I was talking with Vincent Laforet about the contest he’s working on with Vimeo and Canon called “Beyond The Still” (here) and I decided to take the opportunity to interview him about his own transition from newspaper photographer to Hollywood commercial director. I was as big a skeptic as any when Vincent released “Reverie,” the first short photographed with a 5D that read more like a cologne commercial, but the list of elite DP’s who’ve volunteered to judge this contest has me believing people are really embracing the new technology and running with it. I give it up to Vincent for being on the tip of the spear with where this is headed and bringing his professionalism and sense of community with him.
APE: How long ago did you move to LA?
I moved in June of last year. With my wife newborn daughter and 5 year old son.
APE: Are you a filmmaker now?
I would call myself a commercial director slash photographer slash DP.
APE: How much photography are you doing now?
I’d say 30% at most, all commercial. I’ve had 2 editorial assignments in the last 16 months. Michael Jackson’s funeral and Obama’s Inauguration.
APE: Tell me about reinventing yourself. You were a big editorial photographer, you shot the summer Olympics in China and worked for the NY Times. You got started as a newspaper photographer right?
Sure, I got my start when I was 15 working for photo agencies such as Gamma and Sigma in France then the US. Then wire services in the US and then I worked for the NY Times for 6 years. So, yes I was an editorial guy through and through until roughly 4 years ago when I decided to jump into commercial photography.
Then about a year and a half ago the Canon 5D MKII came out and I was able to get my hands on it. That was probably the most important career-changing self funded shoot that I will likely ever do.
APE: You basically chucked everything and live in Hollywood now?
Well, I live in Manhattan Beach which is a bit of a different spot than Hollywood is, and I’m not looking to become a feature film director, but I am working as a commercial director.
APE: Way back when was this a part of your career path? Was this a goal of yours?
Film was always a part of my past. My father was a set photographer and my biological father was a director who filmed Emmanuel.
APE: Ok, so it’s in your blood.
I guess you could say that it’s always been in my blood. I could have gone to film school or journalism school – I got into Tisch at NYU and USC but for some reason I chose journalism and chose to pursue a degree in print journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
APE: Because, you’re like all kids and you do the opposite of your parents.
I wanted to tell true stories and discover the world for real, that’s what the draw was and that’s why I fell into photojournalism. I saw the way people were treated in the commercial/film and that was a bit of a turnoff back then.
APE: Right, you wanted to find your own identity and voice. Do you have formal training as Cinematographer, Director or Producer?
I didn’t go to school for it but I’ve been managing my business and setting up shoots since I was 15 years old. I paid my way through college and have always been focused on that kind of minutia. The hardest part about going into filmmaking for me was learning the difference between cinema lighting versus photography lighting or continuous light versus strobes – many of the principles are the same – but the equipment is very different. The 4 years of commercial photography experience and the almost 20 years of editorial photography helped better prepare me for the production issues and taught me how to frame an image and work on larger productions. Had I jumped straight from editorial into film I probably would have fallen flat on my face.
APE: I ask because I think a lot of people in the news photography business may be looking to reinvent themselves and you’ve done it. You told me you’re as busy as you’ve ever been.
I’ve never been this busy – and frankly I hate saying that publicly because I think it sounds obnoxious – especially given that the economy is still recovering. That being said it’s true, I think it’s a combination of the economy starting to revive and I think there are fewer photographers out there now who’ve made it through the last year and a half. Also, being, as you said, “on the tip of the spear of this technology” likely plays a big factor as well. Many of jobs coming in are looking to maximize the benefits of this new technology. Clients are looking for new ways to pull off a high quality end product – with budgets that have of course been impacted by the economic change we just went through. The new technology is allowing us to bridge that gap.
APE: Yeah, they’re all going “ok, who can we hire to shoot the DSLR video for us?”
It’s been a very interesting few years – Shane Hurlbut (DP for Terminator Salvation), Rodney Charters (DP for 24), Phillip Bloom (Director/DP in the UK) and I have fallen to the forefront of being the pioneers for the new technology. I think we were simply the early adopters who really put a lot of time and energy into making HDDSLR filmmaking work – we’re all put a lot of time into making this new breed of cameras come close to performing the same things that one would expect from a motion picture camera.
APE: What’s the terminology someone would use if they’re looking to hire an expert with the new technology? “We need…”
They would likely say that they need someone who’s an expert in the new hybrid Canon cameras – or HDDSLRs. Or they simply refer to he Canon 5D MKII, 1D MKIV, or 7D cameras directly.
APE: And why do they need an expert in the first place?
Because these cameras are not built to do what they want them to do. I’ve spent a year and a half now with some of the top camera operators and manufacturers in Hollywood building a system around this camera that basically allows it to do what you would do with a professional cinema camera.
APE: You’ve basically turned it into a regular movie camera. And what’s the advantage of using this over a movie camera? Cost?
Compared to RED camera for example, an HDSLR production can come in at half to a third of the price. Because of the weight of the camera, it’s sensitivity to light, and the support systems– you don’t need as large of a crew and it’s also significantly faster to set up and take down (again related to weight and size). And, it can look better in certain instances. These cameras shoot on a full frame sensor and they are astonishing in low light. Nothing comes close to it in low light. Another key factor is that these cameras can better take advantage of available light like few other cameras can – this means that you don’t necessarily have to bring in cube trucks full of lighting equipment in some instances – and obviously lighting is not only a big line item in any budget – it also contributes to more than a 1/3 of production day in terms of pre-lighting etc. That being said – and this is important: there is no substitute for good lighting! These HDSLRS just allow you to get away with a LOT more.
APE: Yeah, so you’re basically nocturnal now?
(laughs) You don’t want to take these cameras out to shoot bright sunny days, that’s where the Red camera will destroy the HDSLRs. But, indoors, offices, in difficult lighting the camera excels. So much so I have a 26 year steady cam operator/DP/Director, who has shot the same location we shot with this camera on “Nocturne” with this camera as he did with a high end Hollywood productions and it looks better – it looks better because it’s real. He was literally shocked when he saw the results. With no lighting. To reiterate – if the natural light is great – you can get away with murder. If the light is bad, it’s bad period. What these cameras allow you to do is to shoot in much lower levels of light – light that you once thought was impossible to shoot in. It does not turn bad light into good light.
APE: So, the technicians are probably really buzzing about the camera and word is spreading like wildfire through the industry?
This camera is not the the be all end all of cameras. There are some clear problems with it. But, besides the problems people are still gravitating to it. I can’t tell you how many commercials I see on TV that have been shot at least partly with a 5D.
APE: Let’s talk about this contest you’re doing. The first round of winners was announced on Saturday. You’ve got an incredible group of judges. How did you get DP from Titanic and the Producer of Star Wars to be a judge in the contest?
They’re all people I’ve met in the last year and a half.
APE: That’s got to be a huge turn-on to entering the contest. So, what’s the idea behind doing the contest in 7 segments?
I didn’t want to do just another film contest. There are so many of them. I wanted to try and not only leverage the new technology but also the power of social media and creative media over the web. Having people participate across the country in creating a film that has 7 chapters with interconnecting images. Who knows where it’s going. I have no idea what the final film will be like.
APE: Yeah, that’s going to be cool. Note: Anyone who’s interested in entering there’s 6 more chapters you can enter. See and vote on 5 finalists for chapter 1 (here).
APE: How does the future look for still photographers shooting the hybrid cameras?
I think we’re all going to have a very interesting next few years as still photographers. I think there’s tremendous potential for people out there who have an open mind. Not everyone needs to be a born-filmmaker. I’m not worried about photographers making transitions into video, or their unique version of how stills can transform into video. The only thing that worries me is that publications have a lot to figure out. The time it takes to pre-produce, shoot, and edit video is easily 2 to 4 times more time consuming as a still photography shoot. The gear involved is also significantly more expensive as well. And right now I don’t know that publications are ready to help defray any of those costs. In fact it seems that they want photographers to shoot both stills and video, for the same price. And, that’s not going to be sustainable for anyone, for more than the first assignment.
Once the photographer and even the editor, sees how much work is involved, I hope they will find a way to re-adjust. This clearly won’t be easy given the economy of print… but it’s something that needs to be discussed thoroughly. While you can’t expect photographers (or want them to) produce Hollywood quality pieces, you can’t forget that the audience is used to seeing Hollywood quality work on their television, so we need to make sure that we produce something that is either unique enough or at least good enough to hold their attention. One thing that will never change: people will always gravitate towards original and/or quality content.