During lockdown, I found that Aimee Spinks was going to do an artist talk with Gareth Gartell. Both of them are Unit Stills photographers. I had researched Spinks for my second year work and she has photographed one of my favourite shows, Outlander. The talk was taking place on Instagram and Gareth had asked on his story if anyone had any questions so I thought I would submit two of my own: How did you get your first jobs in still photography? And specifically for Aimee, How did you get involved with Outlander. He responded and said he would include them in the talk.
Aimme Spinks and Gareth Gartel started the talk by discussing how the former got into photography. She went down the traditional route, studying for a degree in photography. Whatever route you take she said to make sure you have good technical knowledge and that personality is just as important “If you’re shooting people, shooting a portrait, you've got to build up trust and rapport with your sitter. Otherwise they put on a glossy cover. Be friendly, chat to people and build up that relationship.”
So what is Unit Stills photography? They are the people who take images on set during a production, Aimee described it as “Commercially it’s our job to sell the production. When you take a shot, does it sell the scene, feel and concept of the show without giving too much away.” The photos they take are then used for advertisements, social media and cover images. She responded to the idea that they could be replaced by screen grabs “We can’t because we need to get across the crux of the episode in one shot”. They have to shoot scenes from different angles and capture behind the scenes of various departments, props and costumes. “If they did do screen grabs they would have to pay someone to do it live or get someone to watch hours of footage”.
Gareth Gartell then asked how she got her first recognisable role. She told the story of how she contacted Jay Maven who is the main Unit Stills photographer for Disney and asked if he would meet her for a coffee. She impressed him, so coffee turned into lunch and he began to see that she was serious about following this line of work. She proved this by telling him she had invested in a SLR which is a shutterless camera to eliminate the sound a camera makes when it takes an image. These are the standard used on film sets so they don’t disturb the shot. She’d done a lot of leg work and wasn't just asking for contacts so he if he could contact her should he require some cover for a day on set shooting Guardians of the Galaxy. She learned a lot from this experience and it launched her career by providing her with a recognisable film in her portfolio.
Guardians of the Galaxy (Lee Pace and Karen Gillan) - Aimee Spinks
After this she worked in commercial portrait studios and volunteered on student films to improve her portfolio. This led to short films which helped her to learn how to work around filmmakers and on set etiquette. Before long she started to work on bigger productions.
Killing Eve (Jodie Comer) - Aimee Spinks
Both Gareth and Aimee had worked on Killing Eve so they began to compare their experiences. He brought up this particular image Aimee took for season 2 with actress Jodie Comer looking out of the window. Gareth asked whether this was a reset or not because a cropped image like this is rare in their work. A reset is when you get the actor back in the same position to retake an image you maybe couldn't get in the right position for. The way to do this is to talk to the Assistant Director who may be able to give you 10 seconds to take that shot.
So who on set should you make friends with? “Make best friends with the first AD because they make everything happen and build a relationship with camera operator, grips and boom operator. They need to trust that you won’t get in the way and can be stealthy. You need to be nimble, some of the spaces they have to film in are so small but you still need to get your shot.”
For Killing Eve, Aimee had to use an adapter for her camera so she could attach it to the filming rigs. She had to do this a lot on location in Paris. Sandra Oh (the other main actress on Killing Eve) loved it when she did this because as an actor she has to know where the camera is to avoid looking at it. By them both being in the same place it was easier to only have to skip over that one space rather than avoiding her somewhere else. Now when Aimee begins work on a new production she asks the actors what they are more comfortable with. This got interesting when Gareth said he had the complete opposite experience with Sandra Oh in that she preferred him away from the camera. He wondered if this is because Aimee is female so she felt more comfortable.
Aimee responded by saying that it can be easier for female photographers because people instinctively feel more relaxed which allows her to get away with a lot more. Usually during intimate scenes the photographers are the first to be asked to leave the set. Gareth brought up an example of saying perhaps in shows such as Outlander when an actress has to do a birth scene, a male might be asked to leave but a female would more likely be asked to stay. She responded by saying that’s not necessarily true “each case depends on your relationship with the actors.” In Outlander there are a lot of intimate scenes so when one came up with actors Sophie Skelton and Richard Rankin she went and discussed it with them. They really appreciated her asking and let her stay in the room.
Outlander (Tobias Menzies and Sam Heughan) - Aimee Spinks
This was one of Aimee's favourite scene to shoot, it was the Battle of Culloden scene in Outlander. "So much was happening, there were lots of extras and explosions. Action shots are the most interesting to film.
They then started discussing Outlander in more depth. I am an avid fan of this show so this was the part I was most excited for. She joined the crew on season three of the show. She said Sam (Heughan) was lovely to work with, if she ever needed a set up he was more than happy to do it. “Actors know the importance of Stills photography, they know that if they give them the time, they can capture their more flattering angles etc.”
She shoots on a Sony A9 camera using magic arms and clamps to attach it to cranes and dollys. There is a scene were Ian (John Bell) is initiated into an Native American tribe, it was so fast paced and she didn’t want to get in the way so she used a shoulder rig with a wide lens. She was also allowed to attach her Sony RX5 on top of the film camera and fire remotely. She used that same method inside a boat scene because it was a tight set.
Remote firing often requires pre-set focus so when the camera operators rehearse with stand ins, Aimee uses this time to set up as well. If it’s a tracker shot she switches to autofocus otherwise manual focus works well as long as the actors hit their marks.
Gareth went on to ask if Aimee likes shooting resets. There seems to be a bit of controversy around this. “I only ask for resets if it’s the shot that’s going to capture the film. If you ask too often you might lose an opportunity later. So I let the 1st AD know what shot I’m trying to get so if I don’t get it they squeeze her in after. Often the choice between shooting live and resets comes down to the actors personal preference. She spoke about an experience she had on the Stan and Ollie set where this caused trouble. The two main actors were Steve Coogan and John Riley, the former hated set ups and the later didn’t like her taking stills whilst they were shooting. So she had to balance these conflicting opinions. A lot of the shooting took place in old theatres so she was able to hide in the dark auditorium to get the shots. If the actor really isn’t happy she tries to respect their choice but has to let the client know. Often you can talk to them about the shot which can get them excited and help change their minds. But in the end they don’t get to choose the shots that get released to the public so even if they did reset to get that perfect shot, it might not be used.
Aimee felt that it was Outlander that catapulted her career. If you get invited back for another season it shows you have done something right. Starz (an American production company) and Sony have stakes in Outlander so it gained her many contacts in the business. Often these people move to other production companies such as Netflix so you end up with connections there too. They mentioned that in the beginning Netflix was looked down on in the film industry by big budget films but has since become a real contenter due to the massive amounts of original content they produce.
Being a Unit Stills photographer can be a gruelling task, sometimes you work 10 hours a day but this can often turn into 11 or 12. As a head of department it can be difficult to get away so you only get half an hour for lunch. Her advice was "If don’t want to do long hours don’t work in film and tv. You only get paid for the time you are onset."
To save time Aimee and Gareth shoot two cameras at a time, one with a 24-70mm the other with a 70-200mm lens. Editing and selecting time isn't factored into their pay so Aimee uses the down time between scenes to get this work done. This way she doesn’t end up with a backlog at the end of the week.
When Aimee started out her career she knew she wanted to do action and period dramas that have interesting sets. She did get some comedy and TV jobs but neglected to add them to her portfolio because she only wanted to show the images for types of jobs she wanted to be hired for. She advised people to do this because after a while people will begin to associate that work with you and now she gets offered more period dramas. “‘If you love what your shooting it will really flow through into your work”
This talk was so inspiring. It was clear that both Aimee Spinks and Gareth Gartell have such passion for the work that they do and they provided a clear insight into their work and how life on set works. Gareth has shot shows such as World on Fire (BBC), Victoria (ITV) and Call the Midwife (BBC).