“…earlier in my career turned down the original Star Wars’ movie…” explains Motion Picture Stills Photographer David James. “George Lucas and I talked about that many years later, he actually admired me for making that decision.” David James–who was tasked to capture the behind the scenes happenings on both Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. While being a movie stills photographer is a pretty difficult job, it becomes even more of a challenge when it happens to be on the sets of space operas that take place “in a galaxy far, far away,” where every minute detail is shrouded in secrecy until all is revealed on premiere day. Aside from over a half a century in the industry, David helped found the Society of Motion Picture Stills Photographers (SMPSP), serving as one of the organization’s past presidents, and was bestowed the Still Photographer Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Camera Operators in 2011. In time for Star Wars Day, we talked to David about his experiences working on the sets of both Star Wars sequels, how he entered the world of still photography, his experiences working on some of the most prominent Hollywood blockbusters, and what fuels his creative impulse.
“A girl answered the phone, ‘This is the MGM Still Photo Department, can I help you?’ I started at MGM the following week.”
Phoblographer: With more than a hundred Still Photographer credits under your belt, your prolific career has spanned almost 60 years. Where and how did you get your start as a still photographer?
David James: I was inspired to become a Movie Still Photographer from the age of 10. MGM filmed outside my school for one day, I took so many bathroom breaks that day just to watch. I was fascinated by the Still Photographer covering the set. I was already into photography with my small box camera. I quit school at 15 and started pestering all the studio photo departments, especially MGM. They responded to my wishes by informing me that I had to be a member of the union first, the Union then informed me that I had to have a job first. Closed Doors.
At that time I had an uncle who owned a pub, I was in there on a Friday night looking very glum with a final rejection letter from MGM in front of me. An older gent sitting next to me wanted to know why I looked so miserable, I related my sad story to him. He said “Look kid, (I was almost 16) at my age I may have more wisdom and ideas than you, so, let me think about it over the weekend, see if maybe, I can come up with any ideas,” he gave me his number and suggested I call on Monday–after all, what did I have to lose.
Monday came around after a very miserable weekend, I made the call, as he said. What did I have to lose?
A girl answered the phone, “This is the MGM Still Photo Department, can I help you?” I started at MGM the following week.
Phoblographer: Some of your most recent works include serving as the still photographer for both Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. What was it like being tasked with capturing the behind the scene moments of one of the most culturally significant franchises in cinema history?
David: Shooting on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” under the leadership of JJ Abrams was a once in a lifetime amazing assignment. I loved every minute of that shoot. I, earlier in my career turned down the original Star Wars’ movie–too many things were going to be in the movie that I would never see on the set.
George Lucas and I talked about that many years later, he actually admired me for making that decision.
Phoblographer: What were some of your most memorable moments working on the sets of the Star Wars sequels? Which photographs from each film stand out as your favorites?
David: ‘The Force Awakens’ was my favorite and my one of my favorite shots was one that JJ and I planned at the first read through, also the first time the whole cast came together, JJ and I set up a circle of couches on a stage at Pinewood Studios the night before, the read through started, I perched myself on a very high ladder and waited for the magical moment when the cast’s heads were in the right angle and BINGO!! That shot went viral around the world.
“Always be unobtrusive, never wear bright clothing…like waving a flag and shouting “HERE I AM”. Your goal is to record an event, sometimes liken it to being a street photographer looking for that moment in someone’s history.”
Phoblographer: Who was your favorite character to photograph? Did you ever find yourself magnetically gravitating towards one or another?
David: All of the characters were magical, I had worked with Harrison Ford before, always a pleasure. John Boyega and Daisy Riddley were lovely and put everything they had into this movie. They were on a learning curve and it was a pleasure to watch them mature as their characters.
Phoblographer: In addition to your work on the recent Star Wars sequels, you’ve also worked with some rather big names throughout your career (Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, David Bowie, to name a few). Some directors and actors find it very distracting to have more than one camera on set, drawing their attention away from the primary cinema camera. What are some of the things that you always try to be mindful of when working on set with such high profile subjects?
David: It all depends on how you handle people, stars, directors, crew, it doesn’t matter. Always be unobtrusive, never wear bright clothing…like waving a flag and shouting “HERE I AM”. Your goal is to record an event, sometimes liken it to being a street photographer looking for that moment in someone’s history.
Phoblographer: How much of your still photography work leans towards genuine candid moments on set, and how often do you find yourself having to stage particular shots with the talents on set while the cinema cameras aren’t rolling? Has the ratio changed throughout the years?
David: Most of your day is recording the making of a movie, you capture the best moments as they happen. There will always be the time when, for different circumstances, you have to set up a shot and the more forewarning you can give the AD or director the better. Most important in those moments..you don’t waffle…know what you want and be positive about it.
Phoblographer: Do you introduce yourself to the cast and crew, or prefer to blend into the background and capture what you need to without alerting anyone?
David: Of course you must, only the Paparazzi don’t. You do not need security chucking you off the set. You are there to do an important job…you better make sure everyone knows who you are and why you are there.
Phoblographer: In your opinion, what photographers have had the most profound influences on your work?
David: Robert Capa, Cartier Bresson, Avedon.
Phoblographer: Over the years, what has helped you keep your creativity alive and hone your photographic eye throughout your extensive career?
David: The beauty of movies, they are never alike, every day is a different day with different challenges.
Phoblographer: When you were first getting started in your career as a still photographer, what equipment did you use? What’s in your kit these days?
David: My first camera box had two Rollies and a 4×5. Now it’s two Fuji XTs and a Leica 242.
Phoblographer: Do you have any rituals that you always partake in prior to going into a project?
David: Research, I read and looked at everything Robert Capa said and shot on wars to cover “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” Roman Visniak for “Schindlers List.” Research is a wonderful tool.
Phoblographer: Besides photography, what are some of your other interests?
David: Fly Fishing, trout tend to live in beauty, and golf courses especially where I live are beautiful places to hang in for a few hours.
Phoblographer: What suggestions would you share with photographers that are interested in pursuing still photography as a career?
David: Follow your heart and your dreams and never forget: no one makes a movie on their own–takes a lot of people with a lot of talent.
A massive, heartfelt thank you to photographer David James for taking time out of his incredibly busy schedule to share his experiences with us, and special thanks to Nicole LaCoursiere, Digital Image Archivist at Lucasfilm Ltd, along with the legal team at Lucasfilm Ltd for their assistance with the images accompanying this interview.
All images used with permission from LucasFilms.