“Oh, it’s a process”. Process. It’s one of those words that have become so common in the last 10 years. Like “awesome”. Awesome, a word that means awe inspiring. Today someone’s haircut can be referred to as “awesome”. Ridiculous really, yet I use it all the time. I also use “process”, which is what this is all about, something I’ve noticed about my photography over the years. My process. This is about my commercial work, so you artists out there, see you again soon. Let’s get down to business.
I’m a slow starter for someone who likes to get up really early. Let’s talk about a big commercial shoot, on a set, in a studio. It’s the day of the pre-light, something becoming more and more rare in today’s economics. An entire day to “just” light the set. Sounds luxurious and generous. On paper. It’s also the day that the carpenters are probably still installing the finishing touches, the scenics are still painting, the stylist is still dressing, the assistants are still unpacking any rental equipment, the producer is starting to worry about the numbers, and the AD is trying to explain to the client that this is part of the “Process”. Coffee is being consumed by the gallon, the craft services table has remnants of breakfast and I’m hovering over it despite my need to lose some weight. I’m patient, and I’m not nervous. I like to let the talented people I have assembled for my shoot have the time they need to do their jobs. If the budget had not been slashed to ribbons, everyone would have had enough time, but that’s a long forgotten dream now.
The lighting begins in due course with carpenters, stylists, and scenics still on set. Not necessarily that easy to do, so we start with whatever is seen through the windows. I like to have translights shipped from LA because I’ve had the most success making the outside seem real with them. But they are often really large and unwieldy. And expensive. So after coffee, selection of music (which I generally leave to Ray these days), and time spent just talking with the assistants about new cameras, new programs, new Photoshop techniques, new apartments, new motorcycles, new restaurants, new personal dramas (their’s not mine) , and anything else new we come up with, the translight goes up. Translights are about the easiest thing in the world to light, so it takes about 10 minutes. Now we can resume our conversations.
The caterer brings lunch, the assistants are starving. I’m not and since we’ve actually started lighting the set, I usually don’t notice. The object for me is to light the set as it would be lit naturally, if it existed outside of Studio World. I had decided where the light would come from much earlier when the set was being designed. In essence I had decided what would be South. Move over Bush, I’m the Decider here in Studio World. I want to be able to shoot anywhere in the set without relighting, to move around freely if I want to. Of course that hardly ever happens. The set is designed for the ad we are shooting, and since it is print, it doesn’t exist outside of the original camera point of view. This was exploited in a bizarre Andersen Windows campaign, which showed the studio beyond the confines of the set, but that was the exception. Eventually I give in and break for lunch, or, more often than not, we rotate through lunch, two at a time, with me grabbing something alongside the camera. Lighting continues. Lighting continues some more. Problems arise, either with some set detail, product detail, the inability to get the client off a conference call to give an ok on something, or just some disappointment nagging at me because it ain’t looking that good. I fumble with the lighting some more, make it better or make it worse. Then the clock nears 6:00 PM and we have to secure the set and get out of the rental studio before we incur OVERTIME, the budget killer!
Then the whole reason for this unneeded, perhaps boring to you photographers, how-to-shoot–a-job happens. The most important, and unusual part of the “Process”. That inner nagging, which hasn’t left me, ramps up as I’m falling asleep. No, I’m not in a cold sweat, I’m not pacing the floor, I’m not even having a panic attack. I see how I want the lighting to look, I see that some fundamental changes have to be made. Perhaps a new “window” light-source has to be introduced. Sometimes all the lighting has to be completely changed, redirected. Sometimes it’s a simple small camera move or a contrast change. It doesn’t matter. But I fall asleep knowing we have work to do in the morning, and it’s going to be alright, certainly better. Now this isn’t mysticism or the guiding hand of a higher power. It is not Black Magic. It is part of my “Process’. Most times it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it emphasizes something I’ve discovered over my career: the only thing harder than starting is starting over.