Art Directors are funny people. Funny people. Wild and wacky. Not always “ha-ha” funny, but always funny. Some are literally so funny, they can disrupt the shoot by telling stories. Let’s hear it out there for Craig Mierop. When we worked together he was a talented AD, but his stand-up was truly outstanding. I had to ask him to stop, we were getting nothing done.
Talented ADs make you a better photographer, no two ways about it. They make you see things you didn’t see before. They are unrelenting, as they should be. Precise. Viewers of the big picture. Jim Sebastian, the quintessential hyper-talented AD, taught me more about light and composition than Ansel Adams ever could. We were shooting once in a cold, cold barn. All the lights were outside lighting a big set through wooden louvered windows. Some of the strobes were on cherry-pickers coming through, essentially, third story windows. Quite an intense situation. The barn had been turned into an enormous contemporary, eclectic living room. With a black sofa! As we got close to shooting after about 6 hours of tweeking props and lighting, on what I hoped was going to be the final Polaroid, Jim studied it with his loupe for a very long time. Now that was a good thing, meant final decisions were being made, and I was hungry and freezing. Jim finally looked at me and said, “don’t you think the front of the sofa should come up about a third of a stop?” It wasn’t really a question. We’re talking about the black sofa here. So I had to figure out how to lighten the front of the sofa without losing the integrity of the entire lighting setup. I did it, how doesn’t even matter. It took a long time. As always Jim was right and it was a better picture and I became, incrementally, a better photographer because of it.
Now there are other stories of funny ADs that come to mind. ADs usually believe that anything is possible, and it usually is, but not for their budget. At least not easily, for their budget. I was shooting a very odd campaign for a cigarette company with an agency from Chicago. The layouts juxtaposed strange objects with the cigarette pack. One layout called for several baby ducks, several live baby ducks with the pack. (Now aren’t you happy cigarette advertising has been outlawed!) I was shooting the whole campaign on 8X10 film. So it was slow. As always with animals on set, I asked everyone in the studio to not interact with the ducks, only the duck wrangler lady could even talk to them. Everyone complied, but the ducks were not terribly cooperative. Finally the AD came over to me and loudly asked “have these ducks been trained?” Now I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t help myself. I simply told him there hadn’t been time to train them, they were born yesterday! I really just wanted to laugh hysterically, it was one of the most inane questions I was ever asked on a job.
For some television manufacturer we were shooting down at two Weimeraners watching a TV. You couldn’t see the screen, but it was supposed to be the only light source, lighting the entire set. (Now aren’t you happy television company advertising has been outlawed!) OK, so far, so good. I was pretty busy, I’m usually very hands-on. The AD was hanging around showing family photos to the client, my stylist, my assistants. This was long before family photos were carried on iPhones, they were individual 4X6 prints. Everyone was pretty interested which managed to annoy me a bit. When I regained control of the set, I asked my first assistant what was so interesting. Seems his wife was prominently featured in every photograph, in her sexy bra and panties. Except for the one where she was breast=feeding their new born, She didn’t have a bra in that one. Now this isn’t the funny part of the story. This was just the color commentary. We had the dogs in place. The TV had been hollowed out and a plexi was placed inside with about 8000 joules of strobe. The plexi was all paint splattered so the light would feel like an unseen scene. As we got close to shooting, 8X10 Polaroids were flowing freely, the AD asked for something that would have been better asked of a Quantum Physicist. This is because the indiscreet AD was asking if I could make the light coming from the TV, seem like individual pieces of light, discreet pieces of light. Ironic, isn’t it? He wanted to know if I could “like put a fan in front of the light, shoot while it was spinning, and get the light broken up between the TV and the dogs”. We then had a heady discussion of whether light was a particle or a wave. The dogs sided with me that light was a duality and traveled far too fast to accomplish this anyway. We shot without the fan, the dogs were coming up on overtime and a pee break. That was the end of a truly bizarre shoot. And I never saw his snapshots, either!
When ADs ask for the world, I try to give it to them. I know I’ll come away knowing more about the craft than when I started.