Within the motion picture industry, William Gray’s storied history as a production photographer and his love for film proceeds him.
In the early 2000’s, I worked with director Bob Giraldi on a Super 16 commercial campaign. I took production stills on my Nikon FM’s and Kodak Retina, catching the attention of the crew. It became a running joke on set to call me “Bill Gray Junior” or “Little Bill.” I didn’t know it at the time but came to find that this was quite a compliment.
Gray has worked on blockbuster films such as Body of Lies (Ridley Scott, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe), Absolute Power (Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris), Man of the Year (Barry Levinson, Robbin Williams), Cry Baby (John Waters, Johnny Depp) and countless other amazing movies and television series.
Recently, Gray was telling me about the new Netflix feature movie, IO and his contributions to the poster art for it. He was thrilled to see his images of Margaret Qualley and Anthony Mackie on the wall at the Netflix LA office.
The IO poster photos were digital but he took many of the behind-the-scenes shots on 35mm and 120 film. While Netflix hasn’t released these images yet, Gray has been a vehement film shooter for decades, shooting on an array of cameras, lenses and film stocks. He was gracious enough to provide an interview and share some of his amazing film images.
Martyr: Tell me a little bit about your background in photography and motion picture.
Gray: Yearbooks/newspaper shooter, 6th grade through college. Double major at UMBC, motion/photography. Military brat, most of the time lived out of country till my late teens. Lived in 3 different states in this country. Lots of different cultures, including Texas.
Best one-on-one lessons in college were internships, not teachers. If you’re not doing more than 2 internships before you graduate college, you’re wasting your parents money. I printed in a wet darkroom for a master printer 20 hrs a week, I assisted for a 2-1/4 film shooter that did cars locally, and worked for the Diamond Back when it was a film and paste-up daily paper.
It only took one job on a student film to morph into motion only. From there I worked my way into 1st AC/focus puller in the camera department of 16mm and 35mm film productions. Documentary, TV commercials and movies. 27 years at that, then traded in my union card for a set stills card.
From college on I’ve shot stills with Widelux, 35mm, 120, 4×5, 8×10, and multiple Polaroid cameras. My early preference film wise was Fujichrome. My fav films now are TRI-X, Ilford 32oo and Portra 400. I don’t try many new films, I already have ones I know and life’s too short. . .
My first big job with actors most people would know, I IMDB checked out the producer before my interview. Saw that he’d done over 17 pictures. I checked each film listed for who shot stills for him. He’d used some of the best set stills people in the movie biz. I only had two super low budget horror movies at the time. So I went in with only hand made 8×10 prints from BW film.
He hired me on the spot and said, “in all the years of hiring set stills people no one has ever showed me black and white film prints, can you do this for me?”
Martyr: What was your role in making IO? Tell us about the poster and production stills and any other work you may have done.
Gray: I shot stills on IO for Netflix for PR purposes. You never know what images will make the movie poster.
IO was filmed in Nice, France for the interiors of the observatory, and the exteriors were filmed near the Alps at an observatory called Calern, near Caussols.
Before going to France for IO I did extensive Google/Flickr/Instagram searches for the exteriors of Calarn. Temps, weather, and altitude. The altitude helped decide on me humping two camera sets, digital and 120 through multiple airports. I knew the clouds and storms would move past our sets at road level. I wanted a huge gigapixel negatives with great latitude. Portra 400 can expose for the landscape shadow areas under clouds while still holding a sunlit white observatory, digital can’t.
Martyr: What cameras, lenses, filmstock did you use to photograph IO?
Gray: I don’t really care what Nikon or Nikkormat I have, a Nikkormat was my first SLR in high school in the 70’s. The choice between Canon vs Nikon at that time, I cannot remember. I’m sure I’d have loved to have been shooting with Leica cause I started in 35mm with an old rangefinder, Schneider lens, Kodak Retina IIc in the late 60’s.
I bailed on Nikon for Canon in the first years of digital. I kept my old manual focus film Nikkor lenses only cause I couldn’t take their resale value when I switched to Canon digital. Now I know carrying three sets of cameras (Digital, 35mm film and a 120 system) is very asinine, but it’s what I own. I believe I have not bailed on my old Nikons for a new used film Canon because at some point I started to value muscle memory with cameras I’ve had for decades.
I use Nikkor, 24, 28, 35, 50, 85, 135, and 180mm. I own and almost always use the LensBaby Edge 80. (Both for digital and film)
I’ve owned and shot with the Mamiya C330 since 1977. I own the 65mm, and the 135mm. (I don’t own an 80mm) Wore my first one out and 5 years ago bought an new used one.
I’ve had Hasselblad with a few lenses, loved it but soon realized I was slower with it than the C-330, and often was only playing trap focus. I’m just faster with the Mamiya.
I’ve spent years shooting with a Mamiya RB, would love one, but never had the spare cash to own one.
After a couple of years acquiring a Hasselblad plus backs, and three lenses I traded it for a Pentax 645, 45mm, 70mm, & 150mm and haven’t looked back. I recently took a Dremel to my 45mm and cut all of the outer housing off of it. I put on a piece of hand cut neoprene on the back and free lens it.
I do-si-do with the 120 cameras, some jobs I bring the twin lens reflex and some I bring the SLR Pentax. I couldn’t give you real rational reasons for what job specifics that make me take one or the other. What ever feels right on the day I’m packing my case.
I shoot with Kodak TRI-X only cause thats the first film I used and it’s what the military base stores carried. I’m sure I’d be fine with Ilford in 400 ISO. I use Ilford 3200 only cause I have more OJT with the stuff. Kodak 3200 went away, so I switched to Ilford 3200 and didn’t make the effort to switch back. I am a HUGE fan of Kodak Gold 200 and used it for years. I had to move to 400 Portra only for the extra stop of light. I like Portra but I love Gold. Just remember all taste is subjective, I use gear and film mainly cause that was the stuff immediately in front of me. With digital I was more focused on gear specifics and I knew a lot more about cameras by that point.
Martyr: Why do you still shoot film?
Gray: Cause that’s what I’ve been shooting since 1968. I started with 620 BW and still love it. I love the surprise, I love the different directions cross processing, color negs and chromes go in Photoshop with my FAV plugin, NIK. When I put a digital in PS, I almost never get a cool direction, a “morph to” change visually without thoughts what a weird film image change I had in the past.
Martyr: What types of scenes/images did you shoot on film and which on digital?
Gray: I cover everything an actor does onset in all digital. I shoot the BTS, landscapes, ultra wide background work on film.
Martyr: How did other crew and cast react to your cameras and use of film, if at all?
Gray: Almost all camera members of film crews LOVE that I’m still shooting film. Most actors notice I’m shooting film and make “I’m happy you’re still shooting the stuff…” comments.
Producers, directors, camera crew, and actors are always for the most part thrilled. The 30-something DP on this last movie finished this fall in west Bmore, called Charmed City (fictional story loosely based upon that doc 12 O’Clock Boys…. Movie name change coming soon! Jada Pinket’s brother produced.) was thrilled when she saw my film cameras. She’d had pushed for shooting on film for that movie.
Hopefully movie posters and stills to come (Names subject to change):
Martyr: Anything else you’d like to share with the film photography community? Advice for younger shooters, for example?
Gray: What eventually gets you bigger and better creative opportunities jobs wise is not PR people. (Yes PR people do feed you occasional jobs) The jobs you want in the future are with producers and directors that are visually literate. People that appreciate film, or a converted digital that looks changed from the standard digital output. I create give-away books that mix my film stuff with PS worked-over digital images for the directors and producers.
If you’re yacking about photography, you’re not shooting enough. Don’t ever forsake learning something about motion/sound/grading every chance you get. Listen to a shit ton of podcasts from all worlds of creative. Biggest regret I have in life is I didn’t shoot way more than I did when I was younger.
Martyr: Thanks so much for your time, Bill!
Follow William Gray on social media and see more of his amazing movie and television production photography:
Johnny Martyr is a contemporary film photographer whose concentration is in Available Light 35mm Photojournalism in Frederick, Maryland. Martyr's informal & documentary portraiture can be found in the pages of Huffington Post, Marie Claire, Modern Wedding, Petapixel, Lomography, BuzzFeed & others.