Taking a Shot at TIFF
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Taking a Shot at TIFF

The red-carpet experience from the photographer's point of view.

Shooting red-carpet galas is like being in a sardine can wondering why the hell you’re there. Oh right, shooting TIFF celebs. But in many ways, it’s like shooting fish in a too-large barrel: some days you might get a funny smirk or a silly moment; other times, depending on where you’re positioned, you might not get anything decent at all, or you might get a million-dollar shot.

Here’s how it works: photographers receive a daily camera call sheet from TIFF headquarters that announces the different galas and expected attendees. After some review and debate with editors, we trudge our gear down, step stool in hand, to the venue.

If it’s a big name, the trick is to arrive really early to queue up with the other media and photographers. About an hour before the “carpet is locked” we take a position. It gets rather political when it comes to positioning—some of the wire service photogs (Getty, Wireimage, CP, Reuters) want to be first row in the prime spot, while others just want to be somewhere in the first row. Some photogs can be downright nasty to ensure
they get their positioning—even moving others’ gear, which is a major faux pas. It happens, albeit rarely. For the most part, everyone is really good towards each other, as being an ass to one person resonates around the entire group very fast.

Second or third row from a ladder is advantageous for interactions with the fans, but for carpet photography with the branded wall you almost always want to be front and centre for the “money shots.” And that’s where it turns into a giant circus. You see, the majority of the photogs are shooting the arrivals and interaction, and then they suddenly need to shift gears to run over to the red carpet and shoot the talent there. Rinse and repeat. Case in point: when Madonna arrived, her publicist suddenly and without warning took her down the red carpet, forcing 50 photographers crammed into a 20-by-30-foot area to jump all over each other to try to get a single shot. I wasn’t going to bother getting killed in that scrum so I backed off and found a golden opportunity—underneath a photographer’s arm with a long lens. Afterwards we all said to each other, “Wow, surprised nobody broke anything with that one.”

From what I hear from the UK and US photographers at TIFF, we are really tame in comparison to those at Cannes and the Oscars. Apparently if you have a really big strobe system that blocks others from getting a shot, in extreme cases, they will go as far as ripping it off your camera or they’ll harass you until you reconsider why you showed up in the first place. Here at TIFF, a big strobe system only gets a passing sarcastic remark.

For the most part there’s plenty of time to get the shot of each and every star that comes through—any experienced actor knows how to work the photo line, literally looking at every single camera lens from left to right—provided that the official carpet photographer (Wireimage pays to have photogs on the carpet) doesn’t walk into your shot. That usually ends up in a screaming match between the blocker and the blockee. If you miss that opportunity you have time to catch shots both further down the carpet line, when they are interviewing with TV crews—or inside at the opening of the film gala. Sometimes, the action inside during the introductions makes for a better shot as you catch the talent doing something fun or silly that didn’t happen outside. And, interestingly, the wire photographers working the red carpet—the photographers whose sole job is to make income from talent stock sites—are stacking the fan side with other photog friends in hopes of catching a magic moment that we can’t get from our end. They are easy to spot: they’re the guys with the most expensive gear on the fan side.

Oddly, TIFF staff force the media to stay on the red carpet until the carpet is clear, meaning we can’t leave to go to another carpet that might be happening nearby until they say we can leave. Sneaking out is your only choice. So some spend the time filing their shots—particularly if they feature a major actor—from a laptop on site—or reviewing and making selections. In the case of the major wire services (Getty/Wireimage) they literally have a runner, someone to grab the memory card to shuttle it down to a hotel or other location to start edits and get them online immediately for their clients.

Over the course of the week, you gradually spot the autograph hounds, the dedicated fans and the freaks. Some will change shirts between galas to hopefully catch an actor’s glance and win an autograph. Others will just scream like a dying moose or yell until hoarse. It’s funny to watch and also very sad at times when you hear some people’s stories. One girl was relentlessly getting every talent to sign a shirt so she could sell it to raise money for her 16-month-old at home. She arrived upwards of six hours before the gala to be right in front and would stop us photographers hoping she could sell her photographs, or by asking us how much we would pay for a photo of her shirt. It just proves that as fun as this show can be to shoot, it can also be a reminder that vanity is always for sale.