Friday, April 24, 2015

Jessica Lange for American Horror Story

Last November, I received a call to shoot a portrait of Jessica Lange for American Horror Story.  The brief was that they wanted a George Hurrell-style glamour portrait of the actress for use as a prop for the show.  As is often the case in my job, the timeline was short: I received the call on a Tuesday, met with the production designer on Wednesday, shot a test image with a model that evening, and the next day shot the actual portrait, to be retouched and turned in by Friday morning.

To assist me, AHS sent me a reference image:  a 1937 portrait of Carole Lombard shot by Hurrell, which, as a big fan of 1930s and 40s films (and Carole Lombard in particular), I’d been aware of for years.  That seemed to be a good sign.  When I met with the production designer, he ran through what they needed for the show and then dropped the amusing little bomb that Miss Lange herself had actually been photographed by Hurrell – twice.  Then he handed me a printout one of the shots.  No pressure.

Fortunately, I’ve studied Hurrell’s lighting for years, and while I would never profess to approach his level of mastery, I had a pretty good handle on how he achieved what he did.  In fact, a few months before, I had done a portrait of actress Teri Wyble (who guest starred on The Walking Dead last season) in that 1940s glamour style for a movie industry magazine.  When the production staff looked at my website, they had seen that very shot.

 Actress Teri Wyble by Jason Kruppa (2014)

The evening after the meeting, I shot the test with a model friend, made notes on all my settings, and sent the image in to my contacts at AHS.  They approved and we were ready to go.  The shoot was set for 6pm the following day at the show location.

I set up in a smallish red tent where the art department had constructed a black box for the shoot with a raised platform and a painted backdrop.  Around 7pm, Miss Lange got settled in the chair on the platform.  Hair and makeup applied last minute touches, and she looked at me behind the camera and asked – I knew this was coming – “So have you figured out Hurrell’s lighting?”  I read this as a mixture of playful tweaking and genuine curiosity; the production designer and I assured her that we’d studied diagrams of Hurrell’s setups and that what we had in place was pretty similar.  She then told us about one of her shoots with Hurrell, where she lay on her back with her hair spread out and a large beauty dish over her.  She said he showed her the 8x10 negative afterward and recalled that it looked “horrendous.”  “Don’t worry, darling,” she remembered him telling her, “I’ll retouch it and it will look beautiful!”

Jessica Lange by George Hurrell (1981)

Camera on tripod, I got my angle set and worked at directing the actress’s expression and the angle of her body relative to the camera. Half an hour and 24 frames later, we were done. Seeing the expression on Miss Lange’s face, one of the voices out of the shadows behind me declared, “That’s Elsa Mars,” as I clicked the shutter.  We all reviewed the image on my laptop and everyone agreed: that was the shot.

Miss Lange shook my hand and thanked me, and I wished her a good evening before breaking everything down and packing up my car.  Once I got home, I sent the camera RAW image along with a few notes to my retoucher, Pratik Naik.  Ninety minutes later, Pratik sent me the work he had done, and I proceeded to do some additional dodging and burning to create the overall Hurrell mood. Around 2 in the morning, after taking breaks, drinking a lot of coffee, and making some more adjustments, I sent a jpg of the completed image to the AHS people for approval.  The production designer gave me the green light, the AHS staff member who had initially contacted me sent me a gracious text to thank me, and I uploaded the finished high resolution tif.

Jessica Lange by Jason Kruppa (2014)

Later that afternoon, I got a call from the production designer saying that Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator and the person who had suggested the shoot, decided he wanted a different pose and a different wig for the shot.  We needed to reshoot, and I was to stand by until the show’s schedule and Miss Lange’s schedule could be coordinated to make this happen. Unfortunately, because of scheduling conflicts, I was unable to shoot the image that ultimately appeared in the show.  I am, however, grateful to have had the opportunity to make a portrait of Miss Lange in the style of one of my favorite photographers.

Below is a diagram of the lighting setup: three lights, with the hairlight gridded, the background light with a standard reflector, and barn doors on the key light at an oblique angle to the subject, to keep the focus of illumination primarily around her face.

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