Still Life

The presence of still images in 'moving pictures' seems like an oxymoron. But for doc-makers, especially those who produce historical or biographical shows, stills often constitute an essential part of their programs - either by choice or necessity....
October 1, 2000

The presence of still images in ‘moving pictures’ seems like an oxymoron. But for doc-makers, especially those who produce historical or biographical shows, stills often constitute an essential part of their programs – either by choice or necessity.

Filmmaker Steve Rosen, of California-based Mac and Ava Motion Pictures, says his preference is always to use moving images, though when that isn’t possible he opts for stills over re-enactments. ‘I really hate [re-enactments]. To me, it always looks like they’re trying to make feature films and don’t really want to make documentaries. That’s a place where I would use stills.’

Not all producers view 2-D images as second-best. Dave Flitton, of Donegal, Ireland-based Malin Film and Television, sometimes chooses to incorporate stills even when moving pics are available. For the Battlefield series (produced by Flitton for London-based LaMancha Productions), ‘people would make the assumption that if we used stills for historic events, it was because we didn’t have the footage,’ he says. ‘So, I tended to turn [that assumption] on its head and use the stills strictly for the power they can bring . . . Lingering on a person’s face and a slow zoom into their eyes can speak volumes.’

More than a slide show…

How a still is incorporated alongside live-action sequences is crucial to its effectiveness, although many producers don’t recognize this, says motion control specialist Berle Cherney, of Washington, D.C.’s Visual Productions. ‘So many shows I’ve seen are beautifully crafted, but when the stills are used it seems like they’re just thrown in to fill space.’ Cameraman Ed Joyce, owner of The Frame Shop in Newton, U.S., agrees. ‘People tend to give the photographs a low priority.’

Both Cherney and Joyce offer their expertise in motion control to filmmakers using stills. The technique is used to create the effect of pans, tilts, zooms and diagonals – but it’s not the camera that usually moves.

Cherney explains: ‘The picture [which is mounted to a mechanized table] is moving in front of the camera, but it gives the illusion that the camera is moving on the picture.’ The desired outcome is to make the static image appear more dynamic. Without this finessing, the sudden appearance of a still can be jarring and disruptive to the flow of a program.

The table motion – north, south, east, west, and rotation – is computer controlled. ‘Computers allow you to do visually what you would like to do, not only what you can figure out mathematically and chart out,’ Joyce notes.

When shooting in BetaSP or DigiBeta, Joyce zooms and focuses from a fixed location, attaching the camera to a stand. For film (16mm or 35mm), his Oxberry animation camera is attached to an arm or axis and moves up and down for zooming and focusing.

Cherney uses a customized ‘animotion’ system. He controls the speed and direction manually and instinctively, which is his preference. He believes that because a computer moves linearly from point A to point B, the end result often looks mechanical. The other key distinction of his system is that the equipment programs in ‘real-time’ and retains the move in its memory. ‘We can automatically play the move backward and forward, and even change the speed. Once we like it, we simply start the videotape or roll film, and the system repeats the move,’ he says.

Behind every good machine…

Perhaps even more important than the tech is the technique. Says Joyce, ‘People often make mistakes with motion control in that they try to get too busy [with the camera].’ Even on such large-scale projects as The Civil War and Baseball – two of several Ken Burns projects on which Joyce has worked – less was more. ‘Ken doesn’t get fancy – he doesn’t let the camera work steal the story. When you get to the stills, the flow continues.’ Joyce is currently working on two Burns films: Mark Twain and Jazz.

Cherney prides himself on filming stills as if he were filming live action. ‘We use the same grammar – long shots, medium, close-ups, pans, zooms, etc. And we try to give the editors lots of options, because in our experience, most documentaries are formed in the editing stage. We’ve never had an editor complain about receiving too many choices.’

Llew Smith, senior producer with Boston pubcaster WGBH, says of Cherney, ‘Berle has a really nice eye. He’s a former photographer, so he brings that to the framing – he brings that in terms of his input and his ideas. All that is really key and valuable. You want people who have an appreciation for the kind of stills that you have and want you to get the most out of them.’ Smith used Cherney’s services for his us$500,000-plus Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory, a one-hour one-off.

Their rates for motion control are comparable for video but disparate for film. Joyce charges us$150 per hour for film, $250 for BetaSP and $300 for DigiBeta. (He reasons that while videotape is cheaper, the more frequent equipment upgrades are expensive.) Cherney charges $325 to shoot 16mm or 35mm, $340 for Super 16 and $310 for video, though he says his rates are negotiable based on the size of the job.

Taking matters into your own hands

Turning to the motion control experts isn’t the only way to go, however. Says Malin Films’ Dave Flitton, ‘With a good cameraman, using a camera and tripod, you can get terrific results.’ Alternately, he says he has programmed certain moves into graphics computers with satisfactory results. Flitton concedes that for complex moves it would likely be best to abandon the tripod and scanner, but not for a handful of mugshots.

Filmmaker Steve Rosen, who lives in Monterey, California, didn’t have much of a choice but to try it on his own because of his location – 400 miles from Los Angeles and 200 miles from San Francisco. For his current project, a $117,000 one-hour called The Roots of California Photography (w/t), he has to shoot the stills in the homes and museums in which they reside.

Shooting in Super 16, Rosen is careful to make his shots interesting. ‘I do moves, but I don’t particularly like zooms,’ he says. ‘I generally don’t use zooms even in production in documentary work, but in stills I really try not to. I tend to either cut or use dissolves – dissolving from a long shot to a close-up, or whatever. If I’m dealing with a large enough photograph, I can usually do it with a conventional tripod head. If it’s a smaller image, you have to use a gear head, and that’s okay too.’ Rosen is also a fan of the split-screen. ‘It gives you two things to look at once . . . I think it’s up to the filmmaker to make a documentary rather than a document.’

The digital option is also gaining ground with do-it-yourself filmmakers. For Conscience and the Constitution – a $270,000 one-hour about Japanese Americans imprisoned for resisting the draft during WWII – Seattle-based filmmaker Frank Abe packed up his laptop and scanner, and hit the road.

‘I was trying to find a way to not just blow up photographs and shoot them with a Betacam,’ Abe says. ‘I scanned them and then saved them as tif documents, and we found a way to import the tifs directly into the avid, so the editor could work with digital files.’ He was pleased with the results, particularly scans of old newspaper articles. ‘I was able to get the texture, the touch and feel of the newsprint into the show.’

This was the first time Abe attempted capturing stills digitally, but it is a technique he would try again. ‘I think [digital scanning] is indistinguishable from doing it the old-fashioned way, using the motion-control camera – with the caveat that we didn’t do any complicated swirls, just zooms and pans . . . [But] we saved thousands of dollars.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.