Michael Grecco fell in love with photography as a kid during summer camp. Like most analog photographers, he was enthralled by the magic of watching a print develop in a tray in the dark. He began pouring over the Time Life photography books from his local library, and discovering and studying his heros, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Bruce Davidson.
Later, he decided to switch gears and go to film school, “I figured I couldn’t learn any more about photography, how silly of me! Instead I would learn about moving images,” he tells us. This was a completely new experience where Michael began to develop an eye for not only great light, but using it to create emotion that helped convey the story. Here we talk to Michael about the differences between photography and video, and how his experience with photography has made him a better director.
How did your background in photography help you with film direction?
I came to directing with a natural passion. I had spent most of my career directing people for still shoots, which involves getting what you need from a subject. More importantly it’s knowing how to coax a great performance or moment from someone when it is otherwise not quite there. It also means being able to deal with people, and at the same time have a vision of what works and what doesn’t. But aside from the obvious, film and still are completely different.
In what ways are stills and motion different?
As a still shooter you’re telling a story in two dimensions. That means thinking about all the information in the image and using props, locations, lighting and expression to give clues and information to deliver the details. I create a visual story in my mind and then figure how to execute the idea. That said all those pieces have to fit into the frame, in a composed and created moment. A simple example of this is out of my archive, it’s an environmental portrait of a furniture maker. All the elements are there to tell the story; this is the man and his work. The story is told with the props, pose and in the lighting, the shadow tells part of the story and all the elements exist in the same moment.
In a work of motion though, the story is told in time. You do not have to cram all the details into a single scene. The story can and usually does unfold bit by bit. You start with an idea and then as you progress you add the information to continue to get your point across. The important thing is that not only is the process different, the execution of the idea is also completely different.
Is there a need for still-shooters on set? Can’t you simply pull stills from the film?
When DSLR’s that shoot high quality videos first came into existence, many believed there was now an economy in shooting, that you could shoot video and just pull a still from it. That the act of “photography” was now going to merge and we would all do one thing, have our subjects move in front of the camera and then get whatever end product out of it we might need. For instance, you can just roll the camera, have your talent walk through a scene, have a great video and then “pull” a great still out of it at the same time. It’s a great idea, but it is better in theory than it is in reality.
To really understand you have to look at the process of making a compelling still photograph and separately a compelling piece of motion. A great still and video both tell stories, but in completely different ways.
What are the major differences between creating a good photograph, and a good motion video?
When working on a still, you create subtle nuances within the scene, working the expression, tweaking the light, moving the camera and changing the pose slightly. Often these are not big moves, but lots of little ones. You do this over and over until you get the result you want. In motion you do the same but each take has to play out in time so your subject is usually moving. You are now dealing with macro moves, not micro moves. You’re working with actions and not subtle changes in pose.
You might have a line read differently, or have your actor walk across the scene from a different direction. Creating a great work of motion is making all the takes and shots add up to a singularly wonderful piece. Great motion tells a story, it’s not just someone frolicking in front of a camera. This is also why that idea of pulling stills from a take is not always the most effective way, all the elements are not necessarily there in one particular shot.
Have any motion projects in the works right now?
I just wrapped up a spot for Panasonic called Forever Young. For this assignment, I didn’t want to just create a series of pretty stills, I wanted to make a video that had a story that unfolded, with an unexpected ending. I worked with writer Eric Arnold and together we created the simple, yet engaging concept.
We took the idea of a rich older man and a beautiful younger woman and played with it. To expand the story timeline, we added scenes with a bicycle rider, and a Panasonic A500 was added to give a point-of-view shot using their gear. We also had fun running over a camera to see what the footage would look like. The camera amazingly survived!
Overall, what are the major differences between creating a good still, and good motion?
When working in motion, you want to make sure the story is told through a series of actions, giving little bits of information at a time. This is the opposite of how I story tell in a still, where all the elements are revealed in a single frame. The whole video for Panasonic was shot over two days, I created an approximately 3-minute version for Panasonic; incorporating the behind the scenes footage at the end so you know how and what it was created with. I also cut it down to 90 seconds for my site, to resemble the fast paced story telling of a commercial spot. I hope you like it!
Full Length Video: