Ythe plot of our movie needs to move forward, perhaps, or a close connection between the characters needs to be revealed. Perhaps our hero just needs a moment to cry. Time for a close-up of a beautifully framed photograph. A simple shot, you would think, but no. There are so many examples of terribly edited photos that movie buff Justin Gerber went viral with a Twitter. thread of failed footage you saw in a single year, spanning three decades of filmmaking from 1990’s The Amityville Curse to this year’s The Adam Project.
Gerber found portraits on film in which the faces did not match their heads, the body parts were out of proportion, the lighting was inconsistent, and the backgrounds were blatantly false. This phenomenon appeared again and again, regardless of the genre of the movies, the release date or the scale of production. But why had such ill-formed images been left for all to see?
“It’s kind of a nightmare sometimes,” says assistant art director Seth Rutledge of the process of putting those photos together. “The scripts are written without having any idea of what exists or not.” Rutledge has worked on several notable TV shows in recent years, from Snowpiercer to Batwoman to Supergirl, and is currently in charge of scouting for a Disney+ teen romance movie. That means creating lots of phone selfies and family photos designed to dot the characters’ homes.
“I mostly do sets and locations, which is how I get involved in doing these Photoshop shots of people in the backgrounds,” he says. “Often the art department will need something and say, ‘Hey, can you do this background image of this guy’s kids that we never see on TV?'”
If the script calls for a cozy shot of two characters embracing, Rutledge has to make that happen. The obvious solution is to organize a photo session with the actors, but you have to take into account conflicting schedules. If the actors are unable to arrive on set at the same time during pre-production, they will be asked to submit portraits of themselves that can be joined. But this doesn’t always go as planned either. Veteran art director Dan Yarhi says, “You ask them for pictures and then his agent sends you headshots of the actor. It’s like, ‘No, you’re supposed to play a homeless man!’”
Yarhi has been working in film and television art departments since the early 1970s and his team was responsible for the framed photos that appeared in 2012’s Resident Evil: Retribution, which appeared in Gerber’s thread as an example of editing. questionable.
“You also have to remember that things happen spontaneously on a set,” says Yarhi. “They do a camera lock first thing in the morning, and then sometimes I come back in the afternoon, and they’ve changed the scenery and now they’re pointing in another direction.”
This can cause a headache. Imagine setting up a photo frame designed to stay out of focus on a distant shelf, then lifted by an impromptu actor while the camera is rolling. The photo just went from being a stage prop to an action prop with nowhere to hide.
Before 4K quality came along, people didn’t really realize this. We now have HDTV that any keen viewer can pause and inspect, so the little cracks in production stand out like dry ravines, and the film industry has had to adapt. “Until the early 2000s, nobody cared, and gradually over time it’s becoming more of a problem,” says Rutledge.
But he wants to make something clear: this is not the result of lazy or uninspired work. “Everyone I’ve seen work on these things really cares, they want to do the best they can,” she says. “When these things happen, it’s because no one had the time or the resources to do it right, and someone probably feels bad about it.”
“It’s amazing for the dollar,” says Yarhi. “It’s, ‘Where are you going to put the money where it’s worth it?’” And for many productions, prop images just aren’t top priority.
“Remember they are called movies and they are designed to be viewed on a big screen, not stopped and zoomed in on. I will remind you that the Mona Lisa is famous for her smile, not the painting’s dodgy soft-focus background.”