Friday, April 6, 2012

The Facts Behind Hollywood Photographs and Promotional Stills

Robert Cummings in the 
1943 Universal Pictures movie, 
"For All We Know"

The Facts Behind Hollywood Stills

Although the motion picture camera is credited with the creation of the worldwide cinema, still photography played an enormous part of the industry. The use of still photography was, and still is, an integral part of the process of producing, distributing and marketing a film.

To understand the importance of stills, we will first need to understand why they were made and how they were used. Stills fall into several categories depending on who took the images, why they were taken and how they were going to be used. We have broken them down into two primary categories to make it easier for you:

Film Production Stills - Film production stills represent photographs that are taken during the course of preparing and filming a specific movie.

Everything Else - Promotional, publicity, paparazzi, photographer, celebrity, autographed, home-made and any other type of stills that you can think of are NOT being discussed.

PLEASE NOTE: The following information is based on the “general” process followed by the studios regarding production stills. Each studio, however, would adapt these procedures to meet their own specific needs.

The Making and Primary Uses Of the Production Still
Still photography on a film began in the pre-production stage and continued until the film's completion. Each major studio normally had a unit photographer on staff for general photography purposes. In addition, particularly on larger productions, additional photographers were sometimes brought in for either overflow purposes or special assignments. Secondary photographers were sometimes used, such as one photographer taking black & white and one taking color shots.

Special assignment photographers were hired by the studios at the request of certain actors or publications. The photographs taken by these special photographers were for the photographer's use and discretion. However, in some cases, the studio would request the use of certain images taken by the special photographer.

The images taken by the unit photographer or overflow photographer were developed daily and distributed to various departments for specific purposes. These include the following:
  • Pre-Production
    • Production
    • Scene Continuity
    • Publicity
      • Key Set Creation
      • Exclusive Uses
      • Advertising
        • Creation of Posters
        • Creation of Lobby Cards
        • Creation of Advertising Clips 

The first stills taken on a film were normally done before filming actually began and were incorporated into the initial planning and development of the project. After sample costumes were made, the main cast members were sent to photo sessions in these costumes. These photo stills were used in a variety of ways from administrative planning, storyboarding, budget and production meetings. Sometimes, these early pre-production stills were sent to the art department to be forwarded to artists to start conceptual artwork for advance publicity.

Once filming began on the project, the unit photographer had several jobs, and the photographs taken were used in two primary ways: (1) scene continuity and (2) publicity.

1. Scene Continuity
One of the jobs normally overlooked was keeping track of the production sets. At the end of that day's shooting, the photographer took photos of all of the movie's sets. These photos were used for scene continuity.
The still photographs which were taken at the end of a day's film shoot were used by the director and his production staff to make sure that each subsequent day's scene layout and props would match exactly with the prior day's scene. This was to avoid mishaps such as appearing and disappearing salt shakers, curtains changing color, tables and chairs in different places, etc.

2. Publicity
During the production, the unit photographer was responsible for capturing thousands of still shots while the movie cameras were running. Some of the photos would offer a different angle to the motion picture camera. In other cases, the photographer would stand next to a movie camera operator. Some of the shots would be behind the scenes with actors and directors.

After the final production still shots were taken each day, the photographer would take the roles of film negatives and place them on a “contact sheet.” These contact sheets were created by laying the negatives on a piece of printing paper and exposing them to light to create a set of mini prints the same as the film frames.
The advantage to using a contact sheet was that all of the film negatives, generally around 36 images, could be viewed at one time with a “ring” or magnifying glass. The negatives and contact sheets were then sent to the publicity department.

The Publicity Department was, among other things, responsible for generating early publicity about a film, including providing information to magazines and publications. In addition, they were responsible for providing the advertising department with information necessary to create the film's promotional materials.

The publicity department would review the contact sheets and select images for specific purposes, such as creating a “key set,” keeping track and providing exclusive images to magazines and publications, and sending the advertising department information necessary to begin preparation of promotional materials.

Key Set Creation
After a review by the publicity department, the better images were picked to become part of a key set. The selected images were marked with the assigned production number and the individual still number, and the stills printed and placed into the key set binder.

The rejects were skipped over and left unnumbered. The negatives and contact sheets were then filed. These could be pulled at a later date if someone wanted something different.
By the end of the shooting, this key set would normally consist of hundreds of the better still shots to be used in a variety of ways by the publicity department. They were kept in large bound books that could be used at any time for reference.

For major productions, it was (and still is) very common for magazines and larger newspapers to want exclusive shots from the film. The offering of “exclusives” was one of the favorite ways for the publicity department to gain more exposure through the media. An exclusive shot would be given to that particular paper or magazine for them to brag about and at the same time promote the film.

Here's the good part about “exclusives” - they are usually the best of the best of the publicity stills. They are normally GREAT shots of the stars or major scenes in the film.

There may be no identificaton marks or codes on the front or back of these stills. As for identification of an unmarked still, since these are the best shots from the film, it's normally not that difficult with the film identification except when the star has released several films that are similar and then it's a matter of determining WHICH one of them is it.

Most of the time, the publicity department did not want any information on the front of the still, including the studio, copyright information or even the film's production code. So, most of the time, they would write the production code on the BACK of the still with some additional information for the paper or magazine.
Most studios would stamp the word “EXCLUSIVE” on the back of the still if it was for a major paper or magazine. That's not the case for smaller publications.

Here is an example of another common problem. At the top is the standard “EXCLUSIVE” stamp and there is a hand written note just below the stamp that says “Will Rogers, Fox star, in a scene from the Fox picture "Merry Andrew.”” And then there is a date stamp on the left that says “May 1934.”

The problem is this, these stills are taken and sent to the publicity department during the shooting of the films. The publicity was released before the film comes out. The publicity department was trying to create some FREE excitement about the coming release. BUT it was also quite common for the film to have a title change once the film was finished and edited. The publicity department sent this out long BEFORE the film was finished and the final title assigned. This was the film's “working title.”

In 1934, Will Rogers made three films (and then unfortunately died the next year in a plane crash). The three films were: David Harem, where he played a banker; Judge Priest, where he played a local judge; and Handy Andy, where he played a local pharmacist named Andrew Yates and had a wife that was a social climber who was trying to drag him up the social ladder. The working title for the latter film was "Merry Andrew," which we know was released under the title of Handy Andy.

Advertising Department
The advertising department was responsible for developing and initiating the advertising budget to be used for promoting the film. Once the budget was established, the advertising department would line out their complete advertising campaign. Every detail would be covered and planned. The advertising departments would start by making up a variety of packages for different sizes of theaters to be distributed by the distributor's representative when he made his rounds to the different theaters.

The black & white and color stills provided by the publicity department would be used in a number of ways, including the following:

Creation of Posters - The advertising department would select certain stills and provide them, along with a synopsis of the film, to the art department. It was the art department's responsibility to design and complete the poster art, either using in-house staff or contracting with a commercial artist.

Creation of Lobby Cards - The art department would also utilize the color stills provided by the publicity department to make lobby cards.

Creation of Advertising Clips - The advertising department would use both stills and artwork provided by the art department to create the ad mats that were to be used by the theater managers to promote the film locally.
In the silent and early “talkie” years, this artwork would be sent to contracted companies to produce the ads on wood blocks that could be ordered by the theater and sent to the local newspapers for publication. This was replaced by the lighter plates and then eventually by ad supplements that had clip art that the theater could send to the newspaper.

Press - Prior to distribution rights being given to the National Screen Service (“NSS”), the advertising department would offer sets of stills to individual theaters for their use in advertising a specific film.

In earlier days and on smaller productions, the color photographer was also the unit photographer. But for larger productions, it was very common for a second photographer to be used on the set just to produce the color stills. This really increased in the 1960's when magazines and major publications started demanding more color.
These stills were handled exactly the same as the standard black and white stills EXCEPT that they were a separate operation. In other words, different personnel handled the color and it had very little to do with the regular stills operation.

The rolls were sent on contact sheets and chosen the same way. The color desk also sent over the selection to the advertising department that was going to be used to make the lobby cards.

It was standard for a unit photographer to take production stills on every film. Sometimes on major films, the studio would utilize a special photographer. It could be because a major star requested a particular photographer, or, a major publication sent special photographers for exclusive coverage. There were no standard contracts of ownership for photographers (or poster artists for that matter).

Maurice Evans - Photo by Maurice Seymour
Each studio would negotiate the photographer's terms. For larger named photographers, it was very common that during the shooting a major photographer would also shoot some additional shots for themselves. They would then sit down with the publicity department and decide which shots the studio wanted, keeping some of the non-selected photos for themselves. The photographer would then be able to get money or credit from his affiliated magazines or newspapers, complete with his own credit line and copyright tag. This was a form of bonus for the photographer.

Normally, the photographer would mark his shots because he wanted everyone to know that these were HIS stills and NOT the studio's. Normally, there was not much information on the back of the photographer prints and if there was, it varied.

Photographers normally put their mark somewhere on the still and then charged royalties for anyone to use them.


This article is an excerpt, taken with permission, from:
By Ed and Susan Poole

A Publication by of the Learn About Network, L.L.C.
The publication is a general look at the process, use, distribution and legal aspects of vintage movie posters.

About the Authors
Ed and Susan Poole have produced numerous publications and websites on film-related topics. The authors are available for research projects, including those related to the history, value, collectibility and process of movie posters and the film industry.

You can learn more about them at

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