Creating historical ‘Hero Photo Props’ for your shoot… Top Nine Tips

Nothing bothers me more in a film than a REALLY bad photo prop – you know where they show you a photo from wayback when, and it’s a terribly photoshopped image. Fail!

I have made several films now with historical photo props, some of which are featured ‘hero’ props on which plot revelations revolve… And I knew that it only takes one bad prop to bounce an audience out of a story, and so I have always insisted on making these photo props myself.

These props are actually as important as any single shot in your film. Don’t delegate it like you might delegate getting other props.

Then adds the production issue… You need your cast in both situation and costume in order to get the image, to take the photo. Sometimes it’s an image that is photographed inside the narrative (so the photo prop cannot exist in other scenes until the scene where the photo is taken has itself been shot). The photo cannot exist before the scene in which it is taken is filmed. This is a production and scheduling headache. Yikes!

Add the usual production pressure cooker, the cast only being confirmed at the last minute, budgets, schedules… Well this is why so many badly Photoshopped images make it into films.

    • Here’s what I have learned.
    • Don’t shoot it in the main shoot
      If you can, just do the shot of the actors looking at the photo and stage it so that you can shoot the photo (the reverse shot in effect) later in the shoot or in pickups. This will give you time to get this all important props and photos spot on. A ‘hero -prop’ photo is a heavily featured prop and needs to be world class.
    • Treat generating this shot like it’s part of the shoot
      Often you shoot a scene, and then you need to stage the scene again to take the photo to make the prop. It’s annoying to most cast and crew as everyone wants to move on. I get it. But shooting this photo now, and taking five minutes to get it right, will save you tons of heartache later.
    • Use your iPhone
      On the shoot we just did, I shot all the photos myself on my iPhone, using the fake depth of field effect and then ageing them in a combination of iPhone apps and Instagram. The results were amazing. I printed them out on matte photo paper and they look great.
    • Age then old school
      You can, and should, distress and age the images further by creasing and scratching etc.
    • Photo Frames
      If you are showing a number of images in frames, go for different sizes and get frames that are era specific, supporting the narrative. Tell a story over time with the photo frames themselves.
    • Killer Image
      Often you just need a single photo to be ‘the one’, the picture that pulls the focus of the drama. The others around it solidify the illusion and must be great, but one will be where the audience is drawn. Make sure this one image is world class, and I would also say large so all detail can be taken in and it dominates.
  • Hide the fakes among real photos
    Use real photos from the era in order to hide the fakes inbetween. Real photos always sell the era authentically and convey the events and emotion powerfully. They also cost nothing to stage, they already exist. Time to dig through the shoeboxes in the attic. Friends have also sent me scans after social media shout outs for specific images.
  • After Effects
    It’s not too hard to do a visual effect if you need to add a photo to a frame, or replace one. Of course I would VERY strongly recommend not doing this for all the obvious reasons, but if it’s a choice between a less than brilliant photo prop and spending a little time and resources on a special effect, I would choose the latter. We have done lots of these with Phone image replacements to great effect (though phones are easier as they are their own light source).
  • Never use the actors acting headshot
    I have seen this so many times and every time I cringe. Make the effort and get a photo that does not look like an actors headshot sent out by agents. Photo here is the fabulously talented Cera Rose-Pickering and you can follow her on Instagram @misscerarose)

Do you have any tips of your own to add?

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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