The Daily Edit – People Magazine Oscar Portfolio: Brenna Britton

- - The Daily Edit

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People Magazine

Creative Director: Andrea Dunham
Director of Photography: Catriona Ni Aolain
Deputy Photography Director & Multimedia: Christine Ramage
Deputy Photo Editor-Entertainment: Brenna Britton
Deputy Design Director: Dean Markadakis- Designed this layout
Photographer+Director: Peggy Sirota

Heidi: We all know Peggy is a star, what was it specifically that made you choose her?
Brenna: Creative Director, Andrea Dunham, Director of Photography Catriona Ni Aolain, Deputy Director Christine Ramage, and myself wanted Peggy for her signature style, which means you’ll get the most stunning light, effortless moments of cool, and everyone looking beautiful. And for all those reasons, celebrities love to shoot with her. Working with Director of Visual Projects, Blaine Zuckerman, we also wanted a video series in Peggy’s style, to differentiate from the typical photo shoot interview, and have continuity from the still image portfolio through the video series.

With the Oscar’s coming up, how did you hope to set your portfolio apart from the media frenzy around these subjects
The original concept was to do a day in the life of Oscar, with a photojournalistic approach. Inspired by Paolo Pellegrin’s 2008 portfolio for the New York Times, we wanted each nominee to represent a slice of the day. Obsessed with Pellegrin’s image of Sean Penn making a sandwich in his kitchen, most photo editors and photographers dream of that kind of access, with that caliber of talent. That image gave you a private moment with an actor at the least private of times, awards season. To be able to photograph any of these nominees outside of the Beverly Hilton, or any other Hotel on the awards show conveyer belt is a miracle.

Unlike other publications that produce award season portfolios prior to the nominations, we actually wait till the nominations are out and then have about 2 weeks to produce a concept portfolio during the most hectic time for the talent. I’ll call the PR rep to ask to photograph the talent in a really soulful way that represents who they are as human beings at their home, waking up, brushing their kid’s teeth, hiking, driving, something reminiscent of the old LIFE magazine iconic images. I’ll ask for 5 hours for a photo shoot, video shoot, and interview.

The talent and PR reps are spread so thin during awards season, a possible offer of time would sound something like this:  “We have 10 mins in a corner of a hallway, after The “enter any awards event name here”, after 80 other photographers have photographed them in the same outfit, on the way out the door. You may be able to get them to actually stop for you, but I’m not sure, they have to be at Kimmel by 4:00pm, does that work? ” Not really the part of their soul I was going for, but let me see what we can do.

In all seriousness, the talent’s team is face with a mountain of asks, events and interviews, it’s a tremendous amount to juggle a successful campaign. Then I come along and ask for the most amount of time, and their soul on top of it, I’m the last person they want to hear from.  But in the end, each Talent’s teamwork to make the images happen, you have to respect what they are going through and still try to get close to your ideas.

Was this a multi day shoot?
Two weeks in Los Angeles producing what ended up being a 5 day shoot, with 2 shoots cancelled on top of that. Final outcome–5 image portfolio, 6 videos— 1 baby grand piano, 3 horses, 1 shoot cancelled the morning of, and numerous heart attacks. The only way to get through these types of numbers is with an outstanding team from Peggy, to producers Steve Bauerfeind, Cathy Mele, and numerous PEOPLE editors all-pushing to make this portfolio happen.

What type of direction did give the subjects? Were they characters in the films or themselves? 
I know it sounds cliché, but we really did want the talent to be themselves. It was incredibly important to Peggy to speak with each nominee directly, and ask what he or she really wanted to be doing during the shoot. Peggy is always looking to create an authentic environment that puts talent at ease the moment they arrive on set. Eddie is a great example. While we tried to get him on the phone with Peggy, I had done some research, and read interviews that he had a collection of guitars. We hired prop stylist Phillip Williams to get guitars, and worked on art directing the photo shoot around this premise. We had a tough time getting Eddie on the phone with Peggy, because he was filming in Germany, but they got on the phone the day before the shoot.

By the time I landed in LA, guitars had been nixed, and Eddie had told Peggy how he loved to play the piano. The hunt was on for a piano store, or a piano to be brought to set. The guitars were dropped, a vintage car was cancelled, and baby grand Piano was brought to set. I had a panic attack watching 6 guys carry the baby grand up wood steps to our Mid -Century location house and have it placed on a balcony that, to this day, I have no idea how it supported the piano, the crew, and Eddie. End result, a beautiful moment with Eddie doing something he loved.

What was the creative/video direction for this shoot? Did it all come from the photographer? 
Dunham, Ni Aolin, Ramage and myself really wanted a day in the life of a nominee, with each talent representing a different time of the day. Peggy was adamant that the talent be involved in deciding what those acts were so the image was authentic, and not just coming up with another roll for them to play. To make things a bit more complicated we had a video component that would be a trailer for the portfolio. The trailer would carry a narrative taking the viewer/reader through a full day in LA with each nominee photographed for a different portion of the day.  For example, Morning: Laura Dern with coffee, Afternoon: Keaton, riding his horses, Late Afternoon: Felicity Jones at High Tea, Evening: Eddie playing piano, and then came Late Evening: Hawke and Arquette, who where to be having dinner.

This shoot was a great lesson and a game changer to the portfolio narrative. There are the ideas you come up with in an office in New York and then there is the magic you can never predict that happens on set. It’s because of these rare moments I love my job. Everything with talent at this level is controlled and to get a true moment that’s not contrived is a gift. Both Ethan and Patricia couldn’t get on the phone with Peggy due to their schedules, but in the end, all you really needed was for them to show up. Sometimes you can get so attached to an idea that you miss the magic. On-set, you’re constantly ask yourself—“How will this fit into the narrative, the portfolio, the original concept?” You’ve got Ethan and Patricia, two people that have true chemistry, on location at Santa Barbara’s San Ysidro Ranch, at magic hour, with a master of capturing golden light – Peggy Sirota. When you’ve got all those elements together, your job is done, it’s gorgeous, and you didn’t have to do the photo shoot in a bland hotel hallway. The only problem, only one image can run in the portfolio, great problems to have! Then again, Online, Instagram, and the tablet, have solved that too.

Heidi Volpe

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