The client, working hard on-set. Photo by Jon Connor.
“Killing Lincoln” was a hugely successful book, co-authored by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, telling the story about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent manhunt for his killer, John Wilkes Booth. It’s an incredible (and true) story that seems like a Hollywood story due to its intrigue, complexity, and drama. It was the perfect story for The National Geographic Channel’s first foray into scripted entertainment. It was being produced by Ridley Scott, and on the heels of the hugely successful scripted historical drama “Hatfields and McCoys” on the History Channel, the timing was perfect.
Photo of Billy Campbell as Abraham Lincoln by Joey L.
The marketing goals and objectives were pretty straightforward – sell it as a scripted, epic, cinematic film. Make it feel big, important, and true to the Nat Geo brand – high quality, entertaining authenticity. We had actor Billy Campbell cast as Lincoln, and late in the game we secured Tom Hanks to be the on-screen narrator. Along with Executive Producer Ridley Scott, we had the Hollywood talent we needed to get people’s attention. On the print side, we knew that we’d have a robust print and billboard media plan, especially in NYC and LA. The words “Times Square billboard” were said early, which set the bar high for us creatively. And finally, we wanted to tell this story and show it in a way that hadn’t been seen before, which leads us to our ‘challenges.’
One of the principal challenges facing us was that the story of Lincoln’s assassination has been told before. Countless books, movies and documentaries have been created telling this story – many of the docs aired on our very own Channel. Not to mention that Spielberg was launching “Lincoln” starring Daniel Day Lewis that was in theaters only 3 months prior to our film’s premiere. But we got all Sun Tzu on this project, and we used that disadvantage to our advantage – we were able to clearly differentiate our film from others, both visually and in our story. Focusing so much on the John Wilkes Booth story was one big unique way in – to show him as a co-star of the film immediately signaled to the viewer that this would be a thriller, telling a story that we all know the ending to, but can’t wait to see it on screen. Our print challenges were great too – how do you make the imagery feel contemporary and high-quality, while remaining grounded in history and a degree of authenticity? We didn’t want to reinforce any bad National Geographic brand legacies of being ‘dusty’ or airing sleepy, voice-of-God documentaries.
After pairing with Variable and Joey L. on the Taboo and Boy Scouts campaigns, we knew that they were the perfect fit for the job. In fact, during our Boy Scout shoot, we started talking about “Killing Lincoln” ideas, sets, and even camera tech (this is where the Techno-Crane was first discussed, which we eventually used to great effect on the video side). And I knew that Joey L. would be the perfect still photographer for this job. His collaborative nature (both with Variable and with my team) was perfect, and his incredible ability to capture emotional yet restrained portraits was just what we were looking for. His very close connection to the video team was critical to the success of this job, which I’ll cover in depth later. SPOILER ALERT: Please check out Joey’s blog post HERE about lighting and setups for the Killing Lincoln campaign when you have finished this article – it’s a great read.
TAKEAWAY #1: PULL FROM YOUR OWN PERSONAL HISTORY/PASSIONS.
I was a history major in college, and my Senior Thesis was all about the days immediately after the Civil War ended. 1860s history was my favorite time period, and combining my love for history with filmmaking, photography and promos was the most interesting intersection I’d had in my career between my various passions. I had even read “Manhunt” a few years ago which tells basically the same Booth/Lincoln story. Combining that with working with Joey and the Variable team made this a project I’ll always cherish. This project was a great reminder that for any creative project you’re working on, to pull your creative ideas from your own passions, your own history, and your bank of knowledge you’ve built up – it will fuel your work and turn it from being a ‘job’ into more of a passion. For me, having studied so much about Lincoln, and being so familiar with imagery of him, I was intrigued with the notion of re-imagining the singular moment of assassination. So many photos from that time period have a haunting stillness to them, discoloration, and something eerily creepy to them. Being very familiar with that look was a huge help to kickstart the ideation process for what we wanted to capture in photography. In this case, I was lucky to be handed a project that fell right in line with my love of history – but I still pull from that passion all the time for other projects, too.
TAKEAWAY #2: SOMETIMES THAT FIRST IDEA IS THE BEST.
We’re always told as creatives to push beyond that first idea we have, which I generally agree with. Pushing past the first idea can often develop more imaginative, innovative or unexpected ideas. But in this case, the first idea I had felt distinctive and captured so much of what we needed for the campaign. From the very beginning of this project, I had a very simple and singular idea that I couldn’t shake from my brain. I credit that idea from my history-background combined with a love for moody/dark imagery. It was simple, it stuck, and I never let it go. I wanted to re-imagine (not re-create) the moment right before Lincoln’s assassination. Build a set that was haunting and unsettling – not in a theater or on a balcony, but stripped of everything except for a floor, a chair, a gun and two men. And the clincher was that they would both be looking right down the barrel of the camera. Of course, that actual moment didn’t really happen the way I envisioned it, and that was the point. It was a new way to see an iconic moment in history. It would be from the simplest profile angle, shot wide, and lit quietly. We had many sketches for many different poses and concepts, and Joey shot hundreds of portraits, poses, and actions – but the singular idea of the gun to Lincoln’s head while they looked straight at you was what I really longed to capture. And I have NEVER had a more creatively gratifying feeling in my career than when Joey nailed it. The lighting was perfect, the angle, the setup, the expression, and the set were dead on. It was an exhilarating moment for me, and when everyone saw it on set with the nuances and direction from Joey, it was incredible. It became the campaign’s key art, and still hangs on my office wall today. Believing in that first idea in this case paid off – so if you believe in the idea strongly, don’t be afraid to make it happen.
Sketches brought to life in photos by Joey L.
TAKEAWAY #3: ENSURE COLLABORATION BETWEEN VIDEO AND PHOTO.
This takeaway is probably the most important, or most consistently true. Too often on set, video is given precedence over all else that needs to be captured. What worked so perfectly on this project was how collaboratively Joey and Variable worked to ensure that both video and photo got what they needed. We had a full 2 day shoot, and almost an entire day was devoted to stills. We didn’t try to wedge stills in sideways, or shoot video and ask the photo crew to jump in and use the exact same lights – we dedicated time and people to ensure that stills got their proper time. That took clear communication to make it happen, and that time became a massive benefit. We were able to light for each scene, to capture hundreds of incredible images, and we gave Joey enough time to improvise within each setup. To take it a step further, Joey and Khalid Mohtaseb, Variable’s DP, actually designed the main stage lighting setup together. They created mood boards and lighting references to ensure they were on the same page. And they worked closely with the art director/set designer Joe Sciacca to figure out how they would physically place the lights on set. The fact that so much of that was set before we even got on set was critical to ensure that our 2 days were wisely divided up. While the main lighting setups varied a bit (bounced sources to light the entire set for video vs. strobes that concentrate light where the action is) the setups to go from one to the other were simple. I cannot recommend this sort of crew collaboration strongly enough though – and it does seem obvious, I’ll admit – ensure that video and stills are in absolute lock-step from the very beginning of the project at every phase. Variable has a unique setup in that when a job needs still photos, Joey jumps right in with them and has a close working relationship with their team. I would urge photographers or DP’s out there to do the same – partner up and establish those connections. As a client, it makes it easier when a video-based crew has that resource to offer up – “one-stop-shopping” as it were – and as a creative it clearly makes the sharing of lights/talent/sets easier when both the Photographer and Director are working from the same page from the very beginning, and work as one team – even sharing lights. In the end, to do good work you clearly need to work with creative, talented people. But to elevate the work, to make something really great, it sometimes takes the tangible, logistical things being done behind the scenes to free up those same creative people to do even better work. Any great creative has an entire team behind them setting them up for success, which is exactly what happened on this job.
TAKEAWAY #4: SHOOT MANY OPTIONS.
We were on the home stretch of the campaign. Our first long-lead teaser had aired in November, the campaign was rolling out and getting ready to hit the streets. In addition to our TV campaign, we had a huge outdoor plan, including a triple-stacked Times Square billboard in Manhattan, and a giant board on the side of a skyscraper on Sunset Blvd in LA. The key art image was planned for both, and then tragedy struck. The massacre at Newtown, CT happened in mid-December, just days before our deadlines for outdoor. Immediately we knew we had to change our art, because of the gun right behind Lincoln’s head – it just felt too intense at a time when sensitivity to gun violence was at an all-time high. In NYC, no images of guns were permitted on billboards, and we knew an adjustment was the right thing to do. Luckily, when we had photographed the key art, we had time for many variations. Not only did we shoot the gun pointed up, we did a variety of poses with the gun in different positions. I was so focused on getting the gun up, I don’t even remember Joey shooting the alternate poses, but thankfully he did. We changed the key art for print and LA, and it didn’t take away from the image’s power. In NYC, we had also a portion of the media spent on wild postings – the posters you see glued to construction sites and abandoned walls and we quickly adapted that same technique to our billboard. Using simple words under solo portraits – “Hero” and “Villain” to capture the dual nature of how people viewed Booth and Lincoln, and how they viewed themselves, it made for an incredibly arresting and powerful billboard. I’d even argue that it turned out better for that location than if we had used the wider key art shot. Tight shots of great portraits are arresting and attention-grabbing, especially on a giant billboard. Here are shots of the final NYC billboards.
Photos by Joey L. Layout by Canyon Design Group.
The campaign was extremely successful. “Killing Lincoln” was the highest rated 2 hour special in the Channel’s history. It got great buzz and opened up the possibilities of creating scripted programming on the Network. The materials all stood out as unquestionably different from the “Lincoln” art, which was all over a white background with just Lincoln featured. Having Booth ‘share’ the spotlight, and being inspired by the lighting and poses of original photos of Lincoln all helped it stand out from that ‘other’ Lincoln film. This campaign will always be special not just for the creative product that Joey, Variable and Good Penny (editorial on all promos) delivered. It was a true collaboration across the board, and I even got to collaborate a little with the history geek inside of me. Getting to ‘promote’ one of the most incredible stories in US history felt like an honor and a true joy – and getting to do it alongside so many talented people was an absolute privilege. It reinforced some of my key beliefs: never stop shooting, and give yourself the room to play. Joey has said to me many times that on a photo shoot, you want to give yourself the time, the right plan, and the opportunity so that you can discover things you’d never even thought of when sketching concepts so that you can take your photo from an 8, to a 10. Thank you to everyone involved for helping us get to a campaign that, in many ways, was a perfect 10.
Below, you’ll find some video elements created for the campaign, including the first long-lead teaser as well as a behind-the-scenes video we cut from the two day shoot bonanza.
KILLING LINCOLN BTS: