Behind the scenes with photographer Jim House

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Jim House is an onset photographer. 

If you follow director/producer Harley Wallen on Facebook,  or have seen our posts regarding Harley’s productions here, you have no doubt seen Jim’s work.  He has been present for Painted Creek Productions last five movies. Artistically documenting everything that happens on set,  he has taken us behind the scenes. 

If you figure that he takes 300-400 photos per each twelve hour day, Jim has taken thousands of photos over the last five productions.  From these he selects the very best, often reducing these down to as few as 80 which he will keep.  In each photo he keeps in mind the elements of professional photography.  More than  enlightening us as to what is happening on set,  he is capturing profile pictures, or head shots  and stills that may be used in the building of the movie poster.  So he takes great photos of the Hollywood talent and other leading actors from Michigan. 

He also takes photos of the crew.  They are the important backstory and may need photos to support their careers and business as well.

He does this all while remaining inconspicuous, making as little noise as he humanly can,  also eliminating any noises his cameras may make,  often under the poorest of lighting. 

How and why does he maintain his motivation to work under these conditions?  He is looking for the very best photos he can capture.  He needs fifteen for a portfolio of photos which he is building, which he will submit to be judged by the Professional Photographers of America.  He hopes to receive a professional certification come October.

We caught this interview with Jim just as readied himself to take the very first photos of Painted Creek Productions’ newest,  “Abeyance” –and every one of this new production.

Did you receive your photographer’s certification this weekend, Jim?

I am still working on my certification. I have to build a portfolio of 15 images that get judged by 5 professional photographers from the PPA (Professional Photographers of America). I’m working to get my portfolio together to submit no later that October. I will keep you posted on my progress! You will hear loud screaming and jumping up and down when I achieve it!

BTS photos for Bennett’s Song – Written by Nancy Oeswein (Auburn Moon Productions) & Directed by multi-award winning Director Harley Wallen Painted Creek Productions   (Formerly United Colors of Bennett-Song    Starring: Tara Reid, Dennis Haskins, Harley Wallen, Aphrodita Nikolovski, Calhoun “Callie” Koenig, Victoria Mullen, & Chevon Wilson

I’m certain that will be an exciting moment for you, Jim. But what is the PPA certification? Is it a recognition of a professional level of achievement? What advantage does it confer on you?

PPA is the Professional Photographers of America. It was founded in 1869 with the advent of photography. They are celebrating 150 years this year as an organization helping photographers. They recognized the need for a certification process that would qualify photographers at a certain level of experience and skill. It is a certification that tells our customers that we have significant knowledge and skills in the field of photography. It’s not just about having a nice camera. It’s understanding how to use the camera as a professional tool to get high quality images. You need to understand lighting and how to use it. Proper exposure, composition, the type of lens to use for certain applications, and posing your subject if doing portraits/headshots. It is a journey to reach your certification. You first must pass a 100 question proctored test. Then you need to build a portfolio of 15 images that are judged by five professional photographers that already have certification and years of experience. You gain a significant amount of confidence going through the process! That also makes you a better photographer.

Very good answer, Jim. Very thorough. When judging your photos, does the PPA judge the whole of your portfolio, or do they judge your photos individually?

They first look at the portfolio as a whole. They want to ensure it looks consistent as a whole body of work. They then look at the compulsory images: short lighting, broad lighting, selective focus images which are very prescriptive. They must show 3:1 ratio lighting, catch lights at 10 or 2 o’clock in the eyes, the second catch light edited out. The selective focus image must demonstrate depth of field, but also tell a story. If you fail the compulsory images they stop. You then have elective images (3), that can be high key, low key, color harmony, masculine, S-curve (feminine), rule of thirds, symmetrical or asymmetrical, or architecture. You then must provide 9 client images. All must show control of lighting with directional intent. You can only have four images out of fifteen that fail. So when you pass, you have been through the gauntlet and know what you are doing. When you pass they send you a golden tube with your certificate!

Jim House In as much as the elements of photography figure highly, and your photos are based on these, how important is subject matter?

The subject is the reason for taking the photo. Your job as a photographer is to use the rules of composition: rule of thirds, leading lines, shape, colors, shadows, background, highlights, and contrast to highlight the subject. If you have to explain to the viewer what the subject is, then you have missed the mark. If your photo also tells a story about the subject or expresses an emotion, that amplifies the photo even more. After selecting the subject, place them in the frame on the intersection of two rule of thirds lines (draw a tic-tac-toe grid on the frame) or have a leading line that draws the viewers attention to the subject. Finally start being conscious of the background and eliminate things from the frame that can distract. This can be accomplished by moving to a different perspective, or cropping the image to eliminate them in post editing. Also try shooting from a different perspective than just standing. This is what most point and shoot photos look like. Get high or get low. This will add a perspective that most viewers don’t consider.

Here are the BTS photos for Agramon’s Gate – Written & Directed by multi-award winning Director Harley Wallen Painted Creek Productions  Starring: Laurene Landon, Yan Birch, Harley Wallen, Aphrodita Nikolovski, Kristopher Reilly, Kaiti Wallen, Jessika Johnson McGaffigan, Fancisco Posada, & Calhoun “Callie” Koenig

How long have you worked to assemble your portfolio?   Will this be your first?

My portfolio has been building over the years since 2012. I bought my first DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera in 2012. I started my first web-site in the fall of 2013. I retired from Corporate life May, 2015 and then I started really ramping up my portfolio. I just relaunched my 2nd website earlier this spring. I have refocused it on the key areas that most of my time goes into: Behind the Scenes (BTS), Event, and Portrait/Headshots. All other photos in my portfolio are listed under Other Interests. My website can be found at www.windingtrailphotography.com The CPP portfolio is very specific and focused on the requirements established by the PPA (Professional Photographers of America) for their certification process. I just started putting this specific portfolio together this spring with the goal of submitting for judging no later than October.

When you have achieved certification, will you receive a professional designation which you can attach to your name?

Certification: Once certification is achieved you have the right to include CPP at the end of your name. (Certified Professional Photographer), similar to other certifications, like a CPA for example. They send you a gold tube in the mail with your certification and you can elect to receive it on stage at Image USA, which is PPA’s annual conference in January. I have attended the last two Imaging conferences and hope to walk the stage in Atlanta, January 2019!

As any one who follows Harley Wallen’s posts knows, you have been the on set photographer who has taken many of the behind the scene photographs?   When and how did you start working with Harley?

In February 2016,  a lady that I had mentored the prior year contacted me to get some headshots done. She was going to be an actor. With little headshot experience, they came out reasonable and she was cast in a short film entitled “Daddy” written and directed by George Larkins. She told George I was her photographer. George told me I could come take BTS photos, “but no pay.” So without any background or training on set, I showed up and started taking photos. George had cast Harley for one scene in his movie, but I did not meet him on that set. Afterwards, in October 2016, Harley asked George to fill-in for a weekend on “Taken Over”. George asked me to be his AC. I brought my camera along, just in case, and met Ray Morgis who was doing the BTS Photography. George ended up supporting the remainder of the film and Ray was gracious enough to share the BTS (behind the scenes) shooting with me! I told Harley if he ever needed help to let me know. I got a text January 2017 asking if I could provide BTS for Into a “Dark Mind”. I have been on Harley’s films ever since! We start our 6th movie together on June 29th, “Abeyance”.

Other than remaining inconspicuous on set, what is the most challenging thing about being an on set photographer?

Being on set: Being the BTS photographer, you are not fundamental to actually making the movie, so in really tight spaces you are 2nd fiddle to the film, lighting, and sound crews. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a clear shot. You also are challenged to get any shots after they say “Action!” I purchased a new Nikon D850 camera in January that helps by permitting shooting with the mirror up in live view, so no shutter noise. You do need to be careful that the lens motor is not picked up as well. I have found a few tricks to work around the lens noise. I take it as a challenge to lurk in the background and take those shots that people ask later: “How and when did you take that shot!”

Are the majority of your photos taken randomly, or are they staged?

Staged or random: Almost all of the photos are random. The only staged photos might be at the end of a day when you gather everyone together for a group photo. The trick is to always be ready to capture the moment. You never know when a great shot will present itself. You need to know your camera very well and be able to make adjustments quickly. You are always shooting in very low light conditions, so you need a good camera and a fast lens that can shoot at wide open apertures f/2.8 I use two cameras on set: one with a 24-70mm for wide shots, and one with a 70-200mm for closeups. I have learned the auto ISO is essential to ensuring a consistent well exposed photo in these conditions. This adjusts the sensitivity of the camera sensor by amplifying the signal if it is under exposed.

Having worked as you have for as long as you have, do you sense a good photo instinctivelywhen it presents itself?  Or do you just take a photo and make a judgment afterwards

Sensing a good photo: You learn from taking a lot of bad photos. The statement “fail forward fast” applies. As you take and critique your photos you learn that composition, depth of field, aperture/shutter speed, proper exposure, and accurate focusing are all important. Every time I press the shutter button, I am expecting to capture a great photo, but that does not always work out. My goal for a 12 hour day of shooting is to take between 300 to 400 photo and cull this down to 80 keepers. I then edit those 80 to ensure I present the best image: highlights, shadows, and cropping to eliminate distractions. If you analyze your bad photos you understand what you must change the next time. Key: Only show your best!

What kind of equipment do you use to capture these photos, ie camera, lenses, etc.

Equipment: I addressed my equipment on set in an earlier question, but I will add a little more here. While it can be said that a photos is only as good as the photographer, I will stress that for low light shooting you must have equipment that will operate well in the environment. A full frame sensor (size of a 35mm film frame) and a fast camera body/lens are essential. You do not have the luxury of adding light with a flash on set. You have to rely on the light that the gaffer gives you!

Have you worked with any one actor around whom you would like to do a photo study?

Working with one actor: I have not zeroed in on one specific actor. I have met so many wonderful people in the Michigan Film Community and feel like they are family now. My goal while on set is to capture as many individual photos of the cast and crew that they want to use some of them for profile pictures, head shots, or to promote themselves. I have also learned that some of my stills may be used in the building of the movie poster, so I also focus on ensuring that I capture great photos of the Hollywood talent and other leading actors from Michigan.

Are there any key points that you keep in mind when on the set?

A few additional points about shooting on set: I see the following as my main requirements on set: Take wide environmental photos so that you see the entire set and the lighting in case it has to be recreated. Take photos of all of the actors and what they are wearing in case they need to be referred back to later for continuity. Take as many action shots as possible to tell the story along the way. Take closeups that can be used for head shots and posters. Take photos of the crew. They are the important backstory and may need photos to support their careers and business as well. Capture funny outtakes whenever you see them. Organize your photos in a file system with date and locations of the shoots for each day. I upload all finished photos to Dropbox and send a link to Harley Wallen and Nancy Oeswein. By having the photos organized this way I can quickly call them up on my iPhone or iPad for reference when needed. Harley reviews and releases the photos on his production Facebook page: Painted Creek Productions. He ensures that no plot related photos get released that would spoil the surprise. I only share the photos after he releases them. These requirements are extremely important as Harley or other directors work to get their movies into distribution. I try to provide excellency and artistry in my photos. It is an art form just like film making. I cannot say enough about how Harley and Nancy are pushing to make the very best films and get Michigan recognized along with the many other creatives in the state.

Into A Dark Mind – Written and Directed by multi-award winning Director Harley Wallen Painted Creek Productions   Starring: Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haskins, Kristopher Reilly, Harley Wallen, Jesi Jensen, Kaiti Wallen, Jessika Johnson McGaffigan, Dennis Marin, Colleen Gentry, Henry Frost III, Jerry Hayes, & Angelina Cama

Other than shooting photos on set, what would you like to do most as a photographer? 

What else would I like to do with my photography: I love airshows, and auto racing. My goal for retirement is to buy a Class B RV (Van size RV) and become a Wanderlust! Traveling throughout the USA and taking photos of interesting people, places, and things. There is a lot of landscapes out west that I would love to photograph. My challenge is that my wife, Tricia, has a successful small business making all natural soap, bath bombs, shower steamers, and perfumes. You can check out her website at: www.etsy.com/shop/pinkparchmentsoaps I take all of her product photos. We have two dogs and four cats. So it is difficult to go wandering right now, but in the future I hope.

Do you have any words that you would like to offer in closing?

For those interested in learning more about photography: I have learned all of my photograph from reading books, on-line training, attending workshops, and local photography clubs. A few to recommend are www.KelbyOne.com, www.Lynda.com, www.ppa.com These are monthly or annual subscription services. A free resource is provided by Marc Levoy. Marc was a photography professor at Stanford University. He received permission to release his full semester photography course on-line. You can find it on YouTube by searching for Marc Levoy Photography Course. This is an excellent 18 lesson course covering history of photography, all the technical aspects of the camera and lens, to composition and more.

Are you ready to capture some great BTS photos on Harley’s “Abeyance” set?

I will be doing the BTS photos for Harley’s movie “Abeyance.”

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