Top 14 tips for getting KILLER stills that will help sell your film

Pilar Alessandra shares a joke at the LSFOne job I work at tirelessly at the London Screenwriters Festival is taking photos.

Stills are essential when conveying the experience a delegate can expect at the festival. Of course we have several official photographers who do great work, but I am so determined to compliment their work by getting my own killer shots too. And so I am often seen perched on the edge of the stage, snapping away like a crazy person.

Films are no different – they also require killer images to ‘sell the experience’ to the viewer BEFORE they commit time and money to watching it.

It’s a cliché, but a picture speaks a thousand words.

And often it takes a thousand pictures to get the one killer image! Hence the value of experienced photographers.

International Sales Agents repping films, especially low budget films, routinely lament the lack of good stills to support the project. When I speak with them about current trends and issues, it still comes up as one of the top five monumental problems they face when selling low budget flicks.

So what stills should you get when making a film? Here’s my list of what I would try to ensure that I didn’t go home without, and my top tips on how to get them.

NOTE: All stills are taken from my own work, ‘Moon’ and ‘Winters Bone’ as all are achievable on lower budgets.

  • gonefishing1. Understand that this is not art… pictures should look like the movie
    Get photos that look like they are from the movie – tone, lighting, mood, action. You need an image that authentically captures the spirit of the directors vision as well as genre and central premise. This is harder than it sounds. It’s not just about great photos, it MUST sell the experience of watching the film. And while it’s not art, they must remain artistic and aesthetic.
  • winters bone2. Get THE killer Image
    Just one or maybe two images will become the ones that represent the film – both used as stills and in key artwork (posters, flyers, one sheets etc). It’s hard to plan for this single image, but you will know the image when you see it. This is one reason why you need to take hundreds, even thousands of photos during production. Often this image is just a look from an actor, or a moment caught unexpectedly – not planned but containing that truth and story that is so vital for this image.
  • wintersbone43. Get the supporting image
    Get the image that shows the opposite of the main image – if your main image is a hero doing heroic stuff, get the villain doing villainous stuff. Contrasting images setting up the conflict will work really well.
  • winters bone24. And then another ten in the same vein
    Yep, keep on clicking. You need options as some places around the world will be looking for different images, themes and styles. Plus, we are not sales people and we are often far too close to the trees that we can’t see the wood. Sales and distribution people have dispassionate distance and will coldly tell you which images ‘sell’ the project most effectively. Give them options. I would aim for ten world class images and hundred backups. Remember, this is not art, this is sales.
  • rockwell25. Get the star looking like a star
    If you have a named actor, they will almost certainly feature heavily in marketing, so make sure you get THE shot.
  • lawrence6. Images that are not overly cropped
    Don’t get Photoshop happy yet – I have seen images heavily cropped with tons of contrast added – it might look cool on your monitor but you may also be limiting the options when passed on to a professional designer. Make sure you deliver the full frame, uncropped and unprocessed images as well as your own versions. Cropping this shot of Jennifer Lawrence aggressively too early might have removed her flowing hair that featured in some posters.
  • moon 27. Only people
    Get photos of people, no scenery, no props… unless of course the actors are in the scenery or using the props. We need to see the faces of the characters conveying an emotion and the story.
  • 8. No flash photography
    Flash photography will kill the mood and tone so it cannot be used.
  • rockwell9. Portraits of the lead cast
    Consider getting your key cast back for a dedicated photo shoot day where your sole intention is to get high res images of them in costume, character and doing their thing. You don’t even need to be in the same locations, you can often shoot against a black or a white backdrop knowing they will be cut out for the poster, or mock up a similar location.
  • seb10. Director in action
    Get the shot of the director doing director things too. This will be used extensively for film festivals and online. (pic here is Sebastien Solberg who also shoots unit stills and wrote a great article on it HERE)
  • DSC_2015111. Other key crew in action
    Do you have a famous DP? Or a composer? Get pictures of those people in action, even if you end up doing them on your iPhone.
  • IMG_0494.jpeg12. Crew and BTS for Social Media
    Get click happy with your iPhone and take loads of behind the scenes photos and share on social media sites. Don’t burden your unit photographer with this, it’s not a good use of their time. In due course, you can edit them down to a package of the best 20, but these will be gold dust in the future. They don’t all need to be shots showing ‘the crew in action’, they can be candid behind-the-scenes images depicting the fun or insanity of shooting your film.
  • 13. Images pulled from the HD stream?
    Can you pull images from the final movie? Possibly yes, though you will be surprised at how much motion blur, grain and generally fuzziness there is in a standard movie frame, even at 2k and 4k (unless it’s well lit and static). So it can be done, but strangely, it often doesn’t feel as good as a killer still that is shot by an experienced photographer.

  • 14. Don’t agree to photo credits
    While it would seem reasonable that a photo be credited to the photographer, once the photos enter the marketing phase, they simply won’t be credited. It’s just the way it is. So don’t contractually agree to it, either on paper or verbally. This does not mean they won’t be credited in the movie titles, in the press pack or even your blog, but you cannot guarantee what Lionsgate or Canal+ might do with those images.

To do all this effectively you will need a great photographer and you will need to give that person the time they need to grab the shots required. Sometimes they will photograph rehearsals, sometimes they will fire off a few shots after cutting on the final take (asking the cast to re-enact the sequence, pausing occasionally for a still).

Always give them the few moments they need to get the shots YOU will need to sell the film. If your cast resists, back up your photographer.

And in these moments, understand you will want to move on, saying we will get the shots later… which of course you probably won’t, and then you will pay the price when trying to sell your film a year later. So get them right there and then.

UPDATE – If you liked this, I added a post on the best way to share your killer shots – it’s no use having GREAT images if no-one uses them because they can’t get them easily READ HERE.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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