Ed Webster, 4 Creative
Tell me about your role at 4 Creative and how you work with photographers.
I’m sure they could shave a monkey and train it but I’m not sure my job exists anywhere else. 4 Creative is an in-house advertising, design and production company; I used to tell people that we were an agency that did our own production but it’s probably more accurate to say we’re a production company that does our own creative. We work very heavily with freelance people across the board and my role is to seek out and commission art directors, copywriters, designers, illustrators and photographers. We don’t have an art-buying department, although increasingly many ad agencies don’t either. Once I commission a photographer, I then produce the job rather than outsource, as an ad agency does, so I work very closely with them. On a job there will be myself, a photographer and an art director, so it allows me to be a lot closer to the creative process. Personally producing the work also means that you can pick from the very best stylists, production designers etc.
What kind of work are you producing at 4 Creative?
We have a very good relationship with our on-screen talent so we’re lucky that, more often than not, we have the option of shooting them. It’s lovely to have the choice of putting the talent front and centre on our work. Depending on the brief, we’ll also shoot reportage, still life or fashion as well as our conceptual images. Work is really evolving on the digital side of things too. Traditionally, photographers and agents have wanted to be very specific about exactly where the work is going to end up. In the past we would have shot an image to be used for the national press, magazines and billboards, but there are increasingly options for digital billboards and other outlets. Whether you’re making a 30-second commercial, a short film or a still image, it doesn’t really matter where it ends up.
Are photographers increasingly adapting to this digital revolution?
I think some are and it’s not necessarily the younger ones but those who are forward looking. I’ve been working with some people and transplanting their skills as photographers. I shot a personal project with Jenny Hands in the summer which used her lighting skills and photographic sensibilities, and transferred them to the moving image. The industry likes to compartmentalise people quite a lot, but with cameras that shoot HD video, such as the Canon EOS 5D MkII, image makers are going to be less pigeonholed. If you can direct talent you can direct talent; if you know how to light something you know how to light it, so we’re on the cusp of that change. For an industry that prides itself on looking forward and is all about the new, the ad industry is generally quite slow at adopting something as its own. It needs someone else to do it first. I understand that attitude – they’re committing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds to a commercial or a billboard. Increasingly there are some smaller companies and, more to the point, photographers who are trying things for themselves. Even this year, as the weeks go by, I’ve noticed that more photographers are trying things out.
Are there advantages to commissioning a photographer to shoot your moving image as well as stills ads?
In the ad industry an agency generally hires a director for the on-air side of things, who comes with a production company, then for the off-air project a photographer will be hired and come with their own separate production company. Quite often there’s a bashing of heads, with the two separate crews saying “this is our shoot!” and the agency seems to be powerless in the middle. Because we’re a commissioning company which also produces the work we are closer to the creative process and can look and see how we can make it work; can we combine the shoot, do we need to have adjacent sets, shoot on different days? I think the traditional agency model, where they are commissioning the work but not integrating themselves by producing it across different disciplines, is going to change sooner rather than later. There are more formats to watch out for, so the production needs to be a bit of a team effort, but in terms of creative vision I don’t see any reason why it can’t come from one person, whether they’re traditionally thought of as a director or a photographer.
Is there a place for photographers who take stills only?
Absolutely. Some people are photographers because they are in love with the single image and that makes complete sense. Probably the work that we’ve done here that I like the most, generally speaking, has come from one single image that gets the idea across. For TV it’s a lot of fun to start with a single image and then elaborate with dialogue, music, movement, etc. For me, it’s the most natural progression, whereas it’s very difficult to come up with a TV spot and ask yourself “What’s the off-air?” because you’re trying to shoehorn 30 or 60 seconds of action into a single image. That might not be for everyone but that’s how we work best.
Do you seek out new talent?
I do my best! A lot of ad agencies only want to deal with photographers who have worked with lots of other ad agencies. I’m not knocking that, but I don’t care who they’ve worked with. If you thought like that you’d only ever work with the same 10 photographers. While I’ve loved working with David LaChapelle and Ellen von Unwerth, I’ve also got a massive kick from working with new people and photographers who haven’t been commissioned very much in this country before.
How do you find new photographers?
Occasionally it will be through agents, but sometimes it’s about keeping your eyes open to what’s out there already in terms of editorial and advertising, even beyond the UK. By doing this you often find people who aren’t signed to agents or who are just starting. Also [it’s through] them contacting me. It’s often luck more than judgment.
Do you look at portfolios?
Very rarely – I tend to look mainly at websites. Apart from anything it’s because books take up so much room! It’s lovely to see a book but 90% of work I see is online. Then I’ll try to get photographers in to meet up.
What do you class as a good portfolio website?
Simply one where you can see the work as clearly and quickly as possible. The worst sites are the ones that try to be too clever and take an age to load or where you have to turn detective to find the work. Although I would like to be a detective. That would be cool!
Is it important to have a good rapport with the photographers you hire?
I’ve been lucky to get on very well with most of the people I’ve worked with. You’re not commissioning them to become best friends, but of course if you get on with people you’re more likely to be able to bounce off each other and work as a team.
What attributes does a photographer need to be able to work in the entertainment industry?
I think one needs to be able to work quickly – sometimes you’re given five minutes to capture an image, so preparation is all-important. I’ve produced shoots where we’ve shot less than a roll with an actor but we knew what we wanted in advance and were ready the second they walked on set. Be a good judge – if the person you’re shooting isn’t in the mood or you’re starting to lose them, you’re probably not going to get what you’re after, so get a few shots and let them go! Also, some talent will just do what they want, whereas others actually look to be directed, so being a great communicator is very important.
Can you suggest any ways in which photographers who have not previously worked in entertainment can show these attributes in their portfolios?
In reality, you may have to shoot an image where the subjects aren’t available on the same day or even the same country, so even though you might not view it as pure photography, learn the tricks of comping images. It’s really easy to do badly but is invaluable if you can do it well. Of course, it’s largely about the image, but take the chance to shoot whoever you can. If your dad is in The Rolling Stones, it might help, but if you know someone who is mates with The Chuckle Brothers – get in there too.
How have changes in budgets affected the way you commission?
I’m always honest with what budget I have. I’ll never fleece a photographer – if I’ve only got a quarter of their day rate, I’ll tell them. After that, you might have to get creative with how to shoot something. I’m very lucky that we don’t have to pay any agency fees, so all the money we have goes into the image.
Runner: GGT Advertising
Press production: Lowe Howard-Spink
Head of creative services: Spirit Advertising
Photographic director: 4 Creative, Channel 4
Taken from the January issue of Professional Photographer, back issues available online and from 01858 438832.
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