By Junsui Films | June 2012
The Still Photographer talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his journey from on-set gaffer to photographer, working with the Coen Brothers and tells us all about photographing MEN IN BLACK 3 and GANGSTER SQUAD…
Junsui Films: Is it right you started out as an electrician?
Wilson Webb: Actually, I started out in FX make-up during high school and that led me to my first on-set job. Although it was a very small production, it was still an eye opening experience. I went on to be an electrician for about 12 years, then was gaffing and working as a DP on smaller projects. During that whole time I was never without a camera, even when no one was supposed to have one I would always secretly be packing!
JF: How did the transition into still photographer come about?
In the summer of 2008 the Coen Brothers were in prep for their film, A Serious Man, in Minneapolis. I heard that my name had come up to their producer as a possible still photographer on the project, as it was a smaller budget film for them and they were looking to hire someone locally. The executive producer, Bob Graf, asked me to stop in to the offices when I could and so I quickly made time to follow up.
Going into the office I expected to just have a short meeting with Bob but instead was lead into the Coen’s office where we sat and talked for a while about their process, what they needed, and my past work experience. It was probably better that I hadn’t expected to talk to them so early in the process as I didn’t have time to over-think my answers!
JF: What were your experiences working with the iconic duo?
Amazing! Joel and Ethan are great, as is [DOP] Roger Deakins and the rest of their collaborators. They go above and beyond to have as many details worked out before the shoot day and to stay on track with their plans. In those situations it makes the working environment a much better, less stressful, place to work for everyone.
JF: You quickly followed up with work on Greenberg, True Grit and Paul. Tell us a little bit about your creative process and your daily role on set as a still photographer.
Well, as far as my day to day work goes, it breaks down as follows. I like to be on set at call and to get right into shooting, even during rehearsals (if I am allowed). Generally there is time for me to set up my computer and cameras while everyone else sets up the shot and the actors go into hair and make-up.
Timing is everything as I have to get to set early enough to figure out where I can shoot from, but not too early as to get in the way of the crew. I shoot anywhere from 500 to 1500 photos a day, all of which I have find time to edit and manage. Some days I’ll have time to do that periodically throughout the day, and other times I have to do it all after wrap.
Every still photographer works differently so it is hard to say if that’s an average amount of photos. I am probably on the high end. I find that having more than enough coverage has worked to my advantage – you never know what will be requested later on. The photo of Ben Stiller on the poster for Greenberg, for example, was taken before cameras were rolling. At the time it was somewhat of a throwaway shot. I had almost forgotten I had taken it!
Creatively, I am always attempting to use my skills, tools, and knowledge to capture images that convey the look and feeling of that individual film. I also try to capture the hard work that goes into making the film, the challenges that it takes, and I also enjoy focusing on all the amazing crew members that work so hard to make each movie look and sound great.
JF: How vital is it to develop a relationship with the director and cast during a shoot?
It has been crucial to develop strong relationships with both the directors and actors, as well as with many of the crew in order to do my job well. First and foremost you need to develop a level of trust with everyone so that they will feel comfortable with your presence there, and so that they needn’t have to worry about you hampering the creative process in any way. I am often right next to the film camera, between the director and actors and so it is important that I both blend in and yet be everywhere at the same time. I’ve often been referred to as a “Stills Ninja” for my creative positioning and skill to seemingly disappear into a set.
JF: How did you come to be involved in Men In Black 3?
Again, Joel and Ethan came into play by suggesting me to Barry Sonnenfeld, their former DP and director of MiB. I had a briefly met the Executive Producer, G.Mac Brown, so that couldn’t have hurt either.
JF: The film famously shut-down half-way through production so the script could undergo a rewrite. Did this have any affect on your photographic approach?
No, none whatsoever. All the basics stayed the same so there weren’t any big changes when we all got back together. [Director] Barry [Sonnenfeld] was a joy to work with, as were much of the cast. The relationship that Barry and Will Smith have is something that can only be witnessed in person to really believe. They have so much fun working together that the set atmosphere was mostly a fun place to be.
JF: You also serve as the still photographer on the eagerly anticipated Gangster Squad. When working on such high profile productions with a firm studio remit, are you afforded any sort of creative freedom?
The released trailer is great, huh? Yes, on set I am free to be wherever I want, within reason, so in that respect I am afforded a lot of creative freedom as long as the studio gets what they need to advertise the film. I feel that I deliver many different aspects of a production and so the different studios have always been satisfied. I often shoot a small amount of film (maybe 1-2%), with a Hasselblad Xpan and a Mamiya 7ii, and if I wasn’t able to fulfill the studio needs they certainly wouldn’t put up with that. I greatly enjoy still shooting film and most directors enjoy the final photos.
JF: Throughout your career has there been a particular shot you consider a personal favourite, and if so why?
That’s a tough one since I average 30,000-50,000 photos a film, after editing! There is an unreleased photo of Greg Kinnear from a film called Thin Ice that I liked a lot, as did Greg. It was right before we were about to roll the camera and everyone is doing “last looks” (where hair,make-up,camera, props all make sure the shot is ready) so the frame is very chaotic but Greg is staring calmly right down my lens. Two B+W xpans shots come to mind, one is Jeff Bridges shooting a gun from atop a horse in True Grit and the other is Will Smith simply looking monumental from a low angle shot.
JF: And finally, what can you tell us about Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?
I can tell you that it will be quite an epic film! We are close to finishing the shoot in NYC, and then we have a short break, and then another month in Iceland. Ben’s work ethic is amazing to watch. Not just observing him switching from actor to director, but in taking in all the small details that end up on the screen. It’s very impressive and I feel very fortunate that we met on Greenberg and that he liked my work.
MEN IN BLACK 3 IS OUT NOW.