Photograph by Niles White
What did you think when I called you with this assignment?
I thought it was just such a great opportunity. I’ve been on a lot of lots and I’ve shot on a lot of stages, but the idea of pointing the camera at the thing rather someone that’s inside it—in other words, making the location the character and presenting it more from a blue collar perspective was new. For me, that was kind of magical.
How did you approach the project?
I saw it almost as landscape photography. Landscape [photography] is all about the capturing bigness and close-ups. I want to see where I am, but I also want to see the tidbits, the little details that occupy the place, as well. I was treating the lot almost like archeologically, like, here it is.
The lot is physically huge and has decades of history and lore. What was the biggest challenge in capturing that on film?
This was the first time that I have ever shot a big photo-essay feature in color without lighting, just with available light. I’ve never done that before. The reason I did it—because we did have a whole truckload of lights available, I just never pulled them out—was because when I got into the places I felt like they had this really magical feel to them and I thought if I could get that feel without lighting, that would be really great. It’s great to transform with light if your location isn’t great, but for this, I felt the opposite. I felt that I’d be diminishing the locations if I started trying to transform them.
Tell me about shooting the prop hall. I thought that was going to be a huge challenge because it’s so massive. How do you show something that size and make it interesting?
You go to some of the prop houses that are small and the props are really concentrated, so when you photograph them you get amazing landscapes of all sorts of different props that aren’t really related. But the Warner Bros. prop house is so big that there’s all this sameness—there’s rows and rows and rows of chairs, a section that had lamps, a section that had paintings… We had to [move things around] and prop out the prop department so that we represent what was in there in a single frame.
Before you were on this project I saw Stage 16 and thought, “Oh, Dan’s going to make this so gorgeous.” Seeing your image of that space without light is pretty amazing.
When you’re shooting a photo essay or a series of portraits, the first one is the one that informs the rest in the series. You’ve really got to think it through, because you are committing to an aesthetic that has to stay consistent all the way through. We started with the sewing room and made that decision [not to light it], and kept that going.
You live in Texas. When you know you’re coming here to shoot something, do you typically have an idea what it is? Or do you wait and see?
Both. Having done a lot of motion picture theater interiors and a lot of interiors, and architectural stuff, I kind of know the drill.
Did you learn anything about Warner Bros. or the movies that you didn’t know before this project?
Yeah! I always try to learn. One thing I learned is that there’s a scenic department, a background department that exists and is functional. It’s surprising in this day and age since you assume it’s all green-screened. The idea that there’s an active space for that, that they’re doing all that casting and molding and walking in there and smelling that resin. Seeing the individual spaces where people work on specific things—that was really special.