Tales of Babylon

  • Neil Buchan Grant

A lockdown inspired mini-change of career

Lockdown was for me, like many others, a catalyst for change. Along with half the country it seems, I bought a bigger television and became a prolific consumer of ‘content’. I’d always been a movie fan but the explosion in quality streaming not only filled in the hours but sparked my imagination. After an award-winning career making travel and portrait photography I decided to retrain to become a unit stills photographer with the help of Nicola Dove who shot stills on, amongst many others, “No Time to Die”. I finished her intensive 3 month program (Film Stills Academy) in January '22 and immediately started a campaign of emails, writing to many production companies. In February I started shooting stills on the 1st of 5 short films being filmed locally. They were hard work but a lot of fun, working with enthusiastic film production students from the local university.
My feverish emailing eventually paid off and in April I started shooting unit stills on my first feature film, Tales of Babylon, an action packed crime thriller by Ealing Productions. Filmed across many areas of London over 1 month, this was a well prepared, professional production with some serious talent both behind and in front of the camera. Early starts and late finishes were standard but strangely, it really didn’t seem like work at all and the training I had been given meant that from day one, I at least looked like I knew what I was doing. The challenge of getting the kind of shots a producer needs to publicise a film, whilst at the same time respecting the boundaries of other crew and cast members, was considerable. But it was a challenge I came to relish from dawn till dusk every day.
Lots of people think the role of ‘stills photographer’ is all about BTS (behind the scenes)… taking pictures of crew and cast members grinning and holding up an assortment of fingers. Nicola showed me how that work, as important as BTS is, is dwarfed by the need for photography that reflects the tone of the film and tells the story of each scene, in a single frame. Most stills are used for publicity, shared to social media, print media and used to enter festivals and secure distribution agreements. In short, stills sell films.
The experience of working on my first feature film was a truly memorable one. The locations we worked in were sometimes quite spectacular. The actors’ talent was a joy to witness at such close quarters. As much as I enjoyed interacting with the crew and cast and watching their impressive teamwork, I also really enjoyed the unique and slightly separate space that the stills photographer occupies. Stills do not contribute to the creation of the film, but their work is essential in generating the publicity most films need to succeed. I love the fact that the work often places me right there, in amongst the action, but also necessitates that I stay as invisible and as silent as possible. Having come to this photographic niche quite late in my career, its safe to say I’m totally hooked and it is all I want to do from now on.