Full transcript of text of published article in The Complete Photographer magazine follows:
Still Photography in the Motion Picture Industry by Ned Scott
Magazine editor's intro:
(The unique and important role of the "still man" in the Hollywood motion picture studio is told by one who has worked for United Artists and Samuel Goldwyn, Inc. The technics and problems involved in taking production stills, off-stage portraits, and general publicity photographs are detailed. Everyone sees the work of these Hollywood photographers in newspapers and magazines and on posters--and here is the inside story on how they are taken and used.)
An estimated $10,000,000 is spent yearly on the Hollywood still man's salary, laboratory work, and the cost of new equipment. This is because his importance to the industry, while intangible, is great, since stills remain the most potent and effective means of selling the motion picture to the exhibitor, of building up soda-jerking blondes into new star material, of keeping established box office names before the public, and last but most important, of getting the public inside the theater to see the finished film.
A stillman's job may be divided into two functions--to "sell" the movie and to aid in the actual making of the movie.
First he must "sell" the movie. Stills taken for this purpose fall into eight classifications:
1. Production stills--actual scenes taken from the movie.
2. Off-stage portraits
3. Fashion photographs
4. "Leg art"
5. Seasonal gag shots of the stars
6. Clinch shots of stars--specially posed for newspaper advertising layouts
8. Publicity photographs.
Chief of these is the production still. This is a photograph of an actual scene, taken on the set with an 8 x 10 view camera when the company has finished shooting. When the director turns away to prepare for the next set-up, it is the stillman's moment--and literally a moment. Yelling, "Hold it for the still", he threads his way through the bedlam of grips, electricians, prop men, camera assistants, wardrobe girls, and hairdressers, sets his tripod on his coveted spot, and dives under his black cloth. With a single gesture, the swing back is adjusted, the impatient actors are brought into focus, the lends stopped to f/22, and the film holder inserted. Our still man gives the bub a quick poke and struggles out.
Production stills of this kind are extremely important to the smooth running of any motion picture. There is not always time to do a good job, however, since minutes are fabulously precious on a studio set. The photographer will therefore often find this unsatisfactory, but nevertheless very important work.
On an average movie of the "B" class, the producing company guarantees the releasing company a minimum of 125 of these production stills; an "A" picture may supply up to 1000, each one different. These are channeled out throughout all the publicity outlets: wire syndicates, newspapers, magazines. They are used within sales booklets within the industry, for display advertising in front of theaters, in advertising layouts of all kinds, and made up into "silent salesmen"--a packet f stills complied to impress exhibitors. In other words, they are used first to sell the movie to the exhibitor and then, by the company and the exhibitor together, to sell the movie to the paying public.
The second, coming under the "selling" category is the off-stage portrait of the stars and character actors, shot either in a gallery or in a corner of the sound stage on which the company is working. The latter is preferable because the actors can then be snatched between scenes, thus obviating costly special settings.
In regular studio portrait work, most portrait still men develop a style of lighting and posing. George Hurrell descended on Hollywood with his low key, one light effect of lighting women;many were apeing his results but Hurrell's individualism still stands out as any artist's style will. Originality, not mimicry, remains the best policy.
Personally I favor low key portraiture because it results in prints that are not only rich in the proportion of black to half-tones, but they seem more character-revealing. For heads I generally employ a 750-watt spot key light and three 500-watt spots--one for filling in and two that may be placed at strategic points in back of the subject. These two lights, known as "kickers", tend to relieve the subject from the background. Suitable gauzes, or "frosts" are used over the spots to balance the quality of light properly and, quite often, he spot used for filling in the shadows will be placed next to the lens. This fill light may, in addition to the gauzes, carry a "snoot". a cylinder placed over the light, cutting the beam to a diameter to include only the face. Then a white backing is placed ten or fifteen feet behind the subject, all light having been screened from it. A 65 amp arc will be spotted on the backing at any point required to lighten the composition on the groundglass. The exposure for such heads on Super Panchro Press generally runs around 1/10 second at f/22.
Because of the difficulty in getting the stars to pose for a sitting, as many poses as possible must be made in an hour. With a cooperative subject and the help of a good electrician who understands lighting, all of the portraits of one star can be made within three hours. Sometimes forty different poses are made in that time.
In addition to production shots and off-stage portraits, the still man is responsible for for fashion photographs of the stars, "leg art", and seasonal gag shots. These are just what their names imply. The gag shots of stars may show them carving Thanksgiving turkeys or decorating Christmas trees, peeking coyly from behind a huge valentine or shooting off fireworks.
There is also "poster art"--clinch shots of the stars specially posed for newspaper advertising layouts. Then there are tie-ups. These show the lead posed with a particular radio star or some other nationally known person.
Lastly there are publicity photographs--human interest, action, news or candid shots of the tars. All these stills are released through the same channels to create a general interest in the movie in question and thus build up box office draw.
STILLS HELP TO MAKE MOVIES
The still man's second function is to aid in the making of the movie. In this category are "set" stills, an important part of his daily work on the stage. When the company moves into a new set, for instance a boarding house parlor, the still man photographs it in its entirety, being careful to show all detail of props and furnishings. This is for the purpose of "matching" for possible retakes, in case any part of the scene has to be redone at some later date. The prop men and the set dressers can then reproduce the set down to the last exact detail of crumpled newspaper or half-drawn window shade. If, in the course of the action a fight or some upset makes violent changes in the room, the still man must photograph this also. In this particular kind of work, the still photographer is expected to take a record shot--artistry is out in favor of extreme accuracy. This tends to limit his scope, but presents a definite challenge.
Make-up stills are taken of all the important actors, also for the purpose of matching. Wardrobe stills--shots of the principals in their various changes--are taken for the same reason. Lastly, the still man makes background "plates" or "stereos" as they are sometimes called--8 x 10 negatives which are later reduced to lantern slides and then projected on the process screen. In the case of very complicated process work, there is a special staff, of course.
The scene may call for a touring car coming to a stop at sunset on a highway in Arizona. With the process screen this can be easily accomplished on the stage. A dirt road, with perhaps a barbed wire fence on the far side, is built in front of the screen, a still of the sunset on the Arizona desert is projected on the screen, and the illusion is complete. In this way studios have saved many thousands of dollars in production costs in recent years, cutting expensive location shooting down to a minimum.
When realized that the average production schedule of a movie is from four to six weeks, and that this vast bulk of photographs which the still man takes must be done in that time (he usually goes on salary only a day before shooting starts), it is evident that he never need have an idle moment. There is use every moment of the day for one or another of the cameras which comprise his equipment.
The 8 x 10, of course, is the most commonly used camera. With it are taken production stills, fashion, wardrobe, make-up and set stills, "stereos", and portraits. This is because, in he main, the 8 x 10 print is universally preferred and printing by contact is cheaper; also because an 8 x 10 negative is naturally more adaptable to retouching because of the convenient working size.
The 4 x 5 Speed Graphic with synchronized flashgun, used for news pictures or for anything that may catch the eye, probably comes next in importance. Btween scenes, the still man keeps within shot of the principals in the cast, alert to any odd positions they may assume which would make a good flashbulb shot. Such pictures can be captioned easily and are therefore in demand by newspapers. When time permits, the still man may use two or more bulbs placed at strategic points, all bulbs going off in synchronism through extensions from the flashgun. Such pictures give the feeling of careful illumination with backlighting; in a set-up where the actors are perhaps 30 feet from the backgroun, two bulbs can make all the difference between a black print with two ghostly faces and one full of detail and environment.
Certain magazines and news outlets prefer the single flash pictures, however, because the single source lighting results in pictures having a "candid" appearance. The flashgun camera is also used expensively in location, the flash taking the place of a reflector. Very effective shots have been made using the sun as backlight and the flash for "fill" or front light.
The 4 x 5 Graflex, usually a series D, is used for those shots not requiring a flashbulb for light--for outdoor location or for taking pot shots of the actors during rehearsals when the set is already lighted. The Weston reflected reading for the average lighting on a set is 6.5; this permits exposures of 1/25 to 1/50 at f/4.5 on film with a Weston rating of 128 (daylight).
With the possible exception of certain miniature cameras, no still camera may be operated during he actual filming of a scene where sound is simultaneously recorded. The focal plane shutter of the Graflex would record like a clap of thunder; in any event "clicks" annoy the actors and give them alibis for muffing a line.
The use of so-called miniature cameras has become a moot question in the industry. Editorial wastebaskets are full of harsh, grainy enlargements made from 35mm film which has doubtless been processed along with the rest of the day's work in the regular studio lab, with no thought for the rudiments of fine grain. As a result, publicity directors no longer have faith in the Contax or Leica. On the other hand countless 8 x 10 glossy enlargements, absolutely free from grain and full of brilliance and action, have been made from 35 mm film when the photographer has done the processing himself.
Owing to the fact that at least one of the lights in a movie set hits the lens in every shot made, "opticoting" the lens surfaces has a distinct advantage. Not only does opticoting minimize the extent of refracted light in a lens, thereby increasing its apparent speed by as much as half a stop, but it also decidedly increases the definition. This does not mean the lens shade may be discarded.
Color. While one-shot, two- and three-color cameras are occasionally used and reproduction therefrom is the best, Kodachrome is the most generally employed and with quite satisfactory results. On the average "A" movie about 30 8 x 10 and 40 4 x 5 Kodachromes may be shot, mostly with magazine covers in mind.
TECHNICS OF STILLS
While it is true that the still man's most important function is to sell the movie by means of his photographs, the actual way he achieves this is often surprising to the layman. Ironically enough, 85 per cent of the demand is not for pictures which "tell the story", but for hose which fall roughly into three classifications of "glamour", "menace", or "gag" stills. The majority of outlets are merely interested in eye-catching stills which attract attention to the blurb underneath; only a few of the magazines are interested in printing he actual narrative highlights of the movie.
The general rule for all stills is to fill the plate with the principals. The larger the stars can be made on the groundglass, the better the publicity departments like it, regardless of the fact that the scene may include a group of supporting player and extras. Partial reason for this is that a large group of people is generally more confusing than eye-compelling; also the public is much more interested in looking at two well-known faces in a new setting, than at many unfamiliar faces. Background, too, is less important than the stars, unless it be something extraordinary.
Another primary rule for a still man,--one which he better learn quickly or he finds himself looking for a job--is that this picture must be right on the negative. The pressure of speed on both the still man and laboratory makes it impossible to depend on darkroom methods or dodging and doctoring to turn a merely passable negative into a good print.
Since the major portion of his work goes to newspapers, the still man must consider the technical demands of the engraver when he sets up for his still. Most newspapers in this country want clearly defined photographs which are easy to reproduce--that is (by their definition) photographs with white backgrounds and a few shadows with no regard for gradation or quality. Newspapers will not bother with, or are not equipped to reproduce, even the most excellent photographs if they are not readily copied in the usual manner. This is the chief reason why most Hollywood stills seem to lack feeling and inspiration. Stills for the small ground of prestige or class magazines, n the other hand, demand exactly the opposite approach.
SET-UP OF STILL MEN
The major studios--Paramount, M.G.M., R.K.O., Universal, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox--employ a man to head the still department. His job is to organize the lab and keep it functioning, and to hire still men. One still man is assigned to each movie production; each major studio will keep two or three portrait still men constantly on the payroll.
In starting out, the regular still man is handed an 8 x 10 view camera and a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic with accessories. As each major studio always has from 4 to 18 different movies in production, four or five regular still men are kept constantly busy and, as a result, the seniority system of employment prevails. As soon as the seniors have all been assigned, new men are called in for additional productions then starting. They may be given their calls to begin work the next morning and they are seldom advised when they will be taken off the payroll. As a result, when not working, still men must remain within ear shot of the telephone in order not to miss a call.
On the other hand, independent studios such as Samuel Goldwyn, Walter Wanger, Sol Lesser, etc., hire one still man to cover each production. It us up to him to organize his time so that all portraits and publicity stills can be made without sacrificing the regular production stills of scenes. He takes over from start to finish. He is given a script of the picture and he takes a decided interest in working out a program for himself so that, at he end, he can feel with pride that his production was completely covered from every point of view.
The still man, as well as being an expert technician, a speed artist, and advertising man and active member of a movie crew, must a promoter and a diplomat. Although the publicity department is his nominal boss, he is rarely given actual assignments, and unless he has initiative and is quick to see picture possibilities as they arise, he does not last. He functions most of the time on his own. When he is given specific assignments, they are often so far-fetched that director and stars will flatly refuse to pose. The news photographer can snatch his picture and run, but the still man is an integral part of the movie company; he must face them every morning for the length of the picture, and continue to command their cooperation. He must therefore use his own judgment and diplomacy in striking a balance between the publicity department's schemes and the company's good will.
In his relationship with the movie company, time is the still man's most potent adversary, for time literally means money. The tremendous cost of a movie production, which averages from $6000 to $10,000 daily, places all concerned under terrific pressure and tension. This is understandable but often makes the still man's job doubly difficult, for the company frequently begrudges him even the minute or two necessary to get his still--in spite of the fact that the entire company from the director down realizes that his job is not only important to them and their movie, but essential.
The good still man is hired for his point of view and for his capacity to act without being told. This does not apply in the same degree in certain studios where the policy is to hire three separate men to fulfill the still man's three functions. In this case there is a portrait photographer, a publicity still man, and a third photographer attached to the movie company for production stills alone. Then the production man's job is fairly simple and routine, consisting only of handling an 8 x 10 camera for shots of movie scenes. Moreover his daily output of such stills if often arbitrarily limited because of specialization.
The essential difference between the still man and other photographers is that the still man is an integral part of the motion picture industry; he must kow its problems and limitations and understand his own place in it. Unlike the commercial photographer who can take his time properly lighting and arranging a set-up, the still man has at most one or two minutes before he must hurry back into obscurity of the sound stage's bedlam. Therefore, before adjusting the legs of his tripod he must have a complete plan in mind for lighting, angle, exposure, distance, pose, mood.
The major studios have their own processing labs. At the end of the day the still man turns in his exposed film to the lab and there his responsibility ends. Should his exposures not conform to the lab's time and temperature method of developing, he is advised the following day to make the necessary adjustments. Because of the quantity of exposed film processed every night--from 300 to 1000 8 x 0's and 4 x 5's--little individual considerations can be expected. On the other hand United Artist's Studio, which is made up of independent producers and which has its own small lab, seldom handles more than two productions at once. Independent producers either contract with this lab for their processing, or with some small outside lab. In either case, the still man has much greater supervision over his work. For instance, if he knows ahead that certain films have been under- or over-exposed, he may so earmark them for the lab's benefit, and thus possibly be saved the embarrassment of a long explanation.