The hallmark of a great photographer is the ability to tell a story, whether it be in one frame or a few seconds or minutes of video. In the 1990s when I first began profiling commercial photographers for Communication Arts, the trend was to move from still to moving images. Studio photographers became working directors, shooting compelling television commercials for a range of clients, creating catalogs of work and expanding their set and team requirements. Then that became the norm.
After making the leap in 2009 to being working directors, Northern California-based photographers and directing team Katrine Naleid and Stephen Austin Welch (KN+SAW) have now found themselves coming back full circle by melding still photography with film; but this time they approached the medium in a different way, informed by their experience as directors.
They learned the responsibility that comes from driving the storytelling of TV spots, and discovered how to be leaders during pre-production with their new custodianship of a campaign. They learned how to dig deep to find nuances and backstories, bringing those “higher elements of storytelling and creative inspiration — along with the persuasive tricks we’ve learned in crux agency/client meetings,” Stephen adds.
I asked Katrine and Stephen to talk about this process of bringing what they have learned from countless commercial shoots, back to the realm of still photography. I’m intrigued by how you go from a single frame story to a contextual video story, then back to one shot telling the entire story through character, setting, mood, location, etc.
“I’ve always tried to marry the fine art work with commercial,” Stephen explains. “I have made a career of bridging the two, the emotional landscapes I love to craft with the environmental portraits I love to reveal. This series harmonizes both in a way that is more accessible and stronger in conjunction.” The goal: “Show our storytelling sensibility through filming multiple genres well,” he says, somewhat simplifying their mission.
Katrine adds, “We get into a creative space and free flow. Even when we’re working on location, we’ll get some time away from the set to sit and cultivate ideas. Or we’ll banter script ideas back and forth. A lot of what makes the final edit is through personal life experiences.” She relates one story that sums up their open-minded joyful approach to each job.
Elmers "Let's bond", directed by KN+SAW for SBC Advertising, Columbus, Ohio.
Katrine had longed for a dog and brought home Stella, a goldendoodle puppy before Christmas a few years back. Stephen remembers that she took a photograph of the puppy that he secretly circulated to their friends’ kids, to make a drawing of Stella for Katrine for a present. One of them was a puppy portrait created out of buttons glued on paper that they subsequently used in a commercial spot for Elmer’s during a time lapse sequence. “Things are always happening in real life that we cultivate ideas from and incorporate them directly into our lifestyle shoots,” Katrine says. Stephen adds, “Even if I have an idea that I think is fully formed, I always take it to Katrine, who always makes it better and stronger. Instead of us going at things alone, we welcome each other’s input.”
Directing spots for Burger King as well as documentary shorts for clients like Fund For Teachers keeps them creatively engaged. Other standout projects include work for Apple, AT&T, Chrysler, Coke, Corona, Kellogg’s, Hilton, Kraft, Levi’s, Tylenol, Target & Walmart.
On large projects, like the Huggies shoot where they filmed 120 babies and 9 actors playing parents, they handled the production with the same amount of grace and attention to detail as their smaller narrative documentary assignments. That degree of collaboration and comfort takes things to a new level. Especially when Katrine’s work is filming spontaneity, focused on capturing that offbeat magical moment.
That conversational thread leads to another anecdote, about letting a scene develop. Katrine mentions a creative director whom she has loved to work with over the years. “My first project working with Anne was for a kids’ craft book for Klutz Press. To kick off the shoot, we chose a kids’ bedroom as our first setup. Before we knew it, we had the kids laughing hysterically as they jumped on the tiny twin beds. Inevitably one of the beds busted,” she says with a laugh. “We have gotten ourselves into trouble from time to time and to this day continue to do so!” Stephen chimes in, “The important takes often happen in the spaces in between action. We are all about capturing situations playing out in front of us.” After all, what’s an extra line item if the freedom leads to creative breakthroughs?
As a duo shooting equal amounts of both broadcast and print campaigns, the pair put their formidable talents into contextual mood boards and elaborate treatments utilizing their vast body of work, to help explain process and result. “That’s something we’ve learned to do successfully because of all of our film work. Clients can be a bit nervous and restrained at the precipice of a new ad campaign,” Stephen explains. “Often we are awarded projects precisely because the concept is to move the brand forward in a more authentic, relatable direction. We specifically use the time early in pre-production to explain to the client that we are going to need more leash and we explain why and how that will lead to the imagery we are all after. In doing so, it gets everyone—us, the agency and the client—on the same page very quickly. Then the dynamic shifts towards enthusiasm about growing their brand by attaining the imagery and story that we are after.”
"Every Step of the Way," directed by KN+SAW for Huggies.
Stephen defines their adept approach, “We certainly speak to the project at hand and address the visual assets they are looking for; that said, we want to make sure we’re listening, so that we are truly addressing the brand’s deeper needs. ‘How did we get here?’ is a question that often gets discussed during our conference calls. Questions are good: What’s the ad agency’s client excited about? Can they speak more broadly as to what they wish they could have in the eyes of their consumer? We have the knack for getting our clients to be honest about the growth cycle they are in.”
It helps to have great casting. “Models know when they look good; actors want the backstory, that role playing,” Stephen says. “We’re all about the casting. It’s really important to see a range, not just someone who looks good revved up to 10. It’s important to have someone who can take our direction, after all, film and photography is collaboration at its finest.
“Katrine digs deep and works with the actors allowing them to let their guard down. She gets them to be genuine, because she’s genuine,” he says.
“In the film work it’s a touch easier because we can compose a set-up shot, and then cut to a hero shot. In photography it’s essentially seeking out that apex moment that says everything. Since we’ve been shooting so much film we’ve fallen in love with these in-between moments that happen in a scene’s unfolding. We are now experiencing a renaissance of liberation in shooting around the scene to come up with those honest, quirky, more relatable moments. In that way it’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities,” Stephen concludes.
A photograph is really about a moment — and the emotion that it sparks inside the viewer. In that instant of capture, the story is told. Katrine and Stephen have discovered a whole new approach to take their images to a higher level — whether they are moving or still.