Behind the creation of iconic images in the film industry Murray Close and the Leica S

Free State of Jones“, starring Matthew McConnaughey was released just last week and being the breathtaking movie it is due to its deep political and racial topics, it has beautiful images and visual output. Part of this exquisite result is thanks to photographer Murray Close, who after a long career alongside directors including Stanley Kubrick and Clint Eastwood among others, has done the imagery for publicity, marketing and advertising of multiple motion pictures. He shares his views on this highly competitive industry in regards to his experience in working with director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Free State of Jones) as well as the use of the sturdy and versatile Leica S to deliver this amazing images.

How would you describe your photography?

I am responsible for the publicity, advertising and marketing images for motion pictures working on set during the course of filming to capture behind the scenes reportage photography as well as photographing the acting performances that will tell the story of the movie. In addition, I work with the advertising and marketing departments of major studios to shoot art directed images, which is where the Leica S comes in to its own. I can use that camera to capture hi resolution files either in a studio setting or handheld on location because of its versatility and ease of use with an assistant or on my own.

Please describe the creative process behind working on this large-scale production, what was your objective and goal when doing the photography for this film? 

Work on any large production begins with the storyline.  The script will dictate the feel and tonality of the project.  They will explain the characters and their relationships. Ultimately my success or failure on any film project depends on whether or not I can convey the story and the director’s vision in my photography.  Free State of Jones is a period piece and although photography existed in that period the photos I would be taking would be on modern equipment but I wanted them to have a period feel. This I achieved through experimental grading techniques and using the medium format sensor on the Leica S.  I had discussions with the Director, Gary Ross and Director of Photography, Benoît Delhomme to find out what the filmmakers overall look and aesthetic will be so that my work will be in tandem with the vision of the filmmakers.

You’ve worked in the past with director Gary Ross, how is the camaraderie and workflow between the two of you in terms of outcomes and aesthetics?

Gary in addition to being an award winning screenwriter and director is also a very accomplished photographer who is aware of the value of high quality marketing images in the success of his films.  Gary and I established a system of photographic selection and review on The Hunger Games whereby after each scene I would make a selection of photographs and perform an initial colour wash and then Gary and I would look at the photographs and make any additional changes before submitting them to the studio.  Having developed a close friendship together with Gary’s appreciation of the role of the photographer he trusted me to pursue the images that I think will be important.  His keen interest in photography would always be shown when I arrived on set with a new camera and would take it out of my hands and start shooting photos. One of his particular favorites was the S with the 35mm lens which he was blown away by the brightness of the viewfinder and would tell anyone who would care to listen.

The work you’ve done in the past with legendary film makers including Stanley Kubrick and Clint Eastwood must have left very valuable learning experiences, would you mind sharing a story of one of these former experiences when being a set and working with this creative minds?

Stanley Kubrick was the first person to put a Leica camera in my hand having begun work for him on The Shining.  I had never had the experience working with the range finder system and he taught me how to use the Leica M4 from the ground up.  Whilst Stanley was always up to date with photographic innovations and a enthusiastic user of the Nikon system he always considered Leica to be the true photographers 35mm camera and would reel off the names of the great photographers throughout modern times who used them to make me reconsider my modern SLR obsession.  His symmetry and composition and his use of perspective were etched in my young photographers mind during those 3 years I worked for him and I find myself on a daily basis examining my frame and wondering what his criticism of it would be.

How do you see photography in the movie industry in terms of evolving from analog to digital? Compared to how it used to be a few decades ago, would you consider using analog film once again?

The switch over from analog to digital involved learning new skills and understanding the limitations and tolerances of computer imagery whilst integrating analog photography. The new way of working offered me opportunities to shoot with particular end results in mind and gave me more control over the finished image.  This new workflow comes at a price with the photographer and studio becoming the photographic lab as well in many instances. Whilst I enjoy shooting film on personal projects, most of my clients today request that I shoot digitally.  The additional costs of making hi-res scans do not make it commercially viable.

The majority of these images were taken with the Leica S; how would you describe its performance in comparison to other similar equipment? What lenses did you use?

The overriding factor at the beginning of my love affair with the Leica S was how it is a photographer’s camera.  Unlike other medium format digital cameras which generally require the aid of an assistant, I can shoot on the Leica S alone. Whether tethered or un-tethered on location or in the studio the Leica S has the photographer’s intuition built in as standard. Although it is at the cutting edge of modern digital technology the simplicity of its design harks back to analog days allowing me to concentrate on the images rather than the technology.  Since a lot of my work is portraiture based the 120mm lens wide open produces powerful images with unique clarity but maintaining softness in quality.  The 35mm lens allows me to create a cinematic feel and with the unbelievable distortion free capabilities is particularly useful to photograph group portraits where depth of focus is an issue.

Technically speaking, how was the experience of shooting in this particular set with a fast-paced action scenes, outdoor scenery and top-level make-up and costume teams?

The real difficulties for any photographer on location are weather and the quality of light. Given the highly choreographed action set pieces combined with realistic civil war sets meant that rain, mud and smoke would have to be factored in to any photographic sequence as well. With multiple camera crews shooting side by side and knowing that my most important images were probably taken close to the action on wider lenses I had to be prepared to be lying in muddy trenches with hundreds of extras, canons firing above my head all the while making sure I kept out of shot.

Thanks Murray!

About Murray Close:

Working for Stanley Kubrick on ‘The Shining’ in 1978 was the beginning of an illustrious career that has lasted for over 35 years and continues to this day. It was over the course of these three years that Murray Close worked with Kubrick that Stanley’s sense of composition and style influenced his work from then on.  Forging a career as a renowned stills and specialist photographer, Close established very early on strong links within the film industry and became first call to esteemed directors and filmmakers.

These early ties with Warner Bros. lead to collaborations with Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg and Close relocated to Los Angeles in 1989. It was during this time that he worked on films such as ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Mission Impossible’, creating some of cinema’s most iconic images. In 2003 Close was invited back to London by Alfonso Cuarón to contribute to ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ and two subsequent Harry Potter productions. 

Quick to notice Close’s skills on franchise movies, Lionsgate invited him to collaborate on the entire ‘Hunger Games’ films in 2011. Most recently Close has been working with the Wachowski’s on the groundbreaking Netflix series, ‘Sense8’ and was reunited with ‘Hunger Games’ director, Gary Ross for ‘Free State of Jones’ in 2015.

To know more about Murray’s work, please visit his official website.

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