Show Us Your Shot: The Importance of On-Set Stills and BTS Video

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As filmmakers, we’ve all heard that it is important to get BTS video and on-set shots. On my last shoot, I handed a digital camera to a PA and said, “Take behind-the-scenes-stills.” This did not work out well, because I ended up with about 900 stills, of which 97% were useless. It wasn’t the PA’s fault—after all, this is a highly developed craft, and he had no idea what to photograph. I also had no idea what to tell him, so between his making coffee runs, picking up and dropping off actors, and driving the cube truck, he did his best.

I know this coverage of a shoot is important, even if I am not entirely sure why. So, I’ve set out to answer this question by interviewing a few people in the film business. In this installment, I relate some of the conversation I had with Chuck France, in between shoots. France is an 18-year veteran of the industry, having worked as an on-set still photographer and currently as a DP.

Steven Gladstone: So, I understand that you are a working DP, but you also shoot BTS (Behind the Scenes) projects, and before that you were an on-set photographer for how many years?

Chuck France: Before coming back into film production, I worked as a full-time still photographer and have done set stills on many projects. I still occasionally take some still photo jobs (always good to keep sharp) so, all in all, stills/set stills for 15 years. I came from a photojournalism background, where I shot for The Associated Press and The Kansas City Star. So, my training in those situations, I believe, helped with me being on a set where you must be present in the moment at all times.

SG: Can you tell us something about being a set photographer?

CF: Being a set still photographer requires a different skill set (from DP). It requires you to not only technically know your camera/gear but also to understand how a film/TV set works. You must be able to think fast on your feet but also navigate a set and know when it’s OK to shoot. More importantly, where you should be located, not only for your shot, but to be out of the way of the cast and crew. It’s a dance and everyone involved needs to know how to do so. Being silent and stealthy is needed on set, not just to make sure talent is not bothered with, but also to make sure a crew doesn’t have to worry about the stills person tripping over the set.

SG: What it is like, what are you looking for in the pictures you take?

CF: You’re always looking for the moment to capture, the light to shoot with. Since a set is already lit, you have to be able to work in the conditions that are set by the Director of Photography and his/her Gaffer. If you’re shooting set stills, then you’re looking to provide the production with stills that are needed to showcase the story they are telling. You should always know, if possible, what the story is, who are the principles, and what the piece is wanting to tell. If you’re doing BTS work, then you’re interested in documenting the process of the shoot and all the people involved in the shoot. BTS shooting is much different to set stills.

SG: What are the photos are used for?

CF: The photos are used for a variety of purposes but, mainly, for marketing of the product. Whether your work is used for a poster or marketing stills to help package the film or for social media… you’re there to provide marketing support for the film/piece. If you’re BTS, then it’s basically the same. Sometimes social media posting, sometimes traditional marketing. But in that case, you’re also just documenting the process of the piece being shot.

SG: Could you boil down what you are trying to capture when shooting on-set stills?

CF: I’m trying to capture the moment on a scene, capturing the emotion the actor/actresses are giving at the time. You must be invested in the performance and you must pay attention as if you’re an audience member. It’s much like shooting a live performance, say, like a dance or a music concert. There are defining moments, split seconds where an artist will give you a pause or a facial expression and you need to be in sync with them to get that moment. I’ve seen many photographers over my career that just “rapid fire” and then they’ll go through later and sift endlessly through the files for a shot. It just doesn’t seem genuine to not to be in moment with your subject. I think tech people can argue very well about extracting a still from a huge whatever-K file to get a still, but there is a human factor to photography and capturing moments. I don’t think anyone can explain the connection you have in the moment with whatever you’re shooting at the time. So, I guess I would say if I’m shooting people on set, then I’m looking to capture the most true moment of their performance and the most (true) version of who they are, who they are portraying at the time.

SG: What kind of gear did you use when shooting on-set stills?

CF: I’m primarily using a mirrorless digital camera, one that can be used silently and provide the client with high-resolution files. I almost always shoot in RAW + JPG. Many times, a client will want only jpg, but I always feel it’s good to have the RAW files, as well… so bring a lot of cards! Years ago, before we had mirrorless cameras, the only choice was a DSLR or before that, a film camera. Those days, both DSLR and film required a Sound Blimp to silence the camera but, with the marching on of technology, you can get a mirrorless camera to be silent via an electronic shutter. The only drawback could be if you have fast-moving subjects or things, then a traditional shutter is needed. Then, of course, if you’re in a situation that requires silent shooting, you have to bring a DSLR and blimp to the job. Some folks also bring true rangefinders to the job, as well. It all depends what kind of shoot you are working on and what the requirements are. Right tool for the job.

SG: BTS video—what are the biggest challenges when shooting?

CF: Sound, sound, sound. Hands down, getting good sound while you’re rolling is always a challenge. Almost always it’s just you shooting and doing sound.

SG: Are you given specific instructions about what to capture, or are you allowed to “wing it” when shooting BTS?

CF: It’s almost always just “wing it” when I’ve shot video. You may be given a brief, “Hey it would be cool if you captured this” but, almost always, it’s “run and gun.”

SG: Can you explain what makes for capturing good BTS footage?

CF: I think, when shooting video, it’s the same process as stills. You want to get moments of all the things involved in the production. All those moments in front of the camera when it rolls apply to shooting BTS footage. You’re looking to show how much effort goes into a production, how professional folks are on the production, and how everyone is coming together as a one big team to get a very difficult task done in sometimes challenging shooting situations. Of course, you need to know your gear inside and out and make sure simple things are done correctly, like white balance, file type, frame rates, and FOCUS.

SG: What kind of gear do you generally have for shooting BTS footage?

CF: It’s usually a mirrorless camera rigged out for handheld work that I can quickly put on a tripod, if needed. In this case, autofocus is your friend, so if your camera can do good video autofocus I would suggest going with that. You’re you own focus puller, so anything to help that is a good thing. I have a nice collection of fast lenses—you never know how fast you need the glass to be, due to lighting conditions. Usually a couple of fast primes and good fast zooms. A good on-board mic and a wireless lav kit, just in case a quick and dirty interview is needed. I also carry a small field audio recorder, as well. Beyond that, if I can, I have a small foldable bi-color (2 x 2) LED light that I can put on a stand and run on batteries in case a quick interview is needed somewhere off the set. A small handheld gimbal is an asset, as well.

I hope this helps you refine your philosophy for capturing one of the all-too-often-overlooked components of filmmaking. If you have your own experiences with, or want to share your goals when, shooting on-set stills and BTS video, please feel free to comment below.

For more information on the Show Us Your Shot series, click for Guidelines and Frequently Asked Questions. You may also view related articles here.

About Chuck France

Chuck France has worked as a still photographer and set still photographer for a variety of new services, including The Associated Press, Getty Images, and The Kansas City Star, as well as films and television shows. He currently works as Cinematographer, occasional set still photographer, and camera operator.

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