Whether shooting a wedding video or a high-profile, yearlong campaign, the Stillmotion collective’s concentration has always been on what matters the most: telling the story. Owned by three of its members, Amina Moreau and her husband, Patrick, and then later their partner, Justin DeMers, the group started merely as two budding documentarists who enjoyed working on wedding videos together while looking for a way to afford equipment as struggling students. Now, a few short years later, they have completed commercial projects for Apple, Callaway and Canon, and their ranks include 13 professional creatives with a diverse skill set that ranges from cinematography to editing to programming and even to engineering and psychology. Stillmotion has their own tip-laden iOS smartphone app (www.getsmapp.com), more than 9,000 Twitter followers and an impressively seamless website and blog (stillmotionblog.com) that glues all of it together, not to mention several corporate sponsorships and a national workshop tour (www.knowbystillmotion.com) that the team is embarked on through November 20. They even offer an in-house music licensing site (www.withetiquette.com) for weddings and films.
"You are not cattle" is a fairly nonconventional way to refer potential newlyweds to your wedding portfolio, but that’s the Stillmotion group for you. They approach wedding videos not in the typical churn-and-burn, one-event-a-night fashion, but rather shoot each event and piece it together in editing as if it were a short film. Ironically, it was one of these tearjerkers, "jc plus esther," which had been posted on their Vimeo page (vimeo.com/6496808), that first attracted the interest of the NFL. "jc plus esther" was the very first wedding video that Stillmotion had completed using the brand-new (at the time) Canon EOS 7D, and the company was interested to see what the team could do with football players if they could make such an engaging, touching film about a random couple’s wedding.
"The line that stayed with us," says Amina, "was ‘If they can make a wedding interesting, they can make anything interesting.’"
The documentary they completed for the NFL, The Season: Super Bowl XLV, brought attention from CBS and Showtime, who asked them to put together a webisode series and a two-hour documentary called A Game of Honor. A Game of Honor followed a year in the life of Army and Navy cadets as they studied for a career in the military alongside training for the Army-Navy football game, one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports. The documentary won three Emmys®.
Not bad for a group of wedding photographers, but it hasn’t all been happenstance. They’re extremely dedicated to their craft, looking to produce the very best work that they can, whether shooting a one-night wedding video or spending a year on a full-blown documentary production as they did with A Game of Honor. They say that when they have any downtime, they often use it to streamline the site or work on the blog. They know the capabilities of their equipment through and through. Even when they’re not shooting, they’re exploring other options available to the team and its diverse talents. When asked how they’re balancing such a tremendous workload with such a tight crew, Amina’s answer is that they just don’t sleep very much.
The team has worked primarily with RED and Canon, whom they worked with for a series of informative Canon Live Learning videos. They employed the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV for most of the work on A Game of Honor and The Season. Looking at the sweeping pans and overhead craning shots in their wedding videos, you’d expect that they employ several expensive filmmaking tools like cranes or jibs, but in reality, the team has learned to maximize the potential of affordable gear and the efficient designs of their cameras. Most importantly, as students of film, they know the right tools to employ for the story that they’re trying to tell. The motto of their KNOW tour, after all, is "Affect. Not effect."
"Anytime that we use a tool like that, we want to make sure that we have a reason, and it’s a good reason," notes Amina. "One of the traps that we fell into, that I think a lot of people fall into, is the first time that we used our Steadicam. We fell in love with it so much, and it was so intoxicating, that we wanted to use it all the time. And we did use it all the time. But we used it for shots that didn’t call for it. So now we’re making our gear choices very much based on story and emotion. The only time we’re using a Steadicam is when a shot really calls for extra energy or an uplifting feeling. For example, if people are going wild on the dance floor, we’ll pull out the Steadicam, but if a couple is having a really romantic and quiet moment together, to bring out the Steadicam would, in our opinion, be inappropriate. We would bring out a tool that matches that emotion better so that the viewer then feels that translation and isn’t pulled out of the story because the movement doesn’t match the emotion."
In filmmaking, just as it is in still photography, the choice of lens, camera movement, shutter speed and many other factors can affect the mood and the story that you’re trying to tell in practically infinite variation. In documentary work, it’s also important to the story to stay out of the way as much as possible so that events can unfold naturally while your subjects remain unguarded even when there are cameras only a few feet from their face. One of Stillmotion’s principal goals, especially in a delicate situation like a wedding, is to stay out of the way, and it was the lessons learned from working in such an intimate environment that helped them to gain unparalleled access to notoriously restrictive situations like the Super Bowl and West Point. Both documentaries included full access to the athletes, thanks in large part to the unobtrusive form factors of DSLRs.
"We were very mobile, and because we also have a wedding background, we’re used to working very much on the sly," explains Amina. "One of our philosophies in weddings is never to ask anyone to repeat anything or stage anything, and what that means is that we always have to be ready. That philosophy translates really well into a sporting event. For us, it’s about really getting to the heart of the story and the heart of who people are; making it deeper than just the aesthetic and having more meaning behind the work than just having something that looks cool for them to watch."
When asked why the company also concentrates on teaching others through the tour, the website and the application, especially while they have so many other projects on their plate, Amina explains plainly that it helps other people while also forcing the group to l
earn the ins and outs of their gear and their technique.
"What we find is that, through educating, we become better photographers and filmmakers," she says. "It helps a lot of people, including us. In order to be able to teach something properly, you need to be able to really, really understand it. So whenever we’re putting together course material, it forces us to not only make sure that we really understand how we’re doing something, but also ‘why’ we’re doing it. One of the biggest questions that has pushed us forward is that question ‘Why?’ We don’t want to be doing something differently just because it’s ‘different.’ We always want to have a purpose behind everything, whether it’s a big reason or it’s a small thing, like why are we choosing a lens for a particular shot, for example. We always want to have a deeper reason."
The style is a mixture of playfulness, experimentation and a disregard for the intellectualization of and within his images.
The KNOW tour, as it’s referred to, is a three-month touring instructional workshop (September 8 through November 20) in which the group hopes to accomplish several goals: reaching a wider audience than previous workshops while introducing their audience and peers to the unique Stillmotion story-making approach to photography and video. The central lesson is to show that the many choices you make as a filmmaker should rely heavily on the story that you’re trying to tell, and the workshops also are designed to be a thorough and intensive introduction to gear and filmmaking.
"The KNOW tour will be talking about storytelling in terms of lighting, in terms of audio, in terms of camera movement and composition, editing, soundtrack and color," says Amina. "It’s going to be a jam-packed day, but it’s all going to surround the concept of story and pushing your storytelling potential forward. What we find is that there are a lot of brilliant artists out there who have really wonderful camera moves, and they color their footage well, and all of that good stuff, but a lot of people are not keeping the story in mind as they’re doing that. Again, it goes back to that question of ‘Why?’ Why is your footage cross-processed? Is it because it looked cool and you wanted to add an effect? Or is it to push the emotional impact to the viewer so that they really feel the moment?"
Stillmotion also plans to offer a DVD with a workbook and the SMAPP application alongside a follow-up webinar of the KNOW tour after they’ve wrapped.