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Producers: The Unsung Heroes of Studio Photography

The behind-the-scenes view of a fashion shoot by Dave Siegel, at far right, shows just a few of the many people a producer must coordinate to pull of a photo assignment. The behind-the-scenes view of a fashion shoot by Dave Siegel, at far right, shows just a few of the many people a producer must coordinate to pull of a photo assignment.
© Dave Siegel

Part mother hen, part accountant, part field general, the producer ensures that the show must go on.

There are list makers in this world, and there are people who flow freely through life, without clock or calendar. Although photographers may fit in to either of these categories, studio producers always fall firmly in to the first group.

It's safe to say that, behind every great photographer, there is a producer standing in the background, cell phones and digital organizers in hand, making sure that every need is met and every wrinkle ironed out.

Each studio shoot involves a whirlwind of unexpected challenges, difficult logistics and limited timetables — all obstacles that can get in the way of the photographer's creativity. To make sure that the shooter can focus solely on his or her artistic vision, the producer must be ready to keep the production process as structured as possible, providing the foundation on which the rest of the creative process can build.

For producers, it's all about sweating the details — everything from making a run down the street for a double-tall latte with extra foam to triple-checking to make sure that the specialty film arrived in plenty of time for the shoot. Producers also make a host of intangible contributions that can't quite be itemized in a contract. They handle all the details of a shoot, inside the studio and out. PhotoMedia spoke with three well known West Coast studio producers to find out what life is like for these unsung heroes. Here are their stories.

Shotsie Kassim

First Shot Productions, Los Angeles

In a place like Hollywood, where image is everything and being seen is paramount, the best producers are the ones who know how to be invisible, playing a vital behind-the-scenes role in arranging schedules and placating egos.

"As a producer, you have to take care of all those details to make sure everyone is happy," says Shotsie Kassim, owner of Los Angeles-based First Shot Productions. "There is a systematic process to each project. We are the people that make the visions come true."

Although she admits to being nervous about certain shoots, Kassim says she never shows it.

"I want everything to be perfect, without any glitches," she says. "More importantly, if there are any issues that arise, I want [them] handled immediately and quietly."

Kassim formed First Shot Productions with business partner Zach Crawford almost three years ago, after spending six years working for another production firm. She started as a photo archivist for photographer and video director Anthony Mandler while she was in medical school and Crawford was an accountant at Ernst & Young.

"Our core clients are celebrity-based photographers," Kassim says. "We do advertising, music album packaging, network galleries and editorials as our main projects."

First Shot's notable studio projects include album packages for Janet Jackson and Paris Hilton, and a yet-to-be released album by rapper Snoop Dogg. The firm's bedrock work has produced editorial shoots for Elle, In Style, GQ, Marie Claire and WEST, the Los Angeles Timesmagazine.

Each project starts with a conference call with the photographer, the art directors, set designers and clients to compile a detailed list of needs, expectations and responsibilities. Those details run from scheduling and equipment rental to studio leasing, casting, styling and anything else that comes along.

Some of the most common problems are set-construction delays, which can force entire crews to go into overtime. Others include technical issues, paperwork, payroll snafus — even something as small as food orders and coffee supplies.

"The big stuff is always taken care of — the legal permits, the payments, the insurance — but did you remember the specific pinot grigio? Or did catering remember the vegan requests? Or do we have all the music the talent requested? Those details make the difference," she says. "It's the details that make or break you."

Kassim describes one particularly troublesome shoot for an album cover involving a collaboration among different recording artists. "The night before the shoot, one artist tried to check in to the hotel without ID or a credit card," she recalls. "The hotel lost the credit card authorization form that was sent in by production, so they wouldn't let the artist check in."

The story unfolded from there. The rapper left the hotel lobby at 2 a.m. and opted to sleep in his car until the shoot started the following morning. Then the cops came and arrested him.

"The morning of the shoot, the label was trying to post bail, while we were trying to get the other artists to shoot without him so we could post him into the shot," Kassim says. "They were able to get him released, but we had to rent another studio space adjacent to ours, go shopping for a bed, linens and pillows, and let him sleep while we continued to shoot in the hopes to get one shot with him and the rest of the artists."

Kassim held true to her producer's promise by refusing to reveal the artist's name or any other identifiable information about the shoot, other than to say that the day in the studio worked out.

The shoot for Eminem's recent album, "Curtain Call," illustrates the role of a producer. First Shot Productions organized all the pre-shoot details remotely, as the assignment meant shuttling equipment to Detroit while the company controlled the details from L.A. The production crew, label officials, stylists, art directors, about 50 extras and Eminem's private security converged in the Motor City for a six-day shoot. The schedule was filled with two days of pre-lighting and construction work, followed by two days of 10-hour shooting. Crews then took two days to break down the set.

"That shoot had everything," she says, noting that the shoot required some 100 people, not to mention several gallons of fake blood, to execute. "It was the hardest shoot I've done."

Heather Murphy

Freelance producer, Seattle

It's the mix of work during a photo shoot that keeps Heather Murphy in the business. She's one part Marine, one part conductor and one part United Nations negotiator.

"How can photographers explore the creative part of the job when they have to deal with all those details?" the freelance producer asks from her Seattle home. "They don't want to deal with the money side of a shoot. They want to dedicate all of their time and energy [to] getting it right."

Murphy has worked as a freelance film producer for 25 years and has morphed those skills into producing photography shoots for the last 15 years. "A lot of the work on films translates to photography," she says. "I really work with everyone."

Asking her what sort of details go into her job description is like asking Cajun cooks what goes into their gumbo. "It's a bit of everything," she says. "A lot of people have no idea how much work goes into a job. I often feel like Columbo and am in search of all those details."

While a novice might see a day of studio photography as a simple day of snapping photos of products or models, Murphy sees it as two weeks of preparation that includes casting for the shoot, finding a studio, hiring background hangers, coordinating for lunches for the light crews and models, double-checking to make sure the right equipment and props are readily at hand, and watching all the expenses as well as keeping
an eye on the clock to ensure that all the shots get taken before the workday ends.

"It's like building a house," she says. "You have to make sure you have finished the floor before you put the ceiling up. It's about supervising the shoot from the start to execution."

The trick to keeping a shoot from derailing is to watch out for expenses and keep clients and photographers well informed.

"I often feel like a diplomat, because sometimes the creative side is at odds with the money side," Murphy says. "Sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul to make it work, but you get it done.

Even the simplest shoots can become complicated in a hurry. A shot of a comforter in a bedroom display, for example, may appear in four versions of a catalog, one for each season. That means that the shoot requires the same shot with different accents to match the seasonal themes of each catalog.

"That happens to catalog work all the time," she says. "It's much more complex than it looks, so I'm there to make sure it all gets done."

Emilie Muller

Emilie Muller Production, Los Angeles

The rise of digital photography in recent years hasn't made life any easier for studio photography producers. Digital images have simply upped the ante by creating an on-demand atmosphere, says Emilie Muller, owner of Emilie Muller Production in Los Angeles.

"Everything has been sped up," she says. "I think that not having to wait for Polaroids to cook saves a lot of time." Muller formed the company after working at Smashbox Studios and later co-found-ing Apples and Pears Productions. Her production company provides services that include budgeting, casting, location scouting, permits and insurance coordination.

The role of a producer is to solv problems before they happen. I worry about everything.
— Emilie Muller

The instantaneous nature of digital images has translated into the world of production by shortening the time available to organize shoot details. Projects that once demanded a month's worth of work are done routinely in two weeks.

Muller, for example, has done a lot of car and product shoots that required massive construction projects and only a few weeks to plan and execute. One shoot for AT&T required her to organize the construction of a set to mimic the interior of an office supply store.

An appliance shoot once called for the construction of a warehouse conveyor belt and the arrangement of rows of refrigerators. Everything had to be built in the studio because Muller couldn't find any manufacturers willing to give up their warehouses for the several days required for the shoot. "The idea is to make it look as if it isn't a studio shoot," she says. "There are various reasons people decide to build a set rather than go on location."

Although it's clear up front that the client will make all of the decisions, the producer, she says, turns those decisions into actions.

"I'm the wedding planner," Muller says. "It's their party. People are paying a lot of money, and they take it very seriously. I'm the point person. I facilitate their decisions, so everyone communicates through me.

"The role of a producer," she concludes, "is to solve problems before they happen. I worry about everything."

Steve Dunkelberger
Story Author: Steve Dunkelberger

Steve Dunkelberger is a freelance writer, photographer, business editor and author living in Steilacoom, Wash.

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