How 3 Mega Photo Studios Work

March 21, 2014

By Brienne Walsh

Courtesy of Thunder Studios

A set with a blue screen at Thunder Studios in Long Beach, California.

Complex photo studios share a breadth of space and offerings. We investigated three—Thunder Studios, and the in-house studios for The Walt Disney Company and Time Inc.—to find out how each organization handles variables like booking clients, accommodating staff and freelance photographers, shooting simultaneously and wrangling technology that will impress even the most devoted gear heads.

Thunder Studios

Green screen at Thunder Studios
A Thunder Studios set with a green screen, which is the largest on the West Coast. Photo courtesy of Thunder Studios.

Thunder Studios epitomizes a mega studio in every sense of the word. Located in Long Beach, California, the facility, set on six acres of land, is 150,000 square feet, and accommodates 20 discrete studios, all of them rented to outside clients.

“You can fit a lot of photographers in 150,000 square feet,” says Wendy Kjorness, the VP of sales and marketing.

Thunder is a dream-space for the tech savvy. Best known for automotive photography, the studio is equipped to accommodate the challenges of capturing large subjects. Along with being the only studio with pre-rigged Fisher Light softboxes and flats, it also has a built-in turntable, as well as all of the grip and electrical equipment a production team might need. Each of the 20 studios has either two or three cycloramas, earning Thunder the title of having the most cycloramas in North America—if not the world. “We don’t really know about the competition in China,” Kjorness notes. Another record setter is the green screen, which is the largest on the West Coast. “Basically, if a photographer needs something, we can get it,” she says.

Thunder can also accomodate product, editorial, fitness, fashion and lifestyle shoots, beauty portraits and even educational programming. Lately, the studio has been handling a lot more 360-degree photo tours for websites, which show the interiors and exteriors of cars, boats and busses. “These kinds of projects are hybrid photography-video shoots which dovetail nicely into our flourishing commercial business,” says Kjorness.

Given the volume of clients, the studio is like a thriving hive. “There is a buzz in the air, people in all directions, moving with purpose.” Busy periods can fluctuate, but Kjorness says the time when they’re at the most capacity is the most exciting. “Those days are long, but really rewarding for us.”

Among the freelance photographers who lease space at Thunder, a few choose to rent from the studio exclusively, making them part of what Kjorness calls the Thunder Family. Depending on the client and the project—see the sidebar to learn how Thunder keeps shoots a secret—socializing is encouraged. “We provide lounge areas for networking,” Kjorness says. She notes that many crewmembers and photographers stay in touch through social media, which often leads to future work.

Keeping Clients’ Secrets

Tesla car shot at Thunder Studios
This car was shot by Dave Folks on Thunder Studios’ Stage 2, which features a turntable with a diameter of 20 feet that’s height and tilt adjustable. Photo © Dave Folks/Courtesy of Thunder Studios.

Given that Thunder has a number of automotive clients, they frequently host prototypes of cars and other products that cannot be unveiled to the public. Handling such shoots requires tight security, which Thunder excels at.

When there’s a “code red,” or highly secretive shoot, the staff at Thunder doesn’t even enter the stage. Rather, they handle the security at all of the entrances to make sure that only the crew sees the product. They accomplish this by posting a 24-hour guard at the front gate to the facility, along with at the doors to the stage. Crew members use a passcode to get into the space—many times, the shoots are given fake names like those used by movie stars when they’re checking into hotels.

The secure stages have their own private entrances so that none of the other clients or staff at Thunder can see what’s going on. The prototype is often parked on the stage for many days, so that many different types of people—public relations, photographers, commercial directors and even focus groups—can visit without the product ever having to be moved. “Everyone comes to us,” explains Kjorness.


The Walt Disney Company



Walt Disney In-House Photo Studio
A pool was built in the studio in order to recreate an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back for Walt Disney World’s Star Wars Weekend posters. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The four on-staff photographers for Disney’s Yellow Shoes Creative Group are, in simple terms, living the life. Working within the Disney corporate structure in Celebration, Florida, ensures them job security, health insurance and pensions; at the same time, the gig allows staff photographers a variety of work and creative freedom.

“It’s like a dream freelance job only you don’t have to worry about bill collecting,” explains David Roark, the manager of creative photography at The Walt Disney Company.

The staff photographers are working primarily for the marketing group of Disney Destinations LLC, which means that they spend a lot of their time traveling around the world taking photographs of the empire’s many parks, resorts, and cruise ships in locations as far flung as China, Croatia, Ireland and South Africa—to name just a few destinations.

When they’re not in helicopters over the Adriatic, or in resorts in Shanghai, the staff photographers are working in a cavernous studio—it measures 16 x 25 feet, and has 14-foot ceilings—in the Disney marketing building. It used to serve as a storage area, but now it’s fully stocked with equipment by Nikon, which has been an official sponsor of Disney since the 1960s. “We use the Phase One system for large-format cameras,” Roark says. “We have the Seitz Roundshot D3 panoramic camera, and a lot of specialty housing stops.” In terms of lighting gear, they use Profoto systems, along with movie lights, hazy lights and a Dino-Lite digital microscope. The studio is set up with a cyclorama on one side, and a cove on the other. Double doors to the loading dock allow staff to move in items as large as a MINI Cooper. “It’s hardly picturesque,” laughs Roark, who says the photographers generally work independently. “None of us are particularly tidy.”

Given that the studio services so many different aspects of Disney’s brand and programs, there is hardly any downtime. “The workload never stops,” Roark says. “We have clients who will move their projects around to wait until we have time to shoot them.” Each job comes through Account Management, located one floor up in the building. “Account Management gives the job to Creative Administration, which assigns an art director. With the writers and digital team on staff, they come up with a concept.  Once a concept gets approved with our input, the collaboration continues on through the production.”

As an example of the studio’s capacity, Roark cites the effort that went into a promotion about volunteering that featured Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy on the Mad Tea Party ride at the Magic Kingdom Park in Florida’s Walt Disney World. Rather than staging the set in the park itself, which is open seven days a week, Roark and his team re-created the ride in the studio using teacups that had been removed by the maintenance crew to give them new paint jobs.

Other projects have included creating intricate miniatures of upcoming rides and resorts that have yet to be constructed. “We try to make them look as realistic as possible so that they look like the real thing,” Roark says.

The autonomous and varied working conditions have inspired loyalty from the staff photographers; Roark has been an employee for 32 years, and some of his colleagues have been there for over 40.

Time Inc.

Time Inc In-House Photo Studio
An image taken at the Time Inc. Digital Studios’ Tribeca location in New York City. Photo © Time Inc Digital Studio.

The studio owned by the publishing arm of Time Warner, a media conglomerate that lists over 150 magazines as assets, is a busy hub for freelance photographers. Time Inc. also employs five full-time staff members including a studio manager, photographer and imaging specialist. Located in the Time & Life Building in midtown Manhattan, the studio is roughly 2,500 feet, and can accommodate up to five shoots a day.

These shoots tend to be pretty small—three or four people—given that the photographers are mostly doing still lifes or portraits for editorial, or advertorial/advertising campaigns. Their subjects include products, furniture and food. The walls are movable, and if more room is needed, the studio can be expanded to create a single, open space. Along with the bays for shooting, the studio also contains a well-equipped prop room, green rooms where portrait subjects can wait for shoots, closets, conference rooms and a fully loaded kitchen.

For any photographer who has worked for a publishing client, the equipment at the Time Inc. studios will be familiar. “We are heavy on DSLR use but also have medium- and large-format cameras,” says Studio Director Virgil Bastos. “We are a Profoto studio as far as lighting goes.” Although the studio specializes in still photography, they also rent out the space to production groups shooting videos. These groups bring in their own teams of grips who handle the lighting.

Freelance photographers are generally hired by the editorial team at any given magazine, who themselves handle the booking of the studio. When photo editors choose to use the studio within the building, it’s usually because of its convenience.  “The editors, the product, everything is here,” explains Bastos. For bigger environmental or fashion shoots, Time Inc. also has a larger studio in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. This space, which is 5,000 square feet and full of natural light, can accommodate a minimum of three shoots a day.

The Tribeca space is occasionally rented by outside clients. Bastos estimates that 10 to 15 percent of shoots in the space are used by clients not within the Time Warner empire. “It’s a very selective process,” he explains. “The goal of our department is to cover our costs while providing the highest level of service.” Renting the studio helps keep both spaces afloat financially.

Given that Time Inc. works with the publishing cycle, their craziest months are September through December—but the studio bustles for most of the year. August is the only month when the staff can take
a breather.

Few celebrities pass through the studio though, Bastos says, “We get mostly politicians, financial people, some sports people, some television personalities, but not a lot of movie stars.” They pique some interest, but are usually in and out within 15 minutes.

The space is set up in such a way that crews from different shoots are able to interact—and in fact, Bastos encourages networking. “We want the photographers and editors to keep on coming back to shoot with us.” In the communal spaces, pantry areas and hallways, editors frequently meet new photographers. Sometimes, all it takes is exchanging a smile to start a conversation, which Bastos says can lead to future collaborations.