Vincent Laforet Goes Beyond The Still

- - Photographers

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.

There Are 30 Comments On This Article.

  1. Wow, there’s so much about photographers making transitions into video in the last year. I guess I’m going against the mainstream again – shifting from video (HDDSLR with Nikon D90) to traditional photography. By August 2008 when I first heard about revolutionary D90 video technology I was making commercials and motion design production in small Russian city. I saw this new camera as a unique chance to significantly improve the quality of my footages (we only could use DV before). I should say that technology really worked out for me – the production of commericlas with real-life shootings grew up almost 2 times.
    I don’t know why but this inclined me even more towards still photography.

  2. nice interview…I like Vincent’s attitude allot…so many times converts to video from stills are flying the flag like its the best thing since sliced bread and everybody has to do it or they are going to die – I remember when you HAD to start recording audio or you were simply going to be left behind, yeah right – in the rusting graveyard of old technologies and old ideas…but Vincent doesn’t have that attitude and its refreshing…and I especially like the last paragraph in which he talks about the publishers and their need perhaps not need, want, and cost of doing video.

  3. Solid interview Rob and Vincent. Great insights and info here to learn from. Love the last paragraph as well. Publishers have to step it up – the demand for quality outstrips the race to the bottom every time – yet so many seem blingd to this. Good luck Vincent!

  4. On the editorial side, how will photographers shooting video will be workable for all but the largest editorial productions? Magazines have low budgets as it is for stills and rarely have room for anything extra in the budget. The time (a lot) and expense (very significant) will be put on the photographer. I hope that doesn’t happen, but can’t imagine any other scenario.

    Here are a couple quotes from some big names in editorial about the subject:
    From an Adbase interview with the the Photo Editor of Outside Magazine
    “Right now, the more any photographer shoots video, the better … I just did a shoot where the photographer just shot video, volunteered to do it and just did it… I mean that’s the other thing, too… we want more and more for no extra money, you know. We’re not paying for video.”

    From a PDN interview with Wired Magazine.
    “In the meantime, Wired has no budget to commission additional content, so they’re depending on photographers who are interested in experimenting for no additional fee.”

    As photographers, we have a chance to set expectations and let the editorial clients know we need to be paid for video. But, as was done with digital fees and web use, do you think that’s going to happen?

    • @Jeff Singer, I agree–we’re already getting nickel and dimed to death from editorial clients as it is; shooting video as well for little or no extra money is ridiculous. I’ve been shooting 5DMII video projects on my own, and the storage alone is expensive (those 1TB drives are piling up in my office) not to mention the time involved in converting and editing…plus dealing with separate audio and buying other expensive accessories.

      • @Jim Newberry, I for one will not do it without enough pay, period and I hope others do the same. But that does not mean that I will never shoot video on an assignment, it means that just like when I bring my film camera along, or med format, or whatever, to shoot a little for myself, I may shoot some video and work with it and perhaps even offer it to the client but not for nothing, that’s totally silly and a quick way to put yourself out of business.

  5. Did Msr. Laforet mention which editing software he uses?

    Any thoughts out there from the rest of you shooters on what editing software works best with hybrid cameras?

    Thanks!

    • @chantelle, On the Mac side I think most folks are using Final Cut Pro. You could probably use just about any NLE software, the trick is to convert the footage to a more manageable codec (Prores for Mac).

      • @Jim Newberry, On the PC there is plenty of low-budget software that will edit video from the 5D MkII without conversion, such as GV Edius Neo, Adobe Premiere Elements 7/8. Annoyingly it’s the high-end NLE systems that require the files to be converted first but the budget programs are MUCH easier to learn.

  6. Nice!
    A couple of thoughts as I read this. I am wondering about those who work in different genres. What is Vincent’s impression of what changes might take place for photographers who shoot commercial, wedding, and portraits. Those genres seem to lack quality video at times.

    What does he think it takes to shoot a quality video, what kind of organization skills do you need to employ?

    I have never been a big video fan even though I have shot it in the past. It is very time consuming to edit and put together in a usable product. I use to do for family and now I don’t even offer because of time.

    I wonder if Vincent has checked out the new Nikon D3s and what he thinks of it versus the cannons that shoot video.

    Last if photographers are not careful about shooting video for free they are going to set a bad precedence for coming changes within the industry

    The title could change to a PhotovideoEditor LOL

  7. Curious if Vincent could comment on the shooting of HD Video using Zeiss lens on the Canon’s and if they are better than Canon L lens, and if so why and which ones he likes most.

    Thanks, great article.

    Scott

  8. Vincent, you were very patient and answered so nicely to such a cynical and condescending (sounding to my internal reader voice, at least) interviewer!

    Came off like …You shot some good stills , and now you think you’re an important filmmaker? Why do WE need an EXPERT? You’re nobody, how did YOU get these DP’s to judge your (little) contest?

    Keep up the great work, Vincent!

    • A photographer

      @Matt Moses,

      Gee did not come across to me that way. This is the first interview I’ve seen of Mr. Laforet where presents himself professionally.

      Vincent has a huge amount of press, awards and hype behind him. Rob has every reason to in the world to not toss him softball questions. Vincent has his own schedule and agenda to follow.

      I do think he is growing as a visual storyteller and as an expert in the new field of HDSLR. His web presence is enormous and he has many followers. I have more respect for him after reading this interview than any of the puff pieces that have been published before this piece.

  9. It’s amazing what’s happening now with technology. Both the shrinking budgets due to the economic climate and the evolution of technology are both creating opportunities and at the same time taking them away.

    Video production has become much more affordable, and a great production value can be achieved with so little. I have worked in video for years and am now actually migrating a bit to stills. Owning a really expensive $5ok+ broadcast camera just doesn’t seem worth it anymore.

    By keeping the equipment costs low and working with DSLRs it is possible now to make a great living in a type of production that just didn’t exist a few years ago!

  10. Another wonderful interview.
    Vincent has no limitations when it comes to visual creativity as a still or video journalist. Some 8-10 years ago (good memory…just short!) he was one of the first to speak at Poynter on the subject, embracing audio-slide and video as a reporting tool for newspapers of the future.

    Now appears to be the future.

    Thank you both

  11. Swiss Photographer

    So much gear. Hard to wrap your head around it at times. Is technology driving our visions or are we reacting to it?

    Decent interview of Mr. LaForet.

  12. As Vincent said, editorial will need to adjust it’s budget, but I can’t see how it will. I’m now shooting video on Canon DSLR’s as well as stills, but my clients, like Vincent, are commercial, not editorial. I gave up trying to convince editorial companies of the need to invest last year and concentrated on finding new clients for this technology. Editorial will probably never have the budgets to pull off these shoots in any but the rarest circumstances.

    Never the less, I’m really excited at the prospect of assembling a crew and working with others instead of alone, as most stills shooters do!

    Great times ahead!

  13. Everybody thought movie theaters would die out with the advent of TV. They haven’t. Print media would be desimated with the advent of computers. The pie will have to be shared out in more ways! But it’s going to be interesting to see where this is all going. Among other things I am a wedding photog. and some wedding photographers are beginning to shoot HD video and extracting stills from the videos! I’m still on the fence!

    Brian Carey