From Photographer to Director: An Interview with Vincent Laforet

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Fresh from his well-received 10-week “Directing Motion Tour,” Vincent Laforet turns his attentions to this year’s PhotoPlus Expo, where he will take part in the brand-new Filmmaking Track. Amid his busy schedule, Laforet was able to find the time to sit down with us to talk about his recent tour, what we can expect from the Filmmaking Track at PhotoPlus, and general thoughts on making the transition from photography to filmmaking.

What are some of the lasting impressions you took away from your Directing Motion Tour?

The tour wrapped July 13th and, I have to say, the turnout and response was fantastic—we had around 3,500 people attend. My best takeaway from it was that everyone seemed to get something out of it, including me. It was like a transaction where everyone came out on top. They learned a lot, and I learned a lot, too. It was a great experience. What I learned is that there is a tremendous hunger for this stuff.

What was the experience level for those who attended?

I had people from Pixar and ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] attend who have 20 to 30 years of experience. Not as many people who were just beginning, but some. I’d say most people who came had some idea of where they were and what they were doing. But it was a wide range and what I was proud of, as a teacher, is that I was able to keep the ILM guys interested as well as the people who were relatively new. The challenge for any teacher is that you’re going to have a wide range of skill levels in your class. Your job is to try and make it interesting for people of all levels. If you make for just one level, then everyone else gets upset. It’s a fine balance.

Have you made any of the content available digitally?

We videotaped the entire thing and anyone can go to Directing Motion site and download the entire workshop. It’s obviously not the same as going in person, but the content is all there. It’s in 1080p and you can watch it at your leisure and re-watch it. Most of the people who went ended up downloading it to be able to re-watch, because there are several hours’ worth of content, which can be a lot to absorb in one sitting.

Let’s shift gears now to PhotoPlus: what has been your relationship with PhotoPlus over the years?

I’ve been going since I can remember; from my time as a New York Times photographer, to being an independent or contract photographer, to a commercial photographer, all the way through Reverie and eventually now, as a director. It’s one of the few events I go to every year. And a lot of it is social. A lot of my friends come here from all over the world.

What can you tell us about the Filmmaker’s Track?

This is their first year doing it. It’s interesting in that they’re trying to acknowledge the fact that motion has become a much more important part of visual communication, and trying to enable photographers to discover the world of motion through different events they’re putting on. Because it’s the first time doing it, it’s going to be as big a surprise for me as it will be for everyone else.

What will your role be?

I’m doing two things: First, I’m on the panel [that will be] discussing making the transition from photography to filmmaking. Second, I’m giving a lecture on the entire commercial process, where I will walk people through the Nike Flyknit spot I did from start to finish. Another big surprise from my Directing Motion Tour this year was how people reacted to that. It was my least favorite thing to talk about, because I don’t like talking about myself, but a lot of people said it was their favorite part of the workshop.

Can you describe the lecture in more detail?

Basically, I’m giving an in-depth look into the process on what it’s like to be a commercial director and how 5% of your time is spent actually directing on set, and 90% is spent on prep: the meetings, the casting, scouting, diagramming, shot listing, camera testing, conferences calls, meetings, excel spreadsheets... When people see that, it’s kind of eye-opening for them. When you see directors on set, you’re like, “I can do that.” You see Martin Scorsese sitting there with headphones or watching a TV and you’re like, “Ah, that’s the easiest job in the world.” Well, that’s because he’s already done most of the work before he even set foot on set.

What do you want people to take away from the lecture?

I like it when I give these workshops and people at the end of it say, “Thank you for showing me that, because you’ve saved me a lot of time. I realize I don’t want to do this,” or “It’s not what I thought it was.” And other people say, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and this is exactly what I want to do.” It’s good to lay it all out there honestly, not in a sugar-coated way. No one really shows you the whole commercial directing process; at least not that I’ve seen. You see filmmakers sometimes talk about their process, but it’s always very high-level: the story, the arc, the actors, the big thoughts… very theoretical. They never get into the nitty-gritty of it, probably because they think that it’s not as interesting. I disagree. I think it’s highly interesting. I would love to see any director’s process from start to finish. You find that people are thrown into these directing jobs without exposure to that.

Have HDSLRs and mirrorless hybrid cameras made it easier than ever for photographers to make the transition to filmmaking?

I use to tell people that I know that we’re all excited about video now that we can shoot it. It was new to us, but don’t be foolish and forget the fact that it’s been around as long, if not longer, than still photography. But I think that the motion world and the still world are still very much separated. They’re very different beasts that require very different types of people. Just because you’re a great photographer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to do well or enjoy the directing world. It’s a very different process. In motion, you’re working with multitudes of people in a very structured and stratified system. It’s not picking up your camera, running out, and shooting whatever you see. Some photographers who are more reactive like that are going to have a harder time making the transition than commercial photographers who are very precise, planned, and used to working with large groups and clients. It all depends on where you start.

Can you describe your personal transition from being the solo photographer to being a director?

I was ready for it; because I’ve been surrounded by film my whole life. I was on film sets before I ever picked up a camera. So, literally, my first memory is being on a film set when I was five years old. I’ve been on the set of Bertolucci and Richard Donner films when I was a kid, so I always knew what that world was. I also got bored of working by myself as a still photographer. I always enjoyed the interaction with other people, but I never really worked as part of a large group until I started going more into commercial photography. It gets boring to be by yourself, you know? I had a great assignment for National Geographic where it was just me and my assistant and we went for three weeks together. And it’s tough to be with someone for three weeks, doing the same thing every day. It was a wonderful assignment, but I knew then that I needed to work with 30 people or 100 people and see where that would lead me.

Has your experience as a photographer influenced your filmmaking style?

Sure. The way I saw, the way I framed, light, color, geometry, all of that. But you realize that is only a part of the filmmaking processes. It’s as important as sound, but not necessarily more. They are so many layers to filmmaking.

So at this stage in your personal career, do you call yourself a photographer, a director, or both?

Director. I was a director of photography for a while, but I didn’t like the fact that I could only have a say on the visuals. I still love photography, but I don’t think I have the right to call myself a photographer anymore, as I think I’ve shot three jobs in the past three years. That doesn’t count. Unlike most people today who buy a camera and call themselves a photographer or DP overnight, I think whatever you call yourself should be your main way of making a living. I’m still a photographer, I’ve still won a bunch of prizes and worked with a lot of big publications, but I don’t get hired as that anymore. Not by choice, by the way. People say, “Oh, you’re a director now. You don’t do this.” And I’m like, “Yes I do.” That’s just the way the business goes, and people should be ready for that.

Do you have any advice for the photographer looking to get into directing?

First, that it’s impossible to just walk onto a set. The thing I’d like to see a lot more of is collaboration among photographers and artists. There’s a trend these days for new filmmakers to go for the grand slam home run, where they are going to pull in every favor in the book and max out their credit cards to make their "one great film," as opposed to practicing their craft and working on little things that are fun and educational. Projects where there isn’t this intense financial pressure, and that is where current technology can fill the void and help people do that. That’s what’s needed, as far as I’m concerned—a lot more collaboration, experimentation, and not this all-or-nothing mentality.

Second, to know your role. This society and this generation have become obsessed with gear unlike ever before. I think these people would be much better served as DPs, operators, or technicians because you can be gear-obsessed and know that gear inside and out and make yourself useful to other people who have a vision. I think the disconnect is that a lot of people get the gear and think they’re directors… but they’re not. It doesn’t mean you can’t be; it’s just that directing isn’t ultimately about the gear. People seem to forget that. It’s the same way that lots of writers write their scripts and want to direct them. You’re a good writer; let a good director execute this. Some writers are also fantastic directors, but there’s this desire among new filmmakers to do everything—the one man band. But that’s not what filmmaking is about; it’s always been and always will be a collaborative process.