Austin, Texas, 2005. I am working on the set of Sin City, a movie that will later become one of the most iconic and a visually stunning and faithful adaptations of a graphic novel to the big screen, of Frank Miller’s crime‐riddled world.
We are shooting against a green screen, in an airline hangar that has been transformed into Robert Rodriguez’s make‐shift sound stage, which also houses his production offices and Visual effects studio. There is another hangar at the other end of the building, where the only two sets of the movie have been constructed. In a corner of this hangar I have set up a photography studio, where I have been shooting the actors, as they become available to me, for the posters.
Today we are shooting a scene with Bruce Willis and Michael Madsen. After going over the shooting schedule of the few days Willis will be working, I conclude today is the best day to shoot him for the poster, if only I can convince him to walk over to my photo studio.
I talk to Robert Rodriguez about my plans to shoot Willis today, and tell him to talk Willis into letting me shoot him. I know if I ask him directly, there is a chance he will say no. I then give a heads up to the make‐up artist, head stylist, wardrobe, and props. I know that if Willis walks over to my set, I will only have him for a few minutes. In fact, he agreed to let me shoot him, when I said I only needed him for five minutes.
Fast forward to three hours later. Main green‐screen stage. The first assistant director calls “CUT”. A major lighting change is coming up. This is my opportunity.
I quickly go to Robert and tell him to talk to Willis, who is walking to the door of the soundstage, on his way to his trailer. He is stopped by the second assistant director.
Robert walks to him and exchanges a few words. Suddenly, I see Willis walk towards the door that leads to the other sound stage. Quick, round up hair, makeup, wardrobe and props. “I want that big gun he uses on the scene in his hand, for the photos”.
I rush over to my studio, and turn on the lighting equipment. I have been set up for weeks, using 4 strobes to recreate the dramatic lighting that Robert was using in his movie.
At this stage in production, the advertising department of Dimension Films has not hired a creative agency to come up with the concepts for the posters, so it is totally up to me how to shoot Willis. I have worked on most of Robert Rodriguez’s movies, since I first worked with him on Desperado, and have shot all the posters to those movies, so Robert trusts me, and I have free reign on how to capture the iconic images of each character. On all Robert’s movies, and in fact all the movies I work on, I demand to be allowed to shoot ALL the characters, even if they are minor characters.
My main job is as set photographer, so I am present during the whole production, shooting stills every day, all day long. For those of you who do not know this‐ when you open a magazine and see a photo of a movie scene, that photo does not come out of the movie‐ a photographer shoots that image. That is my job. I am on set, next to the main camera, jockeying for position along the cameraman, focus puller, microphone boom man, trying to be as still as possible while taking photographs, so that I do not distract the actors. I wear a black t‐shirt everyday on the set, basically my uniform, in the hope of becoming invisible. Still, photographers are usually the first to be asked to leave the set by actors who get distracted. This is especially true when the scene is emotionally intense.
But now I don’t need to blend in. I don’t need to hide. Willis has walked over to MY set, and I will be directing him for the next five minutes. Or rather I should say, try to direct him! No creative agency has been hired, so there are no concepts. No sketches to show Willis to help him get into character. But not to worry. I am prepared. Not only have I been taking photos of him on set, and have a clear idea of the visual and iconic strengths of the character, I have Frank Miller’s original Sin City graphic novel at hand. The night before I chose a couple of drawings from the graphic novel that I feel captures the essence of the character. I know exactly how I want to shoot Willis.
“Holy Shit.” I just realize I got Bruce Willis, one of the most recognized actors in the world, standing on a wooden platform, three foot off the ground, surrounded by all my lighting equipment, and I got a camera in my hand about to shoot him. My body gets an immediate burst of adrenaline, and I feel the apprehension of the unknown. It is like jumping out of an airplane with a parachute for the first time. You wonder if the parachute will open, but you trust it will end up being a fun ride. I am about to shoot Bruce Willis- I got five minutes, and I hope I am able to capture the right image‐ be able to coax Willis into giving me what I want, and not end up with embarrassingly bad photos that will be killed by Willis’s publicist.
“Okay, here I go.” First I need to capture the typical portrait shots of Willis, in character, to be used for the publicity of the movie, before getting to the shot I have in mind for the poster. I respectfully give out orders: “Turn your body towards the main light. RIGHT THERE. Put your chin up a bit. PERFECT. Don’t move. Now look to your left.”
I am two minutes into the photo shoot, when Robert walks into my set, and stands behind me with his acoustic guitar. Willis and him exchange comments, and Robert starts playing his guitar. “Shit.” Another minute and a half has gone by while they were talking, and I know I won’t get that time back, so I proceed to set up the shot I want for the poster.
I ask the prop master for the big gun, and give it to Willis. The idea I have is for him to be pointing the gun straight down, and position the camera very low, looking up, using a wide angle lens. I position Willis exactly where I want him, maximizing the lighting set up, creating the proper highlights on his clothing and face. I then sit on the floor, and get very close to Willis, pointing my camera up at him. “SHIT.” I am positioned at such a low angle that Willis head goes over the backdrop, and I see the roof of the soundstage. Doesn’t matter‐ don’t have time to move equipment.
Nothing Photoshop cannot fix later.
I look through the lens. “Holy shit!” Looks amazing. The barrel of the gun is almost touching the lens of my camera, but the angle of the gun is not right. While looking through the lens, holding the camera with my right hand, I grab the barrel of Willis’s gun, and move it to the angle I want. Willis holds it there. I shoot several shots, and in between each shot, I ask Willis to lift his chin, turn his head a bit more to the right, etc. After about 12 shots, Willis suddenly walks off the platform and informs me that I’ve shot enough. I will not argue with the most recognized action hero in the world! Besides, he is right. I am confident I captured the shot I wanted.
Months later, one of the best creative agencies in the planet have been hired to work on the posters. They use my images, and paint in a city background, add fake rain, tweak the contrast, add the titles, and movie poster history is made! The Sin City poster of Bruce Willis becomes one of the most sought after movie posters of all time, by collectors.
Mission accomplished. On to my next show.