It happens so many times. We open a magazine or visit a website and find screenshots of the film we want to see. We may not pay a lot of attention to it. However, a lot of our decision to watch a film is directly linked to the existence of great promotional materials.
Among those material, the “publicity photos” are a a key elements on a film’s deliverables list (note: the deliverables are a set of things the producer must deliver to the sales agent or distributor with the film). Those who are experienced in the production department know that the production of those deliverables are as important as the film itself. Put in a different way, a good production work will generate a great film AND quality deliverables.
The publicity photos are a part of that list that should never be left for later. On the contrary, you should think about them with the same care as you plan your shoot – and have a strategy for it just in the same way. Without that kind of care, the promotion of the film will not be able to push your film with the efficacy it could have. So, thinking about this in advance will help you in the future in ways you could not imagine.
That’s what this post is about.
Let’s start by categorizing the publicity photos in 4 groups.
- Crew and behind the scenes.
- Director and talent.
1 – Screenshots are the most common type of publicity photos. Those are the ones we see in most magazines and websites. They show images from the film with the goal of giving the audience an idea of how great things the film has: the stars/characters they love, the great special effects, the great sets, the action scenes, etc. However, some people tend to think that those photos are a) images taken from the film or b) faithful representations of the shots in the film (just like the audience will see them in the film).
These ideas are misconceptions when it comes to most of the films.
The usage of screenshots in websites, magazines, TV, posters and other promotional instances and outlets demands VERSATILITY to those photos. In the old days of film, a 35mm frame rarely had the quality that could be used for a poster or quality printing (in magazines, for example). Back then, taking a frame from the film was rarely a good option and the screenshots we see from the classics were done by dedicated publicity crews working in the studio. Here’s one of them:
People may think that if a certain frame is good enough to be projected on a screen, then it will be good enough for a magazine. However, on the screen, we have movement and sound – all helping us get immersed in the narrative. That’s not what happens when we look at a magazine page. Here the limitations of the medium get visible. And worse than that, on a magazine or on a website, before we get to the screenshot of the film, we’ve already passed through other ads where the quality of their photos raises our expectancy. If you are not careful, the screenshots of your film will be the least interesting things people see.
That’s why Hollywood never takes publicity photos directly from films. Instead, dedicated photographers will produce those photos at the best resolution, the best quality, especially for publicity.
What we see on the film may not be ideal to be reproduced in the printed media. In this case, a dedicated photographer can help the producer get a number of images specifically for that end. DANGEROUS LIAISONS (1988) gives us a great example. Even the differences in framing have a function: in the film, we are concentrating on the character and what she is saying. On the publicity photo there is no “what she is saying”, there’s no sound. So the framing is trying to show production value: the star, the gorgeous porcelain tea set, wardrobe. In the film, showing the tea set would be a distraction from the action. On the photo, it makes all the sense. The light and the colors are not the same either.
It would be absurd to try to compare what is the better photo. Their goal is not the same. What matters here is to understand the function and the impact of each on the commercial life of the film – because they will never be seen at the same time or in the same conditions. One is for the screen. The other is for magazines.
Another myth says that the publicity photos should try to emulate or reproduce what the final shot will be or what the camera captures. While in theory this can make some sense, in reality, the image captured by the motion picture camera may not be the best way to represent the whole scene or the film. Keep in mind that in a film, each shot is conceived as part of a set that will make sense through the editing. They also take advantage of the fact that the audience has a considerable knowledge of the story and characters when a particular shot comes along. but take that shot out of the set and it stops making sense (from the publicity’s perspective). Those shots were not meant to be seen out of the edit by someone who has not yet started to watch the film and has not been through the previous scenes in the story – lacking precious information. That shot splashed on a magazine may be meaningless. From this point of view, the goal is to obtain photos that, by themselves and removed from any viewing experience, represents the entire scene or the whole film. FRANTIC (1988) gives us a great example: one of the best publicity photos of the film is a shot that is absent from the scene it represents.
The photo taken communicates tension, danger much more effectively. And for those who haven’t yet seen the film, they show the best production value of them all: the stars (now facing the camera). The photo also show more effectively the object everybody is looking for (almost lost in the shot from the movie). On a magazine, the original shot would make no sense: two people whose faces we cannot see stretching towards an object we can barely figure out what it is. The publicity photo does a much better job communicating the scene, its goal and the film’s stars.
And that photo is so good that is was used everywhere to represent the film. Just take a look at the two home video versions of the film. From all the photos available, they selected this one.
It is fundamental to understand that, more than show the film, the publicity photos sell the film. And for that to happen, they have to (when necessary) abandon the director’s camera setup and try to truly represent the best things the film has.
Another example shows two images with different functions.
In the previous scene, Dr. Richard Walker finds a box of matches from a club called “Blue Parrot”. On the next scene, (left photo) the emphasis is on the connection between the finding of the matches and his arrival at the club (with the neon sign standing on a similar level of importance as the star). Harrison Ford’s presence is obvious. There is no need to draw all the attention to him. By the time the audience gets here, the star is taken for granted. But more, this is just a quick transition scene that situates the next scene: the interior of the club. The publicity photo, however, tells a different story. No box of matches, no transition, no next scene. Just the main character under neon lights. How is it possible that a scene of no importance becomes one of the key photos of the film (take another look at the DVD back cover)? It’s very simple: there is no necessary connection between the importance of a scene and a great photo taken from it.
Imagine that the camera shows a two people kissing 500 feet away from the camera against a gorgeous scenery of mountains and sky. In the movie, we know who they are. We can afford to see them kiss from afar. It would make no sense to keep the publicity photo so far from the kiss. On a magazine, they would be size of an ant (and probably we would see no kiss). But for those who haven’t seen the film, a much closer photo where we can actually see the characters kissing would be much more important than the sky and the mountains. Unless there is something drastically dramatic about the sky and mountains like a tornado coming to get them.
2 – Crew and behind the scenes will be more or less interesting (and valuable for publicity) depending on the type of film you are making. However, the importance of those photos as deliverables should never be underestimated. In a film where the special effects are an essential part (no matter how simple or complex), capturing images of how it was made fuels the interest of that part of the audience who gets fascinated by the film making process and the more specialized press that caters that audience. But more than that, those photos show the technical, creative and financial investment made in the film – giving the producer some leverage to try to bring up the the price of the film when comes the time to sell it. If the film is a co-production, these photos will document the different nationalities coming together to make the film. They are also a good public relations tool that shows the creation of value, making a bridge between filmmakers (those who make the movies) and financiers (who are seldom in the terrain and, sometimes, know very little about how their money is spent).
Great behind-the-scenes photos like the ones below are loved by the press, since they bring the production values to the front, sparkling the curiosity of the audience.
They do not need to be spectacular, but they should try to communicate the uniqueness of the film.
Sometimes they put the audience on a privileged a point of view that instantly generates curiosity.
Stanley Kubrick was also noted for having the perfect notion that quality and quantity of behind the scenes help keep a film on people’s minds. And decades after the release of his films, we still see photos that extend our look into his work. Very few films can be that lucky.
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3 – Director and talent are ALWAYS important because they bring forward the excellence of the creative work and the film’s biggest production values (its stars). The director must be photographed in different contexts. The most usual one is during the shoot (below) as he works.
Or interacting with the cast:
Or completely immersed in his own universe:
Or simply alone for any use the market demands – like festival catalogs and the press.
David Cronenberg is a director who’s very aware of the importance of being photographed in the most different contexts – something that he does since the beginning of his career.
4 – Character photos are extremely valuable regardless of if they are or not part of the film (just like the screenshots). The photo below supplied by the producers of ORLANDO (1992) is not part of the film. However it is gorgeous and it offers us something about the character that goes beyond the film:
The photo is so good that it was used for the film’s re-release.
It was also used on the tie-in – in this case Virginia Woolf’s book.
In some cases, the characters are taken from the scenes and photographed together. In the example below – WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVON (2011) – the characters Eva (Tilda Swinton) is photographed alongside her son Kevin through all of his ages during the film – something that cannot happen in the film. This is a great way to call attention to the evolution of the character:
Going back to FRANTIC , we have an example o characters who look directly at the audience.
The photo below works very well and comes from a scene that was cut from the film.
The goal of this post is to call your attention to the importance of thinking the promotional life of your film from a strategic point of view with the care and love it needs. A lack of attention to this element of your film’s production will cost you dearly later on since you won’t be able to take advantage of everything that promotion can do for you – specially when you have little money and need the best results.
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