Whenever a film is being marketed, the first look of the project is almost always released in the form of photos. These so-called stills are captured on the set of a film while production is being rolled out and is done by on-set photographers. A role that goes without any spotlight put on them, on-set photographers are responsible for the images which give audiences the first impression of a movie. Junkyard Theory recently spoke to Marvel’s Eternals on-set photographer Sophie Mutevelian.
Sophie had been doing various other jobs for 10 years after university, before she decided to give a shot at unit photography. She admitted that she didn’t study photography at all; she started doing photography for various jobs till she managed to pull together a portfolio after which she used all her contacts to get jobs. Sophie added that she cold-called everyone and eventually got a call back from BBC who employed her on her first TV job called Silent Witness.
When questioned about her process of working on set, Sophie revealed that she starts by checking the call sheet for any particular production. She then asks to be introduced to the cast so that they are aware of her presence and her job since she will be interacting with them often. Sophie added that she makes it a point not to get in their eyeline during performances and also not to get in the way when cameras start rolling either.
When asked about how she manages to take photos if she is unable to shoot during a live performance, Sophie divulged that in such cases, she would talk to the first assistant director to see if she can jump in before the setup is dismantled and quickly get her images. She laughingly added that she usually gets around 10 seconds to fulfill this job. Back in the day, before the silent mirrorless cameras made getting live shots possible, Sophie had her Canon camera inside a device that would silence the mechanism so as not to let it interfere with the recording of live audio.
Sophie’s job also demands that she constantly be on the lookout for behind-the-scenes pictures of the director working with the cast and crew, which usually end up as BTS stills. She stated that the painful part was not being able to get the shots she knows will be stunning.
Sticking to requirements
Sophie relayed that requirements for on-set photography can vary with the production. If it was a TV production that she had been a part of for a few seasons, she would know what to do and the production would trust her by then. Others have more specific briefs on what to cover, such as a high utility stunt, a three shot of the cast, a key moment in the film, etc.
Sometimes, the brief entails that she set up a little studio away from the set and pull aside the cast for pictures that would end up on the posters.
Sophie admitted that there is pressure, since there is always only one unit photographer and they become the first link between a film and the audience due to the fact that it is their photos which provide that first look through media. Having done the job for over 10 years, Sophie revealed that she now understands what makes a good unit photograph and that she is more confident now. Despite this, she admitted that being on a massive set like Marvel’s Eternals can be a bit daunting since she was the only unit photographer on set for five months.
At the end of it all, Sophie stated that while the film tells a story with the use of multiple shots of moving pictures, it is her task to do the same with a single frame and that she has become adept at figuring out which moments convey the best moments.
Advice for future generations
Sophie stated that getting work on film sets wasn’t always easy for her at the start, and that she created opportunities, which she encourages anyone wanting to try out on-set photography to do. Working on lower-budget productions can offer one the chance to test their skills, figure things out, and learn things on the job, and thereby develop their skills through practice. She also stated that it was very important to understand set etiquette since her job entails having to maneuver people around a lot.
She shared: “Create opportunities, don’t be afraid.”
Junkyard Theory is Sri Lanka’s first and only film education platform that brings on veteran filmmakers from Hollywood as guest speakers. Their webinars, hosted by Akash Sunethkumara, have been recognised on industry sites such as “No Film School”, and the team now runs film courses for upcoming filmmakers in the country.
The full interview is now available on the Junkyard Theory YouTube channel. Scan the code below to watch it now.