Interview with a Film Set Photographer Niko Tavernise
Niko Tavernise has every portrait photographers dream job. Well at least my dream job. He hangs out on movie sets and takes pictures of what he sees. And what he sees are the top actors of our time in impeccable costumes and makeup, on sets that are pre-lit by masters in lighting. And before you start scheming about how you can try to get a job like this, read about how he came about landing this epic gig.
How often do you shoot bts for movies?
Most of my behind-the-scenes are just for Darren’s movies. I have done a couple others but they were more editing gigs and less me doing everything (Shooting, editing, directing and mastering).
Do you have an in with a certain studio or relationships with the directors?
I’ve known Darren Aronofsky for a long time. I remember when he said he was going to make a sci-fi film called Pi and living down the street from where we shot it in Brooklyn. I jumped at the chance to help out. It’s much less of a relationship with a studio when you are dealing with smaller movies and just starting out. Its much more who you know at that point. For instance I am friends with one of Wes Anderson‘s producers and he called to see if I wanted to shoot Moonrise Kingdom, which I eventually did. Or someone sees my work, like the director of The Messenger, who saw my stuff on The Wrestler and hired me.
Your images are stunning. Is shooting bts on movie sets as fun as it looks?
Wow thanks! I think Im just coming to the realization that im a “professional” photographer. I’m nothing like some friends of mine who are war photographers or insanely high paid fashion photographers. Set photography is a special kind of division. All of the lighting is done for you (unbelievably lucky on that one) and you just have to jocky for position in tight spaces and deal with actors who might hate you because you remind them of some paparazzi dude that shot them last week or something. But some of the images you can get are pretty special. Every film crew I have ever worked with have been nothing but cool with me. Actors, on the other hand, are hit and miss. Producers usually like having you around because you are the first vector of how their film will get sold. With directors, some love having you there and others couldn’t give a shit. Luckily Darren, and now Marc Webb – The Amazing Spiderman director- love seeing my daily photos, which I edit on set, in-between takes.
Shooting behind-the-scenes video is a whole different bag- usually not so fun. It’s fun when you get a moment that really means something to you and the crew. I try to film every little element of the process. To me, the littlest guy building the flowers in The Fountain was way more impressive to me than all the big techno crane moves. Just being the documentarian is a huge job though. On Noah I was running around attaching GoPro cameras to every crane and every vehicle I could find, while still shooting about 1,000 images daily for the studio. I have really amazing access with Darren, so I feel way more comfortable doing it for his films. A lot of people dont like to have an extra camera guy there rolling after the film cameras cut. Just one more person to get in their way I guess.
Do you ever convert your access with celebrities to editorial portrait work?
No. I think I would like too because that’s where the big bucks are, but that shit never happens. I feel you are either the on-set guy or a big advertising, product shooter. I really dont like the studio stuff- too much waiting and too much stress. On set I’m just a floating entity, shooting as I please. It’s the editing work that really takes time for me. Going through that many photos each day while still shooting on set is a bit of work. But directors and producers love that stuff.
There are some actor friends of mine who I would love to shoot and who have asked me to shoot some stuff, but I’m usually shut down by the big advertising machine who will ONLY hire their go-to guys. It seems like a very exclusive club. Maybe I should get an H3 to shoot on.
How much freedom do you have to shoot on set? Are there only certain times and days and sets you can shoot on?
It really depends on whether you are hired full time or just day-playing, as they call it. If you’re full time, you really can shoot anything as long as you dont piss off the actors and the crew. You have to know when you have your shot, I guess. And make sure the actors and crew have some space. On set you really are pretty low on the totem pole. The crew never really realizes how cool you are until they see your photos at the wrap party, and by then it’s too late. You just have to play it all by ear. The more experience you get on set, the better chance you have at finding a nice place to shoot from and making the actors feel comfortable. Day-playing on the other hand is not too much fun. You are usually on lower budget films that can’t afford you full time, or you’re filling in for someone who can’t make it on a certain day. Sometimes you won’t know the crew well and you have to get a bunch of shots to make the film company happy. Full time work on sets is where it’s at.
What is your main bread and butter photography gig? I assume shooting BTS for movies doesn’t happen too often.
That would be my set photography. I’m able to get a nice salary and have full health insurance through my camera union. I also shoot weddings with my wife, but prices have dropped so low that we just haven’t been accepting as many gigs. The “Makings Of” videos take a TON of work. Since I edit, write the score and shoot everything myself, I charge accordingly. Those usually take close to a year to make. So when I’m not shooting photos on sets, I’m usually editing a “Making Of”.
Finally, any video of you at work that we can share?
Ha! I wish. No one ever shoots the documentarian. Actually maybe it’s better that no one sees me. That way I can lurk in the shadows and keep shooting.