Earlier this summer I decided to shoot a staged portrait of my friend Ron Proulx. As we both share backgrounds as professional musicians I thought it would be fun to portray him as a busker being robbed by a gang of girls. One of the girls would act as the distraction/decoy while the other 2 emptied the busker hat into their purse, snickering behind his back at his naïveté.
What a clever concept, I said. How difficult could it be? I said. After all, I’m a director who can handle simple scenes like this no problem, I said. I’ll push some HP5 film to make it look all cool and arty, I said.
The result? It bombed. It didn’t read, at all. The image did not properly tell the story. I was humiliated, and had to send out a bunch of “Sorry, I f***** up” emails to all involved.
So what went wrong? I assumed stuff.
Assumption #1: Rehearsal is Unnecessary
In my haste towards creative genius, I unwittingly broke one of my own rules: Rehearse First, Shoot Last. This rule enables me to show up on shoot day organized and confident, knowing which way the story is heading. After all, this was different from other genres of photography, which usually don’t require rehearsal.
With filmmaking, I would never shoot a narrative without rehearsing first. Unless you’re Christopher Guest or shooting improve, it makes little sense exploring character or scene development on set with a ticking clock and the crew wondering about lunch.
I’m not sure what made me think I could shoot a staged portrait with practically zero pre-production, but I discovered how conveying dramatic/comedic tension in one frame is even more challenging than with filmmaking. With filmmaking I have the scene, and multiple frames, to achieve this. Which brings me to…
Assumption #2: Models Can Also Act
In my haste towards creative genius, I unwittingly broke yet another rule (borrowed from Hitchcock and a few other directors): Directing is 75% Casting.
Now I’m going to pause here and carefully qualify this point by saying that the models who participated in my little disaster were awesome. They gave it their all. I would shoot with any one of them again in a heartbeat. They were total pros who took direction and brought with them, as individuals, a fabulous look and vibe.
The problem was not them, it was me. This wasn’t a glamour shoot, and I needed more. What I was looking for was range, and that is actor territory.
Let’s look at an example: coyness. There are a few ways to play coyness: overtly, with forward body language and lots of eye contact. Or held back, not giving too much away while remaining mysteriously engaged. Another example: the girls are robbing poor, hapless Ron. Pretty devious, no? But what is their motivation? Are they doing it for kicks, to see if they can get away with it? Or are they just being mean? Perhaps a combination of these things?
Regardless, these motivations bring potentially disparate emotional elements to the scene, and I needed to see all of them in order to decide the best way to tell the story through my photograph (which loops back to my point about rehearsal). Actors train for this.
Assumption #3: Format Doesn’t Matter
As I mentioned, pushing B&W 35mm film x 2 stops is fun! It’s such a cool look. I’ve recently shot a number of projects using this method, with wonderful results.
Problem is, the detail is not great. The grain is the size of nickels, and pushing film creates considerable contrast. Shadows disappear into murky black smudges for a ‘painterly’ look, which I really love. Except here it wasn’t working, and testing would have revealed this. Really, I needed to shoot either medium format film or digital to get the resolution I was looking for.
Although I was disappointed with the results, I learned a lot. I knew I was heading into tricky territory with this project; I just didn’t know why. Essentially, shooting staged portraits is its own animal, straddling both photography and filmmaking. As a result, my checklist is now much deeper.
Meanwhile, I’ve had to make it OK to have learned such a difficult lesson. And that, dear friends, is the Gift of Failure: next time, I’ll be better.