Thinking Big: Still Photography for Nat Geo’s Top-Rated Series.
For this post, I want to re-explore the importance of still photography used in TV campaigns, this time for our most popular show, “Brain Games.” One of the biggest takeaways in my “Masters in Motion” presentation back in December was about the importance of stills for a TV campaign, and a theme worth revisiting here. No matter what new technologies arise and how mediums change, there will always be big billboards, print ads and posters to promote TV shows. They grab attention, and when you place them in the right location, can send a strong message not only to viewers, but also to ad buyers, executives, and the creative community – which is important when we want those creatives to be pitching their best ideas to us. On a side note, I’d also like to take this time to thank everyone for the continued support, shout-outs, re-tweets, Facebook Page likes, and generally great feedback I’ve gotten on the blog. December was the all-time highest trafficked month for the site! Thank you all for reading, and for sharing the content with others.
In my last post, I discussed “keeping the client happy” and connected that to the recent campaign for Brain Games. Because that is a big campaign for Nat Geo since it’s our #1 series, I’m dedicating this post to the print and outdoor campaign behind that show’s re-launch in January. Click HERE for the content covering the TV spots – and that will give you an overview of the show and marketing goals as well. But enough about video! Let’s get to the stills.
Presenting at Masters in Motion, discussing the importance of collaboration between stills and video. Photo by Philip Bloom.
HOW STILLS AND VIDEO CAN WORK TOGETHER BETTER.
In previous posts, I’ve discussed that it’s critical for print and video teams to collaborate when planning a shoot. In my MIM talk, it was one of my “Big Takeaways” for the filmmakers in attendance, which included 5 critical recommendations for everyone on the video side to consider when it comes to collaborating with still photographers.
1. Partner up with a talented still photographer – it makes your company/agency/you look more diversified to the client if you have an existing relationship with a talented photographer, and can offer their services. Find someone you work well with, develop a similar style/approach, and a client will see you more favorably because you can ‘bundle’ your creative offerings.
2. Understand the goals of the print campaign – it will better help you to anticipate what the client will want, and it’s just good to be aware of the whole campaign, even if it’s doesn’t end up technically being your responsibility. They’re spending big money on the media buy if they have billboards or print ads, so be aware of what they want.
3. Build your schedule with print in mind – don’t assume that they won’t be sharing space and time with you. Make sure you’re clear as to who is producing the print shoot (crafty, props, etc). Understand that it’s a big priority for them, and they will need the appropriate amount of time.
4. Share resources when applicable – lights, stands, even grips. If the client sees that you and the photographer are working together and sharing assets, they’ll feel better about efficiency and cost savings, and then they’ll feel better about hiring you.
5. Co-author the stage setup – if you are sharing locations, collaborating early on in the process may help you make decisions about lighting that could save time and energy. This worked out for us on “Killing Kennedy” and “Killing Lincoln”, having our Photographer and DP and Art Director connected early and often, planning the lighting grid for maximum efficiency and flexibility between crews.
PROCESS AND COLLABORATIVE PARTNER.
One decision we made on the Brain Games campaign was having the same agency, Brand New School, that was doing the TV promos also do the print campaign. It made for an easier planning process, and ensured consistency across both platforms. Getting a cohesive look across both mediums (and digital) is key – when you are struggling to get the viewer’s attention, you want the look to feel similar so that all of those impressions you make on them (whether in Times Square, at home on TV, or looking at a print ad in the Times) will add up together. We knew that Jason Silva the show host, was going to play a big role in the key art, so Brand New School suggested a photographer to shoot our print concept. Luckily, the photographer they selected was one that I have wanted to work with before, Miller Mobley. He is an extremely talented photographer that has done some beautiful celebrity portraits, so I knew he could certainly handle the more straightforward style of our key art concept, and also deliver some more artistic shots of Jason for our other creative needs.
Early on as we started to nail down our production schedule, it became clear that we had a decision to make about timing for still photography. We had a very ambitious schedule for video production, shooting multiple complex TV spots, with many variables that could easily swing the days to go long. One option was to try to maximize our time on each day and have Miller come to the video set, and shoot images of Jason during video setups. Basically, as soon as he’d wrap a shot he’d run to Miller and shoot stills. We’ve certainly done that before, but there just seemed to be too much potential of either not having enough time for stills due to the complex nature of the video, and also I didn’t want to risk wearing out the talent. Additionally, we knew going in that we were going to have a big billboard in Times Square, and a big print media plan, so this aspect of our campaign was too important to risk not getting everything we needed. So we decided to add a third day of production, and have that entire day just for stills. It would allow us to focus on print, and would give us time to capture a huge variety of new images of Jason for press, digital, and marketing needs.
We were lucky that Miller was available two days before the shoot to visit the video set (we were going to shoot the stills at a different location) and meet us, to talk about the plan for the day, as well as to meet Jason. Miller had a pretty good idea of what we were looking for, and once he’d seen the initial sketches, he’d gotten to work. “I began to draw up some lighting setups that I thought could work well for the comp. It’s always been very important to me to draw out my lighting setups. I might rough sketch out 5-8 ways to light something. Once I get to the shoot, I start to test what I’ve drawn out and see what’s working and what’s not.”
Lighting sketches by Miller Mobley.
We shot the stills after two intense days of video production, and one great thing about working with Jason is that no matter what, you’re never going to be low on energy! Jason’s passion is infectious, and even though we’d moved to a very small studio, the energy didn’t disappear, and he worked great with Miller. “Miller was awesome because he made you feel comfortable right away.. Super professional and friendly. We got into a relaxed groove within minutes” recalls Jason. I agree – even though we hadn’t worked together, the vibe was relaxed immediately and Miller created a creative dynamic quickly. “Good photography to me is sometimes not only about the photographer, but it’s about the photographer/subject collaboration” said Mobley. “We cranked some music in the studio and basically played off of each other. I knew that the images were going to be comped into the final key art, so we lit the images in a way that would be easy for the retoucher to assemble in post-production.” The great thing was that for the key art concept, we would have Jason in a fairly straightforward pose, in a room filled with hidden images of faces – a puzzle that demonstrates the illusions so popular in the show. We couldn’t get too artsy with that setup, since the concept needed to read clearly and not be too dramatic. So the lighting was more high-key, creating less shadows.
We captured so many different poses of Jason, and made sure that we shot images of him in the same patterned shirt that he’d worn at the video shoot. I had wanted to have a face added in post to that shirt, given the intricate nature of the plaid pattern. In the end, the key art was used for digital banners, a New York Times print ad, and the granddaddy of them all, the 5 panel Times Square Billboard. (Note that the 5th panel is a wrap on the lower left panel, which isn’t apparent in the photos below.)
TIME TO GET ALL ARTSY.
After we knew we had what we needed for the key art, it was time to get some great gallery images of Jason, with the intent of getting some more artistic shots that could potentially used by the PR team. Our challenge was that we were in a very small studio – it was actually a large open office space, with a small white cyc in one corner, and there were no props or sets. I’ll let Miller describe the setup from here: “This is where you just start making good images out of nothing. Jason has a great facial structure, and I really wanted to bring that out by playing with the highlights, shadows, and positioning of the light. We did some really cool stuff using one of the Profoto Reflectors with a grid attached. The light was extremely focused, which left us with great shadows on both sides of the faces. We filled in the light with a 72″ Elinchrom octabank behind camera, just to give a little detail to the shadows. Those were some of my favorite images of the day.”
Jason Silva, shot by Miller Mobley.
“We then loosened up a little bit and used more un-common areas of the studio. For example, the image where Jason is on the floor. That was something that we really just pulled out of the air. I knew that the client would appreciate as much variety as possible. So I asked Jason to sit on the floor and we played with some very hard light using the Profoto Magnum reflector. It’s become one of my favorite lights as of lately because of it’s ability to give a great on-camera flash look.”
Photos by Miller Mobley.
“It’s a pretty common tool for me when I’m doing very quick shots and having the subject move around a lot. My assistant will just hold the light on a boom arm right above camera, so that it creates a small harsh shadow right under the nose. It kind of gives off the feel that you don’t care about the light, but at the same time the lights looks cool. One thing I keep learning the more I light is that it really has nothing to do with what modifier or type of light you use – I think the way you position, feather, cut the light has everything to do with making it work for you. I guess you can say that the details and the magic of light really come out once you start refining what you already have setup.”
Unfortunately, I had to catch a train back to DC, so Miller continued working with Jason and Brian Everett, my Creative Director of Design. As they continued to rip through the setups in the studio, somehow Brian procured a key to get to the rooftop. In another great example of how a little extra time can help you get what you never imagined, the shots from the rooftop are some of my favorites. (At the time of publication, some of the photos were still under embargo. I will post them to the blog when they become available.)
Miller continues: “It was freezing cold, but nobody cared because we were all going to the roof. I think everyone was just pumped about a change of location from the studio that we had been in all day. My lighting setup was pretty simple outside. We just threw a 7B pack on my assistants back and we boomed the 53 inch octa out over Jason. Trying to refine the feathering of the light – The octa was barley pointed at him, just a little bit of light spill was enough to create what we thought was good. Jason is pretty natural at looking cool, so other than me suggesting different poses and looks, he just did his thing.”
I’ve discussed the concept of doing something cool within a campaign just, well, because. Brain Games was no different, and when Brian came to me and wanted to try to do something with some design integrated into Miller’s photos, it was a no-brainer. Brian worked on these with Greg Herman, and they had fun playing with the images and adding some additional design and photography to the shots to demonstrate the idea of how the show is filled with illusions, puzzles and mind-blowing imagery. Here are a few of the results.
We wrapped after the third and final day of production, and we came home with tons of assets for the campaign. We asked Miller to help us with the retouching, and a special shout out to finisher/retoucher Nick Leadlay for his incredible work as well. That rooftop surface never looked so good! The billboards turned out great, and the artsier shots of Jason are some of my favorites. We took the proper time to get everything we would need, and I had a blast collaborating with a new photographer I’d not worked with before. Special thanks to Jason Silva, Brian Everett and Production Manager Kevin Lahr from Nat Geo who helped the project run smoothly. And a big thank you to Miller for his killer work and collaborative attitude throughout, in addition to his quotes in this blog post. On a personal note, I came up on the video side of the business, focusing on :30 promos and :60 trailers – it was my bread and butter for the first half of my career. Now that I’ve transitioned into also creative directing and overseeing print photography, I’ve learned so much more than I ever imagined about this incredible craft and the talented photographers who do it every day. I am truly humbled by their talents. Now, if only I could get some lessons so I can stop shooting in ‘auto’ mode on my Canon T3i…