To the uninitiated, working on a movie set conjures up romantic notions of life in the film industry.
For Winnipeg-based motion picture/television stills photographer, Allen Fraser, those notions don’t exist. What it does conjure up for him is a lot of pride in the images he has captured for the movies he has worked on.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Milla Jovovich, Samuel L. Jackson and Rutger Hauer are just some of the actors he has had the opportunity to photograph.
His 15 years in the industry have centred around Manitoba film productions, travelling as far north to Churchill to ply his trade. But his skillset has also taken him to Saskatchewan and Alberta. Late last year, Fraser travelled to Vancouver to work on a film set.
Whether he is standing in the middle of a canola field or inside a quonset, Fraser is always on the lookout for an image that will be the one to promote and sell the film. In the industry, it’s called key art.
"You never know where you’re going to get THE image, that’s your hero image, that’s going to sell your entire movie," says Fraser. "It could be the most mundane day that you don’t think is worth anything or it could be this great day. You just don’t know where those images will come from."
(The following interview has been edited and condensed for length.)
Q: On a movie, during filming, how do you make your camera silent?
A: What I have is a sound blimp. It’s designed to keep a still camera quiet, so it’s lined with foam. That really deadens the shutter and the mirror in the body. The lens itself goes into a foam-lined tube. It’s got a glass filter over the front of it because a fair bit of the noise will come out of the front of the lens. The case can be kinda tight. It can flip the switches on the lens so it can sometimes turn the autofocus off and whatnot when you’re trying to put it together so you have to play with it a bit. Once it’s in the box, it’s very quiet.
(The blimp I have is) made by Jacobson Photographic Instruments out in Los Angeles. Marc Jacobson is his name. Kind of a one-man shop. He makes a number of different ones for Nikon and Canon. He’s been making them for a long time. It’s what has enabled a still photographer to be active while (the film cameras are) rolling. The drawback of the thing is that it is really heavy after awhile, especially if you’re taking two of them. You’ve got another one with a 24-70(mm lens) and the other with a 70-200(mm lens), the two most useful general lenses. You’re probably walking around with 20 lbs. on your back or hanging from your shoulders for 12 hours a day.
Q: You had mentioned before we started chatting that the blimp is a dinosaur.
A: It’s a dinosaur because it’s awkward, it’s heavy. What’s happened is Sony came out with (a mirror-less) camera that is silent. Then Fuji came out with (their own mirror-less camera). And now, 99 per cent of still photographers on set use either Sony or Fuji cameras.
Those new cameras, for all the great things that they have going for them, have some drawbacks. They don’t necessarily focus as well. I’ve had my Sony (camera) stop working in the middle of a scene where I’m trying to shoot something. In fact, you can’t even turn it off. To turn it off, I have to take the battery out of it and then put it back in. You’re rebooting. It’s not a camera, it’s a computer.
(When) it happened to me (it) was where they were doing a stunt where (they were) setting someone on fire. I took three shots as the flames started to build up and my camera crashed. It’s not necessarily the end of the world, but you can see scenarios where that would be a real problem if you miss something like that. So, you have to have your backup plans in place.
Q: Especially if it’s a stunt they plan do one time only because of the danger involved.
A: Sure. If it’s a big part of the movie, people working in a scenario like that, they might have two or three or four cameras set up to capture in different locations and set them off with remotes and things like that.
Q: How did you make your way into the Manitoba film industry?
A: I guess when I was back in college, I saw a magazine article, and I have no idea where I saw it, but it was somebody talking about being a still photographer on movie sets. He talked about how, on his first job, he didn’t know what he was doing and he only charged fifty bucks and he just got treated like the worst kind of inconvenience you could imagine. So, the next time he (worked on a movie set), he charged a little more, got treated a little better. The whole gist of the article was the more you charged, the better you got treated. That’s not necessarily how it works. It’s a unionized job so there are scale rates.
Anyway, when I read the article, I knew the job existed. I started hearing about productions in Winnipeg, thinking ‘ya know, maybe I could do that.’ I made some calls and I got introduced to a publicist who said, "Well, OK, here’s what you need to do… Get some experience, go out on a short film. Like the Winnipeg Film Group. Go do some work with them. For free." I went and did that and got actual experience on a set and just gradually built from there.
Q: Regardless of whether it’s a feature film or a short film?
A: No, not a short film. Those short films that you will work on to build experience won’t get you days that qualify you for union membership. But they are still great way to build experience and start off.
Any of the commercial films, television productions, commercial feature films, that sort of thing... will generally all be union shows (but) not 100 per cent. Some are not, but that’s when their budgets are really small. And there have been changes to bring them into the union, too. There was a very independent feature that was going on, very low budget and I got some work on that. Six or ten days worth of work where I actually got paid. So now, I have those days I can point to because you had to have ‘X’ number of days of experience to become a union member. It took awhile for that to happen because the productions aren’t really allowed to hire a non-union person unless there’s nobody available. Eventually, I had enough days doing that sort of thing that I was able to apply to the union, get in and become a member.
It sounds really difficult. But you just keep plugging away… I worked on a show that I did quite a few days on. It never saw the light of day. I don’t think it ever got finished. They did shoot it though. Those days counted and helped me qualify.
Q: How does a production company get in contact with you? Is it something you have to work for or is there someone working for you on your behalf?
A: It’s a mix. Locally here, all the production companies know me. There are production managers that kind of run the negotiations and/or are responsible for a lot of the aspects of the physical production. They’re the ones who would actually call you. I think there’s maybe three or four in town. Well, I only have to know three or four people to get those phone calls. I do have an agent down in L.A., in theory, to help get me onto those larger projects that may not be shooting here.
Q: You do the principal stills photography but a studio will inevitably have to do reshoots or additional photography. Would you still be part of the reshoots if they returned to the city?
A: I’m not aware of a movie shot in Winnipeg that had to do any reshooting. (If there are reshoots), it’s a bigger budget production and those are the kinds of productions where they know they want their images.
Q: How far in advance are you contacted before the actual production of the film starts?
A: It varies. Typically, not very far in advance at all. That’s partly a local thing because they’re scrambling to get the production off the ground. There are so many things they have to deal with in terms of the actual making of the movie, that the other things that are there to support the end product, to sell that movie, they tend to wait a lot of the time. That can be a frustrating part of the job because you end up dealing with multiple options for your employment, your income and your livelihood. That can be the stressful part of the business. It’s nice to have the options but at the same time, you want to do the work for and support these companies that are making a movie. You want them to succeed. Sometimes, when you’re saying ‘no’ to somebody, that’s not really helping them to succeed and it can feel less than wonderful.
People have memories and it’s a small market, too. To be honest with you, even if you’re living in Los Angeles, it’s a small market. It’s a small community of filmmakers around the world. It’s really kind of weird. (For example) I’ll work with somebody from Toronto and he or she has just worked with somebody else that we both worked with last year. You’re so interconnected. You’re in that six degrees of separation. In the film business, generally it’s one degree.
Q: When you’re on set, is there somebody you answer to, who is responsible for you and where you go on set?
A: Yes and no. There is a person running the set and keeping things moving and flowing along. So, you have to make sure you’re in communication with that person. But terms of what work needs to be done, I’m working independently, but not exclusively. Sometimes, there might be a specific direction that comes from the studio or network or producers. But, I’ve been doing it long enough that I know what I need to do and I just go do it.
Q: At any point, do you have to communicate with the director or the director of photography (DP) in terms of where you can position yourself during filming?
A: No, I just have to know that. That’s something you learn early. I mean you put a camera in a blimp so that it’s not making noise for two reasons: so the sound can be recorded without it being a problem, but also so you don’t drive the actors around the bend. And that’s one of the easiest things to do.
You also want to be invisible, so you learn to wear black, dark colours and things like that. You learn where to stand. You learn not to stand where the actor will be looking. You don’t want to be in their eye line. It’s a challenge to get the images sometimes.
I have no doubt all the people I work with, in fact, think that the job is a piece of cake because what do you have to do? It’s all beautifully lit with beautiful people, beautiful atmosphere, beautiful sets, how hard can it be? It can be tricky.
Even if everything is right, you might be in a scene where the actor is emotional or sensitive to any distraction at all and they might ask for you to step away. It’s perfectly normal (even though) you may not necessarily like it. I’ve actually gotten over it to some degree, but for many years, I found the job very frustrating because I could see what the movie camera was seeing, how gorgeous, beautiful and spectacular those images were and because I’m one foot to the side of that, the angle is completely different and I just cannot get the same image.
I don’t have a whole lot of professional interaction with the DP. But I want to find out how they want the movie to look so that I can emulate that to some degree. Some directors call the shots as to who gets hired as a photographer but that tends to be in the upper echelons (of the industry). But really you’re working for the producers. The producers are the ones that are the business behind the production. It’s their job and their business to take this product that they’re creating and make money with it down the road. And they’re the ones paying me.
Q: I was looking through the images you posted on your website of some of the films you worked on and spotted Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal. As a fangirl, I think it’s cool he would come to Winnipeg to work on a film.
A: You’d be surprised. You think (because) it’s Winnipeg that they’re not necessarily very big productions. We’ve had some very good productions here. But by and large, they’re smaller projects and you think "Well, who’s going to be here?" I have worked with so many well-known actors and actresses over the years, it’s amazing. There are big stars that are here regularly.