The Power of the Still: The Photography Behind the Scenes

“Throwing cinephiles a beautiful bone” wrote EW of The Power of the Dog’s first-look image when it was revealed in July 2021.
Throwing cinephiles a beautiful bone” wrote EW of The Power of the Dog’s first-look image when it was revealed in July 2021.

The most iconic and lasting film images come from split-second decisions by unit stills photographers. Jane Campion and her photographer Kirsty Griffin, David Lowery and Eric Zachanowich, and Joachim Trier and Christian Belgaux open up about capturing the heart of a movie.

“I didn’t know that that would be the key image. I just thought, ‘I’d be mad not to shoot this. I’d be mad not to tap him on the shoulder.’”

Filmmaker and photographer Kirsty Griffin is remembering the very fleeting thought process that went into pulling Benedict Cumberbatch aside during a fast-fading sunset on New Zealand’s Maniototo Plain for the photograph that would become the iconic still for the multi-Oscar-nominated The Power of the Dog.

“I took nine frames. I had 90 seconds,” Griffin recalls from her Coromandel Peninsula home. “We’d been shooting something out the back of the barn and the light was just right and I said ‘come on, Benedict’ and I quickly manhandled him. He goes, ‘right, here?’, I said ‘yeah, yeah, there’ and he did his Phil thing.”

“Did his Phil thing.” With classic Kiwi humility, Griffin understates her skill and her years of on-set experience, so I asked her director to describe the photographer’s presence of mind. “Kirsty has a very focused warm energy on set that I love and she pays very sharp attention,” Jane Campion tells me. “She’s always there but not in the way, patient, searching for the moment during takes or when we turn the set over to her. Tick tick those 90 secs.”

Jane Campion on the set of The Power of the Dog. — Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix
Jane Campion on the set of The Power of the Dog. Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix

It is a compelling first-look image, one that needed to do a fair bit of heavy lifting when it was teased to the public: the first Jane Campion film in thirteen years, the first of her films with a male lead, the first we see of Cumberbatch in hyper-masculine mode, after a run of Marvel follies and dad cinema. Looking closer, it’s rich in information about Phil Burbank, a repressed coil of angry grief with a sideline in banjo torture. His jaw is set. He eyeballs the camera. His hands seem almost cuffed behind him. He is a man alone, tethered to the land.

“I think he’s a very lost soul, and he’s dreadfully unhappy because he can’t be his true self,” says Griffin. “Running the farm and being in that wilderness there is his sanity, and his closeness to Bronco Henry, his lover, his lost love. He’d never leave there because it’d be leaving Bronco Henry.”

None of this was at the front of Griffin’s mind, though. She was really only looking at those hills, that sunset, her watch. “I just knew that I had to get him in that environment, lighting his face up with the hills. That happened pretty organically. I just wanted him to be in the landscape. I mean, that’s him.”


Kristen Stewart with director Pablo Larraín on the set of Spencer. — Photographer… Frédéric Batier/​Neon
Kristen Stewart with director Pablo Larraín on the set of Spencer. Photographer… Frédéric Batier/​Neon

The art of marketing a film is a dark one, even more so in a pandemic. It is a long road to reach an audience, crowded with many data points, psychographic insights, talent approvals and opinions about the right mood and colorway.

At the heart of it all is that perfect production still. It’s the rare movie that can be sold on synopsis alone; a film needs at least one hero image that can be blown up for billboards, work at human scale on lightbox quad posters, and pop out as thumbnails on those streaming-platform carousels.

The first-look photograph, dropped into the media maelstrom at optimal moments, is a crucial element in forming an audience’s relationship with a forthcoming film. Kristen Stewart in full Spencer wardrobe, Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune’s Arrakis desert, Simon Rex freewheeling in Red Rocket. Whether it is a behind-the-scenes shot, or a full-gloss character portrait, movie lovers drool over these tantalizing glimpses, while gossip machines clamor for shots of actors being “unrecognizable” (AKA doing their job).

And film obsessives love to pore over behind-the-scenes photographs to work out how the movies were made, and with what equipment. By film obsessives, we’re talking Paul Thomas Anderson who, in preparation for making Licorice Pizza, went on a mission to understand how consulting cinematographer Haskell Wexler achieved the night-lighting on George Lucas’s 1973 classic, American Graffiti, telling IndieWire: “If you see any behind-the-scenes photographs, the absolute minimum they were working with to make these beautiful images still kind of amazes me.”

Alana Haim and Sean Penn in the night-lighting of Licorice Pizza. — Photographer… Melinda Sue Gordon/​MGM
Alana Haim and Sean Penn in the night-lighting of Licorice Pizza. Photographer… Melinda Sue Gordon/​MGM

In Hollywood’s early days, studios employed in-house photographers to help them create stars. Alongside glamorous portraits, these photographers had a front-row seat to the action behind the scenes, resulting in candid juxtapositions such as Boris Karloff and his cups of tea.

In later decades notable photojournalists, often under the umbrella of storied agencies such as Magnum, would include set visits in their rounds. Griffin has a couple of all-time favorites: Magnum’s first woman member, Eve Arnold, who had a strong creative connection with Marilyn Monroe (particularly on The Misfits), and Mary Ellen Mark, whom Griffin studied under in New York and Mexico.

Mark photographed close to 140 films by directors including her friend Federico Fellini. “She would be this rock star and would come onto set and just have the run of the show,” says Griffin. “Not controlling, but being allowed to be everywhere and just get these great, great photos.”

Mark had a knack for working with tricky talent. One of the best stories: on the set of Apocalypse Now, knowing that Marlon Brando required his permission to be sought before being photographed, and that he was always tight with his time, Mark built up trust with the actor by indulging his interests. The photographer placed some jars of insects near him, and the entomophile couldn’t resist picking up a decent-sized specimen and placing it on his own head. A few minutes later, she had what she needed.

“That’s what you have to do, you know, because some cast [members] are very precious,” Griffin says. Not The Power of the Dog cast, especially not Cumberbatch. She knew he would be a delight to work with on day one when he rode up on horseback just to compliment Griffin’s shoes. “I thought, ‘oh yeah, he’s just a normal bloke.’

Marlon Brando and friend on the set of Apocalypse Now (1979), photographed by Mary Ellen Mark. — Photographer… Collection Christophel/​Alamy
Marlon Brando and friend on the set of Apocalypse Now (1979), photographed by Mary Ellen Mark. Photographer… Collection Christophel/​Alamy

“I find the A-listers, the more famous actors, or the ones that work all the time, they don’t even care that you’re there. It’s all part of the job. Somebody like Benedict is really aware of the publicity machine. Every now and then when it might be slightly intimate or a big heavy drama scene, I might say to Benedict, ‘is it okay to shoot?’ He never said no to me at all, ever.”

Campion did not give Griffin any particular direction going into The Power of the Dog, save for passing along one Dorothea Lange photograph of sharecroppers for inspiration. She would, however, sometimes call Griffin’s attention to a moment. “If I see something we are filming that I think could have iconic status I call out to Kirsty and show her, and either I find a space for her to work immediately or I ask my first assistant [director] who runs the day to give her time after the set up is shot. Sometimes I leave it to Kirsty and the actors, other times I might hang in there with her to help direct the actors. But with Kirsty the cast had a warm relationship and she was more than able to direct them.”

Campion and Cumberbatch, BFFs. — Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix
Campion and Cumberbatch, BFFs. Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix

Directing the director was a different story. “I hate being shot because… well… I’m so self conscious and I guess vain that I waggle my finger at her—that means ‘not now please’. Kirsty was understanding and she did get some good ones of me walking about, Lawrence of Arabia-style, a big scarf over my face because of the dust whipped up by continuous high winds.”

It’s possible to absorb a few ideas about Campion’s directing method by examining Griffin’s behind-the-scenes shots. She is there, tight with her crew, physically engaged and present with her actors. Intent, intense, but also ready for a hug and a laugh—as seen in one image where Cumberbatch leans across a high fence and wraps his big, grubby hand around her shoulder while she beams up at him.

“That was just a moment,” Griffin remembers. “It was a beautiful time of day, I wandered down to Ben, he was waiting for the cows to come through. I went ‘hey can I take your photo?’ and then Jane just came up and I shot three frames before she went again. I love that.”


While unit photographers have been part of the web of filmmaking ever since Cecil B. DeMille figured out he could make more money from having them around, it is rare that their specific brand of image-making has had a moment in front of the screen. As this Letterboxd list by Seán Payne suggests, fashion photographers, war photographers, photojournalists, street photographers and rock-’n’-roll photographers absolutely make great film subjects—but a stills photographer is so far behind-the-scenes that it would be somewhat illogical to turn the lens on them.

Except that Joachim Trier did just that in his Oscar-nominated romantic drama The Worst Person in the World. Towards the end of the film—and this is maybe a mild spoiler, but also an example of the thought that Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt put into their lead character’s arc—Julie (Renate Reinsve) is working as a unit photographer on a film set, coaxing a portrait out of an actress by connecting with her over a dismissive director.

Christian Belgaux captures Renate Reinsve being captured on film. — Photographer… Christian Belgaux/​NEON
Christian Belgaux captures Renate Reinsve being captured on film. Photographer… Christian Belgaux/​NEON

“There’s something about having stills photographers around, and seeing how they are perceiving and what they’re trying to catch—particularly in that documentary-style photography sense of being pragmatic, like Julie is in the film,” Trier explains. “I find it to be a very generous art form.”

Putting Julie on this path is for Trier both an act of honoring the profession (“I care a lot about stills photography. I collect books. My little sister, Ellie Trier, went to Parsons [School of Design], and educated herself with stills photography”) and a significant step in her character development. “Julie ends up trying to actually see people in the moment, as they are, rather than that idealization that she’s been trying to escape for most of the film, if that makes sense. At some point she’s just documenting. I think there’s something there that I’m very intrigued by.”

Given his interest in the craft, Trier had not one but several photographers on hand for The Worst Person in the World, including unit first-timer, Christian Belgaux. “I had never done stills or worked on a film production before,” says Belgaux, who came with deep experience as a documentary photographer with a regular gig for Morganbladet, Norway’s major weekly newspaper (he is currently covering the Ukraine crisis). A fan of Trier’s films, he leapt at the chance to bring his non-commercial photojournalist’s eye to the director’s set.

Anders Danielsen Lie, Joachim Trier and Renate Reinsve in an off-camera moment. — Photographer… Christian Belgaux/​NEON
Anders Danielsen Lie, Joachim Trier and Renate Reinsve in an off-camera moment. Photographer… Christian Belgaux/​NEON

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to watch him work and try to capture what that process was about. I thought it was fantastic that he wanted someone from outside the film world to do the work—it showed he both trusted me as an independent voice and that he didn’t want to take the safe approach. I really respect that.”

His work informed the performance in front of the lens, too: Reinsve leaned on Belgaux’s knowledge, asking technical and artistic questions equally. “She had Susan Sontag’s On Photography laying around in her trailer, carrying a camera around, really getting into it. I’m so impressed by her performance. By the time we got to the end of the shoot, when her character is a set photographer, I think she really had become a photographer.”

Renate Reinsve, photographer. — Photographer… Christian Belgaux/​NEON
Renate Reinsve, photographer. Photographer… Christian Belgaux/​NEON

A delightful irony in all this is that The Worst Person in the World’s key image—the one on the poster under the all-caps, comical accusation of the title—was not taken by any of the film’s unit photographers.

But first, a side-note for filmmaking newcomers: it is unwise to think you can plan to use screen grabs in place of a unit stills photographer, for all sorts of reasons both technical and artistic. Even for the backdrops we hand-select for Letterboxd film pages, we typically prefer high-quality production or marketing stills over screenshots.

There’s just something about the eye of a photographer, their relationship with an actor, their ability to read the room, and their understanding of what works on a billboard or a magazine cover. The industry is also full of post-production stories about unit photographers delivering graded stills, only for that grade to inform the color grade of the film itself. It is a deeply symbiotic relationship.

You can augment a key set of images with screen captures, particularly if your film is likely to have a long campaign. But even for Campion, who has pulled several high-pixel-count frames from The Power of the Dog that are soaked in the artistry of cinematographer Ari Wegner, “pulling a still from the film is harder than you think”. Photographers like Kirsty Griffin, says Campion, shoot to sum up a moment. “There is more of an iconic feeling to her best stills than the grabs from the film.”

Renate Reinsve in a frame pulled from The Worst Person in the World’s 35mm footage. — Photographer… Kasper Tuxen/​NEON
Renate Reinsve in a frame pulled from The Worst Person in the World’s 35mm footage. Photographer… Kasper Tuxen/​NEON

But many low-budget films do skimp on their unit stills. After all, they are one more crew member to pay, transport and feed. Tempting as it is to trim that budget line, however, you just won’t get everything you need to sell your film without them.

Except if your cinematographer is Kasper Tuxen, and he is shooting on 35mm Kodak film. Then you get this: The Worst Person’s Julie in blissful, suspended motion on her mid-film run through the streets of central Oslo.

It’s an image that becomes more potent once you have watched the scene it’s taken from, and this morsel of knowledge—they really took a frame from the film’s actual 35mm negative of that scene!—somehow deepens our emotional connection to the film’s goddamn marketing materials. As Belgaux says, “It would make no sense to digitally try to remake such perfect scenes.” Somebody steal me a poster, stat.


The real engine powering Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car.  — Photographer… Miow Hirota/​Janus Films
The real engine powering Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car Photographer… Miow Hirota/​Janus Films

Film stills fall into various categories, including behind-the-scenes candid shots of the cast at work and play, and formal ‘set-up’ images, where an actor or even the whole set is essentially given over to the photographer for a few precious minutes, an entire crew standing back, so that they can capture a location or scene (Cumberbatch, that sunset).

And then there are the images snapped silently while the camera is rolling, taken from as close to the main camera as possible. These are the beauty shots, capturing the feeling of a scene and the actors deep in work. It was one of these mid-take stills of another figure, in another landscape, that ended up becoming the poster image for David Lowery’s brilliant and weird medieval fever-dream, The Green Knight.

Atop a slippery rock, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) thrusts an axe aloft, crying out in a kind of communion with the elements. Color-treated and cut-out against a red and yellow background, it sets the tone for Gawain’s bonkers journey towards a head-slicing date with the titular knight.

Dev Patel as Sir Gawain for The Green Knight. Poster design by BOND. — Photographer… Eric Zachanowich/​A24
Dev Patel as Sir Gawain for The Green Knight. Poster design by BOND. Photographer… Eric Zachanowich/​A24

“The photo of Dev raising the axe is one of my favorite photos and I was so happy to see it used for the theatrical poster,” says Eric Zachanowich. The Canadian-American has documented all of Lowery’s films since Pete’s Dragon, having converted a travel-photography career into a life on film sets, which continues to take him around the world.

“He’s just part of our film family now!” says Lowery. “His wife Brooke [Storry] has been working with me since then as well and they’re part of the merry band of folks who travel around with us from film to film.”

The Green Knight took Lowery’s merry band to Ireland. Specifically, for the hero image, to a mountaintop on the outskirts of Dublin. “The photo was taken during the middle of a take when Dev was calling for the Giants,” Zachanowich says. “I remember it being cold and wet, which plays a huge part in why I love the image so much. You could really see the grit in the imagery.

“I remember this day explicitly because there were about three or four stills that were some of my favorite stills from the whole movie. Some of which I never saw get used unfortunately, but this was my favorite of the lot so I was very happy to see it used as the main poster.”

The Green Knight crew at work in Ireland. — Photographer… Eric Zachanowich
The Green Knight crew at work in Ireland. Photographer… Eric Zachanowich

It is at this point, rabid film lovers, that it is best not to think about all the photographs we never see—in the case of The Power of the Dog, somewhere in the order of 30,000. Back when Kirsty Griffin was on her first film stills job, Niki Caro’s 2002 film Whale Rider, “at that point we all shot transparencies so you’d only have six rolls a day that you’d budget”. For those American Graffiti images that PTA loves, Dennis Stock snapped just ten rolls of black-and-white film.

But Campion is undaunted by the explosion in available stills thanks to advancements in DSLR, mirrorless and silent-shutter tech. “I have made enough films to know how important stills images are for audiences and marketing—actually crucial and very hard to recreate after the fact.

“The business of shooting is a bit like Accident and Emergency at a hospital. Everything happens fast, super fast, and all the preparation is about being able to respond in the moment; diagnosing, adjusting camera, turning over, putting life into a scene with in-tune performance. It’s all so fast on set so I don’t look at stills until it’s all over.

“When the dust has settled I start to go carefully through the stills. I do it with an assistant who marks them and slowly I whittle it down to about 500. It takes a really long time but I do it thoroughly so it only has to be done once. The moment I became deeply appreciative of Kirsty’s beautiful eye was actually when Peter Long, a friend and designer, was looking for possible poster images from the stills and began poring over the photos, putting together a group of Kirsty’s stills that I thought beautiful and inspiring. I really fell in love with what she had shot.”

Campion and Cumberbatch in play-back mode. — Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix
Campion and Cumberbatch in play-back mode. Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix

A decent number of Griffin’s images have made their way into a hefty Assouline coffee-table book—one of many offerings rolled out during a long and lately bumpy awards-season campaign for the Dog, and one of many such coffee-table books to hit the cinephile market (and Joachim Trier’s bookshelves) over the past few years.

It is reassuring to see on-set photography making its comeback. Not that it ever went away, but towards the end of her five decades of film photography, Mary Ellen Mark had observed that she felt much less free on big film sets, with tighter parameters set by marketing departments. It just wasn’t the same great gig.

While this may still be true in some corners of the industry, it is gratifying to know that there are filmmakers, producers and studio purse-string holders who recognize the legacy-making impact of the job, right from that first table-read. Platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have made it fantastically easy for photographers and film lovers to indulge their shared appreciation of motion-picture stills. Jasin Boland, for example, brings a charming enthusiasm to the way he documents his work on blockbusters such as last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Boland is a member of the non-profit Society of Motion Picture Stills Photographers alongside the likes of No Time to Die photographer Nicola Dove (founder of the Film Stills Academy), and Spike Lee’s younger brother, David. The latter is a finalist in this year’s 59th annual International Cinematographers Guild Publicists Awards—one of the few outfits that formally reward the century-old job of documenting the spectacular fiction of film.

Actor Idris Elba and writer-director Jeymes Samuel stop for a chat in The Harder They Fall. — Photographer… David Lee/​Netflix
Actor Idris Elba and writer-director Jeymes Samuel stop for a chat in The Harder They Fall. Photographer… David Lee/​Netflix

Curious, quick-thinking, technically astute, empathetic—these are some of the qualities it takes to hold one’s own as a photographer in any setting, but a film shoot has its own kooky variables. Most especially, the driving force of the schedule, where making the minutes and preserving precious turnover time is the thing that matters, and anything holding that up is a problem—including a photographer who needs their marketing shot.

“You have to be pretty broad-shouldered. You just have to be really aware of what’s going on around you,” says Griffin. The way she sees it, her job celebrates all of the other workers on a film set. Having helmed art departments, and as a director of award-winning documentary work herself, this is the energy that drives her.

Kirsten Dunst as Rose, and another stunning Maniototo Plain sunset. — Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix
Kirsten Dunst as Rose, and another stunning Maniototo Plain sunset. Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix

“With the perfect, iconic still, you’re capturing all of that hard work that everybody’s done to get to that point. Someone’s gotta acknowledge these people. They do incredibly long hours, you know? They’re all artists and storytellers. And I love the extras. I just love extras!”

The thing she loves most of all? “You kinda have to live right in the moment.” No doom-scrolling. No time-wasting. At the end of the (long, exhausting) day, it all comes down to an actor, a photographer, a camera, a sunset and a split-second decision built on years of protocol, relationships, connections, confidence… and shoe appreciation.

“The irony,” observes Trier, “is that stills photography can both be the commercialized beautification and idealization of humans on a big billboard, but it can also be the human generosity of a person—of an intimate moment that almost no other art form can get to the documentation of.”

Phil Burbank: not just a normal bloke. — Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix
Phil Burbank: not just a normal bloke. Photographer… Kirsty Griffin/​Netflix

For her part, says Campion, “I feel grateful, profoundly grateful to Kirsty for being there and for using that 90 seconds to get an image with Ben fresh from shooting a scene so Phil Burbank in all his reactive challenging strength is still there in him.

“The light is right, the hills behind, the sun setting beaming straight at the Hawkdun Range and Phil taking ownership of it… We won’t have this opportunity again.”

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