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Cinema Stills

Updated on December 27, 2010

Still photographs representing scenes or actors from cine films. These photographs, which are taken for display outside theatres and for press publicity, play a vital part in the economics of film business as a means of creating public interest. A film is an expensive product which has to be sold intensively, and photographs are the basis of the selling campaign.

The still can also assist directly in keeping down production costs, for many firms will lend expensive goods to studios in return for a still which can be used in their own advertising. For example, a manufacturer might lend a luxury model car free in return for a still of a star posing with the car. Stills also have a more permanent value as the guide of the film historian and the inspiration of serious students.

Stills are not enlargements from films. The motion picture camera is constructed to interpret motion on the screen, but its shutter speed is not fast enough to arrest motion. Examination of a long strip of cine film will show that only a few of the pictures have a sharp image. The sharp frames cannot be predetermined, and may turn out to be the least striking single pictures. So, after shooting the scene, the stills are taken separately to provide sharp photographs of well-composed dramatic incidents suitable for reproduction in the press.

Choosing the Shot

The art of the still cameraman lies in selecting the most telling moments in the film story. Because he has to concentrate on this problem, he uses simple standard equipment and employs an automatic technique. The usual camera is an 8 x 10 inch model with swing back and front movements, which takes a negative the same size as the standard still print. The negative can therefore be easily retouched and used for bulk printing by contact. Quality and speed are all-important in turning out the large quantities of stills required. If the still man used a miniature, he could snap during the cine take and arrest action and save time; but there would be no guarantee that the action would be stopped at the right moment. An instant after the heroine is looking bewitching, she may speak a word which changes her expression disastrously.

The standard technique is modified for violent-action stills (fights, motor smashes, etc.) when dramatic impact is not spoilt if the moment caught is awkward. In this case the still man may shoot with a press-type camera during the actual scene. Outdoor shots, too, are generally action pictures: horsemen riding across moors, yachts racing, etc, and the still man can make considerable use of his press camera on location.

Stills of an exceptional nature, that are not wanted for bulk printing, are taken with a smaller camera for the advantage of shorter exposures and increased depth of field. An example is the kind of publicity picture taken to show what goes on behind the scenes, which appeals to a limited number of editors.


With the standard camera it is customary to use a lens of 12 inch focal length, as the majority of film stills are medium close-ups. A long shot will not as a rule give the drama, the expression on the actors' faces, or the point of a joke. Long-shot stills are only taken to draw attention to lavish spectacles covering a lot of ground.

Lighting in the studio is controlled by the cine cameraman; but if he is working in low key, the still man, with his slower lens, may require additional light, e.g: he may want an extra flood wheeled to the side of his camera or ask for the diffusers to be removed from lamps. He never likes to increase exposure beyond 1/5 second or the actors might move. But with lighting dictated by someone else, there is not much chance for him to express his individual talent. His opportunity lies in being able to regroup the actors to give the essence of the situation with emphasis but not exaggeration.

Glamour stills of the stars are deemed so important (for the press, magazines and for sending to fans) that the still man is given his own studio in which he can pose, light and take close-ups. Hare, where mobility no longer matters, he may use a lens of 20 inches focal length to ensure that the sitter's features are portrayed without distortion. The studio is also used for taking fashion stills of the stars' dresses for press publicity.

Uses for Stills

Apart from his importance in film business, the still cameraman also has some part in film creation. He may take: research stills, e.g: of a costume in a museum for the wardrobe department to copy; location-finding stills to illustrate the photographic possibilities of a district; set stills, i.e: record photographs for use in case sets have to be rebuilt for retakes and continuity stills to record the make-up of an actor so that continuity of appearance can be maintained in scenes shot at a later date.

Other types of picture that the still photographer may be asked to take include the title still, a picture double-exposed behind the credit titles to give them pictorial appeal; the set-dressing still, e.g: a photograph of the star of the film to hang on the wall of a set; an insert still, which may be a photograph of an actor as a wanted criminal printed in a fake newspaper for a story point; or a location background still- a landscape turned into a lantern slide and projected on a translucent matte screen as a background in the Studio.

The increasing popularity of certain three-dimensional films suggest that further developments will occur in the technique of presenting films in depth. At present 3D films are advertised by conventional stills; but tomorrow may bring viewing boxes for stereoscopic samples of exciting scenes installed in the foyers. Yet another category will be added to the list of pictures which the still cameraman has to take.


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