[FS Spotlight] Photographer Ursula Coyote of Breaking Bad Talks About Breaking into TV Stills, Unions, and the Film Industry
Just about everyone I know is hooked on critically-acclaimed series Breaking Bad. (A high school chemistry teacher with cancer turned meth dealer? How could that not be interesting?) But as TV still photographer Ursula Coyote will tell you, shooting the show can be even more exciting than watching it. Coyote, a veteran photog of 20 years, tells FS Spotlight what it’s like to work on one of televisions hottest shows, working with actors, getting into a union, and why personality is the most important thing for every photographer.
Fstoppers: When did you discover your love of photography?
Ursula Coyote: As a teenager I was always in a rock band, and my dad got me a camera when I was 16. I ended up taking all the local bands’ photos for their posters. I went to Parson’s later for fine art, and I thought, “Well, I don’t think I can draw pictures for album covers.” So I don’t know if it was love or just pragmatic. I took some photography classes, and then I ended up working for Spin and the equivalent to Rolling Stone in Japan called Viva Rock, and I managed to get by. It kind of fell into itself. I never thought I’d be a photographer.
Fstoppers: You really started out more with music photography, is that what you’re saying?
Ursula Coyote: Yeah, definitely. I photographed music in New York and had a band and some record deals, and I went back and forth between music photography and playing music. I either sang the songs or took pictures of other people playing songs. Then I moved from New York City to Austin thinking I would do music there, but I did music photography. I had a magazine called Mike’s Feedback, and we did interviews with Bowie and Ozzy Osbourne. It was awesome. I’d been in Austin for 5 years and had kind of milked that experience, so then I moved to New Mexico. I moved here and thought, “God, what am I going to do?” I started doing fine art photography, which of course is not going to pay any bills unless you’re very famous. But the movie business came here, and I got on that bandwagon. Moving to Sante Fe, New Mexico, I never imagined it would end up being one of the number one movie markets. I didn’t start out in photography on set, I started out as a P.A. in the art department, which has nothing to do with art, it has to do with hanging things up on walls like curtains and whatnot. Everybody told me it was going to be impossible to get in a camera union out of Los Angeles, which was basically true, but I didn’t give up. In order to get your days to get your show you have to get in the union, but you can’t get in the union unless you’re working on a show. But I managed to conquer that! I work on Breaking Bad and a couple great shows, but it’s still freelance. You know, you’re only as good as your last job, and you’ve always got to work for it.
Fstoppers: What was your first job shooting on set?
Ursula Coyote: There was a TV mini series called Comanche Moon starring Val Kilmer. I was an art department coordinator’s assistant, so basically I was ordering things from the 1800s. I went to the set to drop off something and I had my camera with me, and there were these horses running and buildings on fire… but they didn’t have a still photographer that day! I just started taking some pictures from the sidelines, and the director ended up blowing them up and hanging them on his wall. And that’s when I realized that I should be doing this. I happened to be there by default, and the fact that everyone went crazy for them was a sign for me. I thought, “This is what I need to do at all costs, no matter what it’s going to take.”
Fstoppers: With Breaking Bad, what did you think when you first heard the premise for the show?
Ursula Coyote: It was weird because I got a call from our production designer, and he called me out of the blue and said, “I need you to take some photos of the sets and the actors.” They needed them to decorate the house. There were these little scenarios, like Walt and his wife when they were on their honeymoon, and I took pictures of them so that their house would look real, like real people had been living there. While I was there during the pilot, they had asked me to do all the camera tests of the actors, to make sure their makeup and wardrobe look good. And it didn’t make any sense to me, at the time, but it ended up being incredible, and everyone thought “Wow, that guy Vince is such a visionary!” His stories… his work is mind-blowing. So that’s how I started working with him, but I had a lot of trouble because I wasn’t in the union. The day I got in the union I called the producers, and I now am their permanent photographer. It’s the best show I’ve ever worked on, hands down.
Fstoppers: What’s been your favorite moment with working on Breaking Bad?
Ursula Coyote: I can’t put those Breaking Bad scripts down. Every time I think I know what’s going on, Vince Gilligan takes me for a complete loop! One of my favorites scenes to shoot was at this beautiful hacienda in Placitas, New Mexico with the Mexican Drug Cartel. It had that Scarface vibe with two actors actually from the original movie, Mark Margolis (Tio Salamanca and Steve Bauer (Don Eladio). A bad deal was about to go down. Don Eladio was poisoned and while dying he dramatically falls into the pool. I have never photographed underwater but was excited to give it a try. I, of course, did not have a bathing suit so the wardrobe girls hooked me up with some daisy dukes and a goofy t-shirt. I put my Nikon D300 in plastic housing for a video camera and dove in. The problem was I couldn’t sink down and the make-shift camera bag served more like a floatation device. However, after much kicking and soaking the directer and crew, I managed to go down, but I couldn’t see the viewfinder or LCD screen so I just shot away. Miraculously, I got the shot!
Fstoppers: How is shooting for a TV show different from shooting for a mini-series or a feature film?
Ursula Coyote: My favorite thing is shooting a feature film. They’re harder to get on, but I’ve actually done pretty well with that. I just finished Odd Thomas, and the best part about being a still photographer is that you have to be on set everyday. That’s 48 days that I’m working straight, so that’s a very lucrative job. You work your ass off for 14 hours a day, but then after it’s all said and done you have amazing photos, you have a nice rapport with all the cast and crew, and you have some pretty nice paychecks. The thing about television, which I also like shooting, is that they’re not required to have a photographer there everyday. If I was on Breaking Bad for six months everyday though, I wouldn’t have a life. I’d have a nice bank account! It’s frustrating because they’ll have to pick a couple days per episode. Sony’s in New York and AMC is in Los Angeles, so the producers have to go through all these people. They’ll ask me and the director, “what do you think a good day would be?” Then AMC has to approve it. Because of the economy and budget cuts, out of an 8-day episode, I probably used to shoot 3-4 days. Now it’s probably 2-3, depending. That’s the one frustrating thing about television and still photography. They’re not required to have you there all the time, so they don’t. Some people think, “Why do we need photos?” And then other people say, “Well, we absolutely need them because it promotes the show!” Hands down, it’s a very important job.
Fstoppers: What do you shoot with?
Ursula Coyote: I have two Nikons, The Twins, I call them. D300s.
Fstoppers: What lenses do you normally use?
Ursula Coyote: That’s why I have the two cameras. Instead of blowing 5K on one camera, I have these two, which are perfectly fine. They shoot really fast and they do really well in low light, which is always a problem on movies. You never have enough light. I have two lenses that I use, one on each camera. One is an 18-55mm digital, and that does about 75% of my images, because you can go from wide to waist up. Then I have an 80-200mm. Both of them are 2.8, you have to have that. You have to have a fast lens. The 80-200mm for the B camera, the close ups, the more intimate. Between those two, if I can’t catch it in that range, I shouldn’t be taking photos, you know what I mean?
Fstoppers: Of all the actors you’ve photographed, who has been your favorite to shoot?
Ursula Coyote: For TV, I really like Aaron Paul. He’s got great facial expressions, and he won an Emmy the year before last, which is incredible because he’s so young. I also just met Holly Hunter. I was blown away by what an amazing person she was. I just did a Dutch movie called Jackie, and she was just a really great person, very down to earth. You know, actors get a pretty bad reputation, but most of them are really cool.
Fstoppers: What logistical issues do you have shooting while there are cameras rolling?
Ursula Coyote: I have to have blimps. I thought I could get away not having them, and I made my own out of neoprene, which worked pretty well but they weren’t very durable. So I bought the Jacobson’s blimps from LA. They’re industry standards, and you have to have them. They look like they’re from the 1940s, but the good news is that in addition to silencing the cameras, they also protect them. I’m working in the desert doing Westerns a lot of the time, and getting dust in your lenses can ruin them. If my cameras are in the blimps, nothing can get to them. Plus they’re so heavy, they’ll give you nice biceps. (laughs)
Fstoppers: Do you follow your shows when they air?
Ursula Coyote: Yes, of course! I love to watch them. I watch everything from Breaking Bad, and I watch In Plain Sight too, even though I don’t work on that show as often.
Fstoppers: What do you think is the most important skill for a TV still photographer to have?
Ursula Coyote: Personality. You also have to be good, but that’s a given. I don’t think this is a job for people that are fresh out of school, either. I’ve been a photographer for 20 years now, and all the things I learned along the way are so important now. They all come into play, and you have to have technical skills and know your camera, but the most important thing is people skills. You have to get along with people and appreciate what they do. You want the people on set to be happy to see you, and you have to be willing to go the extra mile.
Fstoppers: What is your advice to our readers that are interested in becoming TV still photographers?
Ursula Coyote: Do it the old fashioned way. Start as an assistant, in any department, and work your way up. You have to know how a movie runs! On day you might be making someone coffee, and the next day you might be running the main camera. Those are the miracles of the movie industry!