The first time I met Vincent Laforet was at a spontaneous, late-night photographer’s dinner after a full day of shooting during the Salt Lake Olympics. Vincent entertained the table with stories and spot on impersonations of other photographers.
It was a wonderful evening.
We crossed paths four years later about half way up the stairs which run up the large ski hill in Torino. It was a good evening for making pictures, though there was nothing wonderful about that climb.
Laforet is the type of photographer that other photographers watch closely. He’s a ground breaker who seems to have already made a move when others don’t yet know there’s a move to make. He was kind enough to talk a bit about his latest project, a stunning piece he did for Nike.
Serious photographers rarely talk about equipment. Conversations usually focus on the why and not so much on the how, so it was a treat to have Vincent explain the thinking behind what he was working to accomplish during this shoot.
Thank you, Vincent.
Kenneth Jarecke - Vincent, I love your work. You've been doing so many good things.
Vincent Laforet - Thank you so much.
Kenneth - Besides the broken arm, how are things going brother?
I call you brother because I was having breakfast at our hotel during the Beijing Olympics and a waiter walked up with a plate of fried eggs. I hadn’t ordered any so I looked around and thought to myself, to the Asian eye who looks like my twin? You were sitting a few tables away so I pointed him in your direction.
Vincent - (laughing) Very true. I’m sure we came back from China with the same bugs on our computers also.
Kenneth - (laughing) Oh yeah, I’m sure. That was an adventure in itself. The lovely Chinese viruses of the computer kind.
This wonderful film you’ve just shared with all of us. The Nike spot. I wanted to talk to you about it because one can always tell when the director started as a still photographer. There are these great moments which are essentially the best of a still image with motion added.
"I’ve always thought that if you have nothing but perfect shots you’re almost impeding yourself as a filmmaker." -Vincent Laforet
Vincent - It’s a very careful, fine balance when you move into motion, because you grow up as a still photographer in this world where the only thing important to you, besides obviously as a journalist telling a story, is to focus on the visual. Both in terms of the geometry, the color, the lighting, the moment, as you move into motion you realize that if you were to put a string of the single best shots in succession and try to call that a film. Even though the photography might be absolutely perfect, you might not actually get something that works.
The reality is that film or motion is about sequencing a series of shots together that flow visually to help serve the story. It’s a very big lesson. I’ve always thought that if you have nothing but perfect shots you’re almost impeding yourself as a filmmaker. You have to let the eye of the viewer relax a little bit. You have to put some throwaway shots in there that are not often perfectly composed but help the edit or the movement of the piece as a sequence. That’s one of the most important lesson that you learn going into motion. We have two terms for it. The less harsh term is “killing your darlings”. Which is letting the most beautiful shots go, because although they might be technically and visually perfect, they can absolutely halt an edit in it’s tracks.
Kenneth - So it’s like the spoken word, where the pauses between what you’re saying are just as important as the words. Is that a fair analogy?
"If a still photograph is a split second, it has no set duration. Someone can look at it for a millisecond or years and keep coming back to it." -Vincent Laforet
Vincent - That’s absolutely a fair analogy. That’s a great analogy that I hadn’t thought of. I always say that film is very rhythmic. It’s like music. You have to have fermatas in a score. You have to go from allegro to the adagio. You have to have a built in rhythm to a sequence. My musical background and story telling background really helped me move into motion. You learn this by working with good editors. I don’t think still photographers, if they can avoid it, should edit their own stuff as they move into motion. It’s very important for them to work with editors, but not just to send their material off and get it delivered back. It’s important to sit with the editor and get feedback. You missed this coverage (for example). You should have rolled earlier or longer. I need this piece, (as not having it) makes my edit difficult.
Motion is the marriage between the visual, and the story. It’s about sound, dialog. If a still photograph is a split second, it has no set duration. Someone can look at it for a millisecond or years and keep coming back to it. Whereas motion, by definition has a set duration and these days you have to keep people interested. People have a short attention span. That’s the goal (to keep them engaged).
Kenneth - Besides clinging to shots and falling in love with your own work, what are some other problems still photographers make transitioning to film?
"Every single camera move should be motivated to help serve the story." -Vincent Laforet
Vincent - I think most photographers have a great understanding of the visual as a still image. I don’t think they, and I know I didn’t initially, understand that the direction of your pan, whether it’s to the left or right, or right to left has a different psychological affect on the viewer. Because of the way we read, when we go left to right it feels better because it’s the same way we read, at least for western audiences. When I started I didn’t really know what direction to pan in. That’s a very 101 level. From there you go into how and why you move the camera, and your actors. How you block them out in the scene. In fact, I’m putting together a workshop for the spring called, “Directing Motion”. Where I’m going to speak specifically to these points. How you block out the scene with the actors. How you move the camera around. How you edit a piece on a story board to have a movement to it that carries the audience in a certain literal and figurative direction.
Every single camera move should be motivated to help serve the story. Whether you push into an actor and go into their world or pull away and see the world collapsing on top of them. These are not arbitrary decisions. These are some of the most important tools a filmmaker has.
Lens selection, the line the actor is delivering, the way the camera moves, how fast, in which direction, at what pace, our critical decisions that the director makes.
Kenneth - So when working for a world-wide company like Nike, do you have to mirror or reverse shots to make them play in the Arab world? How do you tackle something like that?
"The truth is, for better or worse, everyone is brought up on the western style of filmmaking because of Hollywood." -Vincent Laforet
Vincent - The truth is, for better or worse, everyone is brought up on the western style of filmmaking because of Hollywood. This (visual) language is translated everywhere. I don’t think one worries as much about the fact that people in Asia or the Pacific Rim or the Middle East look at these images. They all see Hollywood films. This is a universal language. It’s one of those strange languages that nobody learns. It’s never taught to you. Because of the amount of visual media we consume, we all subconsciously inherit it.
The Nike spot was by far the single biggest challenge for me as a director. I worked with several twenty or thirty year, veteran producers who work on big commercials all the time. They said this was one the most complex jobs they’ve ever worked on. Much of what we did, these days, is normally done in a computer. Whereas in this shoot we did it practically.
We moved the cameras in ways which pushed the entire crew in a different direction. The techno crane operator said he’d rarely seen the camera move in this way. The first AC who pulled focus said this was the most challenging job of his life, in a good way. We really pushed the envelope as to how fast you could move the camera. We did some initial rehearsals where we were doing this with non Olympic athletes. We found these (camera) moves were hard enough to do with a basketball player. Once you did it with a person who was running, it took so much energy and so much force to move the camera that we quickly realized we needed to be prepared for even worse with Olympic athletes running at faster speeds.
Kenneth - Some great thoughts about how the eye moves. I’ve often wondered if Hollywood has changed the way our eye moves around a computer screen or the printed page.
Speaking of movement, what are you at 400, 480 frames per second?
Vincent - Five hundred the entire time. We do what we call ramping (to change the slow motion affect). The computer effectively ramps certain sections. As a director you really can’t rely on that. Beyond moving the camera, there were three huge technical challenges on this job.
One was what I already mentioned. How do you move a camera that quickly around an athlete who is moving so fast?
The second challenge is you’re shooting at (about) twenty times the rate of normal time. So one second of live action last twenty seconds on the screen. You have five athletes to shoot in 60 to 90 seconds. So when you do the math, that’s a very small selection of time.
The final challenge was how to make it feel like you were moving? You’d be surprised how a fast moving person looks like they’re standing still at five hundred frames per second. We had to move the cameras so violently and quickly to give the viewer an appreciation of motion. That required using fast vehicles, techno cranes, low V’s, basically every tool in the tool box, every trick that we knew. Not only were we working with time and fast athletes, we were also dealing with doing an edit in slow motion. Which rattles your brain a little bit when you want to have a dynamic commercial.
Kenneth - There’s a frame of Sherman, one of those images that still photographers are always trying to capture, when he’s running up the stairs. I think it’s the third cut, on his face...
Vincent - With him screaming.
Kenneth - Right. We’ve all gone for this as still photographers, you and I both. It’s a great moment. How do you capture that on film and what type of direction do you give?
"Richard Sherman is the biggest sweetheart to work with. He’s incredibly intuitive." -Vincent Laforet
Vincent - First, Richard Sherman is the biggest sweetheart to work with. He’s incredibly intuitive. He’d run over to the screens after every shot and take all the time in the world to get it right.
The reality is we only have these athletes for up to an hour. Every second counts. We tried not to have anyone walk up to the monitors. We didn’t even review the image in slow motion. We’d just go right to the next shot. The (Richard Sherman) shot is one you get to progressively. You do the wide shot first. Then you do the medium shot. The pull-away from the feet. Keep in mind, these are all shot as one shot wonders. That’s the attempt anyway. Then we do coverage by punching in for this kind of (tight face) shot.
It’s important to think about the coordination involved. You’ve got to have the athlete start and end at a point at a precise speed. Then on the techno crane, someone rotating the arm, another person lifting or lowering it, another person extending and retracting the arm and another person rotating, tilting, and panning the head. On top of that, you’ve got a first AC pulling focus and a second AC pulling zoom. All of this has to happen with an AD calling the time perfectly with the director and DP watching.
"You’ve got eight or nine people who all have to work in unison at F2.8 on a 300 with no autofocus and nail every single aspect of their respective jobs." -Vincent Laforet
You’ve got eight or nine people who all have to work in unison at F2.8 on a 300 with no autofocus and nail every single aspect of their respective jobs. If one person fails, the others try to make up for it. As you can imagine, the train can quickly derail. That’s why you hire the best people in Hollywood. Literally the best techno crane operator. The best operators on the head. The best AC’s, focus pullers, the best AD’s, to make this happen because Richard Sherman is your X-factor. He’s not an actor who does this for a living. He’s the factor you can’t control as a director, so you try to get him to concentrate on a certain speed and target, and timing.
You pray, and I do mean pray that your entire team pulls it off. It only takes one person to tilt the techno crane too little or too much. So the guy on the head tilts a little too much or too little. Which screws up the extension of the arm, which screws up the rotation and then screws up the AC at f2.8, where one second out of focus ends up being twenty seconds of out of focus screen time. So when you do nail that shot of Richard Sherman screaming it feels like winning the biggest prize ever.
The only thing I asked Richard was to give me everything you have and scream at this point. Then pray that your team is on target when that happens. You’ve got maybe three or four takes at that shot. I think we had two.
Kenneth - So it’s just like the still photographer who depends on luck, and the great ones who somehow seem to create their own luck time and again.
Vincent - Yes, while also learning to work with a team and to be patient.
When you’re shooting stills with a 400/F2.8 you’ve got nothing to blame but yourself. Here, you’ve got eight people doing that. You’ve got to calmly lead them and know who is screwing up and how to fix it. We use the term “mitigate” on set. How do you mitigate that issue? How do you make it so your team can accomplish the shot together? Screaming or blaming people does nothing. It’s all about figuring out what’s not working with the camera move. That’s where twenty years of lensing experience really helps. You understand where it’s failing and how to fix it.
If you’re trying this with a 300 and not nailing it, you know to go immediately to 180 or 200mm. While at the same time understanding that as you get closer to you’re subject you’re introducing new problems. Sometimes going with a longer lens is better, while knowing that the longer the lens is the less movement you see. Which means you have to move the camera faster. It’s a real chess game mentally. I’m really glad I have twenty years of experience as a still photographer to fall back on.
Kenneth - You can’t be as hard on your team as you would be on yourself.
Vincent - Exactly. It’s all about keeping morale high and knowing we’re all aiming for gold. Knowing when to back off and when to push. With the Sherman shot we had plenty of time to rehearse and by the time he arrived we were all tuned in and were able to knock this out very quickly and go for that great shot. Which to me is the defining shot of the spot.
Kenneth - The shot of Allyson Felix is stunning, beautiful throughout. Her thigh muscle, is something we catch every ten thousand frames or so with the still image and it never happens on the right athlete, race or what have you. Was that something you were going for or a happy accident?
Vincent - Absolutely. That wasn’t an accident, it was part of the brief we sold Nike on. At five hundred frames a second you’re going to be able to see the musculature of these athletes move in ways you’ve never seen before. Whether it’s her leg, Richard Sherman’s forehead moving back on forth due to the weight of his dreads, Kobe’s tattoos moving as he dribbles the ball... you make time for these shots knowing full well that you’re at the end of your lens in terms of extension and you’re pushing your luck with the focus... well, you’re going for gold and when you get it, it really pays off.
Kenneth - Tell me about lighting a basketball arena in a non Sports Illustrated manner.
Vincent - Yeah, I have to give credit to our DP, Pete Konczal on that. He came up to me saying that he wanted to put a light up in every single one of the vomitorium around the entire court. One of things that’s unspoken as a director is you’re always managing creativity with the realities of a budget. Pete’s idea meant that you have twenty lights, twenty stands, twenty dimmers... everything was on it’s own dimmer board so each individual light could be dialed up or down. They took an entire day to pre-light the stadium, with a huge soft-box. Something like forty individual lights around the entire stadium.
The producer looks at you like you’re from Mars when you make a request like that, but you realize if you don’t have those lights Kobe is going to be running against a sea of black. In the end, it’s those lights that make you appreciate the size of the stadium and his movement. That’s the biggest victory of all when you’re able to pull that off.
Kenneth - You’re saying you had a basketball court sized soft-box in the ceiling and then an additional forty lights?
Vincent - Yep, we had one major soft-box that was built that night by hand by the electrical department that could be lowered or raised from the catwalk. It had a skirt on it as well to control the spill. Then we had thirty or forty lights around the entire height of the stadium to give it depth.
Kenneth - I want to shoot a basketball game in that kind of light. Could you make that happen?
"It’s easy to come up with these ideas and harder to come up with the money to do it." -Vincent Laforet
Vincent - It’s only a matter of money. Of course. It’s always about budget. It’s easy to come up with these ideas and harder to come up with the money to do it. That was an expensive shot. Given that it was Kobe Bryant and he both opened and closed the commercial, meaning he bookended it, it was an easier sell.
Kenneth - Anymore wisdom you care to share?
Vincent - Getting a job like this is a director’s dream. What was interesting to me is that we didn’t take the easy way out. We pushed the envelope very hard on every aspect of the job. I had to rely on everything I’ve learned as a still photographer as well as the past six or seven years as a director to pull this spot off.
As photographers move into motion, they need to realize there’s a lot to learn and the biggest thing to learn is when to push and when to pull back when things get too complicated. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should and Keep It Simple Stupid, saved me on this commercial.
There were so many moments when we had these incredible camera moves planned out and the athletes, specifically Allyson Felix were way too fast. We couldn’t even get the vehicle to keep up with her. It took half of the stadium to catch up to her and match speed. You really have to know how to take the biggest bite you can at a time and how to simplify and make a beautiful shot with a less than perfect situation. She was just too darn fast.
In the end it all worked out. Never lose you cool. Take a deep breath. Realize that there’s no one on the operating table, so the worst thing you can do is fail to get the shot.
Kenneth - One of the most important things you said was the idea that you’re always going for the gold. Though you might not always get it, you’re always reaching for it, always pushing the envelope. Working smart and working hard was the key to your success as a still photographer and it’s a lesson you’ve brought into the world of motion.
Vincent - Despite my best efforts, you still rely on that stuff. You say to yourself let’s just go in easy, but at the end of the day you look around and say to everyone let’s go for the gold.
You call up your crew and say are you willing to push it to the limit? Then a little spark goes off in the eye of your team, because you don’t always get to do that in commercials or Hollywood. There’s so much money on the line and such high risks involved. If something happened, if the camera breaks, the athlete might not come back the next day. There’s real repercussion to pushing your luck.
The secret is to know how far you can push without breaking anyone or anything. When you’re able to pull that off, it feels really special, something the entire team appreciates. It’s something that you’ll remember (for the) longterm.