says, he’s just learning how to sustain the narrative for a long period, and how to build dramatic tension. “It’s a huge transition, and that’s why only a few still photographers have made directors.
No stranger to still and motion image crossover, Tim Hetherington was already experimenting with moving images in the 1980s. “I worked on animation and that really started my interest in viewing images on screen [rather than print],” he explains. In 1996 he went back to college to learn about film and made a moving image CD-ROM called House of Pain, which is still on show on his website.
From the series Sleeping Soldiers, shot by Tim Hetherington in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. Image © Tim Hetherington.
“Back then only a handful of photographers were using video. Judah Passow, Fred Ritchin, Susan Meiselas, Gilles Peress and Pedro Mayer were among them,” he recalls. “It was very different to today. I had to develop a dual, parallel career, where I made moving images and stills separately. I remember showing a picture editor of a major British newspaper a film I’d shot and he said, ‘Why are you showing me this, we’re a paper.’ The convergence of the two mediums hadn’t yet happened.
But for him, the importance of shooting in both was clear. “The issue was, ‘How do we apprehend images in a screen-based world?’. It’s not good enough just to shoot videos – you have to think about what are you doing with them. I’m only interested in video as a technology that can help create a more compelling narrative. Now anyone can shoot footage, and it can be the most beautifully shot footage ever, but you need a concept behind the work. If you’ve got that, you can shoot on your cell phone.”
Hetherington says he’s not bothered about equipment and refuses to be drawn into a discussion about what kit he’s been using. But he is concerned with the relationship between stills and video, and this led him and the writer Sebastian Junger to create Restrepo, a film about US soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Originally shot alongside a Vanity Fair assignment that won him World Press Photo’s premier award, it explores the world of soldiers on the frontline fighting the Taliban, and the film has now just won the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Award.
“We got to Kabul in 2007 and the access was so intense,” he says. He immediately realised the potential for a film but, having prepared for a stills shoot, only had standard definition (SD) equipment to work with, and had to return two more times with a high definition (HD) camera. Matching up the two types of video was painstaking, requiring a long time, tens of thousands of pounds and a professional editor. The edit was made using Final Cut Pro and the footage was then transferred to 35mm film, a technical challenge in itself as the frame rates differ (NSTC video is shot 29.97fps, 35mm film is 24fps).
“It was a huge learning curve,” says Hetherington. “The broadcast world is hugely different to the photography world. We edited for a year on our own time and it took all our savings, but then National Geographic bought the global TV rights in November 2009 and that cleared all our debts.”
“It was a unique situation making the leap – shuffling is a better word – into making a film,” says music and documentary photographer Ewen Spencer. Best known for his fly-on-the-wall images of sub-cultures, such as the UK grime scene, his new video, Flat of the Blade, is a look at adolescent youth. But it isn’t your usual documentary film. It’s a lingering, sensitive short on Dwain, a 19-year-old from Birmingham, which has no commentary or dialogue, and a soundtrack by Massive Attack.
Having shot a video for The Streets in the past and found it "boring", Ewen Spencer was dubious about doing another. But when he took a personal approach, it gelled for the first time. Image © Ewen Spencer.
“Massive Attack collaborate with people,” explains Spencer. “I already had a good relationship with the production company RSA Black Dog in London, and Massive Attack approached them and then they approached my agent We Folk.”
Dwain is part of the Burger Bar crew, and the 38-year-old photographer was already planning a project on him and his friends when Massive Attack approached him. “I wanted to look at their lives on the so-called peripheries of society,” he explains. “I wanted to look at cultural plurality in Britain as a political project.”
Spencer had planned to shoot this project in stills, though, and was initially unenthusiastic about shooting video, having tried it a few years ago on a time-lapse film for The Streets and found it “boring”. But with Massive Attack keen to fund a moving image project and his agent, We Folk, keen for him to give it a try, he went for it. “I thought, ‘Why not?’ It’s more versatile than the still pictures I make – I can see what’s unfolding in front of me and I capture it.”
And this time it gelled. “The video for The Streets wasn’t me, but Flat of the Blade was more interesting, I suppose because I was looking at myself,” he says. “I’m nothing like Dwain, but when I was a kid I was interested in being part of different groups, it’s part of being young. So I have a lot of empathy for him. He’s someone who has focus and determination, who makes music and I wanted to show that.”
Olivia Gideon Thomson, founder of We Folk, says she isn’t pushing her photographers towards film per se, but she is suggesting it where there’s a natural affinity with their style. “They have to hit a nerve, and make an impact with their film in the same way they do with their photographs,” she says. “It means that we can begin to converse with [clients] about which medium we could choose to work with.”
Spencer shot the film over three visits on a Canon EOS 5D Mk II, and took the opportunity to try out lots of supplementary kit, including camera supports and lights. He ended up finding it cumbersome and sending it all back though, and ended up handholding the camera and using just a small LED strip light. “I’d waft it under people’s chins, and I’d lie it on the floor,” he says.
He hired an editor to stitch the final five minutes together, and says he’s pleased with the result, although he’s unsure where to show it because he’s not sure who his audience is. Even so, he’s keen to do more. There’s still a lot of footage on the cutting room floor and he’d like to go back to it in another, wider project. “I’d have to revisit, make use of some great dialogue I’ve got already, along with film other people in gangs,” he says. BJP
“There’s a lot to learn from video games, because they tell stories embedded in a 3D environment,” says Robbie Cooper, another photographer who’s been experimenting with moving image. “You have to work to get the story.”
Using the Red camera, Robbie Cooper shot a project on young gamers focusing on their concentrated expressions. He presented the work as both motion and stills, the Red camera delivering high resolution "grabs". Image © Robbie Cooper.
For Cooper, this is the future of publishing, and it was the focus of his first major film, Immersion, which shows young gamers playing shoot-em-up video games in a darkened room. Shot on a Red camera through a two-way screen, it reveals contorted facial expressions, moans of exasperation and cries of “Die, die, die!”. Video was still relatively new to him at the time but, he says, it was the best way to capture the concept. “Video’s just a tool, but it changed the way I make photographs,” he says.
A former photojournalist, Cooper started experimenting with video three years ago. “I thought, print is pretty much over,” he says. “There are only two magazines in the world now, in my opinion, that have the money to fund interesting photography projects, the New York Times Magazine and Wallpaper* [for whom he created Immersion:Porn, featuring people watching pornography]. The old model of text and images sitting side by side on the page is being dissolved by the internet and the iPad.”
In fact, for Cooper even stitching together text, video and images online is passé. “You need to think outside the box, to think how you are going to deliver the stories,” he says. “The problem with video is that it’s sequential – you have to watch it from start to end. That’s not going to work on the internet. The internet’s amazing – it’s changing everything, the way we think, and it’s the most efficient delivery of content out there.”
He cites the difference between his website and his blog by way of example, explaining that while he sends regular twitter updates to his blog from his iPhone, he doesn’t have time to update his site. “I want to make a website that is more like a blog,” he says. “You can reserve a section for your greatest hits, but the blog is a reflection of ‘real-time’.” For Cooper, what he calls real-time is the future (see his blog entry titled Algorhythmic Culture), and social media sites, blogs, RSS feeds and Twitter are all part of it, with their own past, present and future strung together in what technology analysts call “life streams”.
“Life-streams are better suited to the internet than a conventional website because they show information-in-motion, a rushing flow of fresh information instead of a stagnant pool,” he writes on his blog. “In the near future, you, all your communications, documents, photos, videos, phone calls, voice messages and text messages could be stored in a life stream in the ‘Cloud’,” he adds, referring to a huge data centre in cyberspace with no actual physical location. Video games will point the way towards how to interact with it all. “The imagery will start to become the interface,” he says.
This bridge between the physical and digital world excites Cooper – he’s been hired by the research arm of American computer chip giant Intel, who flew him to Portland in January. He’s keeping tight-lipped about his contribution, but it involves interacting with 3D images. “Imagine a world where all images are portals into a virtual world,” he says. “You read a story on the front page of the newspaper on your tablet device, which allows you to move around in the image that illustrates it. You can go forward in the image, around corners; you can click on the images of people and send messages to them via their social network. People already use images of themselves as their avatar, but what if every image of you was automatically your avatar?”
Former first assistant to Nick Knight, Jez Tozer first got into moving image while working with the maverick fashion photographer. “Nick has filmed his stills shoots for a long time and one of my key responsibilities on set was to make sure we were getting exciting footage,” says Tozer. “Just after I left, Show Studio [Knight’s award-winning web project] commissioned me to do a collaboration with the menswear designer Aitor Throup for his debut launch at London Fashion Week, The Funeral of New Orleans.”
Fashion photographer and filmmaker Jez Tozer says that shooting video has had a huge influence on the way he shoot stills. Image © Jez Tozer.
He has since built a portfolio of moving image projects for Show Studio, including Chrysalis, which also had a corresponding 10-page fashion story for Dazed & Confused Japan. As with his first project, a lot of the short films have been made in close association with fashion designers, including Louise Gray and Craig Lawrence.
Tozer believes that film is already as important as the still image in fashion imagery, and naturally suited to the genre. “We don’t sit in the one pose in a garment in real life, we move around, we sit, we stand, we jump – and film enables us to show the how the clothes move,” he says. “Often we don’t have a clear understanding of a garment fully until we see it move.”
His process has evolved as technology has progressed over the last three years, and while he shot his first project on a Sony Z1 and Panasonic HVX200, these days he shoots his films almost exclusively on a Canon EOS 5D Mk II. “It was a massive jump – instead of paying £1000 per day to hire a Red camera and operator, you can hire a camera for just £150, or buy one for £2500. There has been a real democratisation of film production, which is extremely exciting.”
Tozer’s films are normally a maximum of six or seven minutes and, as a rule, he thinks fashion films shouldn’t be sustained for much longer than that. “My aim now is to make the films cinematic, to maintain a sense of narrative, but without detracting from the clothes,” he says. “I want them to feel like a small section of a feature film and have a real sense of visual depth – audio is also critical to their success.”
But Tozer has also continued to shoot stills, most recently with Tom Hingston Studio for The Chemical Brothers, and says that shooting moving images has had a huge and very positive influence on the way he shoot stills. He’s taken single frames from his moving-image footage shot blurred, long-exposure images and published Muybridge-like multiple frames, all in an effort to challenge the single photographic moment.
“Working with film has taught me that I’m very interested in the moment just before or just after you would traditionally take a still,” he says. “Previously I was always interested in challenging the definite moment in my stills. Now I’m much more ready to say, ‘That’s the moment I want’. What excites me about a still image is the possibility of meditating on a moment, of pausing on an instant or a discrete parcel of time we can’t see or ponder on in life or traditionally in film either.”
Working for Sports Illustrated in the US since 1985, Bill Frakes has shot all over the world, taking a huge array of equipment to capture a new take on the action for the world’s most-read sports magazine. And now he’s taking along film equipment, shooting HD video to produce multimedia projects and short films for the magazine’s website.
Bill Frakes has been shooting stories for Sports Illustrated for 25 years, and has embraced the move to video, combining it with stills to create multimedia presentations online. Image © Bill Frakes.
“I got a good grounding in cinematography by shooting small projects like music videos,” he says. “Nowadays, Sports Illustrated does a lot more multimedia stuff on the web, and it has an eMag. Obviously, they won’t abandon stills, but I do expect to see the proportion of video work I am shooting rise in the next few years.”
Unsurprisingly for a photographer with his background, Frakes sees stills and video as bedfellows, which both contribute to his photojournalism. “Video will never replace the still image,” he says confidently. “The still image is a beautiful thing and does something that the eye cannot do – study a split second in time. Nothing else does this, not a drawing, a painting or a written story, and certainly not a video. On the other hand, a video does allow you to think about motion, and use ambient sound.
“Stills and video are complementary, they amplify each other. I tend to mix them together and produce multimedia projects. I think you can enjoy the best of both worlds in this way and make a more dynamic statement.”
Frakes uses Nikon kit, specifically the new D3s, and the firm commissioned him to shoot a project for its launch. “I love it!” he declares. “I know the Canon EOS 5D Mk II is a good product too, but I think people just need to think about what their concerns are when they are deciding on a system. What do you want from the camera? And what type of end result? What kind of files do you need? And what situations are you going to use the camera in? Ergonomics will be very important too – although this is personal preference, of course.”
Frakes is extremely enthusiastic about the Nikon’s low light capabilities (“just awesome”) and also uses the camera for stills work, meaning he hasn’t had to invest in a new set of lenses from a different manufacturer. He also disagrees with those who say you can’t use the same rig and DSLR body for stills and video. “I shoot stills and video with just one camera just fine,” he says. “If you are finding you can’t then it’s a problem with your set up really. You can’t use a video rig that is so cumbersome it inhibits your use of the camera for stills. For instance, if you are shooting tripod-mounted video, you need a quick release mechanism that lets you react dynamically and pick the camera up off the support in an instant to shoot stills.”
This dynamic way of working is key to Frakes’ success with multimedia, but he is adamant that switching back and forth requires mental flexibility, as well as a good rig. “The biggest switch you have to make is with your mind. You have to be fluid enough to be able to see when video suits a subject and when still photography suits a subject. Inherently, the two are created from a different perspective and you have to be prepared to make those distinctions. As the photographer you need to be able to plan ahead and anticipate.
“The technology to shoot video then extract a still frame good enough to go over a double-page magazine spread isn’t far away, but this begs the obvious question – did I compose the shot as a still or as a video? Stills photography will always be a thoughtful process that is not about blasting away with a 24fps motordrive. Video’s place is alongside thoughtful evocative stills, telling a story in a way better than either discipline could do on its own.”
Bill Frakes has been shooting stories for Sports Illustrated for 25 years, and has embraced the move to video, combining it with stills to create multimedia presentations online. The image below, from his Australia project, was shot on a Nikon D3s, which he used to shoot both still and motion.
British photojournalist Sean Smith has been shooting video since 2006 as part of his work as a staff photographer at The Guardian. “I started to shoot the odd piece of documentary video on extended trips away, to places like Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “When I was first asked to do it I remember thinking I would only be interested in using moving images as long as it let me put a story together in the way I wanted too. I’m still insistent on that today. I don’t really want to be the guy sending back the ‘rushes’ for the UK evening news.”
The Guardian is one of the UK's biggest multimedia producers, and it has commissioned staff photographer Sean Smith to produce both video and stills all over the world. Image © Sean Smith/The Guardian.
Smith has used video to document a variety topics over the years, from transvestites in Cuba to Middle-Eastern war zones, each time approaching the subject from a traditional stills photographer’s point of view rather than a broadcast journalist’s. “I strive to make a visual story in the way a photojournalist would – observing what is going on around me and not always feeling that all questions need to be answered. I avoid the approach a writer would take to that kind of journalism – having a pre-determined set of questions designed to elicit certain answers and responses. In that case the video is just there to support the words, out-takes and cutaways that join talkies together. I am more and more interested in creating a narrative from the pictures, in an observational kind of way.”
He started shooting video with traditional film cameras after some basic training in videography from The Guardian. Now he often shoots moving images with an EOS 5D Mk II, which he says is “producing good stuff”. But he also reverts to more orthodox video cameras, such as Sony’s pro-spec V1 if he’s working in rough places, because tape offers much safer storage. “Using cassettes seems like a better idea than storing hours of footage on a relatively delicate portable hard disk, and it’s expensive to take lots of CompactFlash cards out with me.
“But the 5D Mk II is a great camera for video – I shot a project on pirates earlier in the year using one. It offers huge creative possibilities, although I find you need to spend as much as you did on the body on attachments and accessories such as microphones, viewfinders, stabilisers and focusing aids. With all this on, it’s impossible for me to shoot stills, so I end up with another DSLR slung over my shoulder. I don’t think this technology is yet at the point where it is feasible to take just one camera body on location and use it for both stills and video.”
Greg Williams - www.gregfoto.com
Tim Hetherington - www.timhetherington.com
Ewen Spencer - www.ewenspencer.com
Robbie Cooper - www.robbiecooper.org
Jez Tozer - www.jeztozer.com
Bill Frakes - www.billfrakes.com
Sean Smith - www.guardian.co.uk/profile/seansmith
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