Days of preparation, hundreds of people, and 57 Profoto strobes culminated in just five minutes and forty-two seconds of fast-paced shooting. In photographer Art Streiber’s own words, “it was pretty huge, and a little out of control.” I’ll say. In an Fstoppers exclusive, we go behind the scenes of one of the largest and most sensitive group photo shoots ever undertaken with 116 of Hollywood’s greatest stars on one stage at one time to celebrate Paramount Studio’s 100th anniversary.
Art Streiber is basically a self-taught photographer whose experimentation over the years has left him with a unique perspective and a massive client list. Art’s work can be seen everywhere: the cover of Wired Magazine, Fast Company, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, Watch!, Entertainment Weekly, Daily Variety, the New Yorker, ESPN Magazine, Time, Men’s Health, the list continues off my desk, onto the floor, and out the door. Art is the quintessential example of a photographer whose work is impossible NOT to see.
Art has developed a reputation for being undaunted by projects that seem impossible or even ridiculous and meeting those challenges head on, always figuring out how to make it work. One of Art’s guiding principles has been, “the answer is yes, now what’s the question?”
So, let’s say he’s asked to shoot 14 environmentalists on the north shore of Lake Tahoe on a Thursday and then fly to New York and Washington DC the following week to photograph eight more environmentalists (in studio) and light them so they all look like they were standing together in the Sierras. It's a no brainer for Art.
So when Paramount called him and asked “Hey we are going to do a 100th anniversary photo with 100 people. Can you shoot it?” Of course the answer was yes. “Being able to commemorate Paramount’s 100th anniversary photographically was not only a huge opportunity, but an incredible honor,” Art told us.
But after the initial shock and honor came the big question: “How the heck are we going to do this?”
At first, the folks at Paramount wanted the shot to be outdoors in front of the famous Paramount gates. But Art knew that the 90th anniversary had been photographed by Annie Leibovitz in front of those same gates for Vanity Fair ten years prior. Art also knew that he would be shooting in the middle of January, while Annie had shot in July. He didn’t want to try and recreate that image, while simultaneously attempting to battle the elements. He wanted something that would be distinct. After scouting the Paramount lot with his First Assistant and Executive Producer Elaine Browne, he pushed to get the shoot moved onto one of the sound stages, where he could be better in control of the set and the light.
Art got his wish, but it came with a monumental caveat. This would be the biggest light Art had ever constructed and he'd have to use more strobes than he had ever used before in order to light one set.
The 40-foot stage, 116-person photo needed flattering, even light all the way across. This setup used no light stands, no C-stands and no medium or high rollers. Instead, Art's crew of 10 assistants used 57 Profoto heads, and gridded 34 of those heads with Magnum P50 dishes as the key light. Because the stage was so wide, he couldn’t use a big side light. Instead, Art would have to light from above. He decided to mimic the “Broadway” style stage lighting, which is a fairly hard light source, up high above the audience.
The photo, which is of incredible magnitude in both scope of work and historical significance and took days of preparation, was captured in under six minutes. Click to view larger.
Paramount put grip, electric, and set building teams at Art’s disposal, which was a huge help and a massive advantage considering the monumental task. They ran the power, built the set to the specs of Art's set designer, and then constructed a custom designed three-rectangle rail and truss system that would drop from the ceiling. Art’s Crew took 57 Profoto 7 heads with a mix of gridded P50 magnum dishes, 7 inch reflectors, and strip banks and affixed them in an array on the truss, hoisted it onto the ceiling, and tested to gauge the light direction.
In addition, there was a large Paramount Logo hanging just behind and above the set that was later cropped out of the published image in order to enlarge the subjects. There were 24 foam stars that needed to be lit in a way to show off their depth, and Art was able to do that with a pair of strip lights and P50s with grids.
Paramount built two additional catwalks to access the strobe heads and to give the packs a place to sit. All these lights were triggered with a total of 5 PocketWizards. Art used the PocketWizards to trigger a one bare bulb ProFoto head high above the truss designed to slave all of the other strobes that would light the photo. The bare bulb trigger head was up high enough in the rafters that it had no effect on the photo, but slaved the huge group of active strobes perfectly. This was a far better method for so many lights than trying to link them all by PocketWizard.
In Art’s excited and relieved words, “It worked!”
While testing the lights during a dress rehearsal with 100 extras and stand ins, one of the major problems that arose was the black backdrop. Art realized, as you all out there would likely have noticed as well, that with a black background anyone standing on the stairwell who happened to be wearing black that day (a great many of them) or anyone with black hair would blend into the backdrop. Art needed to add a kicker/hairlight/backlight to the back edge of each of the pyramids, which his First Lighting Assistant, Johnny Tergo, accomplished with eight Profoto heads affixed to the catwalk above the stage.
STAGING THE MODELS
Rick Floyd, a well-known visual director who has worked for companies like HBO, Showtime, and FX, designed the set and posed the actors, going so far as to sketch out each of their positions on a massive mural. That 20 foot wide by 10 foot high rendering was signed by each of the subjects as they arrived on the stage and will become part of Paramount's history (which you can glimpse in the only released video of the project shown above).
The care and precision that Rick and Art wanted to take in preparation for the shoot was complicated by the fact that the guest list kept changing throughout the week, oscillating between 90 and 100 people, before settling on 116 by the day of the shoot. The photo required balance, as there were actors in their 90's (Mickey Rooney, Ernest Borgnine and Kirk Douglas) along side teenagers like Justin Bieber and Elle Fanning. And balancing the placement of men and women also demanded careful planning, or the image could look disjointed or even lopsided.
As you can well imagine, loading 116 actors onto even a simple stage takes some time. Add the specific posing and multi-level set, and the process could be unpleasantly lengthy for all those involved. To accommodate the large task of loading so many people onto the stage, they split the loading into two segments: left and right.
Even with a well-executed loading procedure, the process took the better part of 20 minutes, which meant that the first few people positioned on the stage had been standing in their positions for 20 minutes by the time the last person was posed. That’s a long time to wait, especially since these actors were considered guests doing a favor for the studio. Art could not make them wait forever. He had to be quick.
GETTING THE SHOT
Art fired 63 frames on a Hasselblad H2 camera with the new Phase One IQ-160 back and a 150mm lens, provided by his digital tech, Eric Vlasic at With Technology. He shot the photo in three sections, and in post production, the left, middle, and right sections were merged into the final triple page spread that appeared in Vanity Fair.
However, it’s important to note that all 116 people were on stage at one time. Nobody was stitched into the photo, nobody was added in post.
The image is truly a timeless masterpiece, one that Paramount can be proud for the next 100 years.
The finished product, as it is printed in Vanity Fair. Click to see larger.
About Art Streiber
Behind the camera since the 8th grade, Art’s first camera was a Canon AE1 his grandfather sold to him and his brother Paul for $5. Art pursued his growing passion from high school through college at Stanford, eventually taking internships and traineeships for newspapers in the LA area. While learning his craft, Art made ends meet by working in a small, family-owned camera store. Art believes that his experiences in the camera store helped him learn client and interpersonal relationships, as there was “a lot of thinking on your feet and problem solving,” and working through those hurdles with the customers framed his interaction with clients later in his life.
Eventually Art was offered the staff photographer position for the west coast bureau of Women’s Wear Daily and W (at the time, bi-monthly) magazines in 1987, two of the largest fashion publications of the era.
Art shot fashion, portrait, food, parties, still life, anything that came down the pipe. Two years later, Art and his then fiancé and now wife, were offered the opportunity to run the Milan office of WWD and W. Needless to say, they took it. They returned to the US in 1993, and Art has been freelancing ever since.
Note: Art Streiber received special permission from Paramount Studios to take part in the interview used as the base of this article.