What Is A Theatrical Still?
Alongside our catalogue of original movie lobby cards / front of house cards, you will come across a number of photographs described as ‘theatrical stills’.
These photographs (or stills) were produced during the production of a movie and would be used for purposes as diverse as production of publicity material, ensuring scene continuity, director story-boarding or even to enable the production of film props such as driving licenses, passports and on-screen photographs!
An original theatrical still captured during the filming of E.T. (The Extra Terrestrial)
While some publicity stills may be taken in a photography studio, most would be taken during the filming of the movie by a Unit Still Photographer.
The Role of the Unit Still Photographer
Individual frames of a film reel are of a low quality compared to photos from a still photographic camera. They do not provide the detail and resolution required.
As a result, on set and working closely alongside the film’s director and crew and as close to the actors as the boom mic operator, the Unit Still Photographer will capture the film and its production as a series of high-quality still photographs.
A Unit Still Photographer captures star and director during the production of Terminator 2
The role is tough, highly demanding and skilled. Practitioners will often sit alongside Camera Operators and Directors of Photography as members of The International Cinematographers Guild and the world’s leading practitioners are recognised by The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers (the SMPSP).
Even with the demise of lobby cards and distribution of physical stills, the role of the Unit Still Photographer is as important as ever. Their work may now be used for digital publicity such as websites, blogs and increasingly for social media.
An original theatrical still from the 1958 film 'The Great Age of Comedy' with Laurel and Hardy
While the role can be traced back to the very beginning of motion picture production (we have seen stills from the 1910’s), in 2015 the SMPSP celebrated its own twentieth anniversary by publishing “A Single Frame: Celebrating 20 years of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers”. Highlights are available online and we recommend them to any film fan or budding photographer.
By the way, many vintage stills for films produced in the U.S. will carry National Screen Service identification numbers, such as the one above and this one from 1968 for James Bond's Thunderball (with a close up of the film's NSS number).
You can find a little more about NSS numbers in this blog post.
If that has piqued your interest in these really important and collectable pieces of movie history, why not take a look at the fantastic lobby cards and theatrical stills we currently have available?
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.