Interview with Helen Sloan – Part 2

published 26 March 2009
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For part 1 of our interview with Helen Sloan click here! What is the Role of a Stills Photographer on film sets? – it’s not often we get to talk to one!
Helen: The stills photographer photographs the movie’s action and setups of the cast, they also shoot all the crew photography aka “behind the scenes”. They provide the photographs for posters, web sites, newspapers and magazines etc.
A lot of people think that the promotional images (ie. the “shirtless” one that everyone loves so much!!) are just “grabs” from the movie itself, but in fact the stills photographer is on the set sneaking around with a large camera in a soundproof box called a “blimp”. What is the best and worst part of your job?
Helen: I have to say, I love everything about my job. Honestly!
Working on film sets can be very long hours, and sometimes you can find yourself in strange environments, like at the top of a mountain at 4am in the pouring rain, or in an abandoned Victorian Jail with no electricity again, in the middle of the night.
The crew who work closely beside the actors can often find themselves squished under a table or sandwiched between bits of sets.
I remember at one point there were about 12 people in a small bathroom doing a scene, the Standby Art director, Laura Ng and I could only find one space to be in – the bottom of a shower cubicle! Life can be very interesting on set! The trick is, in that tight spot, to get the shot we need and then slip out again. Photo-ninjitsu!
In this job I get to meet wonderful creative people all the time, and no two days are the same, which is wonderful, and makes for a very exciting career. What other interesting projects have you worked on?
Helen: I have worked on several projects for film and television in the last few years, but one of the highlights has been Cherrybomb obviously! It was one of the best sets I have ever been on. Really great atmosphere there, a great set to come to every day. Last year I worked on the Northern Ireland version of Sesame Street, “Sesame Tree”. I was there as a muppeteer (puppeteer) and also stills photographer between my scenes. City of Ember was a definite highlight – and a really cool set to work on (I was the VFX photographer and data wrangler).
For the most recent Generator project were working night shoots in the abandoned jail I mentioned before. Lots of gunfire, lots of spooky happenings in that movie, and in turn, lots of crew playing pranks on each other in the “haunted” Crumlin Rd Gaol set in Belfast!
I am about to embark on a very interesting project in collaboration with Damien – we are going to shoot a series of images in Iceland together – where I used to live. Very excited about that. Top Secret.
Watch this space… We always say the camera loves Rupert, so what, in your opinion, makes him so photogenic?
Helen: The camera does love Rupert. I am sure there is some scientific reason for this!
Rupert has a great smile which really helps the photographer. He is also a great actor, and this really comes across in the eyes for me.
He is very relaxed in front of the camera. I am sure he gets nervous sometimes, but it really does not show.
In fact one of my favourite portraits I have shot, is of Rupert., but you’ll have to wait for that – it hasn’t been released! What did you like best about working on Cherrybomb?
Helen: The cast and crew atmosphere. I also particularly loved working with Glenn & Lisa the directors- what a team! Lisa is amazing with the actors and Glenn has such a wonderful eye for detail. Damien Elliott, the Director of Photography (DOP) – his style is great – stunning.
As a stills photographer, I spend most of my time shooting in very close proximity to the camera team and boom operators- and luckily for me on Cherrybomb they were “great craic”. There was great cameraderie on set, and lots of giggles. A lot of the crew on Cherrybomb have worked together before. Crew life is very strange : it became this concentrated environment for 4 weeks – like an extended family. I get a bit sad when it comes time to part. *Sniff* The bedroom still of Malachy and Michelle, was the color manipulated on that shot?
Helen: Everyone has been commenting on this shot! Usually about how pale Rupert is and how red his hair looks.
There is always a certain amount of “grading” or post processing that goes on in photography and film making, but I can safely say, Rupert is very porcelain skinned and very red haired – mother nature has blessed him, not photoshop! Can we expect the new stills from your site or TLFC?
Helen: The stills will not appear on my website until after they have been officially released. There will be more stills released soon, my website will then receive a massive facelift! Was it easy to capture the relationship between Michelle, Luke and Malachy?
Helen: The three actors, like their characters, have very different personalities, Rupert is quite a comedian, but also quiet and modest. Kim is very intelligent and a really engaging girl to talk to, she is upbeat and really witty. Robbie is just full of beans, very energetic! He can have you crying with laughter one minute and then go straight into an emotional scene and have you totally gripped the next.
The trio struck up a real friendship on set, and I think this really comes across on film. The performances were very heartfelt and powerful. Did Rupert have any giggle fits? He has been known to do while on set!
Helen: I am not going to tell any tales! Are we possibly going to get glimpses of Rupert doing behind-the-scenes stuff like taking direction from Glenn and Lisa? Or hanging out other actors on set?
Helen: Apart from the Publicist and the Stills Photographer, in the publicity department we have something called EPK (Electronic Press Kit).
Mark Cowden was our EPK man. He shoots the behind the scenes footage and records interviews with the actors.
We’ll have to wait and see what gets released. In your opinion, how political is Cherry Bomb, if at all?
Helen: Not at all. Did you take any studio or character shots of the actors while working on Cherrybomb?
Helen: Yes there are some. I often ask the actors if they wouldn’t mind going off to one side when they are not busy between scenes or setups, and try to get some character shots.
Again, keep your eyes peeled for the next Cherrybomb photo-press release! The pictures on Malachy’s wall of him and Luke–Did you take those? And if so, what was the inspiration behind them?
Helen: Those were created by our Art Department, They liased with the directors, and decided they should have a real urban feel. I love the decor in Malachy’s bedroom, it’s really well thought out – very cool. What training did you need to do to become a Stills Photographer?
Helen: I think, for me in particular, it hasn’t been so much that any school or university has “taught” me how to be a photographer. It’s more like, I have had a series of mentors.
My parents are both teachers and artists, my Dad often taught me things like how to draw perspective from the age of about 5 or 6, and I’m sure this early “technical art talk” set me up quite well. When I was about 11, Dad gave me a camera to take on a school trip, I just seemed to have a “knack” with it.
Then the photographer, Hugo, at the local newspaper office let me come in to use the darkroom and showed me how to develop and print my 35mm rolls, which is very addictive once you see you pictures literally appearing in the chemicals before your very eyes!
Fellow camera nuts are where I find most of my “training” – I can often be found “geeking out” over coffee with other inspiring photographers and camera crew – soaking up tech talk!
It’s all to do with who you meet along the way that really influences what direction you take and what knowledge you gain. And we’ve always wondered about those tennis balls in the swimming pool? What are they about? And what was the inspiration for the colour palette in Cherrybomb? “Orange” for example we see everywhere?
Helen: I would say that the person to ask about this is Glenn Leyburn. He has a great eye for colour design and patternation, being a graphic designer. There are definite themes throughout the film to look out for – so I suppose the “secrets of the tennis balls” will be revealed in time, or maybe it will remain one of the greatest movie mysteries of all time…!

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