A lot of my work involves shooting unit stills for film and TV. Last year I was commissioned to work on a show called The Night Manager, an international co-production between The Ink Factory and AMC (Breaking Bad). Starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, David Harewood and Tom Hollander it was shot in four countries over about five months which meant a lot of flying backwards and forwards. In TV, even for a high budget gig like this, the unit photographer is parachuted in for specific days, or groups of days in order to gather enough imagery to tell the story. On this it entailed one day in Switzerland, days in London, two days in Devon then four separate trips to Morocco and Mallorca.
The key to good unit photography is striving to tell the same story the moving image is telling in a set of 12, 20, 50 or even 100 images. Obviously you shoot way more than this (the final edit of deliverable pictures on this was 12000) but that has to be the aim.
In order to do this in the first place you have to know the story, read the script, character biogs, synopses. On a basic level unit stills can be seen as simply pointing your sound-proofed camera at the action and shooting, but there's so much more. The moments either side of the cameras rolling, grabbed character portraits, getting the actors to re-enact moves or even directing them a certain way in order to get a particular shot are often the times you get the best imagery.
Technical ability, though crucial, is only a small percentage of the skills needed to get good stills. Increasingly film shoots are scheduled with zero spare time and rarely will stills be factored in. You might have a complicated three way shot you're trying to 'nick' in an environment with crew walking through the back, a 1st assistant director desperate to move on because their schedule is impossible to achieve anyway, hair make-up and costume insisting on fine adjustments throughout the 30 seconds you've inveigled and three actors who aren't particularly interested. In these times the technical side has to be instinctive because while you're shooting you're directing, negotiating, moving people out etc etc. A good relationship with cast and crew is essential. Tom Hiddleston was never uninterested when it came to stills, he understood the importance and would always make time. The shots immediately before the 300mm one above were taken wide angle and in amongst the crowd. On the rehearsals and takes the Steadicam was about three feet away so I couldn't get a shot. Tom helped me get them to run the scene again full bore just for my camera.
The still image will often be the first and sometimes only representation of the show most people see, so although you are often just left to get on with it on the day the expectation is extremely high. Which makes it very satisfying when those expectations are achieved, and occasionally surpassed.
More pictures from The Night Manager can be seen here.
See more work by Des Willie