This Friday marks another major event in the intergalactic battle between good and evil with the release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” It is the eighth episode of the 40-year Star Wars saga. To stoke anticipation and ticket sales, the cast has been speed dating with the media. The New York Times got 30 minutes last week.
“We thought that meant 30 minutes for my picture,” says celebrity photographer Jesse Dittmar, who was hired by Times photo editor Jolie Ruben to shoot a group portrait of the cast. “But it meant 30 minutes to interview 11 people and take a picture.
“I ended up with two minutes to shoot the group of 11 egos, six of whom were palpably unhelpful, while a peanut gallery of 40 PR reps, individual hair, make-up, and stylists were trying to get their say,” says Dittmar (in the blue shirt, talking to actor Domhnall Gleeson in the BTS photo below).
Planning was key. “I knew there would be elements out of my control,” he says, reeling off the list of unknowns: what the actors would be wearing, what moods they would be in, who else would in the room causing distractions.
Dittmar focused on the things he could control: the set, the lighting, the positioning of the subjects, and the color palette. He researched the actors to get a sense of their personalities, as well as their heights, which he needed to know to plan their positioning. The shoot was to take place at the the Echo Park room in LA’s Intercontinental Hotel. To see the room in advance, Dittmar had to call the hotel and pretend he was interested in renting a conference room. “They showed me the [Echo Park] room and it was gross,” he says.
He rented a 20-foot foldable backdrop, some wooden flooring, and lights, including two Elinchrom octabanks, which served as the primary lights; and 2 Photek softlighters, for additional light on the actors at the extreme ends of the group. Dittmar notes that he invested a significant amount of his own money in travel, assistants and rentals. “Having this in my portfolio is worth so much more than [The Times] was paying me,” he says. “I have an important picture of an important cultural event forever.”
He spent six hours setting up: three hours building the set the night before, and three hours the following morning working on composition and lighting, using his crew as stand-ins for the actors. When the writer finished interviewing, Dittmar actually had 10 minutes with the cast. But getting them into position took eight of those minutes, he says.
Some of the actors didn’t want to stand or sit where Dittmar wanted them to. “You’re trying to charm them into doing what you want,” he says. But that doesn’t always work. “The number one thing is being assertive and confident in what you want to have happen [and] a decisive back-up plan. When someone says, ‘I don’t want to stand there,’ you go, OK, how about here? You pivot, because you don’t have time to argue.”
When he started shooting, his primary concern was getting everyone to look at the camera. “You have to speak loudly, clearly, and decisively. You’re snapping your fingers, saying ‘Hey guys, look at me,’ because when subjects aren’t entirely comfortable, by default you look at the people you are comfortable with”—their handlers, standing behind Dittmar—“to see their reaction,” the photographer says. (Unlike magazine clients, The Times doesn’t allow compositing, so it is critical to get at least one frame with everyone looking at the camera, and nobody blinking.)
To get everyone’s attention, Dittmar used the same technique as he did when shooting the cast of Downton Abbey (read more about that here). One of his tricks is to call on individual actors by name, and ask them to make small adjustments in the positions of their feet, shoulders, or hands. “Make sure you have everyone’s name memorized. That makes a big difference,” Dittmar says. To be able to call on the least-famous actor on the set by name, he says, signals to the entire cast “that you’ve done your homework, and you have a confidence that people respect.”
He says there were four people standing over him “whose sole job was to get the actors out of the room,” so there was no time for indecision. “You’re acting on your instincts and preparation.” Using a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 24-70 lens, Dittmar shot a total of 42 frames. The Times published the portrait on December 8.
Speculation has ensued on Twitter about the pronounced gap that Dittmar left between the actors in the middle of the portrait. “There was some hypothesizing that I left that space for Carrie Fisher,” Dittmar says. Fisher, who has played Princess Leia in every Star Wars movie, died last December.
Asked if the speculation was correct, Dittmar said: “I’m not saying. I think it’s a great theory, and I’m going to let it sit.”
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