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Job Title: Unit Photographer, Still Photographer, Or Special Assignment Photographer

Job Overview

Unit photographers photograph the making of the movie. They are responsible for capturing dramatic moments in scenes, photographing the cast, director, producers, and crew members while working and in candid moments off camera, and shooting portraits of actors and key personnel. “I tell the story of the making of a movie by shooting behind-the-scenes photos,” says photographer Brian Hamill. “Sometimes motion pictures are tense, because there is a lot of money riding on it. Others, like Woody [Allen]'s are a more relaxed atmosphere. Either way, you have to make sure that you come away with good photos that capture the dramatic point of each scene, that tell the story. Good portraits of all the main people, especially the actors. I always try to shoot a poster, too … A lot of times they'll hire a special to come in, just to shoot the poster. Having been on that side of the fence, as a special, I kind of know what they want, so I always set up a little portrait session and try to capture the motif of the movie so they'll use it as a poster. You get paid extra when you get a poster.”

Special Skills

“First of all, you have to be a good photographer,” says Hamill. “You have to have a good eye. You have to be very perceptive and alert when you're a still photographer. You have to have eyes in the back of your head. You also have to know when to get in and get your photographs, when to get close enough to get good ones, but at the same time be unobtrusive. You almost have to be invisible. You have to not be afraid to get in there and get the pictures—you can't be intimidated by actors—you have to cover the scene. The people at studios don't want to know what happens in the trenches, they want results. It's up to you to work at the top of your talent as a professional and do whatever that requires.”

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

Hamill advises aspiring unit photographers to find someone who works on movies that can get you on a set to observe what goes on and watch the still photographer at work. To gain some experience, he says, “Try to find a low budget, nonunion production and volunteer to do some pictures for free. If I was doing it all over, I would work for free to get on a movie set and get some experience. Shooting pictures in a fashion studio is so much different than shooting movies. There are so many people. You can be in the way, especially with delicate love scenes or scenes involving anger or tension. You have to tiptoe, but at the same time, you have to get the work done.”

Professional Profile: Brian Hamill, Still Photographer

For Brian Hamill, filmmaking was not the outcome of a designed plan. “I wanted to be a photographer. When I was 16, my older brother bought me a little brownie snapshot-type camera and I started taking pictures of my friends that I hung out with in Brooklyn. They were kind of graphic and design-looking pictures.”

Prior to leaving New York to study art at the University of Arizona, Hamill decided to see if any colleges offered a degree in photography. He discovered Rochester Institute of Technology, not far from his home. Originally, I really wanted to be an artist, but I wasn't that good. When I picked up the camera, I was able to put elements of design into my photographs.”

Hamill earned an associate's degree from RIT, but was drafted before he could finish his bachelor's. He served in the army from 1966 to 1968, then finished his schooling at City University in New York City. “I started working right away. I worked for about two years as an assistant for a couple of fashion photographers.”

What do you like least about your job?

“There is no down side. I always wish that it paid more money. I think I'm underpaid, although other people in the business think I'm overpaid, because I get more money than most people. But compared to actors and directors and so forth, what they make, it's like a drop in the bucket.”Brian Hamill

What do you love most about your job?

“What I love the most is that I get to work in a business that I like. I've loved movies since I was a kid, so I couldn't think of a better subject to shoot than actors and the personnel involved with making movies. “—Brian Hamill

When Harvey Matofsky, a public relations friend of Hamill's older brother, came to New York, he changed the direction of Hamill's career. Matofsky needed a photographer and Hamill's brother recommended him. The introduction turned into an offer of work on a picture (never released) that was shot in Rome, Tanzania, and Sicily. When filming wrapped, he immediately went to work on Doc, shot in Spain.

After five months’ work in Europe, Hamill returned to the United States and, with the help of cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld and assistant cameraman Alec Hirschfeld, applied for membership into IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 600. He was admitted two years later.

With two pictures to his credit, Hamill “got the bug” to pursue additional film work. Until he was admitted into the union, he worked on several nonunion films and began to pick up work as a special on an impressive list of features, including The Conversation, The Gambler, Gator, Three Days of the Condor, Women Under the Influence, and Zandy's Bride. “The movie company wanted additional coverage of different scenes. Having seen my portfolio, they hired me as a special. Whereas a unit photographer works from day one, until the end of the movie, a special comes in and only covers certain scenes. They may be scenes that are two days a week for ten weeks, or every day for three weeks.”

In the mid-1970s, Hamill met Woody Allen at the famous New York eatery Elaine's. The two struck up a friendship and working relationship, begun on Annie Hall, that has spanned nearly 25 years and 22 pictures, including Alice, Bullets Over Broadway, Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mighty Aphrodite, New York Stories, and The Purple Rose of Cairo.


* “Always work at the top of your talent. Never settle for less. The best picture is always yet to be taken. You do a good job and say, ‘I'm going to do a better job on my next movie.’ Always, always feel in your head that the best work is yet to come.”Brian Hamill

When not working with Allen, Hamill worked with other great directors, including Martin Scorsese on Raging Bull (“I loved working on Raging Bull because I'm a big boxing fan. Getting to work with [Robert] De Niro was great.”); Sydney Pollack on Sabrina and Tootsie (“Every day was a new adventure with Dustin [Hoffman] dressed as a woman. We'd go around and try to see if we could fool people. I'd take him to restaurants or into a friend's office and he'd pretend to be Dorothy Michaels, a soap opera actress.”); Penny Marshall on Big; and Nora Ephron on You've Got Mail. “You've Got Mail was great, because it was the second time I worked with Tom Hanks. I did Big with him. Hanks is such a wonderful guy. It was nice to see that he is still the same guy, years later, after he became this big, huge star.”

Hamill first worked with Barry Levinson on The Natural. Ten years later they reunited on Jimmy Hollywood, and have since worked on Disclosure, Sleepers, Donnie Brasco, Sphere, Liberty Heights, An Everlasting Piece, and Bandits. “The Barry Levinson movies were great to work on, because he's such a gifted director. He and Woody have been my North Stars in the business.”

For Hamill's success, he still considers that “[the] best work is yet to come.”

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionPUBLICITY AND MARKETING - Job Title: Unit Publicist, Job Title: Unit Photographer, Still Photographer, Or Special Assignment Photographer