Still/Video Convergence: Learning to Work with (and Appreciate) a Director of Photography

by David Walker

©Jeff Newton
Jeff Newton shot print ads for the Fox Sports "Beautiful Pictures" campaign to match the look and feel of the TV spots.

Photographer Jeff Newton of Phoenix has shot several still and motion projects for commercial clients, but this past fall he landed his biggest campaign to date for Fox Sports. Given the stakes and the budget, the agency that hired Newton insisted that he work with a director of photography rather than shoot the campaign himself.

Newton was reluctant to give up any creative control, and seriously considered turning down the job. But in the end, he decided to take it as a learning experience, and says he's glad he did. "There are times when it is going to be necessary to step aside and realize you have to delegate."

Fox Sports wanted a state-wide campaign to convey the message that it has sports covered in Arizona, and that it brings great HD pictures to viewers everywhere. The network hired the Lavidge Company in Phoenix to create the campaign.  The ad agency proposed a six-image print campaign, along with a series of TV spots of 15 and 30 seconds.

One series of 15-second spots, shot in studio, show people watching sports on TV, with team mascots and cheer leaders right there in their living rooms.

The 30-second spots, shot on location, show people watching sports on TV in scenic places, such as outside in the middle of the desert.

Lavidge senior art director Melissa McFarlin says she turned to Newton for still and motion production because of his work on a previous breast cancer awareness campaign for a client called Massage Envy. That job was for stills only, but Newton took a few minutes at the end of the shoot to show Lavidge what he could do with the motion capabilities of his Canon 5D.

"I basically took the print campaign and brought it to life," says Newton, who has shot music videos in the past, in addition to editing video for other directors. Massage Envy didn't have a broadcast budget at the time, but has since hired Newton to shoot a 30-second ad that ran on The Today Show.

Fox Sports was a new client for Lavidge, though, and the campaign was a lot more demanding from a technical standpoint than the Massage Envy campaign. It required more talent and crew. Lavidge wanted it shot with a Red camera because agency creatives weren't entirely confident about the motion capabilities of the Canon 5D. The shoot also called for a camera boom--a piece of gear Newton hadn't used. To hire him for that job, says McFarlin, "We definitely had to take a leap of faith."

For peace of mind, she says, "We decided to hire a director of photography" to help Newton with the technical challenges.  The DP was David Babb of Phoenix. "He was someone my producer recommended who has done tons of shoots," McFarlin says.  

Newton says, "I can delegate production, but this was the first time I was asked to delegate the creation of the image." It was an issue of creative ownership, in other words. Newton, who is 33, was also uneasy about working with a DP about 20 years his senior.

But he finally relented. "I want to challenge myself as much as I can.  I also understood the gravity of the situation. It was Fox Sports. That's a big name, and a big brand. It would look great under my belt. And Lavidge reassured me. They said, 'You're the director. It's your vision. You have the final say.'"

Newton says he started a dialogue with Babb to build rapport. In addition to talking over the technical aspects of the project, they both talked about their past projects, as well as their personal lives. "I kept a constant dialogue going," Newton says. "I feel like you almost need to have an intimate relationship if someone else is capturing the images you want captured. In those situations I don't want a huge separation between my vision and the DP's because my name is going to be on it."

To explain his vision, Newton sent Babb (and the gaffer, Mike Hall) still images and screen shots from various films. Some showed the color palette that Newton envisioned for the ads. Some images, such as a shot of rapper Lil' Wayne, capture a "vibe" that Newton liked. Other images, such as a film still from the movie Revolutionary Road and a promotional still from the movie Inglorious Basterds, showed examples of lighting techniques that Newton wanted.

Newton had at least two meetings at his studio with Babb and Hall. They also spent a 15-hour day tech scouting for the location shoots. Originally, the brief called for locations all over the state, including the Grand Canyon, but that was too ambitious in the end for the budget. "When you have to put up 30 or 40 people at hotels, reality hits," Newton says. (About half of the entourage was production crew; the rest, talent and agency staff.)

Newton says he relied on his studio manager to handle all of the pre-production details. "I have no problem working with an outside producer, but I'd rather keep the money in house, and be more informed about what's going on," he says. "I'd rather work with [a producer] who knows exactly how we do things."

But Lavidge's producer, Ronda Farthing, kept a close eye on things. "You have to be really organized," McFarlin explains. "Ronda had to make sure Jeff knew all of the people he would need on set, to make sure he had the shots he needed. If it's not done correctly, it can mess up the whole shoot." (With editors on staff, the agency handled all of the post production.)

In retrospect, Newton says he's glad he had a DP on the job for several reasons. Babb helped solve technical problems. The studio shots called for a motion control jib arm, but the budget wouldn't allow for that. So Babb rigged a smaller manual jib on a dolly instead.

Newton also says having Babb on set enabled him to focus his attention on the talent.  "As a photographer, you can have that intimacy [with your subject], even with a camera in front of your face. But with motion, when you have to pay attention to the follow focus, the tracking, and the camera puller, all while looking at an HD monitor, you lose that intimacy with your subject. There are times when you need to step aside and let someone else operate the camera."

Newton says delegating to a DP is not unlike delegating to hair stylists and make-up artists. "My images look beautiful because of the people I surround myself with," he says. "Dave Babb has way more experience [in motion photography] than I do, so I needed to embrace this. It was something I had to come to terms with and we ended up having a great relationship.

"To add someone else's voice is a challenge. I'm happy we did it," Newton says. "But I'm not always going to do it."

 Related stories:
How Collaboration Can Produce Better Video
How to Record Quality Sound for Multimedia
Still/Video Convergence: Soft-Sell Documentaries for a Cycling Outfitter
Still/Video Convergence: Alexx Henry's 'Living Art'


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