Taika Waititi. What we do in the suit shop

I had the pleasure and honour of shooting one of NZ’s finest. A highly acclaimed writer, director, actor, and now fashion model, from his humble beginnings having arguments over who left the $2 on the pool table to maybe directing Thor movies in Hollywoo (a horse stole the D), Taika Waititi is mercurial to say the least. Patient, energetic, courteous, polite, he’s one of my favourite subjects that I’ve ever shot and worked with and since this is NZ there’s zero ego or bullshit when a major deal in the film-making world walks through the door onto your set and shakes your hand. I really liked Eagle Vs. Shark btw, that one flew under the radar despite it being brilliant in a Napoleon Dynamite, misfit kinda way, and if you’re not counting horses on bus trips you ain’t living.

That’s an inside joke/reference, it wasn’t some random copy/paste from a different post.

This shoot was styled by the mighty fine dudes at NZ Suit Source. Mike and the crew are god-sends on shoots like this. They have an inexhaustible supply of suits and paraphernalia, props like pipes and vintage boxing gloves, parachutes, spectacle frames, sweet leather chairs with just the right amount of patina. Plus they know how to make people look good which makes them very helpful people to know. I’ve worked with them a couple of times and am in there again shooting Shihad. Mike (the owner) is one of those people who is always willing to help, and throws ideas into the ring and frequently has exactly what you’re looking for, be it a fedora with a ribbon around it or a vintage Brownie camera so Taika can take a selfie. Cool guys. here’s a link:


I heard this shoot may be up for contention for a magazine cover (it ended being featured on the front cover of M2 Magazine with a lengthy feature article inside) which typically means a white background unless otherwise instructed. If you don’t supply the background some poor bastard has to sit there and manually remove something from what could be a very busy background. I don’t really have a  backdrop per se, at least not one of those big contraptions with 2 stands and a rod in between off of which hangs a sheet of coloured fabric. No sir, I just improvise with a big light source which kills 2 birds with one stone. My octabox is a monster. I call it The Mama because it’s the oldest modifier I have and it’s also the boss. Anyway. It’s huge, puts out tremendously soft wraparound light across a very large area and basically it’s the best thing I’ve bought in terms of lighting gear. The octabox makes rounded catchlights whereas softboxes make square catchlights? What’s a catchlight? it’s that little reflection you see in people’s eyes under bright light. You can change the shape of them to add some interest if you’re cool.
So it lights a large area. In this shoot (and other shoots where a white background is required) I set up the light around head height (their head height) and pointed it right back at the camera. You fire it and it blows out white. There’s your white background. Then you put the subject/object in between this light and the camera. That thing is now backlit. But won’t that make a silhouette? Why yes, it does, which is why you need another light around the front to light the person’s face. The octabox in the back also has the added benefit of adding some wrapping around light around the subject so it looks like a rim light in practice. You could throw some more lights around the front but one will always work. In this case I used a silver umbrella (Westcott collapsible) camera right, pretty high and pointed down at Taika. Silver umbrellas are more contrasty than white ones and they’re also more efficient and hotter. For dramatic stuff this is good, for beauty portrait stuff, not so much.
looks like this

looks like this

That means that OOC (out of camera) it looks like that. It isn’t 100% total coverage of the background but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a clear distinction there of pure white around Taika so you can just go in with literally a white brush and paint away the  edges where you can see the box.

Then it looks like this:

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All shot at 85mm around f/7.1. ISO 200 ish. These are the lightroom edits but are 90% of the final version. Then it comes out like this. Due to the white background all the layout artist has to do is drag and drop the picture into InDesign and layup the rest of the stuff around it. I’m all about making other people’s jobs easier and since this was a pretty big deal and I knew there’d be a lot of looks and images to choose from, anything that speeds up the process for all concerned is a very good thing indeed. Work smarter and all that.
That was look 1. Taika is utterly fantastic to work with. He’s that kind of guy who has about 10 million facial expressions and every time you push the shutter it’s something new. I had so much good material to work with from this one look alone that I knew it was gonna be good. You can only do so much on your side of the camera – set the lights, provide the stage for the client to walk on, and give broad strokes with the occasional direction and some encouragement along the way, but this was perfect with a gifted actor in front of the camera, an immaculate suit and wardrobe. It was good, folks.
Onto look 2. Walk out the door. Bring the giant light stand and the giant octabox and set up the ‘studio’ outdoors. One of the key things about my work is the ability to light anything, anywhere. All my studio lights are powered by a Vagabond Mini which is like 10 laptop batteries wired together. It’s awesome. It means I can take all the lights to completely un-lit locations, or locations that look a bit meh and kick their ass and transform them into a set. This adds a whole dimension of flexibility and control which I wouldn’t otherwise have if I was tethered to a studio and wall sockets.
So it’s Taika in another suit, the light, the stand, and me with a bigass camera walking down the road. You get a lot of looks and people going “is that…?” I wanted something a bit more casual, a bit looser, like after a hard day you’re a little tired of the suit so you relax it a little – undo the top button, the tie loosens slightly, untuck the shirt, that kinda thing. The lighting here is just an octabox and the midday sun which was making huge shadows and making everyone squint. If you had to use that alone you’d be limited. You could still shoot in the shade but there’s hardly any drama in there, it’s all a little flat. By using a pro light you can work with the sun and use that as a second light, and you can even overpower it if you wish so the background is darkened. Like I said, flexibility.
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I always like to get a mix of wides and highs when shooting because then the client has more flexibility and versatility to their layout choices. I generally have no idea what they’re thinking in terms of design or what the copy is or where it’ll go but in an image like the above it stands alone as a cool shot but if someone wanted to run it double page with some copy on the right it still works. On a shoot like this you can’t reshoot if something doesn’t go to plan or you don’t get what you need so the bases have to be covered. The lighting here is the octabox to camera left, right in front of Taika. The light and me pretty much swapped places between the other 2 shots and this one.
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I think there’s something in this job about reading people. Taika seems like the kind of guy who gets bored quickly. Gotta keep moving, gotta keep it going and keep it fresh and try and keep the energy up and the pace quick. It means you’re done quicker but it means you have to think fast and get what you can before you’re eating into someone else’s time.
Almost there. Back to the shop for another outfit change while I scour the block looking for somewhere we can shoot – another hallmark of my line of work is very short periods of notice. I don’t get a heads up weeks in advance to location scout, check the weather, ask local businesses etc about using a nearby space, it typically comes down to going with what you have in the vicinity of the meeting point while trying to keep it visually interesting and providing enough difference to the sets of photos so it’s not the same old stuff just with a different outfit.
I think this was down the side of some kind of printing company. I remember the road was slanted and above this black wall was an office building with wide windows and people checking out what the hell that big bright light was and hey, isn’t that that guy?
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Speaking of vintage and obscure props. I think the skis were Taika’s idea. You never quite know what he’s going to do until he does it, then it all makes some kind of sense. I think the time was very much upon us when Taika had to be catching a plane so we snapped a few shots, got out of the middle of the road, he left, I packed the stuff down and that was that.
A photographer’s job begins when they get home and sit down at their computer to go through the files. That’s when all the prep pays off and groundwork pays dividends in making everything smoother and quicker and ultimately meaning the client gets their photos quicker, and you get paid quicker so it’s a win/win. I’ve had a hard time understanding how some photographers take months to return pics. I get them in and out the door as fast as possible so I can move on to other stuff. The last thing you want is a backlog of editing to do when you could be out shooting and having Taika Waititi give you the finger.
You can do a lot with a big light in an octabox.
cheers guys. tez.