Kimberley French has the job you didn’t even know you wanted: she’s a still photographer working on movie sets.
French has not only shot stills and behind the scenes on such renowned movies as Oscar award-winning film Brokeback Mountain, The Assassination of Jesse James, Shooter, and Halloween Resurrection, but French even claims the poster images for Brokeback Mountain, Jesse James, and Red Riding Hood.
Working with some of the world’s most talented actors, directors, and crew members sounds like many a photographer’s dream-come-true, and Kimberley French tells Fstoppers about working with world-famous director Ang Lee, shooting in extreme temperature (what do you do when your lens freezes?), and the art of being a still photographer on a movie set.
Fstoppers: Tell me a bit about how you got your start with photography.
Kimberley French: My grandmother gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera when I was seven, I've loved photography since then. I went to college for English literature and philosophy and I loved it but was attracted more to the visual, so after two years I decided to go in another direction. My mom said "do something you love". I took the photography program at a community college, and I ended up working for a local newspaper, the Nelson Daily News. I worked as a freelance photographer for five years after that, as well as working jobs to pay the rent, that was my early 20s.
Fstoppers: Feature film still photography is a pretty specialized niche. Did you always know this was what you wanted to do?
Kimberley French: No, a friend of mine was an independent director, and he said, “You’d make a great still photographer.” And I said, “What’s that?” A few years later I went to film school, and a still photographer came in to talk to us, and I loved what he had to say about the job.
I was really curious so I apprenticed with him. There is a little bit of snobbery when it comes to television versus movie photography. A lot of major studios
Fstoppers: Movie still photographers face a number of challenges, and some consider it controversial to have a still photographer on a movie set. What challenges do you face on a daily basis?
Kimberley French: That’s not so much the case anymore because the people that I’m working with are at the top of their field, including the actors. It’s still can be challenging as you have to work around the lights and crew. The whole thing is not set up for you. You must be as invisible as possible.
I experienced some difficult actors when I started out and was working on independent films, but I’ve been doing it for 13 years and I’ve only encountered two difficult actors. On TV you are only on set a couple of days per episode so it can be much more difficult to "cover" everything. On set the light can be extremely low, so you have to use high ISO ratings, fast lenses, and you have little or no depth of field.
Fstoppers: What skills are specific to movie still photography? How does working on a movie set affect your process?
Kimberley French: It’s very challenging because of the environment. You could be in the middle of a hot desert working and sweating for 14 hours.
I was on the top of a mountain for a film, and the camera assistants got frostbite on the tips of their fingers. Sometimes you’re shooting in the rain or under rain towers. It can be taxing physically, and psychologically it’s challenging, too. There can be difficult people on the crew, there are sometimes 100 plus crew on the set. That’s a lot of crew and a lot of energy. You also sometimes have to get up 4 or 5 in the morning, and you have to work 14 hours at a time. Working 6 at night to 6 in the morning can make you nauseous and affect your digestive system. You must to stay physically and emotionally fit. When you’re away that long, it can be very difficult on your families and friends. You have no personal time! You don’t even do your laundry. You come home, get something to eat, go to bed. You have to cram everything in on the weekend.
Fstoppers: What do you normally shoot with on set?
Kimberley French: I shoot with a Nikon 3Ds, and I have 2 D700s. I shoot with a Jacobson sound blimp to absorb sound, and I used fast zooms: a 24-70 and a 70-200. I also use primes when it’s really dark.
Fstoppers: Is sound an issue?
Kimberley French: Sound is definitely an issue. The blimp doesn’t take it out completely, and it depends on the space that you’re shooting in.
Fstoppers: I imagine working with actors must be both challenging and rewarding. What is it like to shoot actors while they’re working?
Kimberley French: Watching a performance through a lens is a thrill. It’s exciting because you’re seeing the performance for the very first time along with the camera operators. And working with other artists is an incredible honor; the cinematographer, director, make up artists, writers, production designers, special effects people, everyone has a job and their energy is incredible. We’re all working on the same project, it’s not like being a studio photographer where you’re the only one shooting, you’re part of a team. It’s rewarding.
Fstoppers: I’ve read that developing a rapport with the actors can be essential to movie still photographers.
Kimberley French: It’s extremely important. Sometimes I get to talk with the actors and sometimes I don’t, it’s a set etiquette thing. You don’t bother them while they’re working, but it’s important to go in with the right energy. Be respectful of their process and introduce yourself and don’t shoot too much. Make them comfortable with the things that you DO not what you say, it’s about having the right energy. Heath Ledger and I became very good friends because we both smoked cigarettes at the time, and we’d smoke together and chat. There’s a surprising number of actors that are interested in photography.
Aaron Eckhart and I really hit it off talking about photography and cameras. People love to ask if I’m shooting Nikon or Canon, but I say that it doesn’t really matter, it’s the person operating the camera. It’s a tool. Everyone has a computer with word processing software, but not everyone can write an award winning novel. And we never ask them what kind of software or computer they used, do we? When we see photographs that move us, we don't think about what kind of camera was used, or at least not right away.
Fstoppers: How often are you on set? How many hours do you spend shooting on a given film?
Kimberley French: It depends, for instance The Assassination of Jesse James was 72 days of shooting, the average is 50 day for 12-14 hours a day.
Fstoppers: Some people are surprised to realize there’s a still photographer present on movie sets. How do you view your role as photographer on set?
Kimberley French: I’m there to do a job, and that is: tell the story in one frame, publicity for newspapers, magazines, the internet, for the film poster. I do behind the scenes as well, so if they publish a companion book then they release 200-300 images per movie. Usually it’s under 50 though. It depends on how the studio wants to promote the film. I deliver RAW files to a lab for processing, they are uploaded then to a site where the filmmakers can view them, and the actors can do their "approvals". I indicate to the lab the adjustments I would like: color temperature, exposure, saturation etcetera. Most of the time I like to match the cinematographers vision for the film.
Fstoppers: Tell me a bit about movie posters. Do you go into it knowing what you want? Or is the process of shooting for a poster more organic?
Kimberley French: Sometimes they’ll use a photograph from the set, a unit photo, and sometimes they’ll ask me to do a special shoot where I can light it and have time with the actors myself, called a "special" or "gallery". The Brokeback Mountain poster is a composite. Heath was shot while he was rehearsing off set, and with Jake I used a Hasselblad medium format during a special. I had them against a truck for 10 or 15 minutes, a very short time, but we were happy with the results. For Red Riding Hood, I had more time with all the actors. For the poster where red riding hood is kneeling looking up, I asked for a few seconds called a "set up" on set, everyone stops for me while I get the shot. It's unusual for a unit photographer to shoot the "special" poster photography, but I've been very lucky in my career to do both. Many of the films I've worked on they have used a unit photo for the poster. It's kinda like winning the lottery of still photography.
Fstoppers: You’ve worked on a number of renowned feature films, including Brokeback Mountain, The Assassination of Jesse James, Shooter, and Red Riding Hood. Do you have a favorite?
Kimberley French: It’s hard because they’re all so different, definitely Brokeback Mountain. Jesse James was amazing. I enjoyed Twilight as well, I got along well with actors.
Fstoppers: I can’t resist asking, what was it like working on the Twilight series? You’ve worked Oscar-winning films before, but do you feel the pop culture hype surrounding these films affects your process or energy on set? There are some really crazy Twilight fans.
Kimberley French: When I started working on New Moon, we didn’t realize how crazy everyone was until we started getting fans outside of the set at 3AM from all over the world. Then we traveled to Italy to work and it was CRAZY. There were so many people there, a thousand extras from all over the world, so we had a lot of security on set.
Fstoppers: What has been the most challenging set physically to work on?
Kimberley French: The Grey. It’s not been released yet. I was working on it in January and February, and it was negative 30 degrees on the top of a mountain for 5 days. There were driving winds and snow, the bathroom was 10 minutes away, and my hands were extremely cold. They were so cold it was hard to handle my cameras. One of my zooms actually froze. It was very humid at one point and then the temperature dropped fast, and the lens froze. We were all bundled up in layers of down and gore-tex, this makes it hard to move around as well.
Fstoppers: What’s been the most exciting moment of your career so far?
Kimberley French: I think it was finding out that I’d be working with Ang Lee on Brokeback Mountain. I knew how significant it would be to work with Ang, I have so much respect for him and for the subject matter. I read the short story before I went into the interview, once I read the script I was just over the moon. I remember exactly where I was when I got the phone call. I sat right beside Ang Lee when I was at the meeting, and I turned and looked him in the eyes and said “It’s an amazing story.” He was such a pleasure to work with. On the very first day I met Diana Ossana, she came looking for me because she was so excited that there was another woman on set.
And it was great working with Jake and Heath, and Heath became a good friend. That shoot went so well, everything went smoothly. Everything that was on the call sheet happened the way it was supposed to and whenever decisions had to be made, they were made on the set by the filmmakers. Usually Hollywood movies have a lot of decision makers on set, for Brokeback there were not. I have not read a script as beautiful as that in my career.
Fstoppers: What advice do you have for fledgling photographers?
Kimberley French: Definitely do what you love. Shoot what you love to shoot. The money will come, follow your bliss. Also, focus on something in particular and become very good at it. I think it’s really important to pick something that you’re good at and you love, and take baby steps. It doesn’t all happen at once, and if you’re not doing what you love then you’ll die inside. Find people who are doing what you want to do and ask them questions, shadow them, be their assistant, soak up all they know. Have a website, a resume, a business card, and always present yourself professionally. Hire a designer so that your material looks professional and people can recognize your logo. Be clear about what you do. If you say that you do ten different things, people won’t take you seriously. Also expect to work hard. Nothing worth doing is easy to do or get into. FOCUS. Have fun and enjoy every moment, its a journey not a destination.