Lou is about to be nationally known

Lou_7290This is Lou Leonardo.
I knew him for a little while when I had a chance to photograph him several years ago.  Since then, he’s been pretty much everywhere in the improv community.  I even had a couple of chances to perform with him.
He’s beyond a good guy. He’s the guy who brings the extra huge container of homemade guac to the party. He’s the one who greets everyone with a big hug. He is a proud nerd, an unabashed musical theater fan, and the first one to congratulate you when you get something big.

I’m telling you this because of this YouTube video that you’ll find online:

Lou will be featured in a number of commercials during this coming Super Bowl Sunday. I can’t tell you the details because, well, Lou can’t tell me the details. But just the fact that he’ll be featured in a national commercial during the Super Bowl is about the biggest news that I could share from a friend…. next to “congratulations on that Astronaut gig.”

Congratulations doesn’t seem like the right word.
This is beyond anything I could hope for you.

Images I shouldn’t have clicked on

This post needs to start out with a confession, and an apology.

Yesterday I ran across a link that supposedly had images of nude celebrities – files taken without their knowledge – that were on their cell phones.

I clicked.
Like other people, I lied to myself and told myself that I was doing so just because I was curious.  Or that I wanted to see if it was real.
It actually took me a few images until I realized that I was just being a douche-bag. These were images that I was never meant to see.  I, more than most people, should know the difference.

As a photographer, I sometimes take images of people that are nude or semi-nude.  I take a lot of precautions to make sure that their images are protected, and that no one sees their images without their express permission.  You might notice that there aren’t a lot of nude images on my website or my photography blog.
There is a reason for that.
Because a lot of people don’t want their nude images online.

When Erin Andrews’ privacy was invaded, I made a point of it to avoid the images that had leaked to the web. I thought of myself as being mature for doing that.  When in truth, I was just doing what I should be doing.

Some asshole invaded the privacy of these people. They did so purposefully, and with the voyeurism of a 13 year old boy who’s seen boobies for the first time.
And even if no one else had looked the images, the damage had already been done.  But by being one of the people who clicked, I made it worse. I invaded their privacy. I joined in.
There’s a ton of reasons why people take nude images of themselves, ranging from simple vanity to self-affirment.  Its similar to the reasons that we look in the mirror after a shower on our better days, and  occasionally think, “Damn… I look good”
Just as you would be shocked and angry to find out that someone was hiding a camera behind your mirror in such a circumstance, its completely understood why the people who’s images were stolen are angry.

I can’t apologize enough. The best I can do is promise not to click the next time.

Bad, and Good, Show Promotional Photos

Someone just linked me to this Tumbler account of bad show promotional photos.

I love my cell phone camera.  Its amazing, and it allows me to take fantastic photos, like this one…

Chicago in the Summer

Chicago in the Summer

Because sometimes, you don’t have your ‘real’ camera on you.  Or you just want to do a cool panorama with the special function of the Samsung 3.

However, ever since people started to realize how good the cameras are in cell phones?  Theaters started doing this thing where they would hand someone their cell phone, take a photo, and send it out in their press kits.

Its goddamned awful.

I’m not just saying this as a photographer who gets paid to do these things.  I’m saying this as a sentient human being with feelings.  And an art school background.  And a sense of taste.
Keep in mind, everyone who doesn’t already know you personally is going to be getting their sense of what your show is like from this image that you’re reproducing on posters, websites, and press kits.  This is their first impression of your show.  They’ll be looking at the image and deciding:
Do I want to see this?
Is this a really shitty production?
Did they put any effort into it?

And hey… does it get your attention?

Marie of Gulp!

Marie of Gulp!

This is Marie, from the improv troupe Gulp!
I had the genuine pleasure of coaching Gulp! as an improv group.  When they approached me about taking their photos, we started throwing around ideas.  I’ve always been a fan of 1940s glamor, so I pitched that.

Thomas of Gulp!

Thomas of Gulp!

Thomas was given the job of organizing everyone by the group, and making sure that each person understood what they were going for.  He also decided to take on a sinister persona. It was a blast to photograph.  If you know Thomas, he’s the farthest thing from sinister.

Amber of Gulp!

Amber of Gulp!

Amber kicked things up a notch.  Forget for a moment that she pretty much owns this era.  Amber is a natural in front of the camera.  She has enough knowledge of what she likes to see in an image without being so aware that she becomes paralyzed.

Jacob of Gulp!

Jacob of Gulp!

And then, of course, Jacob… the creator and producer of Gulp!

The entire cast pitched in with their ideas, and gave me a ton to work with. The shoot sped by.  I was sad when it was over.

But if I’ve done my job, you’ll agree with me that everyone is shown in a great light.  It makes you curious about who they are, and there’s no doubt that this is a professional show.  Because it looks like it is.

And that’s my point. If you want your show to look professional, hire a professional.  Yes, it doesn’t have to be me.  A friend of mine who lives in another state linked me to some amazing photos taken by another photographer. Guess what?  Their show sold out every time.

Did it help that the show was critically acclaimed?  Yes.  But it also helped that it looked fantastic in the posters.
Find a photographer.  Hit us up.  Tell us what you’re trying to do.  We’re dying to let you tap into our creativity and talent.

Signed: Kimberley Michelle Vaughn


Kimberley Michelle Vaughn

Last year, at Chicago’s Film & Media Expo, there was an interview with a number of casting agents and agencies.  When asked about the favorite aspect of their job, one woman immediately said that they get work for actors who are hungry for work.
I’m reminded of this recently because of an e-mail that was in my inbox.
Yes, it is cool to get to photograph a lot of different people. And yes, I’ve always known that its a great thing to get paid to do what you love… as I do.

But one thing makes it cooler: when you get that e-mail from someone that you recently photographed telling you that they’ve been signed to the Paonessa Talent Agency.

Am I personally responsible for Kimberley getting signed?

Of course not.  If you get the chance to meet her, you’ll understand as I do that she’s a driven professional who does her homework and works hard at the business end of show business.

But as her photographer, I had a small part in it.  As someone who is rooting for her, I’m extremely proud.

Continue to kill it, Kimberley.

7 ways that I “knew” that the Katydids were different

Katie Lambert Copyright 2011, John Abbott Contact The Katydids for permission to reprint

Katie Lambert
Copyright 2011, John Abbott
Contact The Katydids for permission to reprint

A year ago, I wrote about how glad I was to shoot the improv and sketch group The Katydids. They had approached me about photographing them. In that last blog about the Katydids, I wrote that:

I leapt at the chance for three reasons.

  1. They are extraordinarily talented women.
  2. They always seemed to come up with cool ideas for their photos
  3. They work hard at the business end of show business

Since then, The Katydids have done very, very well for themselves.  Their web series was picked up by Above Average.  Then things got real.

Recently, the TV Land Network decided to sign them up for a pilot.  They’re using the same showrunners as the comedy sketch hit Key & Peele.

Which is beyond badass.

Katie Colloton Copyright 2011, John Abbott Contact The Katydids for permission to reprint

Katie Colloton
Copyright 2011, John Abbott
Contact The Katydids for permission to reprint

I also wrote, previously, that I wanted to photograph them “Because I knew that they would go on to do great things.”
I feel very cocky about the fact that I “knew” that The Katydids were going to do something to break out. But I probably shouldn’t. The reason that I knew is because I’ve seen a hundred sketch groups form and break up. Some groups stand out.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share in more detail what I saw in The Katydids – looking in from the outside – and why I think that they’ve earned it.

1- Similar direction, not similar people

The best improv and sketch groups are made up of people who aren’t the same, but have a similar goal or direction.  I think that there’s a weird belief that the people who make up the group have to be the same kind of people. They don’t. In fact, I think that the small differences work to their advantage. The best improv groups are the ones where everyone gets on board, even if one person might have reservations about a particular idea.

I’m reminded of the video that I saw on the making of Bohemian Rhapsody.  When they first heard the tune, it was just a little tiny piece of music. The other members of Queen weren’t completely sold on the concept of the song.  But they knew that Freddie was talented enough, that he had the rest of the song in his head.

In the same way, the best improv and sketch groups are made up of people who trust in each others talent and sensibilities. -And here’s where its important to make a distinction: Its not that the founder of the group chooses the most talented people to be a part of their group. That’s not how great groups are formed. Its when the founder finds people who will love each others creativity enough, to respect it.
The best groups happen when you respect each other’s creativity enough to give their ideas a try. You love them enough as a person that you want to support their ideas.
Because everyone’s going to come up with shitty ideas every now and then. The difference is how you nurture and take care of the idea, and the person who pitched it.

Katie O'Brien Copyright 2011, John Abbott Contact The Katydids for permission to reprint

Katie O’Brien
Copyright 2011, John Abbott
Contact The Katydids for permission to reprint

You’ll note that I’ve included a few of the individual shots from that shoot in this batch.

The Katydids had an idea to do an over-the-top fashion model look. From what I gathered, one person had the idea, and everyone jumped on board. Its the basic tenet of improv: get on board with the idea and add your own.

2 – Each person’s strengths are used

Each woman bought their own talents to the table. One was the organizer. One was the default hair and makeup stylist. Another bought props. Each played to their strengths, and all took part in encouraging the others to swing for the fences, creatively.
I can’t emphasize that enough: use each other’s strengths.  Don’t get caught in a tug-of-war over something that one person is really good at.

3 – They didn’t wait for inspiration to come

They came with ideas. This one sounds incredibly simple, but you’d be amazed at how many sketch and improv troupes think that something will just come to them at the right moment, instead of putting the slightest amount of planning into something.
They brought ideas and asked me for mine.
They also understood that this was a photo shoot. In a photo shoot, you edit after you take the photos. So why not try a couple of ideas, and see what works?

4 – They rolled with the punches

They were all flexible.  Someone was running late, so they changed their schedule around and accommodated that person.  Sounds simple… right? You’d be amazed at how many people get stuck on one particular concept and how they can’t shift gears because ‘someone is missing’.


The Katydids

5 – They all pitched in financially.

This wasn’t one of those deals where one person had to pay for most of the shoot. The expenses were shared.

6 – One person wasn’t making all of the decisions

I remember sending an image along to the person who was the lead on the project to get their approval on a photoshop. They told me that they had to check in with everyone else first. I remember being initially annoyed, but then realizing that it was a good thing.

7 – They were making each other laugh the entire time

Sure, they cared for each other.  During the shoot, a couple of them left to bring back snacks for the rest of the group.
But to hear them make each other laugh, continuously, was such a joy.
If you watch any documentary on any group that has created great work, you’ll hear them talk about how much they made each other laugh. That is who the Katydids are.  Not because they’re trying… but just because they make each other laugh.And that’s what makes them different. That intangible thing where they don’t have to try to make each other laugh.
They just do.

On Edit I forgot to add #8, but The Katydids accidentally reminded me of it.
Shortly after posting this, I started hearing from the Katydids.  Individually. Thanking me for posting about them.
What I forgot to add is that The Katydids had sent me a Thank You note shortly after shooting them.
I’ve shot a few dozen groups and a few hundred headshots.  I’ve received a total of 3 Thank You notes.
Don’t get me wrong. I neither expect Thank You notes, nor have I ever thought that its customary. In fact, I was ashamed that I hadn’t spent enough time thanking the people that I’ve worked for, and with. Which is why I had their Thank You Note hanging on my door for a full year.

From the Katydids

From the Katydids

So you want to be an extra?

This post is a little bit different… because I’m going to tell you something that seems contrary to my business:  You don’t have to have a professional headshot to be an extra.

From the show Boss

This was the establishing shot for a press-conference scene at the airport, for the television show Boss.
They wisely didn’t let us know that they were filming when they took this shot. I didn’t even know they had.

This post is inspired by an actor’s tips, How To Survive On Set Without Looking Like An Asshole.

As I was reading it, I realized that I’m actually a “veteran” extra.  I’ve been on a half dozen sets for both film and television.   While I’m not an expert by any means, I know that I could save newbies a lot of grief… and hopefully make some PA’s job a little bit easier.  (Don’t know what a PA is?  Stay tuned.)

Why you should listen to me (or, credits I would never use under any other circumstance)

I’m about to do the most ridiculous thing ever: which is to give you my credits as an extra.  (This leads me to the best advice I could ever give you: don’t “brag” to anyone in the film industry about how you’ve been an extra.  This will impress them somewhat less than if you said you were the lead caterer. Except they actually care about the  caterer.)
I’ve been an extra on set for Wildcats, The Untouchables (television series), Apples & Oranges, The Dark Knight, The Express, Poker House, Boss, Contagion, and Chicago Fire.

With that in mind…

1: send in a picture that looks like you, when the company that casts extras asks for one

In Chicago, there are two premiere casting companies; Joan Philo who is currently casting Chicago Fire Extras, and Atmosphere casting.

[On edit:  Actors have correctly pointed out other casting companies in Chicago that are now hiring extras:  Extraordinary Casting and on Facebook; 4 Star Casting and on Facebook; and Marinella Hume Casting for Chicago PD.  If you want the most up-to-date list of Chicago Extra companies, go here to the Chicago Film Webpage.]

Both companies have links where you can send your picture and information in. But if you truly want to raise your chances of getting cast as an extra, subscribe to their Facebook channels. They announce who they are looking for, and what projects they are working on.  If you match the description, remind them that they have your information or send it in when they request your type.

Don’t do this unless you actually match the description of what they’re looking for. Otherwise, their first impression of you is that you can’t read instructions.
People who cast extras want to know that you can follow the simplest of instructions.
On the other hand, if you are exactly who they are looking for? Take a normal snapshot of yourself that is clear, that shows your body type, hair and eye color.
There is a fairly new trend in casting extras; they don’t want professional headshots.
Know why?  Because far too many people are getting completely over-glamorized for their headshot.  Directors want to know that you’ll look somewhat like your photo when you show up, because you will probably go through the briefest visit with hair and makeup humanly possible.  Most of the men won’t see either make-up or hair, except for a brief approval from both.

2: wait

Do not hound a company that casts extras. From the moment that they are asked to find a certain type of background, they are searching through hundreds of photos to find the people that the director might want. If you didn’t make it this time, wait until the next time you fit a description of someone that they are looking for.  Then remind them that they have your information, and send in a more recent image if they ask for it.

But let’s presume that you get the phone call… which can be kinda cool the first time you get it…

3: copy down the information.  All of it.

When a casting company has to mass call you (and anywhere from 6 to 500 other actors) they are reading off of a list of information. They’re hoping, praying, that you’re copying it down.  Because they know that several dozen of you will call them back, asking, again, where they are supposed to be.
Trust me: they told you everything they knew the first time.
They will tell you what you’ll be playing (“you’ll be one of the gang members”), and check to make sure you’re available on the shoot date.  Not available?  Tell them.  This isn’t an actual “hey were going out on a date,” date. You can tell them that you’re not available, and they’ll call you again the next time if you send your information in when they need you.
If you tell them that you’ll show up and you don’t? They make a note of it.  And by “note of it”, I mean they’ll never call you again.

They’ll also tell you what clothes to bring (often they’ll ask you for multiple outfits) and if you should do your own hair and make up.  Pay close attention to what kind of clothes they ask for, particularly if they request a certain color.  If they are casting a scene where everyone else is wearing black, and you’re wearing red?  They will either send you to wardrobe or you will not be in the scene.
Most of the time, they’ll give you your call time (when you’re supposed to be there), where to park, and where you check-in.  On some occasions, they ask you to call in the night before a shoot to confirm.  Sounds goofy, right?  But if you call in the night before, they know that the chances have instantly increased that you’ll actually show up… because you listened to the simplest of instructions.

There are shoots where they don’t even know the check-in time yet.  For the movie Dark Knight I was called 2 months before the shoot date.  Obviously, they didn’t have a check-in time for me yet.
Film shoots are very fluid, and things can get moved around for weather or because the entire schedule has been thrown off.  Just keep that entire day free.

They will always tell you to bring two pieces of ID, and they’ll tell you what’s acceptable.  This isn’t a formality.  They need those pieces of ID to fill out your tax information and to verify that you are legally eligible to work on their film.  I normally bring a passport & social security card along with my photo ID.

4: Check in the night before, if they ask

Checking in is usually an automated process where you leave a phone message on an answering machine.  You’ll be asked to leave your name and some other piece of information: something like “John Abbott… I’m playing a gang member”
Get sleep.  You will almost always have to arrive very. Very. Very. Early.

Things to bring

Outside of the things that they tell me to bring, I try to bring water, a couple of snacks, a toothbrush, floss, lip balm, and a book.  Please, please, please don’t bring a camera!  Unless they asked you to. (Stick with me. Its happened.)

What happens when you’re on location?

You check in.  Not sure where?
Most sets have signs telling the background (you) where you should park.  If not, ask the security guard (who almost always has “Security” written on the back of a black t-shirt) or the people who have earpieces attached to walkie talkies. Those people are PAs.  More about them in a moment.
I can’t state enough, film sets are very fluid.  If its not completely apparent at first where you’re supposed to be?  Don’t panic.  Just ask around.

You will most likely be pointed towards a line of people who have wardrobe bags.  That’s a good sign.  You’re in the right place.
Have your IDs ready for when you get to the front of the line. The person behind the folding table is almost always a PA.

Let’s talk about PAs.

PA stands for Production Assistant.  In the film-crew-hierarchy, they are one of the lowest positions on the totem poll. They are also your newest, bestest friend… and every film would completely fall apart without them.
If they seem sleepy, its because your 5am check-in time meant that they had to be there before 4am.
Make it easier for them.  Listen for their instructions, starting now.
The PA that you check in with will most likely give you a voucher.  A voucher is a combination tax form/ invoice for your work on that day.  Keep it with you as much as possible… but not on set.  You hold onto the voucher until the end of the day, and then turn it in, filled out, to the PA.
Vouchers are almost always multi-paged documents.  Because PAs have to repeat the same thing over and over, they usually highlight where you are supposed to fill in information.  Remember how I asked you to bring your two pieces of ID?  Remember how the extra company told you what to bring?  That’s why. Because you need those things to show the PA, so that they know that you can legally work on their film.

Now what?

The first thing that the PAs will want to do is check you off on their list to make sure they have the right extras for the scene.  If wardrobe has gotten there and is ready to see you, they’ll have you show the clothes you bought with you to wardrobe. Or, if its a real elaborate production, they’ll send you to hair and make-up, If wardrobe doesn’t like what you’re wearing, they’ll find something else and usually hang onto your voucher to make sure that they get their clothes back.
But more often then not, you’ll be asked to take a seat on a very long table, and wait.
If you haven’t been given specific instructions of where to wait in a group of hundreds of extras, be aware of what you’re playing and find other people in your group. On one set, I was supposed to play a football coach.  The “coaches” all sat together, so that the PAs would know where to find us.
On rare occasions, they’ll want one person out of your group to do something.  You’ll have a much better chance of them picking you if you are with the other people who play the same part… because the PAs will walk over to the group and try to choose a few people for the assistant director to look at.
Remember when I said that PAs are your newest-bestest-friend?
Yeah… that’s right.  They can actually put you in a position where you have a chance in hell of being seen on camera. Or they can make sure that you’re buried behind another group of extras… where you won’t cause them trouble.

You don’t have to suck up to them.  I think most of them hate when you do.
You just have to listen, be present, and do what they want you to do.  If you do, you are already falling on their good side.  Again, they were there at least an hour before you.  All they are hoping for is sleep.  -And that you won’t fuck up a scene and make a director yell.

I wrote earlier that PAs are frequently tasked with “picking someone out”.
On one film, out of a hundred or so extras, I came in with the best attitude ever and somehow stuck out. I put on what wardrobe asked me to put on.  I stood and waited where the PAs asked me to, on a set of particularly grumpy extras.  And before I knew it, I was one of three people that a PA had put aside for a scene.
Then I was the one guy that the AD (assistant director) picked out for the scene.
I was told that the scene  was going to be epic…. and that a helicopter was going to fly right over me while I waved a giant American flag…. and that I would be camera-center.  They actually asked if I was cool with that, and if I could wave a giant flag?
Yes.  Fuck yes!
Sounds crazy good.  Right?
In a room of more then a hundred extras, I was told to sit “here”, so that they could find me when they were ready for the helicopter scene.  I had a few hours to contemplate how I might look like on a giant screen in an epic scene.
Guess what?  By midday, the shot was canceled because of weather problems and because they were running behind.
The PA broke the news to me and asked me to sit with another group, and I dutifully did so.  Because that’s what you do when you’re an extra.  You sit and wait. And you take disappointment gracefully.


Most casting companies will let extras know which meals are provided.  If you need to know, ask.
Its extremely important to not grab food off of any table unless you know for sure that its for the extras.  Don’t presume that just because you saw another extra take food off of a table, its meant for you. If 15 other extras take food off of the craft services table, but you’re the first one that the PA sees doing it? You’ll take the heat.
Food on sets varies tremendously, but I feel like there are two over-arching rules:
The more desperate that a film is for extras, the better the food gets.
The bigger the budget, or smaller the group of extras, the better the food is.

On the best sets, you get there in the morning and there is a long set of tables with every breakfast food you could imagine. On one set, I would actually make a point to get there early so that I could hit the breakfast table first.
On one particular film – one that I didn’t list – we had cold pizza waiting for us.
And there wasn’t enough.
Earlier, I suggested that you bring a snack or two.  You never know.


I think I just made up that term.
There are basic rules for extras when you’re on set.  You’ll be told this over and over, but let’s get it out of the way now.

  • Turn your fucking phone off.  Even if James Cameron didn’t actually nail gun someone’s cell phone to a wall, why take chances?
  • Don’t talk to the actors.  I know, he/she was your favorite in that film you liked.  Guess what?  They’re working right now.  They’re trying to remember the script re-writes that they were just handed, and reach some kind of emotional realism despite the fact that they have a camera in their face. You’re going to foul that up no matter how quietly you whisper how great they are.
  • If you are told to pantomime, don’t talk quietly during the scene or whisper to your new friend thinking that you won’t be heard.  You see that giant microphone that someone spent thousands of dollars on? It costs so much because it can even pick up the sound of you whispering all the way in the back.  That’s why the guy with the headphones on is glaring in your direction.
  • If you’re told to perform some kind of action, do not overact unless you are specifically told to.  You are background. Your entire mission statement is to fade into yourself. (SEE: Bootleg Edition of Almost Famous, the commentary track, and listen to what Cameron Crowe says about the extra in back of the lead actress in the graduation scene.)
  • Don’t look into the camera… unless you are specifically told “look into the camera.”  This is a thousand times harder then you would think it would be. Particularly if you’re the kinda person who finds really expensive cameras to be sexy, and lenses turn you on.  Give me a break. I’m a photographer.
  • Even when they aren’t shooting, stay quiet on a set.  The director is trying to balance a hundred things, and doesn’t want to have to shout over the sound of 50 extras all talking.

Remember where you were at the beginning of the scene, and what you did.  You’ll most likely be asked to do the same thing over again. When someone yells “background,” you do whatever you were asked to do… not on “action.”  Don’t stop until you hear someone say “cut.” When they say “reset” or “go back to one”, return to where you were at the beginning of the scene.  If no one asked you to do something differently, you did it right.  Try to do it again, the same way.

If you have a question or need to use the washroom between takes, get the attention of a PA.  They are your link to the AD.

PA’s are basically responsible for getting you on and off of the set.
The AD will frequently be the person giving you specific direction on what to do.  If two different people give you two different directions, just keep tract of who said what, and point out to the second person what the first person told you to do.  Yes, this happens… a lot.
I was once told to “just stay” where I was after a shot was finished.  Before I knew it… Ron Howard, the director, was walking in the personal space of myself and the extra I was paired with to set up the next shot.  Ron was physically being forced to walk around us several times while eying the shot. A miffed AD told us to move “over there”.  Was it anyone’s fault that he was miffed?  No.  That’s a film set.
“Stand here”
“Can you stand anywhere but here?”

Get used to it.

If I had one frustration over being an extra, its that more often then not, you aren’t told how to react to something happening.  Whether it should be shock, surprise, awe, anger, whatever.  I’m sure that there is a reason for this, but I’m just letting you know so that you aren’t as disappointed if that happens.

You’ll sometimes be told what just happened. “There was an explosion” or “you’re trying to get food” without a lot of back story.
Roll with the punches.  And if you feel like you need more direction, get the attention of the nearest PA between takes.  Will the PA know?  Probably not.  But they’ll check in with the AD if it sounds like something that needs their attention.

Long days

Now for the worst part of being an extra.  Its quite frequently boring. The production company might have a hundred thousand dollars worth of stuff planned for today, and you’re probably making less then $120. They purposefully asked you to be there early.  They will more then willingly pay you overtime if it means that you’ll be there when they need you.
As a result; you’ll sometimes get a 6am call time, and they won’t want you to be on set before 11am.  A good portion of your job is to wait until you’re needed.

The end of the day

Turn your wardrobe in.  Sometimes wardrobe holds onto your voucher.  Get it back.

Turn your filled out voucher into the PA.  There is usually a very long line at the end of the day, when all of the extras are cut at the same time.  Be patient.  Trust me, the PAs want to leave more then you do.

And all of that… for….

Do you think that you were on camera for that last scene? You probably weren’t.
I mentioned the films that I was an extra in, above.

In the Untouchables, I was put up front, near the ring.
(They originally handed me a camera, and told me to be a photographer, which made me giddy. But then the director came up to the AD and whispered, “he doesn’t look like a photographer”.  They took the camera away from me.)
I appear in a wide shot in one take… for roughly 2 seconds.  I didn’t even recognize myself the first time I saw it.

Apples and Oranges was a small film.  I appeared in the audience, in a scene that apparently lingers on me as I react.  I’ve yet to see it, but I was told that I was good for the 3-5 seconds that I was on camera.

I was extremely excited when I found out that I was going to be a “Maroni Gang Member” in The Dark Knight.  I was supposed to be there for four days of shooting.  That turned into three.  In the restaurant scene, I was seated right next to a lead actor.  I stand up as I’m arrested, and I was in the background for at least 2 of the 4 angles that they used to shoot the scene.  I walked past another lead actor when we were outside, walking into the bus.  I had a camera on me in the courtroom scene.
In all of those scenes, you can barely see me, briefly, for less then a second in the courtroom scene along with a hundred other people.

The Poker House is a dark film, and I was in a flashback scene in a church.  After filming several scenes, the director Lori Petty told her AD what she wanted to shoot next.  She wanted to film this one woman reading a book of hymns, but she couldn’t find a hymnal.  As the PAs scrambled around to find one, I held up the one next to me and got Lori’s attention.
Another insert involved me, holding a church pamphlet in my hand.  The camera was just on me… mostly in silhouette.  If you’ve never had a full-sized motion picture camera a couple of feet away from you, its quite an experience.  My heart was beating full throttle.  But Lori had the DP pull focus from the pamphlet to me, back to the pamphlet, several times, and seemed pleased.  I swear she actually said “that’s hot” at the composition of the shot.
The film is amazing.
I do not appear for one frame in it.

You can see me in Contagion for probably a full 4 seconds. I’m in the middle of the screen throwing lye over dead corpses wrapped in plastic.  Only… you’ll never know it was me… because I’m wearing a big white “clean” suit and a white mask.

The most I’ve ever appeared as an extra in any film is the shot that you saw a the beginning of this post, for Boss.
They wanted real photographers.  Both Boss and Chicago Fire asked for real photographers to play photographers.  (For Chicago Fire, they asked us to bring our real cameras.)  If it seems blurry, that’s because the camera is panning past me.  I’m there, and then I’m gone.

So.  Do you still want to be an extra?
Good. Then you’ll probably be very good at listening to the simple instructions that you were given, and doing what’s been asked of you.

Of pickups, hiccups, and late night talk show hosts

In a previous post, I wrote about how I started photographing improv during the 2000 Chicago Improv Festival.

From 2000, Pick-ups & Hiccups, with Jill Benjamin and Seth Meyers

From 2000, Pick-ups & Hiccups, with Jill Benjamin and Seth Meyers

This image was from the show Pick-ups & Hiccups, starring Jill Benjamin and Seth Meyers, during CIF 2000. Its this performance that – unknown to Seth – would change his life.

It was part sketch, part improv.  Towards the beginning of their show, Jill and Seth interviewed two members of the audience.  Based on the information that they were given, it created the basis for two characters in their show.

Granted, I was new to improv.  But what blew me away was that both Jill & Seth remembered not only their answers, but the mannerisms and quirks that the people they interviewed had used to answer their questions.  Jill and Seth used both those quirks and the answers, in a sketch about two people on a date.
It killed.
More importantly, someone from SNL noticed Seth. -And a year later, they bought him out to New York to become a writer.

I mention this for several reasons.

First, its always cool when you sorta-almost-kinda met someone who – far later in life – gets their own late night television show.  I was a complete fan-boy for improv that year. I had an “improv crush” on Jill, and I wanted to be Seth.  Both performers couldn’t have been kinder to those of us who worked behind the scenes.

Second, it gives me an excuse to use this completely grainy photo of the two of them. I have tons of photos of improvisers from past years. This is a great excuse to bring another one out of the archives.

Third, it reminds me of how much I’ve learned.  While I don’t think that I could duplicate that show, there are things that I do in improv where I have to remember a lot of details, or mimic another person’s mannerisms. Today, I get how they did it, even if I still admire the amount of skill that it took to make it look easy.

Fourth, I’m struck by Seth’s journey.  There are a lot of performers that I’ve run into who want their own talk show.  I’m not here to kill anyone’s dream. I would, however, like to remind you that it didn’t happen to Seth overnight.  He was hired to work on SNL, which is the dream for a lot of people in the business of comedy.  Still, he was working there for a dozen years before he was given his own show.

What I’m saying is be patient.  Work your ass off, yes.  Create content every day, yes. Do creative things that will get you noticed, most definitely.
But don’t freak out if its been a few years, and no one has given you a talk show yet.

And yeah, let’s give some applause to the local kid who made it… big time.

How to tell when a Talent Agent is trying to screw you

When you first handed your headshots to a Talent Agent, what did they say to you?

His name was Brian, and he was one of the very first headshots that I had done professionally.

At the time, there were only 3 photographers in Chicago who made a living off of headshots. But Brian knew me, and he wanted something different. He took a chance on an unknown.

In all fairness, it was impossible to fuck up Brian’s headshot.  He’s a boyish guy with an infectious grin, and I knew several women that had a crush on him on sight. On top of it, his looks were made for B&W film, the format of the time.  I couldn’t mess it up.

We shot two rolls and Brian bought the proof sheets to an agent that he was working with.  The agent had tried to push another photographer, so Brian knew that the agent would give him grief.  But he didn’t expect the sheer volume of static that he ran into.  Brian had been very happy with our photos.

The talent agent circled two images, and passed them back to Brian… telling him that those were the only two images that were worth anything.
Brian came back to me with the proof sheets in hand.  I knew that something was up.  Without comment, he asked me what I thought of the agent’s choices.

They were literally the worst two images from our shoot.
Which is what I told Brian.

Brian had thought the same thing, and he never went back to that agent.  It was clear that the agent had been getting kickbacks from the photographer that they were recommending.

At the time, it confirmed to me something that I had found out while trying to meet with certain talent agents in Chicago; there are, unfortunately, talent agents that get kickbacks from photographers.  I know, because I was told as much when I tried to meet with one, that they had an ‘arrangement’ with ‘another’ photographer.

I still remember the instant where I put two and two together.  It had never occurred to me up until that point that Talent Agents are people who’s job description is to make a commission off of getting you work.
-And I imagine that an agent could easily transition to the prospect of getting a commission from a photographer for sending actors there.

In the years since then, I’ve heard about this happening less and less.  It was harder for Talent Agents to argue that someone needed to use _______ photographer with so many talented photographers out there who take headshots.  And I count myself among them.

Which brings me to the impetus of writing this post.
I don’t want to expose the performer to scrutiny, but I did photograph a client within the last couple of years.  We both liked the images.  So much so, that the pictures are among my favorite. But when the client took the photos to an agent, they were told that the images were awful.  Then the agent did something kinda slimy, and insisted that my client be photographed by a photographer that the agent recommended.
Just that one photographer.
As if there was only one photographer in Chicago capable of delivering great headshots.

My client knew that the photos were great.  Not just because of what I said, or what they felt, but because they had other performers tell them so.

My client walked out of the agents office. So should you.

When my job becomes more then just fun

Richard Esteras, understated

Richard Esteras, understated

This is Richard.

You might otherwise know him as Richard, the guy who won the “worst” headshot contest, which won the shoot that resulted in the photo, above.

Before I photograph anyone I meet with them and talk to them about what they want to do.
Headshots – as I’ll say again and again and again – are all about marketing you.
If a photographer wants to photograph you the way that they photograph everyone else, walk out.  They are not helping you to market yourself.  They are using your image to market themselves.

Richard wanted to do more film.  He is not a small nor delicate man. He understands his look very well, so we agreed that he should capitalize on all 6-foot-plus-ginormous of him.

Because let’s face it, Richard looks like a badass.

If you were to cast him in a film, it would probably be for an action hero, or an enforcer, or just that bad dude that breaks things, kills people, and jumps out of a plane… but not necessarily in that order.
What you don’t want to do is market Richard as the romantic lead that writes love songs.

With that in mind, I took other photos, but we also made sure we had pictures that strictly were there to make him look like a badass.

Now at the end of every shoot, I give my clients a disc of all of their pictures.  I suggest to them that they edit them down to their favorites and put a few online to narrow them down further.

Richard took my advice and put the pictures on Facebook.

Then something kinda cool happened.  A friend of a friend saw his new images.  They were looking to cast a badass.  He was invited in to audition for a movie produced by 34th Street Films, a Tyler Perry Production.
Richard was cast.
Just like that.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to take credit for Richard’s work.
Richard has been taking classes in every aspect of performance to make sure he was ready.  He lobbied everyone he knew to vote for him so that he could win the “worst” headshot contest.  He worked with me on everything from choosing the right clothes, to narrowing down the right “look” for him.  And I’m sure he nailed his audition.

But this is when my job gets to be more then just fun.
When my work helps someone get cast.

Congratulations Richard!  You really did earn this.

Michelle Courvais

Michelle Corvais

Michelle Courvais

A perk of my job is that I get to meet amazing people.  People who are not only good a their jobs, but simply the best at what they do.

For instance, if you’re among the best who perform theater in Chicago, you can get nominated for a Jeff Award.  If you’re extremely good, you can get nominated twice.

If you’re Michelle Courvais, you were nominated three times, and won twice.

To say that it was a pleasure to photograph Michelle is an understatement.  Often, when I photograph an actor, I give direction to help them find the right mood for the image.  Quite naturally, some actors take direction easier then others.
With Michelle, I sometimes just had to tell her the part that I wanted her to play, and she adjusted her body language and expression to what I had suggested in an instant.

I normally shoot 2 or 3 different looks of a performer.
This one of Michelle is my personal favorite.
I’d love it if people would guess what part I asked her to play.