Stills photographer Mark Rogers on “the best and the worst job on set”
‘Lion’. (Photo: Mark Rogers)
Mark Rogers shoots film and television stills and key art in Australia and internationally. Here he shines some light on what he calls the best and the worst job on set, and outlines how lower budget films can maximise resources to ensure the best quality images.
The key challenge for a stills photographer is to shoot iconic images that capture the essence and emotion of a film. Other than the trailer, this is the only way the film can be marketed and communicated to audiences. These images are the first impression the public will have of a movie, and a hero still or poster can often be the most lasting image associated with it over time.
I work in Australia on local film and television productions and internationally on studio movies. My work is both on set, taking stills as the film is being made, as well as in the (often makeshift) photographic studio, shooting key art and gallery for posters and marketing campaigns.
A lot of still photographers come from photojournalism, as a key skill of a stills photographer is to observe and tell stories within images. My background is a little different. I shot live performance, fashion, advertising and editorial for five years in Barcelona before returning to Australia and following my passion for cinema. This experience with studio lighting is why I’m often asked to shoot the key art and gallery for posters and marketing campaigns. It’s a luxury having time to light and direct the actors without the pressures of a film set.
‘The Invisible Man’. (Photo: Mark Rogers)
The stills photographer has the best job and the worst job on set. It’s great to be on the front line as actors lay it on the line, in carefully sourced locations, beautifully dressed and lit. You’re there to take shots that embody the story and characters, particularly in the key moments of interaction and drama. The ultimate challenge is to snag a shot that represents the central idea of a film in a single frame. What could possibly get in the way?
Filmmaking is a crazy puzzle of moving human and mechanical parts, in which worlds are created, played out and repeated with artistry, care and precision. All crew are conscious of space on set and aware of everyone else’s needs. Though it’s an amazing model of cooperation, it’s not easy framing a strong shot when time and space are so limited. You can be competing with up to four cameras, dolly grips, an electrician holding a poly board, stand by props and boom swingers, all the while keeping out of the way of the AC’s pulling focus and, of course, the actors’ eyelines.
If you find a great spot which is too good to be true, it probably will be. It’s inevitable that an electrician will move in front of you with another light or an SFX operator will move in to add smoke or fire.
While I love the freedom and spontaneity that is part of my work, I’m conscious that I’m the only person on set who’s not actually helping the film get made. Relationships built over years and many films have made this delicate dance possible. You have to be like a ninja and be respectful of everyone’s needs. The job is not suited to all kinds of photographers. There’s no place for ego but you need enough presence to get the shots you need.
‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’. (Photo: Mark Rogers)
Sometimes the only way to capture that all-important hero image is through a ‘set up’. I request one rarely and only when it could be an iconic shot: an image that may represent the movie forever – the poster, a master still or a billboard. Film shooting schedules are always tight, so it’s tricky to ask the 1st AD to halt filming and give me the set and the actors. When I do they need to know that I’ll take control, clearly direct the actors which part of the scene to play and, most importantly, get it done fast. Usually 20-30 seconds is enough if you’ve lined up help before your window of opportunity slams shut: electrics to bring in a poly board, the grips a ladder and have checked that standby makeup and costume are satisfied. I’m grateful for the camaraderie of filmmaking and the friendships built up over years.
Ridley Scott and Katherine Waterston the set of ‘Alien: Covenant’. (Photo: Mark Rogers)
Australian films and US movies
Working on American movies shot in Australia can be a stepping-stone to working internationally. I established working relationships with Warner Bros on Mortal Kombat and Lego Ninjago, Sony Pictures on both Peter Rabbit films and Universal Pictures/Blumhouse on The Invisible Man, all of which were shot here. After working with Lionsgate on Hacksaw Ridge (shot in Sydney), it sent me to the UK and Bulgaria on Hellboy and Morocco for John Wick 3: Parabellum. High profile films like Alien Covenant and Lion shot in Australia, New Zealand and India, have led to other international offers. HBO sounded me out for Tokyo Vice before COVID hit in Japan. Independent US Producer Lucas Foster found a way to push ahead with Children of the Corn during the COVID shutdown, so I’ve been busy on that.
As much as I love working internationally, some of the most satisfying projects in my career have been local Australian productions. Since working on Beneath Clouds in 2002, I’ve felt privileged to work in the burgeoning Indigenous film culture: Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, and Sweet Country; television series such as Redfern Now with directors Rachel Perkins, Catriona McKenzie, Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell, and documentaries for Blackfella Films – to name a few. I’m just taking pictures, but feel satisfaction that these stories contribute to our historical and contemporary understanding of who we are as Australians. Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is another. Also, the humour and comradeship on these movies is precious.
‘Sweet Country’. (Photo: Mark Rogers)
Documentary and factual
Occasionally I work on stand-alone documentaries and television factual projects. It’s fascinating following subjects and stories in the real world. This may involve travelling with a skeleton crew – director, camera, sound and sometimes a presenter, or on a major series with a big crew, when a key art shoot will also be scheduled. It could mean flying around Australia for projects as diverse as First Contact or American Chopper; riding in a police car with Sarah Ferguson to film domestic disputes on Hitting Home or visiting a hospice with terminal patients on Living the End or a psychiatric hospital for Changing Minds; cruising the Darwin waterways on National Geographic’s The Croc Catchers or four weeks at 6,400 metres on Mt Everest for Discovery Channel’s ‘Everest: Beyond the Limit’.
Small documentaries also need to budget and schedule for a stills photographer. It’s too late once filming is completed, as it’s not possible to get high enough resolution screenshots from the digital master for print purposes. Even just a day to get some key images and shots of the director and crew in situ is invaluable. For feature documentaries and television alike, key stills help garner much needed publicity, as will a well-planned conceptual poster shoot.
It’s useful to attend the cast read through, which helps immerse yourself in the project and the script. It’s also an opportunity to meet the actors before production begins.
A meeting in pre-production with the producer, publicist, poster designer, photographer and distributor, if available, to plan a campaign, talk ideas and clarify workflow requirements is recommended. This helps the publicist and production work photography into the schedule and can prevent great frustration later when the set of shots for the campaign are selected. Without planning and with an inexperienced film photographer, producers, publicists and the creative agencies can be wading through thousands of photos that will never be used, looking for something which isn’t there.
It’s not easy to get great stills with the pressures of time and limited space on set, so you need the best equipment to do the job. The improved functionality on each new camera and lens are hard to resist if you want to maximise your chances of getting great stills.
There has been a big shift in equipment and the post-production process since the advent of digital cameras. Analogue camera equipment used to last many years, with lenses being the main investment. With digital cameras, constant upgrading is required. Each new model captures cleaner shots in low light and more frames per second for capturing action. The Sony mirrorless cameras with silent shutters diminish my physical presence, meaning I’m less likely to distract actors than using a blimp – a huge cumbersome soundproof box over a camera from the past. The cameras I use now are small, light and the flip screens allow me to literally shoot around corners when I need to.
It has taken a while for local producers to understand that kit hire needs to be added to photographers’ fees, due to the significant value of these tools of trade. I take $15,000-20,000 worth of digital equipment – cameras, lenses, laptop, drives and associated hardware – to set. Kit hire wasn’t always a budget line in this country, which is partly why few photographers can afford to do the job. The American studios pay US$300 a day for kit hire, which is akin to the commercial value if it was rented, and nearly double what is paid here. I subsidise my film work with advertising work, and US movies have helped justify the investment in equipment. I’m also fortunate that Sony give me a good discount on gear.
The other big change from in the shift film to digital is post-production. I used to shoot about eight to 10 rolls of film a day, drop them to the lab on my way home and the job was done. Now I do all the processing myself, sometimes with the help of an assistant. I shoot hundreds of photos per day on a standard film shoot. Over a thousand when there’s action. When the budget allows, I have an assistant cull before I see the shots. I still regularly spend two to three hours a day further editing, preliminary grading, cropping and comping before uploading. This can be a punishing workload after long hours on set.
A big difference I see between US studio movies and local productions is the priority given to marketing. Studio films expect to make a profit and are prepared to pay for a strong advertising campaign to sell their product. Box office is everything, so they value photography and pay realistic rates for stills and full advertising rates for gallery shoots with enough time allocated to get plenty of options. When offered full-time employment for three or four months it’s hard to resist.
Local projects understandably often have a cultural remit over profit, and so budgets are usually very tight. When producers have barely got enough money to make the film, publicity and marketing is often an afterthought. I sometimes get booked a week before production starts and it may be for just two days a week, or a block of a week or two here and there if it’s outside Sydney.
Despite tight budgets, I do think that the resources allocated would be more effective if photographers and designers were brought in earlier to conceptualise ideas to create a strong campaign. The best posters result from designers getting involved before shooting begins so opportunities and locations are maximised and a studio shoot, with quality lighting and high-resolution files for suitable outdoor advertising, is fitted into the schedule.
With a stronger focus on the promotional campaign, our local films would stand a better chance of competing against US films for audiences. We all want this. Every crew member wants the projects they work on to be successful and our culture be reflected on our screens. I’ve remained dedicated to this industry as a photographer because I love storytelling, cinema and people.
For the productions Mark’s photographed see:
Mark is planning a Film Stills Photography workshop in September.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org P: 0415 192 391
This article was originally published in IF Magazine #195 June-July 2020. Subscribe here.