Friday, September 16, 2016

TIFF 2016

Rebecca Hall, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

MORE OF MY PORTRAITS WERE SHOT IN A HOTEL ROOM THAN IN ANY OTHER PLACE. More specifically, most of - and frequently the best - of these photos were taken during the Toronto International Film Festival, amidst a hectic week and a half running from hotel to hotel with a writer, setting up, shooting and moving on in brief windows of anywhere from five minutes to ten seconds.

This simple fact has become sharply obvious in the last two years, as I've excavated through my archives scanning images for this blog. I used to think I didn't miss this hectic, barely-controlled frenzy of shooting, but as I've been working away I felt a challenge building up: Could I still pull myself together and produce some decent portraits in the hothouse conditions of the festival?

Last winter, during the Auto Show press day, I approached Andrew Powell, a friend and colleague who publishes and edits The Gate, an entertainment website. I offered him my services - free of charge - to shoot portraits for his site's festival coverage. He could do anything he wanted with them, but the only condition was that I be allowed to shoot them my way - whatever that might be. To my surprise he said yes.

The studio in a bag, in use

I had the whole spring and summer to mull it over. I didn't want to fall back on the informal DSLR working method I was forced to use while shooting the Festival for the free national daily, but I knew I could no longer return to the Rolleiflex-on-a-tripod days of NOW magazine, for the very simple reason that I didn't want to shoot film, and no longer felt like coping with unpredictable factors like whatever light and backgrounds presented themselves in hotel rooms. I'd done that; I wanted a challenge.

I decided to use my studio in a bag. Two bags, actually, one holding my light stands and umbrellas, the other with my cameras and light sources - two cheap, Chinese-made socket and umbrella holders, and a pair of household LED lightbulbs equivalent to about 100 watts of tungsten light. It was as light and cheap a  kit as I could come up with, producing just enough illumination to shoot with digital cameras at relatively comfortable shutter speeds.

As for a backdrop, I slipped a collapsible light reflector into the pocket of the camera case. White on one side and silver on the other, it would be just big enough for head shots. After testing it out on willing audience members at a punk rock club last winter, I got my first bookings from Andrew and set off to cover TIFF again for the first time in nearly a decade.

Erika Linder, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016
April Mullen, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016
Natalie Krill, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016

My first shoot was with the director and stars of Below Her Mouth, a Canadian film about a lesbian romance that premiered on the first weekend of the festival. With the umbrellas set up close to my subjects to create a balloon of flat light, and with some judicious Photoshop retouching to bleach the background to white, I ended up with a trio of simple, even stark portraits that set a benchmark for my first day. This was the sort of work I already knew I could produce, but what could I do next?

Kreesha Turner, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Anne Emond, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Mylene Mackay, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016

The next day began by shooting Kreesha Turner, a Canadian singer, now living in L.A., who had starred in a musical called King of the Dancehall. She had her hair and makeup people on hand when I showed up the airBnB she'd rented for the Festival, where space was so tight that I opted to use a kitchen wall and a north-facing window, with just one of my LED lights providing fill.

The next shoot was in another hotel room, with the director and star of a Quebec film called Nelly, a biopic of sorts about Nelly Arcan, a sex worker-turned-novelist who was a sensation in Quebec before her suicide in 2009. I shot Anne Emond, the director, with the same flat light I'd used the day before, but when Mylene Mackay, the film's star, walked in I decided to model the light a bit more, pulling the umbrellas away from her to get more shadows and drop off more steeply to turn the background gray.

At work photographing Mylene Mackay, photo by W. Andrew Powell

At the end of the previous day I realized that the little white reflector would quickly get limiting in terms of potential backgrounds and composition, so I made a quick trip to Vistek and bought a bigger collapsible backdrop, black on one side and white cloth on the other. It was the first serious investment in photo equipment I'd made in many, many years.

As I paid with my debit card it occurred to me that this was it - I was taking a serious step back into professional portraiture after walking away many years ago. Hopefully this wouldn't end with the same heartbreak as it did last time.

Robbie Amell, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Tony Elliott, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016

My next shoot was with the star and director of ARQ, a sci-fi film produced by Netflix. We were back at the old Intercontinental on Bloor, where I'd shot so many of my TIFF portraits for the free national daily, and I let the new backdrop spring out of the bag with an uneasy flourish, unsure if I knew how to get it back in again.

I placed my umbrellas in a crossfire on either side of my subjects' faces, wanting to get something dramatic (and, well, sci-fi) with the black backdrop. Still conditioned to shoot tight by my little reflector, I stuck to close-ups with Robbie Amell, the star, but let myself move back a bit for Tony Elliott, the director, exploring the unexpected new space.

Rebecca Hall, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016
Craig Shilowich, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016
Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

Several days passed before my next shoots. Andrew had to go out of town and the weekend didn't turn out to be as subject rich, so it was Wednesday before I was back at TIFF with my studio in a bag. I arrived early at the media suite just off of King West intending to set up with plenty of time, and was given a nice big spot on the top floor. I was just clipping together my last pieces of gear when the publicist came back and asked me if I wouldn't mind moving downstairs as the talent were on a tight schedule and couldn't spare the extra minute required to travel between floors.

And then I remembered what shooting at TIFF was like. I rushed downstairs and was still putting the studio in a bag back up when the publicists asked me if I was ready to go. Now sweating, I hurried to get everything back in place and motioned for British actress Rebecca Hall to sit down, trying to break the ice by complimenting her on her role in a BBC miniseries of a Ford Madox Ford novel a few years previous. She seemed surprised that anyone here had seen it.

I had less than a minute, but I think these were my best portraits of the festival - simple, direct, and maybe even a bit elegant. This was exactly the sort of work I'd been longing to do as soon as I approached Andrew about taking another shot at TIFF after my long break. I was under the gun and barely able to get her to swivel her head around a few times while I shot, but everything looked good in the viewfinder.

As the film's writer and producer was motioned to take Rebecca's place, one of the publicists leaned in and whispered to me, "You have ten seconds." I captured one pose in colour and black and white, hoped Andrew wouldn't mind the lack of choice, and thanked my subject for his time.

My last shoot of the day was in the same building, just after lunch, with writer and director Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver. I'd shot him before, nearly twenty years previous, in my last Festival working for NOW, which also felt like something between an omen and a milestone. But more about that later.

As I broke down the studio in a bag I couldn't deny feeling some satisfaction with the week's work, with the small but significant creative challenges I'd been presented and my ability to deal with the sometimes infuriating demands of festival shooting. Very well, I thought - so what next?

Arnold Oceng, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016
Noel Clarke, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016
Jason Maza, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016

CODA: It was on and then it was off and then it was on again. On the next to last day of the festival I had a shoot with actor/director Noel Clarke - Mickey from Dr. Who, as my daughter knows him - and the cast of Brotherhood, the last film in a trilogy Clarke began ten years ago.

They were jokey and blokey and a little punch drunk from doing interviews and waiting around in hotel hallways - pretty much typical of everyone at the end of the festival. I didn't bring the big black backdrop and set up the little white reflector instead, wanting to see what my photos would look like using the same setup as the first day of shooting, but after a week of taking pictures.

Everything was a little looser, mostly due to the rapport between the three men - who gently but persistently insulted each other while they were being photographed - but also since I knew I hadn't done anything lighthearted all week. Time to let someone really smile, I thought.

(POSTSCRIPT: Andrew at The Gate published a nice gallery of my shoots at TIFF here.)

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