Bill Pierce's
Nuts & Bolts 
"Shooting the Stage"

A lot of photographers are never going to work a Hollywood movie or a Broadway play. 

(1)  They don't live in Los Angeles or New York. 

(2)  Everybody with a camera, which is very different from someone with the ability to work well on a set or stage, wants to photograph the stars.  No one quickly passes through selection process that ranges from union and guild requirements to highly suspicious producers. 

Now for the good news. 

(1)  Non union films on location, regional theater and summer stock may offer a broader scope of photographic possibilities than the "big time" with its more established procedures. 

(2)  Photographing good theater anywhere, anytime, any place is a blast. You never look better than when a bunch of professionals make sure you have a dramatic subject. 

First things first.  When you work in a theatrical situation, you are part of a team, a team whose members are under a lot of pressure to do their jobs well.  This is not one of those quick-strike, up-against-the-deadline news shoots where the most effective way of working is to kill anyone who stands between you and the subject.  Everybody is going to work together for a long time.  Try to start working with the team as early in the game as possible.  A story:  I was working at a rehearsal.  A very difficult and intimate love scene was being played out  on the couch by the leads. Also on this rather crowded couch was the stage manager, but this didn't present any problem.  The back door opened and a stranger walked in, probably a hundred feet from the stage.  The actors froze.  It's not the distance.  It's whether you're part of the team or not. 

When one thinks of film stills and stage photos, the initial picture that comes to mind is the image of the dramatic action that is used as publicity in the print media and posters.  There are a number of ways these pictures are done. 

In film you can shoot during rehearsal or actual takes.  If you are shooting during a take you are going to have to use a camera quiet enough to not be heard on the sound track.  Traditionally this is done by placing the camera in a sound blimp.  These units aren't cheap, and you may not want to invest in one if your movie career is somewhat sporadic.  They can be rented.  The most popular blimps are the Jacobson units which, for the most part, are made for motorized 35 mm SLR's. 

There are several other ways to get around the sound problem.  Sometimes the director will help out by signaling you when the scene is done, but not calling cut until he hears the sound of your shutter.  This often results in images of very confused actors. 

Sometimes you can shoot with a very quiet camera like a Leica or an old twin-lens Rollei.  The sound man can run a check when there is no action. If the camera doesn't bother him then, it's not going to bother him during the action. 

I prefer to work doing rehearsals where there are no sound-specific problems.  I even like to work in breaks between scenes.  Shoot tight enough and a conversation about night baseball between two actors can be passed off as a film still of their characters discussing how to steal an atomic bomb.  Once again, you can do this if you are part of the team.  If not, you are going to get a paper coffee cup and a half eaten donut thrown at you. 

With a stage production, you are going to have a long period of rehearsal away from the stage and several technical and dress rehearsals on the stage where you can shoot without a paying audience that you could disturb. 

While you can shoot tech and dress rehearsals from the audience, time is also set aside exclusively for the photographer to work on stage and up close - a "picture call."  When you move from fifth row center to 3 1/2 feet from someone's face, resist the temptation to tell them how to act. In return, they will not tell you how to take pictures.  When they reach the end of the scene, the speech, whatever, they can automatically start again until you yell, "I've got it."  And, once again, they can talk about night baseball or ad lib if they want,  because what they look like is more important that what they say. 

If the play is heavy with costumes and an elaborate set, you probably won't see these until the night of tech-dress.  Nonetheless, you may need newspaper and poster pictures before you can deliver them from the dress rehearsals.  Thus , the studio shoot.  By working tight in a situation you can control, by getting actors much, much closer together than they are with the stage blocking, you can practically eliminate the background and the need for a set.  You can also get by hats, shirts, jackets, blouses and an occasional focusing cloth cape instead of the full costumes. 

The studio shoot can also produce the simple, bold images that are needed for the poster and other advertising.  More and more, movie makers are turning to computer manipulation to arrange visual elements pulled from a variety of sources to go into the poster.  This is not always true.  But if you know that is going to be the case, you may be able to make putting together the poster a little easier if you shoot studio shots against a white background or take care of any other special needs.  Ask. 

The stage answer to producing the graphic simplicity that you need for a poster or a small newspaper ad, especially in low budget summer stock, is often to eliminate photographs.  To prevent this, I've kodalithed, posterized and, now, computer manipulated images to make them hold up no matter how small they were used and how badly they were reproduced.  In other words, I've used a real cheap and very limited version of the techniques that movie makers use.  The advantage to making tonally-limited images that are almost impossible to ruin in reproduction, is the cheapest source of big poster-sized prints, be it the local one hour lab or the copy house that normally works with type, can do a presentable job. 

Now that you've fulfilled you basic professional responsibilities for a film or stage production, what else can you do?  You can hang shots in the lobby of a theater.  They can become the mood setter, the non-musical overture for a dramatic play, the pictures that take your mind away from what you have been doing all day and begin to focus it on what it will see in the next few hours.  If you are in London, go to the National Theater. No theater I know of uses photographs more effectively within the theater itself. 

Obviously, there are sets and costumes to be documented.  There are portraits of the actors in character.  And, of course, there will be many requests for the ever-popular "head shot."  Remember, an actor's head shot is their business card.  Do it well. 

Perhaps the most fascinating thing you can do will, hopefully, already be done.  That is to document, preserve and tell the story of the work process, what it takes to put together a film or a play.  "The Making of Blah-Blah;  Behind The Scenes!!!"  can probably be peddled and sell a few extra tickets.  But that's not the point.  There are a lot of disparate, diverse people working together to produce what finally appears on a screen or stage.  And a little gestalt goes a long way.  That  community is what draws people to work in the theater.  And the magic it produces is what draws you to the movie house or the stage. 

One last personal pitch.  A film is its own archive.  Once a stage production closes, there is no archive unless you have done your job. Make some prints.  Wash them well.  Pass them on to the right people. 

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