Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Oscar Wrap-up

This year's Academy Awards was the return of Old-Skool.

It was the anti-American Idol. The public doesn't vote, the clubby Academy votes. Instead of trying to get any younger viewers, it went straight for the middle-aged core audience. And the big winner was the sixty-four year old Martin Scorsese. The only bright spot was American Idol cast-off Jennifer Hudson, who looked very out of place.

The Red Carpet, as usual was chaos. The big problem was that some of Hollywood's biggest stars didn't bother walking the Red Carpet because of the danger of bumping into an old flame. Ben Affleck didn't want to be seen in any photos with Jennifer Lopez. Tom Cruise wanted to avoid Penelope Cruz and Nicole Kidman. Publicists had to make sure that Jennifer Biel and Cameron Diaz, both who dated Justin Timberlake, didn't have a cat fight. Kidman walked the red carpet with a pregnant Naomi Watts, shedding their significant others.

This was supposedly a "green" awards show. I did not see any evidence of that. No carpeting made of recycled materials. The limos burnt gas. No solar powered Klieg ligts. If anything it only pushed the stereotype of Hollywood being an out-of-touch radical left-wing crazed cabal.
You had the openly gay Ellen DeGeneres hosting the show. The "married" Melissa Etheridge winning the best song. Vice-President Al Gore got the loudest applause when an "Inconvenient Truth" won best documentary. Prius driving Leonardo DiCarprio, Cameron Diaz and Larry David were in full force, not to mention the king of conservation, Ed Begley Jr. You come to an Awards Show and the Democratic National Convention broke out.

Hey, I'm a liberal who grew up in New York, but do we really have to wear our politics on our tuxs? Let's save it for the Global Green Awards party.

It's always fun when to watch what Hollywood actors, most of whom live inside a bubble of yes people, think of what to wear to basically the ultimate fashion show, the Oscars. I think some people come to the Oscars just so they can get their photograph into a magazine's worst dressed list. Sally Kirkland wears the most hideous things every year. Jennifer Hudson got Vogue magazine editor-at-large Leon Talley to pick out a dress. Big mistake on the weird Star Trek inspired shrug. Meryl Streep and Faye Dunaway have let their subscriptions to fashion magazines lapse. I'm no fashion expert, using instead as my rule of thumb "the what were they thinking" acid test.

For any photographer covering the Oscars, it truly a day that never ends.

I got up at around 9:00 a.m. at the Roosevelt Hotel. I went through an equipment check, made a few phone calls to my editors, and then walked down to the Kodak Theater to check the strobes in the press room. From 11:00 a.m. to 2 p.m. the press room is closed for a security sweep, so if you want to check your lights you have to be there at around 10:30 a.m. After the lighting check I went to meet my runners who would be walking my digital cards from my spot on the red carpet to the hotel room where an editor was stationed.

I gave them a tour of the complex and told them the ground rules. Runners can't take photos, can't loiter and watch, and had to stay within a marked path. They do have a pass that give them access to all the regular media areas, which is great.

Around noon I walked a couple of blocks to get a quick lunch at a local fast food joint and then back to the Red Carpet where I tried to make a few feature photos before the big event. That lasts until about 2 p.m. From 2 until 5:30 the stars walk the red carpet. The last hour is non-stop shooting. I burnt up one flash, which I quickly replaced with a back-up, and went through a couple of Turbo batteries. After about 2,000 shots and 10 digital cards with a half-dozen trips by a messenger to an editor, the Red Carpet was done.

Part 2 was the Awards Room, where the winners and some presenters go back and get their photo taken. They changed things this year and only announced the big winners in the last hour of the show. That meant waiting around and shooting meaningless photos of obscure categories winners for 3 hours until someone the magazines cared about showed up.

Around 10 p.m. I started packing up all my equipment and headed back to the hotel for some editing. My editor pumped out around 300 photos while I was shooting. I then spent the next nine hours pushing out another 500 or so photos. I was up for 23 hours, slept for 3 hours and then drove home. Until next September, Awards Season is officially over.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Getty Buys Wireimage: An Analysis

Today, Getty Images announced that they are buying the celebrity photo agency Wireimage for $202 million.

The rumors about Wireimage selling out has been around for a while. Mediavast, the parent company of Wireimage, is made up investors who raised many rounds of venture capital to create a large entertainment and sports photo agency. The conventional thinking was that the investors would finally realize a profit by cashing in.

How much profit will the founders of Wireimage get? $202 million sounds like a lot of money to split up 8-10 ways. But first they have to pay off the money they borrowed to get the company off the ground.

There was talk of Wireimage filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Was that the motivation for Wireimage to finally sell out to their rival? And if Wireimage was doing so well in the business why would they sell?

The Wireimage photo credit and its sister service, Film Magic, dominate magazines. The only problem is that doesn't mean you are making money. Wireimage had a very high overhead. Over 200 employees, offices in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Miami, London, Sydney, Tokyo, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and even Shanghai. Add to that expensive band-width and computer server costs.

Wireimage was known to gain market share by heavily discounting the price of photos. You have to sell a lot of photos at discount prices to recoup the high overhead. All in a time period where publications are retrenching, not expanding.

With all the focus on celebrity magazines, the irony is that the celebrity photo business is very fragile. There are many forces that are putting pressure on photo agencies. First and foremost is the internet. Why wait around for your favorite magazine to publish when you can read about it online today? Photo prices for the web are half to one-third of print prices. And that's if people actually download and pay for the photos, most celebrity bloggers are stealing photos.

Wireimage core business was shooting celebrities at official red carpet events that are star-friendly. The public likes those photos but has even a greater appetite for street photography of celebs, which the paparazzi have fulfilled. More and more of celebrity driven magazines and even mainstream media are using photos from the paparazzi. Which photo will drive more newsstand sales, Britney Spears shaving her head or Britney on the red carpet? The public votes everyday with web traffic.

What is Getty getting out of the deal? The elimination of their largest competitor, like Microsoft buying Apple. Wireimage has been a thorn in Getty's side for the past few years as they both bid on league contracts for major sports like the NFL and PGA Golf tours. Now they can own that market.

Getty has similar problems as Wireimage. They too have a high overhead and the added pressure of being a publicly traded company who shareholders demand profits. Most of their profits have come from licensing commercial images for advertising use. Their editorial side of things has a lot of prestige but doesn't generate the same revenue. Editorial prices for images have been on a downward spiral. Buying Wireimage, which is basically an editorial service, is an attempt to shore up Getty's weakness.

I don't think Getty really will increase their market share significantly to make up for the price they paid. Magazines like to have an array of photos from different agencies. They are not going to put out a publication full of photos from one agency, otherwise they lose any exclusivity factor. Why buy People when US Weekly has the same photos?

Most photo agencies will look at this buyout as an opportunity to fill a large void that Wireimage has left. The only problem is that for now, it will be Getty and a lot of niche players.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Rolling out the Red Carpet

Los Angeles - When the Academy rolls out their Red Carpet, it's the big one.

Hollywood Blvd. is shut down this week in preparation for Sunday's Oscars. It takes a year of planning and at least a week just to set-up the stage for the stars for their long walk to the Kodak Theater.

Wednesday for photographers is the "walk-through" day when the Academy gives us the details on what to expect. You don't just show up on Sunday.

There is numerous credentials to get, different ones allowing you access to different areas on Sunday. I'm cleared for the very important arrivals area, the so-called Red Carpet where the celebs show off one of a kind fashions to the world. The second area I'm shooting on Sunday is the Press Room, a little room packed with photographers where the Oscar winners pose with their trophy.

The photography is the easy part. The hard part is after the shutter is depressed. What makes a successful day of shooting is how much play your photos get, or in layman's terms, who many photos are published in newspapers, magazines and website throughout the world. My digital card will be picked up my a messenger who will bring it to the Hotel Roosevelt where an editor will pick out and transmit the photos to clients around the world. How fast, and how relevant the photos will be are crucial factors on its usage.

The Academy does provide you with an option of transmitting on site at the Renaissance Hotel, but you are limited to the room's use until two hours after the show is over. I plan an all night editing and transmitting session, hence the need for a hotel room close by.

How many photos will I take? How many photos will I transmit? As many I can pump out. The needs of photo editors for Oscar photos are vast. You never know what they need or want. So you shoot everything. And I mean everything. Full-length. Check. Head shot. Check. Waist up. Check. Close-up of shoes. Check. Close-up of jewelery. Check. Actor with spouse, or "two-shot". Check. Singles of each. Check. The list is endless.
Add in the factor of shots of the celeb looking left, right, center, and even from behind, and you have greatly increased your workload.

Why? You might ask? Because readers want to see all the details. That strange tattoo. That backless dress. That diamond encrusted necklace and earrings. The latest hair style. The plunging necklines. "Who are you wearing?" will be the most asked question on Sunday.

Hey, America doesn't have a Royal Family, but we sure got our celebs. And Sunday will be our version of a coronation.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Looking at the Light

Los Angeles - One of the most difficult things for photographers is to figure out the lighting.

For the beginner, its a moot point. Just set the camera to program and the camera will set the exposure and either utilize it's flash or not. The resulting photographs are hit or miss, usually miss.

Later as you learn more and more, flash and other artificial light sources are introduced to make a technically good photographs. A great blog to learn about using small strobes is the Strobist.

The trap in using artificial light sources is that it provides an easy solution but you tend to use it as a crutch and overlook the great available light.

Standard operating procedure for covering red carpet events in Hollywood is to use flash on a bracket. It provides even, shadow free lighting that most magazines like. The problem is that all the photographs look the same, which is good for the magazines as it provides a consistent look on a page.

I try to have one camera with flash and one I use for available light. I can usually shoot all the photos with one camera with a flash and 24-105mm lens. The second camera has a 70-200mm lens for available light shots.

Last Sunday's Grammy Awards was a perfect situation for shooting available light. Because of the threat of rain, the red carpet area was tented which blocked out any exterior light, making the lights they set up very consistent. If the event was held outdoors in bright sun, it would be a challenge to balance flash to fill in harsh shadows cast by the sun. And that sun would be constantly changing in exposure and color temperature as it got closer to sundown.

The one thing to consider when shooting available light is not only the exposure, but the color temperature or white balance. Most modern digital cameras have a few standard settings like sun, shadow, flash, fluorescent, tungsten (it's symbol is a light bulb) and auto white balance. People who shoot video really key on the white balance as they know if they screw that up the video will be unusable.

For still cameras, white balance range from bluish-ness of daylight to orangey-ness of tungsten to green cast of fluorescent. You can manually put a Kelvin number in your digital camera to match the available light. Most of the time Auto White Balance works, but with some cameras, like my Canon's, shooting in tungsten lighting will give you poor results.

At the Grammy's they had the ideal lights, which were daylight-balanced movie lights. They were mounted very high on light stands which gave even, shadow free lighting. They were also really bright, I shot at ASA 400 at 1/500th at f2.8. The beauty of shooting available light is that I can shoot at f2.8 and blur out the distracting background. I also didn't have to worry about my flash recycling.

Photos of, from top to bottom, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Hilary Duff and Scarlett Johansson.

Monday, February 5, 2007

UFC 67

Las Vegas - Is mixed-martial arts just a passing fad? Is the UFC the XFL of today? From Saturday's UFC 67 at the Mandalay Bay Event Center, you gotta wonder.

Last month's event was clearly a success. It was the highest grossing pay-per-view TV event of the year. The Los Angeles Times did a two-part series on MMA. 60 Minutes had a story. A sell out crowd at the MGM Grand. Celebs like Leonardo DiCaprio were in attendance.

Then Saturday happened. The main event was a Brazilian fighter named Anderson Silva, who speaks no English, against a guy who's reputation is made from a Spike TV reality show. And to top it off, the fighter, Travis Lutter failed to make weight, rendering the fight an exhibition contest. No offense to Silva, who is a great fighter and is well known in MMA circles, but you can't put fannies in the seats with a guy with a personality of a soccer ball.

The other attraction was this guy Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic from Croatia. If there were good guys and bad guys in MMA, this guy would be wearing a black hat. He is best described as looking like an ex-KGB henchman from the former Soviet Republic. One with the weird speedo-type swim trunks. Dana White, the president of the UFC, paid him like $300,000 to show up and he didn't do any press, whatsoever. Oh, by the way, his music on entrance to the octagon, was the theme from the competing MMA group, Pride. Nice touch.

The UFC bought up the World Fighting Alliance and closed its operations. They got from the WFA Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. He was one of the few bright spots on Saturday's card. Jackson is a pit-bull of a man whose trademark is a huge chain he wears around his neck. He dominated the post-fight press conference with his energy and probably because he was one of the few who actually spoke English. But his fight was pretty unremarkable, both he and Filipovic were given relatively easy opponents that they could dispatch for their debut at a UFC show.

Actually there wasn't much for fans to cheer about. One fan favorite, Georges St. Pierre, was scheduled to fight but had to withdraw because of a knee injury suffered during training.

Dana White was visibly upset after Saturday night. All the traction that UFC gained in the last month came to a grinding halt. All the equity spent and nothing to show for it. He has dragged out Randy Couture out of retirement for a fight next month in Columbus, Ohio. St. Pierre is headlining a card in Houston the month after that.

The die-hard MMA fan is going to watch UFC and the other leagues, no matter what. To lure the mainstream public is going to be a lot harder. The one thing they have failed to focus on is story line. The guy on the street needs that to get interested in the fighter and root for them. Most of the public know very little about the fighters except for their nicknames.

The reputation of the UFC is of a renegade band of "cage" fighters with no rules. When fans show up and there is little or no action, like in many of Saturday's fight, they boo. They want to see blood. The UFC has little promos up on the jumbotron before matches of the fighters wearing Roman gladiators garb. Well if you advertise it, you have to deliver. Currently MMA is relying on the dissatisfaction of boxing fans to convert. It's not enough to bash boxing to lure fans.

Has MMA reached a critical mass and plateaued? Will it just be a peripheral sport like hockey and the NHL?

UFC 67:All or Nothing? Well it wasn't all.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Covering The SAGs

Covering last weekend's Screen Actor's Guild Award (SAG) show at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles took a lot of careful planning and work.

It starts with trying to get access for the show.

Every show has a different criteria for who they allow to cover their event. There is an application process which every media outlet has to go through. It details what kind of access is needed and in what role each member has in covering the event.

Each news agency that wants to cover an Award Show must submit an application and carefully fill them out with an awareness for the deadlines for different shows. The Award Show organizers don't contact you to cover their event, you have to be proactive and find out when the show is, what are deadlines and how to cover them.

For a TV production, it can be an immense affair with talent, camera people, sound technicians, lighting grips, and carpenters building sets at different locations. The print wire services like the Associated Press, a team of editors, messengers and photographers descend on the day of the event.

For me, I'm it. I shoot, edit and transmit my photos which in turn are sent by my agency to publications around the world.

After your get an approval email, you can then start thinking how to cover the event.

One thing that is important if your a still photographer working for the magazines is what day the event is on. The SAGs was held on a Sunday. Many magazines finish editing or "close" on Monday. Sometimes if the event is huge, like the Oscars, they start editing the magazine that night and have editors laying out pages as soon as they get photos. That means you have to get your photos in front of those editors eyes ASAP or you won't see your photographs published that week. Different magazines close at different days of the week, so knowing what day is crucial to a photographer's success.

Luckily for me, the magazines did not have people working on Sunday so I sent my photos after the event and didn't have to worry about arranging for an on-site editor plus messenger to get my digital card to and from that editor from my shooting spots.

Photographers are granted access three areas for shooting at the SAG's. The Red Carpet, which is called arrivals, the press room, where winners of the awards pose after they win, and the show itself.

Most of what is televised of photographers are images of the Red Carpet where photographers are seen shouting at the stars trying to get their attention and pose in a certain way. The biggest reason why you see that is because for the most part video and still photography is mostly segregated except on the Red Capet. Plus it makes for good TV with all the photographer's flashes going off. At some awards shows and movie premieres, there is disco strobes installed to simulate photographer's flashes going off to give the Red Carpet the atmosphere of a big Hollywood spectacle.

There is a Red Carpet Protocol. It's the order of when and how movie stars walk down the Red Carpet. The Red Carpet "opens" for celebs about 2 hours before a show. First to walk down the Red Carpet are correspondents for the entertainment networks. They do the carpet first because it really the only time they have to get their photo taken as they will later have to interview the celebs. Next in line are minor actors, usually in supporting roles, or people that have to get into the theater early for the show because they have some kind of role during the show. Somewhere in the mix is a sponsor or in the case of the Oscars, guys from the accounting firm that counts the ballots with handcuffed suitcases attached. (Insert Big Corporate Logo)

Then around 30 minutes at the end, the big stars come out. Rapid fire, sometimes there is star grid-lock and if the star is big enough, they just get frustrated and avoid the press line and walk straight into the theater. The worst thing for a mid to low level celebrity is to walk near a big celeb and be totally ignored. If they are shrewd, they will come early and avoid that pitfall.

The SAGs and most shows are televised live, so stars have to be in their seats by a certain time. But their is always a few stragglers. They don't care, there whole purpose is to get photographed and interviewed, the show is secondary especially if they are not presenters or nominees. At the Emmys in September, they closed the Red Carpet and told photographers that no one else was coming and the show was starting and all photographers had to go inside. Well, I did, and the photographers who dragged their feet got to shoot some really big stars that came very late.

Only a small handful of people are allowed to shoot the show itself. There is little space for photographers inside and they don't want a bunch of photographers shooting away, possibly making a disturbance. At the Golden Globes, only one photographer from NBC is allowed in, at the SAGs and Oscars, about six.

Ten to fifteen minutes into the show, the first awards are given out, and after they get their award, they are escorted backstage to get photographed and interviewed at various locales.
The entertainment TV shows produce elaborate sets where winners are interviewed. People Magazine, a sponsor of the SAGs sets up a make-shift studio with huge studio strobes and a back drop for portraits of the winners.

Then there is the press room for photographers. A little stage with taped areas where the winners are supposed to stand along with a long back drop, also called a "step and repeat" because celebs walk, stop, pose, and repeat. The winners pose with their trophy and photographers shout. Its a little noisy because it's indoors and the sound of 50-60 photographers shouting to look their way can be deafening. Not to mention the strobes of 50-60 cameras going off continually. You wonder how any hasn't gone into an epileptic fit.

A lot of photographers use an on camera strobe for the press room, but a light bar in the back of the room is set up for photographers to hang studio strobes. There is a huge difference in quality using the studio strobes. I mount two Dyna-Lite Uni 400 mono-lights that are plugged in and are triggered by Pocket Wizards. Doing so also means that I have to lug a lot more equipment to the show and show up extra early to mount and test them and stay late to take them down and pack them.

At the Oscars, photographers will come a day early to mount their strobes in the press room as light bar gets filled very quickly and room for more strobe heads are gone.

The most secure way is to have all your strobes hardwired and to have the packs under your seat at the press room. That way if there is a problem, the packs are right next to your and your sync cord is short. I try to keep it simple with the small self-contained flashes and the radio Pocket Wizards. I can leave my seat if I have to and if I'm using multiple cameras, at the SAGs I used three, there is no wires to tangle up.

The SAGS are a good show to shoot. You get to shoot stars from both TV and Film. The show itself is short. No long parade of winners of obscure awards.

It may have been a short show of only two hours, but is was a long day for me. I started my day at 8:00 a.m. Got my tuxedo in order, the show is black-tie, packed one rolling bag full of equipment with three cameras, three lenses and five Pocket-Wizards, one hard Pelican case with my Dyna-Lites, and another bag with my laptop and other computer equipment. Loaded the car and drove to the Shrine, set up the strobes and tested them, and then staked out my spot on the Red Carpet. At the press room I did a preliminary edit on my computer of arrivals, then after the show changed into jeans and a sweatshirt and drove two blocks to the local Starbucks, where I transmitted photos until they closed at 1 a.m. Drove home and then did a second edit and transmitted more photos until 5:30 a.m. That's over 21 hours of work for the day.