Going against the grain, the on-set photographer of 2019’s Little Women included the use of traditional wet plate photography – also known as tintypes – to capture Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Emma Watson, James Norton and the rest of the production’s cast. It’s not very often that a unit still photographer gets to play on-set work, let alone with a ~160-year-old technique but having fun and experimenting is exactly what Wilson Webb is all about. Why else would you build a wet plate studio – and darkroom – on a movie set?
To answer that question and to fully understand what it took to pull it off, I got in touch with Wilson and chatted to him about learning wet plate photography, the process and how a 19th-century photographic technology fit into his day job documenting Little Women 2019 with 21st-century digital cameras.
Before that, here’s a little taste of the BTS photos that follow, along with some quick background on unit stills photography…
What is a unit still photographer?
Motion picture (and TV) productions will typically have a dedicated stills photographer on set to capture behind the scenes antics, promotional images and document the production process. Stills typically include sets, wardrobe, backgrounds and locations to create a record of the production. They often include photographs taken between and during takes, helping capturing the essence of the production – both the final result and life on set.
Wilson Webb has been a unit still photographer (amongst other things) for over a decade but has been documenting his work on motion pictures since his first job as a rigger on Disney’s Iron Will (1994). His first official studio film as a still photographer with on Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) and since then, he’s gone on to work on True Grit, Paul, Inherent Vice, Zoolander 2, Baby Driver, Marriage Story and of course, Little Women.
It’s not unheard of for directors to – ahem – try their own hand at still photography, as Rian Johnson’s efforts prove on many of his productions (and those of others). If you were in his position, wouldn’t you do the same?
But that’s not what this article about.
As mentioned above, I managed to carve out a bit of time with Wilson to talk about his work and specifically about his wet plate photography of the cast of 2019’s Little Women. Here we go.
EM: Unit stills photographers are typically 100% digital, so what was the thought process behind using wet plate for your stills work on Little Women?
WW: I’ve always preferred film and always made it part of my constant shooting habits. Aside from my digital gear, on-set I use a Hasselblad XPan and a Mamiya 7ii with black and white film – normally ILFORD HP5 PLUS, FP4 PLUS, Delta 400 and 3200
As soon as Greta (Gerwig) asked me to work on Little Women, the idea of shooting with a period process came to mind.
I hadn’t really jumped in with wet plate photography until then but I knew that the potential for unique images, as well as the chance to really push my comfort zone, was possible.
EM: You’re obviously a fan of wet plate photography and the process. How long did it take between conceiving the idea of shooting the cast using the medium and completing your first sitting with them?
WW: I had a pretty short time — after the studio approved the idea — to get all the parts together before I had to shoot the cast… maybe 4 weeks? There was a lot to bring together, as well as a steep learning curve to understand how it all works. There was getting all the chemicals, figuring out the lighting (which I only had a small amount of) and how much was needed.
I also needed to fit an ultra-large lens to the 8×10 Intrepid camera and had to figure out how to support such a large amount of weight on a camera that was made for being lightweight. All that without mentioning setting up a darkroom in the middle of a sound-stage and learning the entire process.
EM: How was the interaction on this shoot different from your “normal” still on-set photography? Did it change when they realised this wasn’t an ordinary shoot?
WW: It was about as different as possible. On-set I’m shooting almost documentary style and with the wet plates, I pre-arranged some small sets, the lighting, a temporary darkroom, and all the parts needed to make it happen.
I also directed the actors a small bit and walked them thru a short history of the process as well as all the steps.
EM: Can you talk a bit about the learning experience and the time pressures you were under?
WW: It was a steep learning curve with very little room for mistakes. I spent a lot of my free time testing, reading, thinking and hoping that everything would work. There are always mistakes, but luckily none of them were detrimental to the final outcome.
The pressure to have my set-up ready at any time (over a week) and to switch from shooting on-set to shooting individual wet-plate portraits at the drop of a hat was great. It was also difficult as I was doing all the work myself.
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Sometimes I would have an assistant to help with the easy bits but I didn’t have someone all the time. I used an Intrepid 8×10 view camera and I custom made a lens mount in order to attach a 139-year-old Dallmeyer 3B 11″ (292mm) f/3 brass Petzval lens. The lens, made in London by J.H. Dallmeyer in 1881 is a piece of art all by itself.
I set up lighting and a temporary darkroom on the side of a sound stage where we were going to be shooting interiors of the March household. I had to start a week early, so I’d go to the studio after working on location and set up. When the entire shooting crew got to the studio I had to be ready with any given notice to shoot the actors. The time that I had with each actor varied from 10-20 mins.
I suppose that having a full-time assistant would have helped me a lot. My normal assistant wasn’t available and I was worried that I wouldn’t have the time to train another in on such short notice.
Choosing a favourite from the shoot is a tough one. I suppose that I really like the ones that have props along with the actors. I was reaching for the idea that each character would be surrounded by objects that relate to their character. I quickly learned that at f/3 on an 8×10 plate, those details were lost unless they were very close to being on the focus plane.
Part of what I like about the real period wet-plates (I have a collection of several hundred) is the studios, lighting and props that were used. Of course, the people and their clothing are also often amazing. So, even though they didn’t all turn out as 100% I envisioned, they still work well.
EM: OK, so gear. I’d love to geek out a bit. Tell me about your film cameras (outside of wet plate). Which ones do you lean towards when you need to make sure you nail the shot for work, and which ones do you use when you’re shooting for yourself?
WW: Nikon Z7, Nikon D850, Nikon D5 are my digital cameras. I always have a Hasselblad XPan and a Mamiya 7ii with me as well, and often a few other weird film cameras around depending on my mood.
The XPan is my favorite and I have thousands of images taken with that (mostly on film sets) that rarely make the light of day, partly for their form and partly because I only shoot black and white film stock. Assouline recently put out a beautiful book for Marriage Story which incorporates a lot of my film work.
EM: I’m a genie (bear with me) and give you the following opportunities. What do you do? (1) A 1-hour portrait session of anyone dead or alive. Who would you choose? (2) You can document a past or future movie, what would it be and what camera/film would you bring? (3) You get to keep an item from a set you’ve worked on. What would it be and why?
WW: OK. Well…
(1) is a loaded question, as I could give you 100 answers in mere seconds. I guess the first two humans that came to mind are Nikola Tesla (the genius only had a handful of good photos taken of himself) and Prince. I had one opportunity to shoot him but was busy at the time. I worked with him on a handful of videos but I was an electrician at the time and was only able to take a few photos undercover.
(2) Oh…probably Gremlins 2, just kidding! Maybe Harold and Maude with my XPan!
For (3) probably a Rick Baker mask from Men in Black 3 because I got into the film business thru special effects and because Rick’s work is amazing!
A huge thanks to Wilson for being so generous with his time over the past couple of days. It was a real pleasure.
There are few movie sets where the idea of using wet plate photography to capture the cast – or anything else for that matter – would work. Given the period setting of Little Women, it’s a perfect match. Also, hats off to Colombia Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment for going with the flow on this one (and thanks to SPE for sending over the photos used in this article 🙏).
The results – and the reaction to them are fantastic.
I should also add that if it wasn’t for Wilson Webb’s presence of mind to consider the use of wet plate photography in the first place, none of this would likely have happened. Let’s hope some of his creativity and sense of fun rubs off on his contemporaries. I’d love to see more in the way of traditional photographic methods being employed on-set in the future…and not just because I’m a massive film nerd.
Thanks for reading.