Right now there are so many important and historic events happening in our country and our communities. The Black Lives Matter movement changing how blacks have been mistreated throughout history, COVID-19, record unemployment, home schooling, Zoom Meetings, and face to face isolation.
On February 24 2020 just before the public officially became aware of the novel coronavirus, a collection of artists of all genres gathered to create the Hillbarn Theatre’s 2020 Season Brochure. I need to rewind this story five years prior to that date. Tracy and I work with many theatres and performance venues in the Western United States. After having helped in creating season brochures and publicity collateral for theatres ranging from pre-Broadway houses to community theatres, August Laguio and I became restless with the look of theatre publicity imagery. August is one of the most accomplished graphic designers I have ever worked with and was responsible for so much of the marketing collateral our clients used.
We spoke to the marketing staff of all the theatres who were clients, “Hey we would like to try a new approach to how theatre presents itself to the public, a photo centric approach, not heavy with graphics and not using traditional show graphics titling.” Well what has always been done is a very difficult mindset to overcome, especially when theatres feel their income may suffer. Or they feel their season subscriber base would not take a liking to something new.
In 2006 before ever dreaming of becoming a commercial photographer I had the opportunity to spend time with Annie Leibovitz. She was on a tour for her book A Photographer’s Life and a friend arranged time for me to meet with her. “Annie, how can I learn to shoot like you?” Her reply “Mark, don’t attempt to shoot like me, strive to shoot like Mark. And one day I will look at your work and wonder why I didn’t ask you the very same question.” What she taught me in the time we spent together was not about camera gear. It was about concepts, storytelling and feeling.
So in late 2019 Tracy and I were looking through some of Annie’s work and the delicious nature of a wider shot that enveloped the entire scene of what goes into creating an image struck us both. “Let’s talk to Dan about doing it this way for Hillbarn’s 80th season, their 2020 Season Brochure!” In reality once Tracy and I are both on the same page about an idea, poor Dan didn’t really have a chance. With his typical askance look and a raised eyebrow he simply said “Uh OK I guess we can do that. Yeah it sounds good.” So we were off to the races. Of course Dano had to tell us the season so we could begin formulating a plan.
One of the most delicious elements in Annie’s style of pulled back imagery are the drops. Hand painted canvas background drops. The texture of painted drops is just delicious on film if they’re done correctly. So as Tracy often does, she began her investigation and found out that to purchase a 12’x12’ hand painted drop, averages 1800.00 per drop. Gulp! “We need to raise our prices babe!” was my response. We both agreed that we would need at least four different drops for the session. So what did she do? She researched how hand painted drops are made, what materials are used, where to find them and how they’re painted. Kelly Tighe was instrumental in helping her understand the process of selecting the correct canvas, the paints and the process. He was the first in our epic collaboration to create something very special.
So off to Musson Theatrical we went to buy the canvas, then to a paint shop in Belmont and then to the hardware store for brushes. But where do we paint these? The canvas can either be stretched over a wooden frame we would have to build or….
Stapled to a wooden floor. HEY Hillbarn’s greenroom has a wooden floor! So as luck would have it that area was clear during the times we’d need to occupy the space. So for days and nights Tracy painted, sprayed and rolled the canvases. Of course I was there for moral support as I napped in one of the prop chairs left in the room.
Dan informed us of Hillbarn’s 80th Season lineup:
- The Sound of Music
- A Chorus Line
- Shakespeare In Love
- The Producers
Now came the task of how to light each of the shows. Not many people know this because I don’t say, but with light and imagery I smell and taste when the shot is the right one; delicious, LITERALLY. For those who have worked with me they are accustomed to when I say I got the shot and I never even look at my camera. Sure all of the images go to my iPad, but it’s because I can taste when the shot is right that I know I got the shot. Weirdo? Yep, but it works for me.
Dan Demers the Artistic Director of Hillbarn Theatre had these thoughts:
“It’s always a challenge to think beyond the last brochure you create. Creatively you have to stretch yourself; you have to push beyond the uncomfortable beyond the safe looks. The honest reason I’m able to do that more easily now is because of the partnerships, friendships and trust I have with Mark and Tracy. So when both of them came to me with this idea I knew it was going to be powerful and I could see it in my mind instantly.
But how could I make this shoot rise to the idea of it. I knew I had to reach out to some amazing creative people and ask them for help. Together I shared the concept with them and they quickly starting to see if for themselves. But I was missing something…
You see every year Mark, Tracy and I sit down and talk about the emotion or feeling behind the shoots or brochure, and it is one of my favorite days. It usually starts with an idea that has been stirring in me, then when we sit down and talk about it, Mark takes it an begins to cook up ideas or images, and usually ends with a ‘damn you, now I can’t stop thinking about it.’ This time the tables were turned. It was me who was constantly thinking about the concept. I knew we had to do more, so with this amazing group of creative people we started to craft actual scenes for each show. Pulling props, period costumes, small set pieces and using the full theater space. This creation would only enhance the beauty of the concept and idea of our 80th Anniversary season brochure. I could not wait to see the pictures, the models, and the scenes we had all created to evoke the emotion of each show.”
So on the day of the shoot, Tracy is filming and I’m shooting. My primary job is to keep the energy HIGH throughout the day. What does that mean? It means that when each of the talent arrives and begins to go through makeup, hair, wardrobe, etc. when they get to me I need to show them my energy. I’ve never been the kind of shooter that just snaps my shutter. Nope I like to tell the talent a story of what I’m looking to create. In a way, I’m a director. And if I bore or lose that momentum then I have not done a good job. Smiles need to be genuine; tension needs to be authentic, even in a studio environment. Actors are professionals, but they need direction and that’s what I try to convey. I have concepts in my mind whenever I begin any session, but it’s the organic collaboration that happens during the sessions that creates the true magic.
Being collaborative, directing and encouraging organic development of ideas on set is what makes a shoot successful, memorable and authentic. I’ve always said that a pretty photo without emotion is just a pretty photo. We all strive together to make imagery and our memories of that day magic.
Behind the scenes images in the creation of:
It becomes very evident that our sessions are very serious and boring….LOL!!!
The Sound of Music (not accomplished due to COVID19)
A Chorus Line
Shakespeare In Love
And the final choices for the brochure by show
The Sound of Music – NA
A Chorus Line
Shakespeare In Love
I asked all of the people involved to add any comments if they wished to do so:
“Any smiles shown in the picture were real and not staged, just pure happiness being around amazing people in a warm and welcoming theatre family!!!” – Kylie Abucay, actress
“Thank you for sharing these with us, and we’re honored to have taken part of this experience, despite the current circumstances. Just imagine how strong and amped up we’ll all be when this all subsides! Much love and healthy wishes to you both and your families.” – Christine M. Shulman, actress
“It was almost surreal for me to be included in this photo shoot. As long as I have been Sofia’s mom I have sat in the audience. Enjoying all you very talented thespians from the seats in the second row. I never thought I’d be part of the gang. And then Tracy and Mark thought of me as the perfect Ms Scarlett. Be still my heart. It was amazing to be included.
Growing up in an Irish Catholic school most girls had blonde hair, freckles and blue eyes. I had a ton of dark hair, a unibrow among other unwanted hair, and pretty ethnic. I didn’t feel very pretty. Moments like this, where the way I look is appreciated and never gets old. Thank you Mark and Tracy for liking my look enough to include me as Ms Scarlett! You two and Dan are amazing! We miss you all very much.” – Vicky Costantini
“Walking into the theatre yesterday was like uncovering a time capsule—from before shelter-in-place, before face masks and government mandates to stay six feet apart. Caught in the moment before everything changed, the place feels frozen. The set for Laughter on the 23rd Floor is still in place; the props are pre-set and costumes hang on racks in the green room ready to be returned to storage.
We walked out on March 16 and other than visits for mail pick up, a place that is usually filled with people and projects has been abandoned. Only weeks before we jumped ship we had spent an incredibly creative and collaborative day as part of a collective hive-brain at an 80th Hillbarn Theatre Season brochure photoshoot.
With an understanding of the show characters, limited access to stock costumes and no actor measurements, co-costumer, Melissa and I had preselected outfits. With fingers crossed we hoped the Artistic Director approved ensembles would fit and tell the story.
Over the course of several weeks we’d watched videographer Tracey Martin paint the ombré backdrops; each gradient background is arguably a work of art in itself! It was against these grey’s and sages that the actors would express character with costumes and props aiding in setting time, place and character.
Photoshoot day was one of the best ever. The process was organically synergistic and well beyond the control of any participating individual. The “process” was humming as each member of the creative crew added their layer to the storyline. Editing was rich. No one said no. Creatives love to hear yes and… not yes but. The room reverberated.” – Pam Lampkin, costumer
Hillbarn’s 80th season may not have transpired on stage as planned. But the magic and collaboration of what we all created together is something that deserves sharing. Especially in the times of COVID19, the importance of Black Lives Matter and the changes necessary to make our world what it should have become long ago.
The news about the new coronavirus or COVID-19 constantly surrounds us, permeates our thoughts and constantly and insidiously encourages us to fear. Fear human contact, fear human interaction, fear our normal lives.
Because I photograph the arts – theatre, dance and music, my entire world along with those who I know and cherish has been disrupted like no other time in my memory. The 1963 Kennedy assassination, the AIDS discovery in 1983, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake or September 11 2001 attack.
Businesses were disrupted during those times and rightfully so. But what makes the current climate so different is the fear proliferating in society. Social media as we know it today did not exist in those times. Hoarding of toilet paper or other non-essential items illustrates to me an aspect of humanity for which I’m ashamed. Certainly with any new and unknown virus governments are wise to use an abundance of caution to ensure society is safe. But not to instill fear. Human nature fears all that is unknown.
When society allows fear to supersede all other factors, events like what happened to my own parents and relatives occurs. Place all Japanese American citizens into prison camps (what they termed ‘internment camps’ a bullshit whitewashed name) because of the fear we were all spies and plotting against the United States. FEAR
Today it’s about people avoiding and in some instances being outright hostile to Asians simply because the epidemic began in Wuhan China. FEAR, FEAR and more FEAR can make a nation not only fearful and in the case of COVID-19 isolated. Unlike the prior crises where humans could gather to support, or entertain and soften the blow of a tragedy, the coronavirus and resulting laws prevent those important healing events to occur. Today the answer to ‘stay safe’ is doing all things electronically, something I believe we did too much of even before coronavirus with our “I love me” cell phones.
I believe that precautions should be taken – hand washing (good grief your mother should have taught you that anyway!), sanitation of public places observed, as well as not going to work if you’re ill or suspect you are. But unlike the AIDS epidemic in 1983 which almost certainly meant an ugly and painful death, COVID-19 does not mean the same. Not even close as outlined by a 42 year old woman who got and recovered from the coronavirus.
So as all theatres were ordered to close their doors due to government regulations – Dan, my local client and close friend who is the Artistic Director for the theatre in my hometown let me know that his current show, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” was closing before opening night, the night we had planned on attending the show. As he spoke his voice began to crack and his sadness was palpable through the phone.
After ending the call my partner Tracy said “I’d like to do something for Dan. I can’t donate money to the theatre (we are out of work as a result of all theatres closing), but we can do something else. Let’s film the performance. That way the cast can have all they’ve worked for on film.” So we got in contact with Dan and presented the idea. At first he was unsure of attempting to put on the performance since he had just notified the cast and crew that Opening Night was cancelled as well as the entire run of the show.
After contacting everyone he let us know that it was a go for Opening Night filming. Tracy then mentioned that we would need an audience to have authenticity in the film with laughter and applause. So Dan then contacted friends and family being careful to keep within the limits of what the government set about limiting public gatherings to 100 or less. As people gathered into the theatre and the cast and crew began their performance I had an epiphany. I have and still work with many levels of theatres. Some are professional pre-Broadway shops and some community theatres. As tends to be human nature some pre-Broadway company staff members tend to be a bit snooty when referring to other theatres as ‘a community theatre’ the insinuation being a lower level of performance and professionalism. Lower budgets, less skilled talent, blah blah blah. Lower budgets yes, less skilled is like saying all Japanese fellas are quiet and docile….then you have not met me in person!
My epiphany was realizing that my hometown community theatre put aside fear and allowed us to interact as humans, as common souls. Unlike 9/11, the 89 Quake, the recent Camp Fires where humans support one another by gathering, sharing feelings with eye to eye contact and yes EVEN HUGS, the fear of coronavirus has prevented it. NO ONE at the theatre showed any reticence in exchanging hugs with one another. As a matter of fact, even though theatre folks hug all the time, the ones I gave and received last night were more tight and embraces seemed longer than usual as if we all know that we must band together to endure this crisis. I was never more proud of my community theatre and what it represents in my own life as well as the lives of so many others.
I’m NOT naïve enough to think that a small gathering is going to solve everything. Almost everyone in the theatre last night is out of work. Meaning OUT OF WORK, no paid time off, no paid by employer health benefits, etc. That includes me and my partner. The coronavirus crisis has affected everyone, domestically and internationally. But what I learned last night and will forever cherish is this: Human contact, human face to face interaction conquers fear, the true virus of humanity.
UPDATE November 8 2017
My client has used several of the publicity imagery in and around the greater Seattle area on billboards and bus banners.
My partner Tracy Martin completed and the client has released the film she created for their upcoming fall production of Holiday Inn. The film is a behind the scenes look into the making of the production which includes my publicity photo shoot for the show. This film will be shown nationwide through Fathom Entertainment in movie theaters. In the film you will catch short glimpses of the gear I used which includes xPLOR600, eVOLV200s, Parabolix 35D, Cheetahstand’s Quick Lantern among other items.
My clients have released their season brochures so I can now share the final results along with a short BTS video of the Hillbarn session. All of the images were shot using the Flashpoint Xplor 600 and Evolv 200 line of strobes using various modifiers and gels. All shot with a Pentax 645Z utilizing a 45-85mm MF lens.
For five years I have photographed 5th Avenue Theatre’s High School Musical Awards. Teens from all over are invited to this event and the sheer volume of thousands of teenagers in one building rivals a SpaceX takeoff! Most of the workers wear earplugs…and I’m not joking. My partner is assigned to photograph the event from inside of the house, while I’m assigned the backstage area….my favorite.
Before becoming a full time pro shooter I got into this whole thing to chronicle my daughter’s work as a stage crew member in high school. I had little money while raising two kids, so I went onto eBay and bought myself a Casio point and shoot. As I wandered around the backstage area I came to appreciate the work and passion the ‘crew’ has for putting together a production. Those jobs are far from the glamor of the footlights and follow spots. So because of that I have a real soft spot for the crew and those who make it possible for the talent in front of the curtain to pursue their passions.
The energy and excitement behind the scenes is infectious. I’ve been honored and blessed to be able to move around freely backstage. So many of the people who work BTS I now know having worked with each of them on different shows. One of the most moving things that happened to me that night was when David said to me in such a sincere and warm way “Mark, thank you so much for doing this for us.” I simply said “You’re welcome” but thought to myself that I should be thanking him for being instrumental in my ability to know all of these folks.
So here are some of my favorite photos from backstage during the 2017 HSMA’s. The two shots, one of the group and one of the young man who played in the Music Man were portraits I just had to create backstage. I had brought my one strobe to use prior to the event and at the end of the event. I just HAD to use it to light these kids for a portrait. I know all of the kids who attend the 5th’s HSMA will carry these wonderful memories for the rest of their lives. I know I will too.
For both of these portraits I told the kids “No smiling! Give me ATTITUDE like you give your folks! LOL! And you can tell them when they see the shots the photographer told you to do that.”
My shots often appear in print, but today was special and unusual. On the front page of the Seattle Times, my publicity image for Village Theatre’s 2017-18 Season Brochure appears above the fold. Then two of my publicity shots for 5th Avenue Theatre’s world premier of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion – the Musical appears in the entertainment section. Fun!
In January 2014 I photographed publicity imagery for Village Theatre‘s 2014-15 Season Brochure marketing materials. Some was done against seamless, others done on location. We were able to collaborate with the Company’s principles on concepts and messaging prior to beginning the shoot which made a huge difference in consistent messaging and impact. This was a wonderful experience of complete collaboration.
I’m always surprised how the majority of posts on photography forums focus primarily on ‘gear’ and ‘which is better.’ It’s as if most people are vapor locked on what type of gear they purchase rather than improving their own skills. Yes, we all wish to improve our craft in creating images and gear is a part of that equation, but the amount of effort and discussion seems to focus on the exact opposite of what would improve one’s own creation of photos. If the amount of effort on gear was placed into other areas, ah but I digress….
Like most photographers be they pro or amateur, all of us know the excitement of getting what we think is a great shot and the desire to share it as soon as possible. In this digital age that means displaying your work through some sort of social media or other form of immediate gratification.
But in the commercial photography world, immediate gratification takes a back seat to business needs and NDAs. So much of what we shoot commercially is shot with extended lead times to be of any value. Marketing materials are carefully planned months or in some cases years in advance. As such, once the shots are in the bag it’s up to the client to decide on the imagery’s strategic timing for public release. And because of that we’re not allowed to display those images on our own sites or through social media. And by the time the images are released publicly we’ve been on to other projects for months. Whenever I receive a client’s marketing materials, I’ve often forgot that I shot that session!
I have two separate client sessions in this article. One was for Dallas Symphony Orchestra and another was for Village Theatre’s publicity for Les Miserables.
Dallas Symphony’s Beets Campaign
The photos I display here were taken in July 2013 and released to the public in late Fall of 2013, about four months after I shot the “Beets Campaign” (Beethoven Festival) for Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Performances begin April 28 2014, almost 9 full months from when I originally shot the session.
About two months prior to the shoot, the VP of Marketing along with some of the Marketing staff and I began a conversation about the overall look, feel and messaging they wished to achieve with the imagery. Rather than presenting musician’s in tuxedos playing music, the VP wanted a much more ‘scandalous’ look, one that coincided with the public’s reaction to Beethoven’s music in that actual time period. When written and performed his music was actually quite scandalous to the audience of that time. Music is all about emotion and the VP wanted a reaction to his campaign that would evoke emotion…and boy it certainly did and in a very good way!
We agreed that on location sessions would be much more effective than shooting the talent in front of seamless and then dropping them into graphics treatments. On location (I refer to them as ‘onlo’) is my favorite type of publicity shooting. Why? Well it forces me to be creative in developing the imagery by not counting on graphics folks to make the imagery have production value. The right location with the right lighting has a richness that just can’t quite be replicated with graphics. Well at least that’s my opinion… Plus I have to be both patient and think quickly on my feet about what the client wants and how I will execute it. The client developed Mood Boards and sent them to me so we could begin discussions on exactly the mood we wished to create for the campaign.
Most non pros have the impression that commercial shooters are able to scout locations months or weeks in advance and carefully plan out the angles, lighting and time of day to shoot. For me that happens on rare occasions and when that happens it’s a true luxury. But in this case the VP simply said, “I’d like to shoot it over at the AT&T Center, I like the juxtapose of a modern building combined with period piece costumes we’re using. We can look around at the locations when you get here.” For all of these shots I had about ten minutes to scout each location around the building and then decide how I was going to light them and shoot them. Should I use natural light? Which camera will be the best for this job? If I need more contrast how many negative reflectors should I use? Do I want motion blur in the image, if so should I drag the shutter or use second curtain sync with a Speedlight? What gels if any do I need to match the ambient? Oh I’m shooting in front of windows, how will I place the light/reflectors/etc. so I don’t get reflections or bounce off the windows I don’t want? (No I’m not of the school that all those things can be ‘corrected’ in post. Getting it right in camera is my preferred method) ALL of these decisions are made quickly because we don’t often if ever have the luxury of time. If you’ve never been ‘the talent’ or the art director, try getting IN FRONT of the camera and you’ll see what YOU consider to be a short amount of time while you are making your adjustments can seem like an eternity to your subject.
Four PCB Einsteins used. One beauty dish to camera left, one Einstein to camera right in order to illuminate her hair and two key lights to camera right. Keeping reflections off the windows here was key.
Les Miserables Publicity
This publicity session was what I called my “First Date” with this client for publicity. I had been previously hired by them to shoot production of another performance, but had never been hired to do publicity. The Marketing Director had seen some of my onlo publicity imagery for other clients and thought it would be great to do one for their production of Les Miz. In this case we took a day to drive around the area to look for just the right setting. I knew that the location needed to replicate the script, stone walls, old wooden doors etc. As we drove around the area I found a couple of “OK” locations, but nothing that really floated by boat.
So I made a call to my partner back in the Bay Area. We normally work together, but since we were double booked (when you’re self employed I call that a ‘pretty girl problem!’) she was back home covering another client’s session. I asked her to get on the Web to look for an old church or rock quarry. In about ten minutes she called back and said “All of the churches close to you are modern and won’t do for what you’re looking for. I checked out a rock quarry very close to you on Google Earth. I can’t tell because the view is from their satellite shot straight down, but it looks like a a great possible for you. Here’s the address. Gotta run, heading to the client shoot, good luck.”
So the Marketing Director and I drove over to the rock quarry and I IMMEDIATELY fell in love with the venue. We spoke with the owner and he was more than willing to allow us to shoot there on the date we wanted for a couple of tickets to the performance. He even went on to say that if our date was when they were closed, he’d be happy to come in and open the place up for us.
So on the day of the shoot the weather was projected to be rain. The Marketing Director called me and said “Mark, what do we do if it rains, I’m nervous!?” I simply said, “If you can have three people there with umbrellas you don’t have to worry.” My plan was to have those three stand over my strobes with their umbrellas so that strobes and power packs were protected. I was actually hoping it would rain because I felt it would add to the ambient atmosphere of the shot and I’ve shot with my 1DX in full rain without a problem. On the day of the shoot, it did rain, but only lightly and the cloud cover was PERFECT for the session. For you gear heads I used PCB Einsteins and his Vagabond Mini power packs. Paul’s lighting is my preferred studio strobe equipment.
Being patient means KNOWING your equipment front to back, no matter what type of camera/lighting you’re using. Your client could care less if you’re using a Nikon, Canon, Fuji or other camera or whether you’re a Profoto fan or Uncle Bob’s strobe user. They could care less if you’re a full frame guy or gal, use a cropped sensor or not. The PICTURE tells the story and how well you know how to think on your feet, exhibit creativity on the run, keep the talent engaged and get a photo better than they ever imagined are elements that separate the men from the fan boys!
Whether you shoot for your entire income, are a ‘semi pro’ or just shoot for the pure enjoyment of the craft, be patient. For me that means taking the time to truly know your gear, all of it. Practice, read, experiment and have fun with what you already have. I get as much fun as the next guy when I want to buy something new. But the real difference is how I USE my gear, not what brand it is or its stats. To a client In the commercial world, you’re only as good as your last session. They’ve trusted me with their whole marketing campaign based on my shooting style and consistency in delivering a great product. Practice, know your existing gear and develop a body of work. One great shot leads to a second great shot. The difference between a good or nice shot and a great one is huge. And that comes only through forced patience.
Les Misérables – On Location publicity session, Issaquah, WA for Village Theatre
Mark Kitaoka Photographs has been selected as the production photographer for Teatro ZinZanni’s Costa Mesa production of Love, Chaos & Dinner performed at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, CA
Mark Kitaoka Photographs will be included in an art installation, “Spotlit” at the Gensler Center in San Francisco. Opening reception is July 18 2012