Digital Photo Imaging in Movie Advertising

An intimate history of digital photo imaging by a film-industry photographer – The famous “Silence of the Lambs Moth” and other stories –

Digital Photo Imaging: 20 Years of Experience

A professional photographer for 35 years, my experience in straight photography is comparable to that in digital imaging/imaging. As a photographer who has witnessed the industry undergo dramatic and profound changes due to the advent of digital technology, I can uniquely describe how digital photography and digital imaging have evolved over the past 20 years.

Prior to this, I was primarily an amateur still photographer. I earned my income by photographing products and live models to illustrate a service or product for my clients.

Emerging Technology — A New Demand in the Movie Industry

Home Movie Rental was a boom for me personally. The demand for video box images was high, and home movie studios demanded them all. So that there were plenty of entertainment choices, they needed images for each movie they owned rights to.

After establishing myself in home video, my next move was to film photos for theatrical releases. These posters were very well-known and won awards.

Famous Moth Over Jodie Foster’s Lips In Silence of the Lambs

One of my first assignments was the easiest movie poster job, and it earned me the most praise. This was Joe Foster’s moth that was hovering over Joe Foster’s mouth in Silence of the Lambs. I photographed the moth. I was given the moth by the studio in a small box. I pointed my camera at it and took a photo. Simple.

It is interesting to note that this image was composed of nude humans kneeling in positions that formed a skull-like image that served as the head of the moth. This hints at the horrifying nature of the film. Salvador Dali’s death head was also a tribute to him. However, the nudes couldn’t be used because the MPA (studio rating board) wouldn’t allow nudes to be displayed on movie posters (even though they were so small as to be invisible). To preserve modesty, the bodysuits were instead retouched onto nude figures.

Photographs of the body double

This was a popular niche from the ’80s through the early ’90s. Around ninety per cent (or so) of promotional materials and movie posters featuring actor likenesses contain body doubles with the heads added later.

The film’s stars were usually on-site for the next movie or unavailable for studio advertising campaigns. I used stills from the movie shoot to create action shots, poster images, and artistic composites. These posters are some of my most memorable.

Digital imaging has opened up new possibilities for movie poster/video box creation. An artistic rendering of an idea that required the actors to appear to be sitting on top of each other, three-man high, was one of my first body double projects. I solved the problem by having the body doubles lie on the studio floor, then arranging them, so they appeared to be on top of one another’s shoulders. Then, I shot them from above. After the fact, Photoshop was used to add the heads of the actors.

Actors could remove images if they had likeness approval. Some artworks, such as this one, were not used… but I still received my money.

Angelina Jolie’s action photos for the Tomb Raider movie poster/promotional materials series presented a unique challenge. Stars have the approval of likeness, so it is difficult to find a body that looks better than the actor. This was impossible in her case. Frankenstein-style, we put together a kickboxing model’s legs, torso, and arms. We also used Angie’s real breasts for the first Tomb Raider billboard picture.

Interesting aside: I used digital photography for the images of the arms and legs of the body doubles. Ms Jolie’s parts, however, were taken with regular analogue film during the film shoot. To match the film parts of the image, a certain amount of noise or graininess had to be added to digital parts. It was agreed that digital would be used to capture future stills from movie shoots.

These stories, along with many others, tell the story of digital photography’s first application in highly specialized print advertising fields such as the movie industry.

Lee Varis, who has been working in photography for more than 35 years, is well-known for his Hollywood movie posters as well as video covers. Lee Varis’s innovative imaging has been featured in National Geographic, Fortune, and many trade publications, including Photo-Electronic Imaging and Studio Photography, Rangefinder Magazine and Photo District News, as well as Mac Art & Design and Mac Art & Design.