Category: interview


Interview with Mike Cooke


First off, tell me how you got started in photography?

I got started in photography in high school because I couldn’t do any other subjects. I didn’t like math, I hated geography but I had an art class, and in that art class we had a black and white photography project. So I borrowed my dad’s old film Minolta and I’ve kinda been in love with it ever since. I got started because it was the only thing where I felt I could create something from nothing.

Where did you go from there?

I want to say I just started taking photos. I was teaching myself photography in 10th grade and no one else was really doing it at my high school. It wasn’t an art magnet school, just a regular high school. I would always have my camera around my neck and you’re 14-15 years old and everyone wants their pictures taken. I would literally go through a roll of film every two days just taking photos of my friends. The developing, understanding how all the nasty lights in the school worked, you know, all my photos came out underexposed so I learned aperture and shutter speeds, how to compose my shots better.

You command a lot of attention without ever opening your mouth. Has that been a good thing?

Oh definitely. I was a 6’6’’ black guy in a predominately white high school with a camera strapped around my neck. I played basketball for one year and then I stopped so I already had some attention around me from people who only have one-track minds. When I stopped playing basketball and starting doing photography, a lot of heads turned. It was a pretty interesting time.

Honestly, I didn’t recognize [any benefits] because my whole family is tall. I never really thought about how my height could be used to my advantage unless I was doing a physical sport. I think I do get a little more respect because I am taller, but I try to lead by example and be stern but fair.

You also seem really mature for a young guy. How old are you?

I’m 23.

And you’ve already got a lot of experience under your belt. How did you get the portfolio you have now?

I attribute that to knowing what I wanted to do so early in my life. My dad and my mom were huge helps in that they didn’t feel like fighting with me. They were like, if he wants to do that, if he’s this passionate about photography and he’s this passionate about art then we might as well try to culture that.

They sent me to the summer programs at the Art Institute and I did the Rising Star program at SCAD when I was still in high school. Once I graduated, my dad hooked me up with a friend of his who owned a DVD hip-hop company called the Raw Report. It was 2007 and DVDs were pretty much the thing and not everyone knew how to put videos on YouTube yet. When you wanted a video, you’d buy a promo DVD. So I worked for the DVD hip-hop company for about a year after high school. I’d be going around and taking photos of all these iconic celebrities from T.I. to Usher to Shawty Lo. They took me to Miami to do a whole bunch of stuff for Rick Ross, so doing all that stuff early on gave me a real comfortable feeling in my craft. I knew that if I wanted to do this, I have to act a certain way. It was really seeing people who did it wrong and not wanting to do it that way. Knowing when to keep quiet, understanding when people on set were better than me. In a sense, just paying my dues.

You started out in stills and then you got into video?

My relationship with video started in high school. Stills were going good for me and then in 12th grade my teacher talked to me. She said we’re doing this project for our black and white class but you’ve been shooting for a while so I want you to really challenge yourself, I want you to do something with film.

I didn’t know anything about documentary except what I’d seen on National Geographic. At the time, my high school and Clayton County were going through some weird accreditation issues. They had some really funky rules because of it and there were some fights where kids had gotten hurt. There was this weird lock-down situation. We were high schoolers, so it got blown out of proportion. We saw it as a locked-down communist state and people were talking about rallying together against the rules. I took all of those things people were saying at my school and I turned into a faux-documentary. It was an hour-long feature essentially making fun of my school. This sounds bad now that I look back on it, but for about a week I’d follow around different groups, tell them what I was doing, and I have them bring out a lot of stereotypes. At the end of that, I probably had about 15 DV tapes on a Sony, I think it was an X1 cam, edited it in iMovie and presented it to my friends. That’s how I got into film, palling around with my friends and filming stuff.

How have you balanced out stills and motion?

Horribly. [laughs] But in a good way. When I started doing photography, I knew I wanted to do both, so I started doing both. This was 2007, 2008, before the 5D really took off and no one was really doing the two during that that time. They were focusing on photography, they were focusing on film and everyone I really admired were either directors or photographers. Skip ahead a couple years with the development of DSLRs and budgets getting the way they are, photographers are becoming filmmakers and filmmakers sometimes have to be photographers. It’s kinda weird, I feel like I’m failing into this niche market. Some photographers who I admire are now asking my help for video because they’re just now getting into it and vice versa.

Right now I’m more confident than ever that I can juggle both. I’ve only gotten some jobs because I can do both. Some of my best clients right now bring me on to do video projects and then have turn right back around a week later and do the photo work. Sometimes that’s fantastic because you get to control a project from start to finish. Now more than ever, juggling both is a necessity. With the way the market is, it’s getting to the point where people expect you to do both. I just want to stay behind the lens.

2010/2011 Reel from Mike Cooke on Vimeo.

Tell me about college. There are a lot of good and bad feeling about art school. Did SCAD give you good preparation for the job market?

I’d gotten this question a lot of times. At first, no, but they’re getting a lot better at that. Now a lot of their classes require you to do internships. A lot of their classes make you collaborate with outside companies. This is the biggest kudos I give to SCAD, the fashion department partnered with ELLE magazine and about 12 fashion designers from SCAD got to premier their collections at this years Mercerdes-Benz Fashion Week. That was huge. I’m not even a fashion major but I took a lot of photos for my friends’ books so they could get into this. It was a really humbling experience just knowing what my friends went through to be presented with this opportunity. To go to New York, to hobnob with these people and see their collections. These are like 20-21 year-olds seeing their work on the runways. A friend of mine literally fainted when she got there.

I can’t even blame SCAD 100% because you’re not going to know what the industry is like until you get out there and do it. This goes for any art school, any university in general. Their main thing is to educate you and give you the tools to go out there and do your stuff. Things change so fast. Unless you take the time to get out of the classroom, go do an internship, go do a freelance job, you will go through four years of college and not know what the hell you’re doing.

SCAD and a lot of schools just don’t teach you about paying your dues. No school can teach you that. I have these friends who are out there now and they think they’re owed this and yeah, their work is good but they haven’t proved it to anyone other than the people they went to college with.

How did you pursue work outside of school?

It was hard. SCAD’s classes are two hours and 30 minutes a piece, four days a week with Fridays off. But the workload they give you is really, really intense. My first year I had a nice scholarship going in but because I decided to do so much work outside the class I lost it. My parents hated that but I didn’t regret it.

I was just killing myself. I would do my work to the best of my ability and then turn right around and go do a gig at a club for $75 an hour shooting nightlife photography. Really humble beginnings. If you’re not hungry, if you don’t want to work when you start out, that’s the quickest way to fail.

That’s the only reason I can say I have as much work as I do, because I had a passion to work. I wasn’t shooting nearly enough in school and when I was, I wasn’t shooting what I wanted to. Rather than complain or bitch and moan about it, I just decided to go out and shoot, because I knew there where people out there who wanted their photos taken. Whether or not I was in college didn’t make a difference to them as long as I could do the job. That’s how I was able to travel to London and do fashion piece over there.

Do you see yourself going down one path at this point?

Yes, I do. Early on in my career I didn’t know what I wanted to shoot and now that I’m a little older, more mature, and a little deeper into photography and the industry, I can really see why my portfolio wasn’t focused when I started. Everyone who came to me wanted something different. Atlanta’s a very unique market. New York, L.A., London. All those markets are defined and Atlanta isn’t. People here just want photos that are good. When I was shooting, some people wanted headshots, some people wanted a full model portfolio, some people wanted CD art, some people wanted fashion. All they knew was that I could shoot and it looked good. In sense, that was enough for them.

It was a good and bad thing. I spent a lot of time hopping around instead of honing in on a type of photography that would have helped me develop that eye.

What is it you want to shoot more of?

Most recently I’ve decided the best photography I do is fashion advertising. Pretty much advertising ala Calvin Klein ads, Diesel, Michael Kors. I work better outside, on location. I work better when there’s natural elements, where I can sculpt light around existing light. It’s what’s taken over my heart. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s not the best market to do that in. I’ve been doing what I can but sooner than later I’m going to have to make that big move to New York. I’m just making sure that when I do, I’ll have the portfolio to survive up there.

What’s the hardest thing about trying to break into the photo industry?

Gaining the attention of reputable contacts…the agencies you want to be signed to, the artists you want to shoot for. Unless you have a connection, you’re just another address filling their inbox. You’re just another photographer who says they have what it takes. That’s the hardest part, trying to gain the attention of those credible people. Unless someone vouches for you, who’s going to take the time to check you out?

Tell me about your cinematography and how you got involved with the feature you worked on this summer.

When I was doing a lot of photography, I wasn’t shooting film and when all my photography clients would dry up my film clients would come out of the woodwork. For the past four years, that’s just been the way it is. I started early on at SCAD interning for this art director named Tim Barrett. He owns a studio that a lot of different directors come through because he’s like an in-house production designer. What he needed was a liaison between the art department and the directors. I was that liaison. Horrible hours, but I got to meet so many great directors and spend so much time on sets. I stayed in touch with a lot of those directors and they threw me a lot of work.

One particular director was Damian Marcano, who took me on as an intern. He taught me Red workflow, how to use the Red, and Steadicam operation. He’s the one who really made me think and understand if I’m going to turn on a camera and shoot something, it better be something worthwhile because there’s so much garbage out there, how are you going to rise above it?

I worked with him for about three years. Currently I’m on with him as a cinematographer. It was just proving myself to him. I would show him I was growing and as that happened he gave me more responsibilities. When it came to this feature film he was shooting down in Trinidad, his home country, he said he needed a cinematographer who liked long hours, no pay and hot environments. And I was like, “Just get me down there. I’ll kill it.”

A seven hour plane trip later I’m down in Trinidad. Shooting 11 days, 14 hours a day during a state of emergency with a giant Red on my shoulder with little or nothing to light with.

Give me some highlights of that shoot.

The film is called “God Loves a Fighter.” It’s about a hit man and a prostitute who try to save this little girl from being sold into sex slavery. So they break their string of bad to do good. In itself, that’s a complicated script. A lot of locations. Lots of environmental elements.

When we went down there, Trinidad was in a state of emergency. That means it was pretty much being ruled by military police at the time. The police had found a truckload of cocaine and heroin like three weeks prior so they locked down the entire city. They had an 11pm curfew and if you caught after curfew without a pass you were immediately locked up. Alcohol sales were limited. Police were literally raiding houses almost every other night just because they could.

Because of that, a lot of things we wanted do to we couldn’t. We couldn’t have a night shoot that didn’t start at 6pm because we couldn’t be out past 11. That hindered our schedule, but in a way, it helped. We were able to shoot in some really bad parts of town because there was a lockdown.

On about the ninth day of shooting our camera fan broke in our Red. Trinidad, as you can imagine, is not a place where there’s a Red shop right around the corner. So what ended up happening when the camera would overheat is we’d stop, put the camera in a black trash bag and put it in a bucket of ice for about 20 minutes. That was a really fun experience. About the third day our follow focus broke and we had Nikkor lenses. In addition to being the DP, I was also the camera operator so you’re trying to pull focus on still camera lenses on a cinema camera when you don’t have proper lighting in a tropical environment with a camera that’s overheating.

I can’t imagine dunking an entire camera into a bucket of ice water.

It wasn’t ice water yet. It ended up turning into ice water, but every time we had to put the camera into that pail, really it was one of those family-reunion ice buckets made of Styrofoam, me and the director would dread putting it in there. I remember one time I looked at him at him and asked if we should say a prayer first. But it worked. It cooled down and we kept shooting. By any means necessary.

And you made it out alive.

Made it out alive with a fantastic, fantastic trailer. Some of the best stuff I’ve shot in my life to date. Really looking forward to the feature film and how it’s going to be put together. If I had to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat but I’d make sure I didn’t leave my shoes in Trinidad. I had to wear flip-flops on the plane.

It’s pretty impressive to shoot a feature film in 11 days by any standard.

It was not easy. It was literally about 10 pages a day. Luckily, most of it was action and we had fantastic actors. The director saved all non-essential shots for a later date. I still don’t know how we did it.

So what’s your plan for the future?

Right now, I have a general idea. I definitely want to do more film work. It’s an exciting time for me and I think in every photographer’s career, where you’re doing a lot of work and it’s slowly but surely becoming work you want to do. I’m getting more ad work, I’m getting more print work. I was just hired by an agency to direct my first commercial piece. It’s a little humbling and weird to experience because it’s my first legit commercial as a director. And when I say legit, I mean I have a production company asking me what I want to shoot and we have castings that I get to pull from. Anyone who understands indie productions from the smallest scale…to have someone say, “This is what I have for you, all you have to do is show up and shoot it.”…I almost cried.

Are you happy with the choices you’ve made so far?

I am. Sometimes as a photographer it’s hard to see that. I think I’m on the precipice of being able to do some great stuff with great people. Hopefully everyone will be happy so I can move onto the next project, which will be a little bigger. Then the next project and the next project. So we’ll see.

I’m glad you haven’t let being from Jonesboro hold you back.

[laughs] Sometimes I tell people I’m from Jonesboro and they look at me like I’m from a foreign country or something. I feel like they want to say, “Oh my God. Well, this is running water, so uh, have fun with that.”

For more of Mike’s work, check out his website.

Interview with Courtney Watkins

Courtney Watkins is a wardrobe and prop stylist in Atlanta. She has been a familiar face on a multitude of shoots, ranging from lifestyle to corporate to product and editorial. When it’s been a long and difficult day, you can usually spot her because she’s the only one still smiling.

Hello, Courtney. Could you tell me what you do?

I’m a photo stylist. I also do film work. My undergraduate was in fine art and then I went to Portfolio Center for photography because there’s not much you can do with a fine art degree [laughs]. And I love photography. It was one of my last studio classes and I decided to expand on that. Once I got there it opened up a whole new world to me. I met some really great people. One of my teachers actually was a stylist and she was a great mentor and the longer I was involved in photography and assisting other photographers I learned I just didn’t want to be the photographer, I didn’t want to be the boss. I didn’t want to be in charge of the whole shoot; I was much better being a support person and I could draw what I had in my mind and I could pull things and shop for things and put the pieces together. It was a perfect fit.

What was your next step. How did you go out and start getting work?

Actually, another teacher at Portfolio Center gave me a list of people to contact. She was really really helpful. I just started getting on the horn and calling people, telling them that so-and-so referred me. I tried to get my foot in any door possible. You know, you do some really horrible work as an assistant and I was photo assisting too. I was trying to figure it out, seeing if I was making the right decisions. I was having a photographic identity crisis, but after awhile, it became clear.

In those first years, was it trial and error or was there someone who was able to show you the ropes?

Well, through assisting, that’s how you learn most of the ropes. I learn things every job. I’ve been doing this for 12 years now. I still learn things. At the end of every job, I look back and ask myself if there was something that I could of done differently that could have made things go more smooth and every time there’s something that I think I could improve on.

Your job is not one that is not very publicized, but there is a market for it.

Atlanta is different from New York and LA in that it’s a smaller market. You sometimes end up doing multiple departments. If you’re in New York, you rarely have a prop and wardrobe stylist. But sometimes that involves more than just clothes.

I’ve got a whole list of crazy things that I have had to do on the job. I had to have a severed finger made. I’ve had to dress a cow like a reindeer. I’ve had to make a man into a Christmas tree. I had to make four orange Santa suits. I’ve had to make a cyclops and a monster truck. But I enjoy it. It is hard work, so you have to be prepared to work long hours and staying up all night designing something for the next day. No two jobs are going to be the same. I’ve never had a sit still job.

How does a job start for you?

I will get a call from a photographer or producer about a job and they’ll send me a production brief. I’ll read it and look at everything. Typically there’s a pre-production meeting that I’m invited to. I bring my list of 1,000 questions because I have to ask about every detail. “So you want a car? What type of car? What color car? And you want people in there. How old are they?” I have to get all the specifics from them so I know what I’m supposed to go out and shop for them to put the pieces together.

Once I have my prop list created, then I go out and pull everything. If I bill $25,000 on my AMEX we may only use like $8,000 worth and the rest is returned. So there’s a lot of shopping for options that are not used and then we take back the rest.

$25,000? Is that the most you’ve ever rung up?

Thereabout, at least for print stuff. That’s not too bad. It’s so easy to do. I think at one point I had three jobs, and this was before the great recession, I was trying to juggle multiple jobs. I think my card was up to $45,000. It was crazy.

Was this all stuff you were going to be reimbursed for or returned?

They were mostly purchases and I bet only a third of those would be reimbursed, like cash reimbursement. The rest were returned. A lot of times I get cash up front, but sometimes I don’t get an advance, so having good credit is the only way I can do business. If you had no credit, you’d be doomed. There’s no way you could do this.

So you’ll go shopping for whatever the production needs are. How many options will you pull to make the client happy?

Some clients are so easy to please. Some photographers are very easy to please. And then there are others that want to see everything and it doesn’t matter if they wont really love what you show them. I could pull a rack of clothes for just one talent. If I know they are going to be high maintenance client, then I have to have as many options there as possible.

For men though, you have a basic list. At least about 10 shirt options, and four sweaters, at least five pants and depending on outfits, maybe four to five pairs of shoes. And that’s minimal. That’s just for men. It’s not that much.

Are you getting feedback form the client beforehand or is that on set?

We’ll have a show-and-tell and in the show-and-tell I’ll basically run through everything I’ve pulled, with the client and with the photographer. Usually the agency is there as well. We run through, shot-by-shot, talent-by-talent, and I show them everything. I put together looks that I hope will make them happy.

So do you have an insane wardrobe collection at your house?

You know, I have a lot of guys stuff. As far as a women’s wardrobe is concerned, there’s not that much because girls know what is current and on the shelves right now. They can tell. They can pick last years styles and colors, so it’s not really worth it. I used to keep a lot more women’s stuff but it wasn’t getting used.

Mens’ clothes are usually pretty timeless. You guys wear dress shirts, t-shirts, three-button polos, jeans, pants. So I have a decent amount of menswear. How many times in your life can you purchase khaki pants in size 32×32? In Atlanta, we have a lot of Fortune 500 companies so there’s more lifestyle and not as much fashion.

What kind of shoots have you been doing recently?

I just wrapped a job with Ford. Suntrust Bank. Arbys. I’ve done some work with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, for childhood obesity, which got a whole lot of negative press because they were very in your face, but it’s been interesting, that was a fun project. I also recently did Russell Athletic in Texas.

Some big corporate jobs in there. How are people finding you nowadays?

Usually word of worth. I have a lot of repeat clients. Customers, photographers who keep calling. I love when you find a photographer that you click with and just stay with them. Working with them becomes very simple and second nature.

During the great recession, was it easier because you could move between stills and video?

Video and film definitely filled in some blanks for me. Turner Broadcasting. Cartoon Network. I did some work with Boomerang last year. It was tough, but I feel lucky that I didn’t have to change careers like so many other people did or get a part-time job. I had enough work to keep me going.

What do you have to do different on a still shoot versus a video shoot? What kind of factors play into your decision?

Naturally the sound. The clothes can’t be noisy. You can’t have any windbreaker material. If they are mic’ed, then when they start walking it picks up on the audio. So quiet clothes and soft shoes.

And with print, and print is my first love, you have one frame to tell the story. With film you have however many seconds. You can be, I guess, a little more relaxed with print. Every wrinkle and every seam has to be perfect. You have to pick everything apart.

There’s continuity issues with film. You have to take notes on how many buttons are buttoned on someone’s shirts. How many cuffs did you make on their sleeves? Where exactly are their sunglasses? Were they hanging on the second button or were they in the pocket? You have to note all these things so the next scene or the next day you come back and it has to be identical.

Tell me about a disaster scenario.

Ok. It was New England. Early spring. We were doing an outdoor athletic line shoot. There were very athletic girls wearing running shorts and sports tops, and it was sleeting sideways outside. The girls get out there and immediately turn blue. It’s just freezing cold. So I have the hot pockets, the little hand warmers that you break open, shoved everywhere, in the back of their sports bras, in their shorts. We have them in a motor home and make them run a lap, get their photo taken and run back inside to cover them with blankets so they start turning beige again.

The photo assistant came inside after this situation and her jeans had frozen solid. I felt so bad for her. I had to take her jeans and dry out them out with a hairdryer.

I remember once on set, you were deciding what decor would be used for a living room and you were asking the photographer what kind of people live here? Are you coming up with back stories for the setting or the models?

It helps a lot, especially if you have to dress an environment and people. Building a character helps tell me what someone would wear or where they would live. Knowing how old the person is, or if they are in college, or are professionals or are they hipsters or nerds?

Do you draw on people you know? Your definition of a nerd might be different from the client’s.

[laughs] True. A lot of it is when you have the show-and-tell and you get that client feedback. I can give as many ideas and solutions to their problems but in the end they have to be happy with it. I will pull images off the internet and I will set up a quick little website with my ideas. I’ve been doing this for the last two years and I’ve gotten a really good response from clients and photographers. Everyone has access to this link and they can go through it, say yes, say no, make comments so everyone’s on the same page.

I’ve learned that even if you just try to describe something there’s almost always something that gets lost in translation. Showing them exactly what I’m trying to convey helps so much.

Tell me about your research process.

I do a lot of online research. A lot of time spent on Google images, scouring any visual information I can get my hands on. If I see a store that just opened up in Atlanta, then I pull a u-ie and turn around and go in and see what they have and take notes.

Yesterday I went to a store on Howell Mill that has all sorts of weird prop rentals. I love antiques. There’s an antique market that happens once a month and I’m always down there scouring piles of dusty, dirty junk. There are a few places between here and up in North Georgia where there are yards full of rusty, cruddy, wonderful things.

I bought a 1923 bungalow and have been renovating that for quite a while and most of my stuff is stored there. A lot of it is now part of my personal surroundings.

Is there something in your house that you might just pull off the wall for a job?

Oh, all the time. If it’s needed for a job, I pull from my stash. All but two pieces in my house have probably worked on different jobs.

Is there somebody out there you look up to or is doing great work right now?

I really look more at film for inspiration more than anything else. There’s so much great art direction out there. I love City of Lost Children. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He’s amazing. I’m more into items and design. The whole steampunk movement thing is cool. Truthfully, I great photographer I think, can take a styrofoam cup and make it look gorgeous. So I find more inspiration in objects than looking at a picture that someone took of a watch or something.

When you’re on set, how do you make tactful suggestions?

It depends on where we are in the shoot. I think there’s an appropriate time for me to make suggestions. If we’re on set, everybody’s there, lights are on, I’ll always approach the photographer where the client can not hear me [laughs]. That’s just a courtesy. It might be something he or she might not want me to say out loud. And he or she needs to be the censor of that. If it’s something they feel needs attention, then they can lead and make it happen.

Can you describe the Courtney Watkins style?

Impossible! [laughs] Doing this for commercials and advertising you’re asked to style everything from the Coastal South to “this needs to feel mountainous and wintery”. I guess with me there’s always something that’s a little fun and quirky and playful. I like imperfections, which can go a long way. If it’s too perfect, it can look bizarre and fake.

What feeds your soul?

I just think it’s the day to day. Find something inspiring. I still sketch and take snaps. For me, it’s the crew…the people you work with. When you all get together and you make something that’s unexpected. That’s what’s so much fun

“Now that to me, is a picture.”

Interesting video as the late Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee, talks about some of his classic and occasionally horrific New York City spot news photographs.

Interview with Quantrell Colbert

Quantrell Colbert used to be one of the best assistants in Atlanta. Now he’s one of the busiest photographers. Shooting a variety of editorial and film work, Quantrell (or Q as he’s known) has dove head first into the blossoming Georgia film industry. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his path, his choices and the importance of continuously working on your book.

Tell me a little bit about how you got started in photography

My father put a camera in my hands and it just kept rolling with me. I always had a liking to photography. I kept taking these photography classes and it came to a point, you know what, I’ll major in photography. I had taken all the courses and I was like, well, you gotta do something. That’s where I came from.

Are you originally from Atlanta?

I’m from Enid, Oklahoma. I went to the University of Central Oklahoma. After college, I got my book done, and I felt like I did not have what I needed to get out on my own. Their program there was geared more toward photojournalism and that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to shoot high end imagery. My book consisted of still life and people. By the time I graduated I was like, “What am I gonna do?” I could have gone and worked for the newspapers but photojournalism wasn’t for me. So I started to apply for different grad schools. I applied for RIT, Brooks Institute of Photography, I think Hallmark. And then I got a call from  The Portfolio Center. That was the first notice I got and then I decided right then and there I was moving to Atlanta, Georgia and that was it. I got out of there. I mean I was gone.

So you took the first offer and ran with it?

Yes. When I got here, at the time, Ray Ellis was the instructor at Portfolio Center. I met with him and he sat down with me and looked at my work and, I mean exact words, he said, “Why do you want to come to school here?” And I was like, I think I need more training. I’m not exactly sure what I should or where I should go. He told me he had two options for me: “You can come to school here and waste another $50,000 dollars or you can get out and start assisting.” And I had no idea what assisting was because you really don’t have that in Oklahoma. It’s not a big photography state. It’s not like you’re in LA or Miami or New York or Chicago or Atlanta. So I said to myself,  I have all these students loans and I don’t want to take out any more money. You know what, I’m just going to work for a few years. I had just moved here and I didn’t know anybody.

You moved and jumped right into assisting?

Not in the begining. I moved here in ’95 and I worked at Crown Camera Travel and then I got a job at E-6 Lab. At that time in 1996, the Olympics had just come through and film was still in. They were just touching on digital photography. E-6 was the spot where all the big photographers in Atlanta came to have their film developed and I was one of the techs there. Working there and having all the big guys coming in.

I’d been at E-6 for about three years and I knew it was not what I wanted to be doing. Yes, I was still shooting these little peon things for myself, but was I stepping up? So I got my book together and I went out banging on doors saying, “My name is Quantrell Colbert and I’d like to assist you.” I would call these guys every Saturday and leave a message on their answering machine. I wouldn’t call during the week but I’d always blow them up on the weekend. So on Monday they would come in and get my message. Finally the calls started coming in. The first major person who took me under his wing was Ernest Washington. I started working with a lot of the big photographers here and became a member of APA. By my fifth or sixth year assisting I was pretty much in high demand, one of the top two or three assistants here in town. I never had a point where I was slow. I was consistently busy.

I worked with Jeff Von Hoene for three years and during that time I was always working on my book. One day he told me, “Dude, you have access to the studio, but I never see you here using it.” And that’s what I really liked about Jeff was he really inspired me to shoot. He gave me a key to the place and man, I just shot and shot. I’d be in there every weekend with friends or whoever would let me take their portrait.

When did you realize it was time to move on?

I’ve always known in my heart that I wanted bigger and better things. I’ve never been complacent in my life. I always saw myself as going up and up and up. It came to a point where I was like, I don’t want to pick up equipment anymore. I don’t want to work for somebody else. And it had nothing to do with the photographers, with Ernest or Jeff or any of those guys. You just reach that point where you ask yourself, “Am I going to continue to be a squire or am I going to step out?”

That’s what I’ve always told the other assistants. When you’re assisting, you need to make sure you are working on your book.

When that point to move on came, I had my book ready, I been using Adbase, which I still use today, I’d been sending out promos left and right. Did I get a response from anybody? No, no response whatsoever. But I was prepared.

I started to receive little jobs here and there. That grew more and more and finally I had to stop assisting.

I know you do a fair amount of unit photography.

Yeah…right place, right time, and favor from the Lord. A friend of mine, Alfeo Dixon, approached me to do a gallery for him, a movie called Daddy’s Little Girls, which was a Tyler Perry movie. He brought me on set and I was assisting him on this gallery shoot, which was just on white paper. I was like, “This is cool, you’ve got all these celebrities and stars on set, it’s a really big production,” but I still didn’t know anything about this unit stuff.  At that time, Alfeo wanted to move from unit stills to camera operator and in the union you can’t do both. He asked what I thought about doing unit and the first thing out of my mouth was, “How much does it pay?” —- because I was still working full time at Jeff’s place.

I first kind of turned my nose up at it but he needed me to cover for him on a job. So he brought me onto the set and let me use his sound blimp. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know the etiquette. I just hopped on the set. It was Tyler Perry’s Why Did I get Married? I came in and it just came naturally. Janet Jackson was there and Jill Scott and all these other people and I loved it. I was like, this is so frickin’ cool.

The thing about it was, Alfeo was trying to be done with it. He’d already opened doors for me. He said, “If you like this, I need someone to take over for me.” I needed my own blimp and equipment, because you can’t rent it here. So I jumped into it. I went out and purchased a blimp, a camera, a computer and within a year’s time, the equipment paid for itself. It really worked out. I was shooting unit, I was shooting editorial and I was just dabbling a little bit in assisting to get some icing on the cake.

2007 is when they passed that tax incentive to shoot movies here and when they did that, Atlanta exploded. Now we have our fair share of productions being shot here. As we speak, I’m shooting on four different shows. One is a sitcom, House of Payne. I’m also shooting The Vampire Diaries, I’m working on an episodic called Single Ladies and I’m working on another episodic called Teen Wolf. Those are four different projects that are keeping me busy five days out of the week.

Unit photography seems like a different beast. Can you talk about joining a union?

Getting into a union is easy. You just pay $4000 dollars and send in a resume and you’re in. Here’s the beast part: getting the work. If you don’t know anybody in the industry who can bring you on set, then you have no way in. It’s who you know. Alfeo brought me on. You can apply to join a union, but they won’t let you in now unless you’re already working. So how do you get in? Somebody refers you.

There’s a lot that goes into shooting unit photography. It’s not just showing up on set and all of a sudden you’re really cool. There’s etiquette, there is knowing where to be, where not to be, paying attention to what’s going on and paying attention to what’s in the scene. You have to stay out of eye lines. There’s a lot going on that you have to know.

When I started, Alfeo threw me to the wolves. I first got in there and I made mistakes and I still make mistakes but at the end of the day, the client is happy. Am I good at it? I think I’m pretty good at it. Am I still learning? I’m learning every single time because every movie is different. Every set is different. Every actor is different. You could be having the best day of your life and because the actor is not feeling it, they can just tell you to leave. They can say, “We don’t don’t want to be photographed today,” even if that’s your assignment.

The actors have the final say?

Yes. Not all actors are like that. We all have a job to do. I’m hired by NBC or Warner Bros. or Sony or Lifetime. I’m hired by the executives to go shoot the assignment. If the actors are acting funny, if they’re like, “You’re in my eye line” or “I’m just not feeling it today” or “I don’t want you to take my picture today” you can’t take it personally. I’ll go back and call my photo editors and tell them, “The actors don’t want to be photographed today. Thank you for paying my full time rate today. And I’m out. Peace.” That’s what the union does for you. They take care of my rate, make sure that I’m getting paid what I should be getting paid. The moment I step on the set I’m guaranteed a certain amount of hours, no less than a days wage.

That’s just how the games rolls. Some people are all about it. I work on some sets and they can’t get enough of me taking their picture. I work on other sets where you have to be so cautious about what your doing. I do my best to get in there, get the shots and get out.

What kind of equipment do you bring on set?

Here’s your basic needs. You need a sound blimp. It’s a box, like a silencer. There’s only one person who makes them. It’s in North Hollywood, his name is Mark Jacobson. A kit will run you about $1500. You put your camera, I use a 5D Mark 2, inside this box and close it up. It looks like an old antique camera. There’s not a person I don’t walk by who doesn’t look at it and say, “What is that? Is it an antique camera?” It looks like a square box with a tube coming out with two buttons.

When I come on set, I have both of my blimps, two Canon cameras and I use a 24-70 and 70-200 lens. I bring an Apple computer, because I’m usually shooting and downloading files quickly. And that’s about all I bring. Some of the big boys  have huge kits they bring. I bring as little as possible. When we’re done with a scene I can move over to the next scene, I don’t have to lug a cart. I bring my computer and my two cameras and I’m good to go.

Is your work with unit what lead to doing the Tyler Perry movie posters?

That was a blessing. Tyler Perry Studios does everything in house. It is a controlled environment. Say for instance I was shooting pictures for Warner Bros or MGM. A lot of the time they will hire Ockenfels or Art Streiber or some huge name photographer to come in there and shoot the posters. They would never have a unit photographer do that. They have a $100 million dollar budget and they want a big name photographer. Does that mean I can’t shoot a movie poster? No, I could shoot movie posters all day long.

I was shooting Tyler Perry’s stuff and [the producers] asked if I could shoot a gallery for them. I didn’t know too much about galleries but I knew tons about lighting and I was like, sure. My first big poster for them was Madea Goes to Jail. I shot a gallery and I didn’t know what they were going to do with it. They also had me do this mugshot of Mr. Perry in four different characters. I didn’t think too much about it, but the next thing you know it’s plastered all over the United States. It’s all over Georgia, these mugshots of him in the Madea character. And I’m like, “Shut…your…mouth!” I literally pulled over my car and I stopped and got out and I looked at. I said, “Praise God. You have got to be kidding me.” I think I went home and blasted everybody with an email. I was so happy. I was so stoked.

I’m not on staff over at Tyler Perry Studios, but I’m pretty much the go-to-guy for their photography. Those posters have led to other posters. People see that and know I’ve done that before and are calling me to do more posters. But you have to start somewhere.

You’ve been here for almost 15 years. Has your outlook on the industry here changed?

As a photographer, I think as you continue to promote yourself, you have new bodies or work and do exceptional work to the point where people want to hire you. I think if you’re a great photographer and you do exceptional work I think you’ll always have the clients you need not just to sustain yourself but have a thriving business.

I’m speaking for myself, not anyone else in Atlanta. I know in terms of unit photography, it’s exploded for me. Because it’s gone well for me, I’ve had access to these stars which has allowed my book to grow and is allowing me to get more advertising jobs and editorial jobs because I’ve already shot these actors. When these [art buyers] see this work, and see where you’re located at, then they want to use you.

I’m still a young buck, some of these guys have been working for 30 years. I’m just going to plug away and advertise and see where it takes me.

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