Still from Tim Walker’s The Lost Explorer. Image © Tim Walker, shot by Francesca Foley.
When switching from still to moving images, photographers find themselves faced with several new challenges. Six photographers share their insights into the world of filmmaking.
Convergence between moving and stills images is a hot topic right now, with HDSLRs, the internet, smartphones and tablets making it easier than ever to record and distribute film. But the barrier between the two has always been porous, and photographers have used everything from 35mm film stock and HD video cameras as well as the new wave of cameras to make movies. The real challenge is learning how to pace, structure and finance a narrative film.
“When you’re working in stills you see all this beauty you can never work with,” says Tim Walker. “Stills are powerful because they freeze the moment, but film is powerful in another way. People can move and speak and express themselves.” Walker is a successful photographer, regularly commissioned by British, Italian and American Vogue and given a solo show at the Design Museum in 2008, but he has realised a long-held ambition by shooting his first film. The Lost Explorer is a 20-minute short based on a story in Patrick McGrath’s 1989 collection, Blood and Water and Other Tales, which features an adolescent who finds a dying explorer in her back garden.
The old man clutches his revolver and tells the girl a tall tale, which is brought to life in the film. Including elaborate sets, a first-time actress and a flock of nearly 300 canaries, the project would have been a big one for any filmmaker, let alone a first‑timer, and Walker has gained a new-found admiration for movie directors by doing it. “As a photographer you can be almost flirtatious, dipping into subjects that interest you and doing a shoot in three days,” he says. “Making a film is a serious, long-term project. If you’re filming a feature you might be shooting for two years; even for a short it’s up to two months, and the editing will take longer. It’s a huge commitment and very stressful, but it’s also addictive.”
Still from Tim Walker’s The Lost Explorer. Image © Tim Walker, shot by Francesca Foley.
He started his project by learning about filmmaking at Westminster College, one day a week for six months. He then spent another year fundraising and working on the script, raising half the £100,000 required from British fashion house Mulberry and employing Kit Hesketh-Harvey, an independent scriptwriter, and Eleanor Moran, from the BBC script development team, to help with the screenplay. Initially he couldn’t believe how long the writing took, but later he understood how important it was. “Photography is visually led but in films the story comes first,” he says. “It’s what leads you through the hour-and-a-half. Next most important are the characters and only after that, the visuals. Ideally you have the perfect marriage of all three, but when I think about the films I most admire, the stories and the characters are the most important thing.”
He still paid close attention to the visuals, though, creating a storyboard and employing a cinematographer. He met with several candidates before settling on Rob Ryan, the talent behind the award-winning feature Fish Tank. The Lost Explorer was shot on 35mm, which perhaps made the filming harder but, says Walker, was absolutely worth it. Walker’s long-term collaborator Shona Heath made the sets and props, and the pair checked the locations for the film together. The shooting took eight days, with a cast of six and a crew of more than 40, then Walker worked with a film editor, Valerio Bonelli, for another four months. In total the project took two years, not including Walker’s time at film school, and he had to keep doing fashion shoots throughout.
The film debuted at the Festival del Film Locarno in Switzerland in August 2010, and will stay in the festivals until August this year, when it will be released as a DVD. Mulberry has also staged screenings of the film, using it as the springboard for an attention-grabbing party that helped justify its investment. “For the financing I approached the people I know in the fashion world, but so many of them would only fund it if we used their clothes,” says Walker. “Mulberry was one of the few willing to see it as a more holistic project.”
Walker has created a book on the project with German publisher teNeues, which is to be released in May and it will also be available in a deluxe version that will include the DVD and limited-edition prints. Walker had a camera with him while they were shooting but, he laughs, didn’t take a single shot throughout. “I was just too busy. I was also thinking in terms of moving images, and it’s a very different mindset,” he says. “I’ll always shoot stills… but I’d love to make more films too. Next time I’d like to make a full-length feature, so I’m thinking very carefully about what I do. Every time I have an idea I ask myself, am I prepared to devote my life to it? Because that’s what it takes – total dedication. Making The Lost Explorer was a privilege, but I’m now completely in awe of any director who’s made a great film.”
Sam Taylor-Wood has been working on moving and still images for years, from her 2004 single-take film of David Beckham sleeping to her series of self-portrait photographs, seemingly frozen in action (such as Bram Stoker’s Chair VII, 2005 ). So when she took her first step into feature films in 2008, directing the biopic of John Lennon, Nowhere Boy, she was technically confident she could do it. “Making a feature film didn’t feel too far out of reach,” she says. “[Director of photography] Seamus McGarvey and I have worked together for 12 years.”
A still from Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Nowhere Boy. Image © Sam Taylor-Wood.
Taylor-Wood always shoots on film, not video, and was keen to do so again this time – video footage looks like TV, she says, and makes everyone’s work seem the same. But while she and McGarvey hired in kit familiar from previous projects, the shoot was bigger than anything she’d done, and she had to get used to the sheer size of the crew. “As director, people are continually asking you what’s happening next,” she laughs, “and unlike working solo, you can’t just get your head down and get on with it. We only had nine weeks to shoot, but we could only work five days a week because people had to have their weekends off. That was hard, I’m very used to just turning things around but. It’s a very different process because it’s so much more collaborative.”
The tight timeframe meant Taylor-Wood had to film at least twice as quickly as normal, so the shoot had to be well organised from the start. She was also conscious it was the first time she had shot a narrative, so she spent six months working on the script prior to filming with screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, before it was storyboarded by Jonny Meakin.
“The existing script was already very good but I had to feel confident I could do it, and that I could put my stamp on it,” she says. “Aesthetics are as integral to good filmmaking as narrative and character, and I have a very particular way of filming things because I’ve spent years looking into the lens. But you have to not be self-indulgent. While you’re lingering on a single beautiful image, the audience will be wondering what’s next.”
The film was already fully funded when Taylor-Wood was invited to join it, which meant she didn’t have to work out the finances, but also meant she inherited many expectations about how it would turn out. Film4, the UK Film Council, the distributor and the other associated companies each had their own vision, she says, few of which coincided with each other and most of which differed from her own. She had to negotiate a delicate path, staying true to herself but remaining responsible throughout. “It was very different, because I’m used to dictating how things will be seen, but you have to be realistic,” she says.
Sam Taylor-Wood’s artworks often play with the boundary between stills and motion. This photograph is entitled Bram’s Stoker’s Chair II, 2005. Image © Sam Taylor-Wood.
“I’d love to make films like Tarkovsky [using long, slow takes] but in the current environment, you’d never get it funded in a million years. I watched Antonioni’s The Passenger recently and, while it’s fantastic, I was thinking ‘The script must be maximum 20 pages long’. There was one scene [in Nowhere Boy], when Lennon learns to play the guitar. Julia [his mother] and John are on opposite sides of the room at normal speed, her daughters are shot in time-lapse in the middle of the room, then the camera zooms in on John. Much of my work has looked at the passing of time and movement, so I was happy to be able to do it.”
Editing the film was the biggest challenge, because while directing the actors and working with the cameras and lighting felt reasonably familiar, Taylor-Wood had spent little time in the editing room prior to Nowhere Boy. She was dependent on the experience and skills of her film editor-in-chief, Lisa Gunning, she says, and the editing took about three months. In total Taylor‑Wood spent two years on the film, which was a critical success on its release in 2010, and earned a Bafta nomination. While still a committed photographer, Taylor-Wood would love to direct something else.
“I just finished shooting some new stills, and it was very nice to take some time to do that quietly, at my own pace,” she says. “But now that I’ve done it I’m keen to gear up again at full pace. The problem is finding the right script. I’m impatient to get started, but it has to be right because it’s two years of your life.”
CJ Clarke isn’t convinced that shooting films on HDSLRs comes with a predefined style. “I’m not really sure it’s a direct replication of 35mm photography on film,” he says. “Maybe what makes it different is the conceptual approach photographers bring to the subject, not the ability to shoot like they would a still photograph. It’s that thinking process – breaking something down and understanding, if it were a traditional photo shoot, how you would create a picture. You have to understand what you’re putting yourself into. At the end of the day, the form has to fit the story. You have to conceptualise it in that way, instead of applying just some predefined style or a blanket way of working that doesn’t necessarily fit with the story you are trying to convey.”
Still from CJ Clarke’s film, Mother and Daughter, which won BJP’s inaugural Open Shutter Awards. Image © CJ Clarke.
Clarke directed his first movie in 2010, six years after starting his career in photography. Mother and Daughter, which won BJP’s inaugural Open Shutter Awards, run in association with Canon, is part of a campaign for charity School-Home Support. Before making it Clarke had dabbled in movie making, producing a few “interview pieces and corporate-style videos”, and had always wanted to become a film director. It proved unreachable because of his lack of access to affordable multimedia technology – until now.
Mother and Daughter was the fruit of Clarke’s desire to produce something different, using his documentary background to tell a story on his own terms. “You could very much create a physical location and approach it in a way similar to a documentary shoot – or at least conceptualise it on that basis,” he says. “And then place the actors in that location and play with them.”
Clarke read lots of case studies on young people involved with School-Home Support before coming up with his narrative. “I was trying to have an in-depth understanding of what these people do and then create an amalgam of all this research into one story,” he says. “We didn’t want to make it too specific or about a particular issue, because the issues these people face are so varied. The idea was to create a situation that hinted at these various issues. In the end, you have to try to keep it simple and let the story come through. That’s what engages people.”
Mother and Daughter tells the story of a young girl whose studies are affected by her mother’s depression. The two-minute film is part of an online multimedia campaign, on the charity’s website, in which visitors can enter three rooms in the protagonists’ flat and watch three different versions of Clarke’s film. Each offers “different angles to the story to fit the different audiences”, which offers “multiple entry points depending on whether the viewer knows the charity or not”, says the photographer.
The film uses multiple fixed shots, or ‘moving stills’, evoking both the documentary photographer’s still work and the claustrophobic situation in which the mother and daughter find themselves. Dominique Green, one of the judges of the Open Shutter Awards, observed it was clear that a photographer had made the film, adding that: “It takes a step towards a new visual language that marries photography and film.” Clarke says it wasn’t a deliberate choice, but concedes his stills practice probably affected his approach.
“Having that background in photography, you do a lot of things without consciously realising you’re doing them,” he says. “In this case, because we created a single location, we weren’t going to deviate from that. That very conscious decision imposes that you are going to have a product that is very still.”
Still from CJ Clarke’s film, Mother and Daughter, which won BJP’s inaugural Open Shutter Awards. Image © CJ Clarke.
In fact, he adds, with HDSLRs, “you can get too carried away with moving your camera around and trying to create some kind of dynamic action that is not needed in the context of a particular story”. It’s tempting on two levels, he says, first because HDSLRs are so small compared to other video cameras, and second because, as a photographer, you’re so used to moving your camera around. “Your first instinct is to grab it in the same way for video, but it’s not really the best way to utilise it,” he says.
Clarke, who is a picture editor for Save The Children, continues to shoot video – in fact, he tells BJP, it’s been months since he last shot a still. He’s come full circle, having first chosen photography because he couldn’t be a filmmaker.
“I guess the closest I could get to it was with a still camera,” he says. “I got sidetracked into doing photojournalism, but it was always in the back of my head; there was always a plan to get back to shooting video. Now that I look back and think about it, I was probably more influenced by movies than photography, so my photography was more about stills from movies that I hadn’t shot.”
2010 was a good year for UK photographer Zed Nelson. Love Me, his photographic investigation of global perceptions of beauty, was long-listed for the Deutsche Borse photography prize, and Shelter in Place, his first film, was short-listed for the Grierson Best Newcomer Award. Both projects took five years to complete.
Shelter in Place is a long, hard look at the Texas petrochemical industry, and the lax regulation that allows it to pollute the local land and population. It started life as a photographic story that Nelson successfully pitched to The Observer, but he found he couldn’t get it out of his mind and ended up shooting a feature-length film. “Some stories just demand a certain kind of vehicle,” he says. “The petrochemical industry had been polluting on a grand scale for years without proper environmental laws or regulation, all in the name of profit. That demanded a complex description of what had happened, and that the audience sit and commit themselves for a period of time to be told an in‑depth story.”
Image from a photographic project on life near the petrochemical industry in Texas, which prompted Zed Nelson to make his first feature-length film. Image © Zed Nelson.
Nelson started shooting in 2004, long before the advent of HDSLRs, but says the documentary is still a product of digital film-making. He used a Panasonic DVX100 video camera, which shoots broadcast-quality images and (at that time) cost just £2500, putting broadcast-standard cameras into a whole new set of hands. Nelson quickly picked up how to use the kit, but realised he still had much to learn about film-making and ended up hiring a producer and a sound recordist.
“It’s easier to get away with a low-quality image than low quality sound, but so easy to fuck up the sound,” he says. “It’s very easy to lose important dialogue, or have a car door slamming in the middle of your recording. On one of the trips I was on my own and, while I could handle everything myself, it was so much more pleasant with a sound person. My producer was Hannah Patterson, and she helped raise funds and organised the three trips, but was also very creatively involved. I think it’s more important to have someone to discuss things with [than when you’re shooting stills] because it’s very involving and demanding, and things are changing around you all the time.”
Nelson says his photographic sense of composition helped him frame the film, but he had to learn how to handle moving images and narrative. When he first started he got carried away with moving around, he says, zooming in and out of scenes and creating panning shots, but when he looked at the footage he realised he didn’t like it. There are still lots of handheld shots in the film, but there’s also lots of static, ‘moving stills’. Editing the footage also made him realise how important it is to link moving image-shots, using connecting scenes to build a sequence. “People have to be seen to arrive or leave, they can’t just appear and disappear on screen,” he says. “People need to sometimes walk in or out of a frame, and if you are going to cut something in the middle of a scene, you need to cut to something that makes sense.
Mr. Alfred Williams, 56, and his wife inside their home, close to the Valero oil refinery plant. Corprus Christi, Texas. Image © Zed Nelson.
“As a photographer composition is extremely important, so the shots are all composed, but that’s not to say that there aren’t moments of movement and action as well,” he adds. “It’s trying to get that balance right. These things seem quite obvious in retrospect but in practice they are the things that trip you up and make the edit very complicated,” he adds. “Editing a complex narrative is really complicated and I got a freelancer involved to do it.”
Nelson and Patterson tried, but failed to get a commission from Channel 4 to make the film, and Nelson ended up funding much of the project himself. Now that it’s finished, he and Patterson have found a distributor, Journeyman Pictures, which is helping them sell the film to TV companies and get it shown in festivals. Of all the things he learned about film making, says Nelson, finding out about the finances – or lack of them – for independent documentaries was probably the most discouraging. “It might have cost £40,000 to physically film and edit it, and we raised about £8000 through crowd funding. The scary thing is that I’ve watched an awful lot of very good documentary films, and the common thread seems to be that they don’t make any money.”
“Technically, it’s more difficult to make moving images,” says photographer and filmmaker Stanislas Guigui. “You’ve got more things to control – camera, sound, dialogue, movement, and if the shot is over- or under-exposed, there’s less latitude to enhance it. Even so, I think it’s harder to shoot stills. With a moving image you can follow the action; with stills, you can’t cheat. It’s about having the concentration, vision and creativity, and you have to catch the right expression, the right angle, the right light and the right moment.”
Honour or money debts, knife duels are a tradition in the Cartucho. This image is from the photographic series Calle del Cartucho, 2002-2009 © Stanislas Guigui.
Guigui is a successful documentary photographer whose images of the Cartucho, a ghetto in the Colombian capital Bogota, have been shown in Le Monde and De Spiegel and exhibited at Visa Pour l’Image, PhotoEspana and the Lianzhou International Photofestival. But although he has been photographing the area since 1996, he’s also been filming it since 2004, and screened a pre-release version of the resulting film at PhotoEspana 2010. The film and the stills complement each other, he says, but stills were not enough alone. “Life in the Cartucho is so surreal it can’t be captured in just photographs,” he says. “It’s too far from what we know. Stills have an emotional impact, but there is so much information you can’t give without captions. I wanted to give the people of the Cartucho the opportunity to express themselves, and show the contrast between their appearances and what they’ve really got inside.”
The Cartucho is home to hundreds of Colombia’s dispossessed, and has existed for more than 60 years. Conscious of the complexity of the place, and wary of the dangers of shooting a film there, Guigui decided he needed to make a feature-length film, partly to capture its intricacies and partly to make it worth risking his life. He started well before the advent of HDSLRs and shot with a Sony FX1 handycam, which is big by today’s standards but was revolutionary at the time because it shoots HD footage. He also took lights to shoot in the Cartucho’s buildings and hiding holes, keeping two hand torches and two 1000W lights with him at all times plus a professional-standard microphone. That meant he needed an assistant but, although he worked with people who’d grown up in the ghetto, he was still in danger throughout.
A child sleeps in the streets in the Cartucho. This image is from the photographic series Calle del Cartucho, 2002-2009 © Stanislas Guigui.
“One of my assistants, a real tough guy, was stabbed in the leg for nothing; I was almost killed by a gang,” he says. “Everyone has good reason not to be filmed – many of them make their money illegally, from drugs, gangs, or prostitution, and most are taking drugs, so there is a lot of paranoia, suspicion and violence. You can’t show drug deals or weapons – I had to throw out so many rushes because something like that was in the frame. But when people accepted me, we had a lot of fun. Most of the gangs and people there know me really well, and understood why I wanted to make the film. I ask a question at the start of it – who are the real thieves, the people or the system? Corruption is rife and the street people are killed by the paramilitaries. I was trying to bring a little justice to them.”
Guigui finished shooting the footage two years ago and has been working on the film since, working with professional editors and technicians to rescue the patchy audio and build a coherent narrative. His first footage was too much like photography, he says, shot in short takes that cut off most of the action. It was only experience that taught him to slow down, observing what was happening and quietly keeping going. “You just have to wait – if there’s something to catch, you’ll catch it,” he says. “With video it isn’t expensive to keep filming. I think that’s the best way to learn, if you’re a photographer who wants to make film.”
Without is Jessica Dimmock’s first feature film, but it’s not her first foray into moving images. Although she’s a critically acclaimed photographer, and a member of the prestigious VII Network, she has also shot a music video for Moby.He approached her after seeing her 2007 photobook, The Ninth Floor, and initially, she was taken aback by the commission.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off so Mark [Jackson, her partner and a film director] and I collaborated on it,” she says. “It opened new channels for the both of us. Because he’s a filmmaker, he’s not quite used to the loose style of shooting the way things appear before you; I wasn’t quite used to working in a more structured environment. So he and I started talking about doing something larger together.”
Without is Jessica Dimmock’s first feature film, but not her first foray into filmmaking. She has worked with Doctors Without Borders over the past two years and has even filmed one of Moby’s latest music videos. Image © Jessica Dimmock.
At first Dimmock wanted to produce a feature-length documentary film but, wary of making mistakes, later settled on a fictional narrative. “Part of the idea of shooting a feature film is that you’re working in a controlled environment,” she says. “It allows you to learn about all the technical and artistic skills that video involves. In a controlled environment you can make mistakes, you can tell your actors: ‘Take two’ or ‘Take 22’.”
More importantly, she adds, shooting a feature film forced her to get it right, and they also got cinematographer Diego Garcia on board to help show her the ropes. “I wanted to acquire a little bit more discipline so that later on, if I end up shooting a documentary, I can afford to make mistakes,” she says. “I don’t want it to be because I didn’t know better.”
Without is set on a remote wooded island off the coast of Seattle. A young woman, Joslyn, is looking after an old man trapped in a wheelchair in a vegetative state, and she has no mobile phone signal and no access to the internet. “Processing a hefty personal grief, Joslyn vacillates between finding solace in the old man’s company and feeling fear and suspicion towards him,” says Dimmock. “As the days wear on, her isolated routine devolves into a struggle with sexuality, guilt and loss.
“I like things that are a little creepy and moody, so the story is kind of dark. The narrative gave the opportunity to go into what I’d call her emotional landscape and to watch, very closely, what it would be like to be her.”
Dimmock used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II to shoot the film, and says its small size and portability helped her achieve a sense of intimacy. It also helped her approach the filmmaking process, as it’s the camera she uses for stills. “I can’t imagine I would have even considered making a film if it wasn’t for the 5D,” says Dimmock. “It’s the same camera I use for my other work, so I felt comfortable with it, and it allows you to make a feature film with the kind of budget that we had.”
A still from Without, Jessica Dimmock’s first feature film. Image © Jessica Dimmock.
Even so, the HDSLR presented challenges. “It hates patterns. In one scene, we were shooting a storefront made from bricks and shingles, and it just created [visual] interferences… And while I love the video quality, I worry about seeing the film on a huge screen. I hadn’t really thought about that until I was in the colour-correcting process. I shoot wide open at f/ 1.8 or f/2 all the time because I love how it looks, but I’m not sure that this kind of shallow depth of field will hold up when you show it on a massive cinema screen.”
Dimmock intends to shoot more moving images, but remains committed to photography, and says she’ll just pick the medium that seems most suited to her subject. She’s currently working on a project about the paparazzi, and says the video footage she’s shot works best. In other cases, she’s still happy to take photographs. “The Ninth Floor would have made a fantastic film project, but I’m really grateful that I didn’t have the kit,” she says.
“If I’d done a film, I doubt I would have spent three years with the people I photographed, and what I loved about working on that project was being able to stick with them for a really long time. I had to tell the story with stills so I had to find these moments where everything came together, and I learned so much from that. Otherwise I would have been shooting video all over the place, and I don’t think I would have had as clear a sense of what that story was about. I wouldn’t have got to that depth.”
Even so, she’s considering going back, this time armed with her HDSLR. In the meantime, Dimmock and her partner are promoting Without across the US and entering the feature into festivals such as Slamdance. “We’re hoping to find a distributor,” she says. “And we’re still looking for a bit of funding, via Kickstarter. That’s all very new to me, but it’s exciting.”© Incisive Media Investments Limited 2010, Published by Incisive Financial Publishing Limited, Haymarket House, 28-29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4RX, are companies registered in England and Wales with company registration numbers 04252091 & 04252093.
An inspiring article with regards to the ability to create a significant film based piece as a photographer, that can stand up amongst people from the motion picture industry who have been creating filmic work for a lot longer and even more inspirational is the fact that Sam Taylor wood directed Nowhere Boy and they only had 9 weeks to create the film. I shall now stop thinking I am hard done by only having 6 weeks to create my maximum 3 minute narrative…
CJ Clarke discusses the “conceptual approach photographers bring to the subject” being what possibly makes filming as a photographer different. This is significant for me as this is the area I have actually struggled with in the creation and conceiving of my time based work with regards to creating a motion based piece.
Zed Nelson discusses how his photographic sense of composition helped him frame the film, and the difficulty he had in bringing together the footage within his narrative. “When he first started he got carried away with moving around, he says, zooming in and out of scenes and creating panning shots, but when he looked at the footage he realised he didn’t like it. There are still lots of handheld shots in the film, but there’s also lots of static, ‘moving stills’. Editing the footage also made him realise how important it is to link moving image-shots, using connecting scenes to build a sequence. “