On most commercial photographic shoots, the photographer is the director, leading the talent, focusing the lights, and composing the shots. As such, the photographer bears the burden of creative control. But on a recent commercial shoot, Atlanta-based Fernando Decillis was selected precisely for his ability to create — and thrive — under conditions outside of his control.
For this project, he was asked to shoot stills during a for-broadcast commercial production for Wild Turkey Bourbon featuring Matthew McConaughey as he travels to Kentucky to meet with Jimmy Russell, the longest-tenured active master distiller in the world, and his son Eddie.
“The folks at Wild Turkey came to me a few years ago to be the celebrity spokesman for their brand and their new campaign, and I really liked the idea,” McConaughey explains in the short film. “But the more I thought about it, I said, ‘Look, I want to be more than just the face of the campaign, I want to have my hands in the clay of how we tell the story. And I want to be a part of the whole story, not just the character in it.’”
As McConaughey guides the viewer through the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY with the only father-and-son duo of bourbon master distillers in the world, Fernando was behind the scenes capturing the bond amongst the group.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Fernando was chosen based on the quality of his reportage images on the Selma march.
A creative director at the agency saw a story I shot for The Bitter Southerner on the 50th anniversary of the [1965 civil rights] march from Selma to Montgomery. The story I heard is that he ended up sharing it with the creative team, and they knew it was exactly what they were looking for from a still [photography] perspective.
Those images capture many of the original marchers back in Alabama in 2015 to commemorate the event. In each of them, Fernando manages to make tacit the pride, the sadness, and the anxiety in the face of each participant, presenting the complex legacy of Selma in the fifty years since.
In Lawrenceburg, Fernando again prepared to be a proverbial fly on the wall.
As an advertising photographer, working alongside another production making documentary-style photographs is a special kind of challenge. Besides having to work around another production, there are challenges in shooting stills in a video production — like lighting — that need to be carefully considered. Choosing the right camera could make or break the quality of the images you’d end up with. For this shoot, I chose the Sony Alpha 7R II because I knew we’d be working in dark areas. I needed to have extra fast lenses and a camera with a native ISO that is good for low light.
But the challenges were not merely technical.
Then, there’s the obvious challenge of working around a film crew. When it comes to being the still photographer on a commercial film set, my job is low priority. It’s my job to work around the Director of Photography and camera operators to find my angles. It’s important to stay in harmony with the production. If they know that I’m aware and care what they are doing there, it opens a line of communication — I want to let them know that I’m mindful of what they’re trying to do and create a relationship.
In short Fernando has to be on his toes …
I’m always looking for authentic moments inside of these controlled environments, so long as the talent is on (or near) set, I am shooting. I have to always be ready to see the moment before it even happens, quick on my feet to move to the angle and compose the image.
And then it turned out that being on his toes was especially difficult this time …
The shoots were long days, 12-14 hours on location. The very first shoot I did was at the Wild Turkey property on the Kentucky River. The property is huge, and the shots were at different locations throughout. A couple days before the shoot, I was playing soccer and injured myself. I went to the shoot with a serious ankle sprain. I was supposed to be wearing a brace and using crutches, but I didn’t want the agency to panic when they saw me, so I didn’t. We had a lot of ground to cover, and I didn’t want them to have a reason to think I wasn’t going to be able to keep up.
Luckily, the “creative director and the star of the show” gave him a break.
When we broke for lunch, I hung back and moved slowly towards the lunch area, trying to give my ankle just the tiniest break. As I was walking, a car pulled up to me with the windows down. ‘Hey Fernando,’ in a very familiar voice. ‘You want a ride?’ It was Matthew McConaughey, stopping to pick me up. He had some ideas and shots he wanted to get of his work process. Ultimately, it ended up being a productive ride to lunch — and I also got to rest my ankle.
The final images were a resounding success. They were selected for a more significant role in the campaign, and Fernando knew he had pleased his client.
See more of Fernando Decillis at Fernandodecillis.com.
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