Film Publicity & Photography with David Appleby & Susan d’Arcy
Cinéformation presented an exclusive event exploring one of the most vital, but often overlooked aspects of the filmmaking process, Unit Publicity. In conversation with Claire Hickman, award winning stills photographer, David Appleby and one of the UK’s leading Unit Publicists, Susan d’Arcy, discussed the field of publicity for feature films.
David Appleby has been in the film industry for over 25 years working on both sides of the Atlantic. Described by Sir Alan Parker as “probably the world’s best stills photographer”, David explained how through Producer David Puttnam, he was introduced into the industry for his first film, Bugsy Malone. He has since worked on over 50 films including Brazil, The Killing Fields, The Monty Python films, V For Vendetta, and most recently Speed Racer for Warner Bros and the Wachowski Brothers.
C: What makes a great stills photographer?
DA: It’s extremely important for unit stills photographers to be anonymous, to blend into the background of a shoot as some actors feel uncomfortable when faced with a second camera. Actors are so often chased by paparazzi that they may be put off by any photographers so always introduce yourself to the actors at the beginning so they build up trust and relax into the photo shoots.
Approach it in the same way you would when taking photographs in the ‘real world’ whilst staying faithful to the script and incorporating the atmosphere of a certain scene.
You have to be prepared to take a lot of shots and discard most of them. I can take 10,000 stills on a four month shoot and only 12 may be used for the publicity of the film.
Be prepared to get involved, you won’t get the best shots if you stand on the sidelines. On Kingdom of Heaven shoot, I was dressed like a soldier, in the desert, with ear plugs and lost two cameras which were destroyed by blood and dust!
C: For how long are you taking photos on set?
DA: For big budget movies you are expected to be on set every day, as part of the crew, but on smaller movies you may be asked to come in for specific days, when certain scenes are being shot. However, this can be a false economy for the film company as scedules often get changed and the key shots may be missed.
C: How do you deal with copyright?
DA: You sign a contract at the beginning that hands over copyright to the production company, but it is fine to use your stills as part of your portfolio as long as you’re not selling them.
C: Have you ever been so moved you’ve stopped taking photos?
DA: Yes, sometimes scenes are so emotionally charged it’s impossible not to be affected. Also, when in Cambodia filming Killing Fields, there was a refugee camp very close to where they were filming and I found it very uncomfortable taking photos of their suffering. However, the refugees wanted me to take photos to highlight their plight as the world was ignoring them.
C:Do you still have to take a portfolio with you to interviews?
DA: Yes, you’re only as good as your last job, portfolio is always being updated & ironically, companies are more keen to see my portfolio than they were when I was starting out.
C: What kind of cameras do you use?
DA: Nikon. And I sometimes use old lenses on new cameras.
C: Top tips?
DA: The most significant piece of advice I have been given was from David Puttnam who said, ‘More people will see the stills of the movie than will ever actually see the movie’ so stills are very important.
As well as David’s revelations about photography for film, one of the UK’s leading Unit Publicists, Susan d’Arcy, who has worked on blockbusters such as the Indiana Jones movies, Gorillas in the Mist, Sahara and Tomb Raider, gave valuable tips and advice on how to get into the field.
Having been a successful unit publicist since the early 1980s, Susan has worked on films as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Local Hero, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Miss Potter and currently The Golden Compass, the first film in the proposed trilogy based on Philip Pullman’s best selling fantasy, His Dark Materials.
C: Is there a set formula for marketing films?
SD: No, it all depends on the project. Actors/directors may not want press around, some don’t mind. You have to take advantage of promotional aspects, for example when making Memphis Belle the original aircraft crew were flown over to England to meet the actors to promote the film & attract interest.
C: At what point does a publicist get hired for a project?
SD: Again, it depends but generally 2 or 3 weeks before a shoot and up to 3 or 4 after wrapping. However, for The Golden Compass, because the leading lady is so young, I’m staying on to help her during the film’s launch which will mean I’ve been working on the film for about a year
C: How do you deal with pictures being leaked to the press?
SD: You have to be extremely careful and if there is a huge amount of interest you may need to combat it by releasing some stills earlier than scheduled. For example, when filming Tomb Raider, there was such a lot of press coverage regarding what Angelina Jolie would look like as Lara Croft that we released some images earlier than planned.
C: Who chooses the images that are to be used on the film?
SD: It’s normally a discussion that takes place between the publicist and the stills photographer. The Stills photographer may recommend some images but the publicity team will choose which to use.
C: How do you go about promoting a film?
SD: It helps if you’ve got some big names and a media-savvy director but the most important aspects are some good interesting images and a strong press release.
C: What makes a great Unit Publicist?
SD: A good sense of humour, the ability to get on with people, strong writing skills, a background in journalism or public relations is useful but not essential, be part of the unit.
C: Top tips?
SD: Remember when working on set that the most important thing is getting the film made. Everything else is secondary.
To make yourself a media figure, sell yourself as well as the film you’re making.