British writer, director, and videographer Helen Sarah Fields, who contributes to Shutterstock as HotelFoxTrot, is the type of artist who thrives on having multiple outlets to express herself. She started out as a lawyer, but these days, she’s focused on her creative pursuits, from writing novels to filming high-quality stock footage.
Helen’s diverse and compelling video work has her rapidly rising to the ranks of our top footage contributors, so we caught up with her to get some insight into her process — including how she consistently finds great models, actors, and locations — and to get her advice on how others can create equally successful stock-footage clips.
Shutterstock: How did you get started in video? How long have you been shooting stock footage?
Helen Sarah Fields: I was originally a barrister, but when the pressures of family life and child care became too much to continue, I began working full-time scriptwriting and producing films. After a while, I was on set so regularly that I began a natural apprenticeship learning to rig lighting and operate the camera. I’d been directing actors for years in theatre as a hobby, so that part came easily.
I began shooting corporates and advertisements that made the decision to test out alternative revenue streams, and that’s when I became involved in filming stock. I uploaded the first few clips five years ago, and was struck by how immediate the returns were. It was fun to decide when, where, and what to shoot, rather than always responding to a client’s demands. Over the years, stock has become the mainstay of my work, although I still undertake some commissioned projects.
Your portfolio ranges from business to charity work. What inspires your productions?
My inspiration comes from three main sources. The first is news — papers, television, or what’s trending on Twitter. The idea for the charity shoot I did recently came from long-running news items about food banks, and working-class families being hit by poverty and the reduction of benefits. It seemed to me that these were increasingly important and long-term issues (I do make sure that the ideas I pick up on have substantial longevity) and that the footage would be relevant and marketable.
The second stream for drawing ideas is art and photography. Sometimes it’s just seeing a beautifully graded digital photo, an unusual color palette, or a really striking composition. I often think about how to turn static art into a short piece of film in a way that achieves comparative visual impact. The third place is television and film. This is difficult, because it’s important to me not to copy ideas, but to take the seeds of inspiration and make the footage I produce entirely my own. That can be seen in the recent paparazzi shots that I’ve uploaded.
What’s your favorite part of the production process?
My favorite part is the filming itself. It’s wonderful to see weeks of conceptualizing, casting, and pre-production become reality. Of course, it’s also the most stressful part of the process. There are time pressures, bad weather letting us down, actors calling in sick, and hard drives failing. It doesn’t always work out the way you saw it in your head. I guess that’s what makes it so exciting.
My real love is directing on filming days, though. Working with great models and actors and getting just what you want from them and making the day fun is a hugely rewarding challenge. I film on the RED Epic, which is an outstanding camera, and because I’m shooting 4k, the editing process gives us all sorts of options.
What advice would you give to a footage contributor who’s just starting to work with models?
Remember to direct properly. Just because you’re not making a piece for TV or film doesn’t mean you can skip rehearsing. (I do this for every single clip.) You should discuss with each actor precisely what your expectation is. Mood boards help actors and models understand what you’re looking to get from them. Also, talk to the models, spend time, make sure you know their names before they turn up on set. Make sure you’re accessible and approachable. If you make the filming process relaxed and enjoyable, those actors will pull out all the stops. It matters, because while you can mask out parts of a shot, or color grade or edit, you cannot alter bad acting after the event. A badly acted shot will not sell. Get this wrong and you’re wasting time and money.
How do you usually find your models?
I sometimes use people we know and local drama groups for backgrounds/crowd scenes. I also advertise on a website where actors check posts for shoots they might be suitable for. You can see a variety of photos for each actor and their CV. If it’s a more important or prominent role, I go to an agency or run a casting day. Once I find great models/actors, I often reuse them, and now have my own database.
Some of your clips have 15 models or more. How do you handle working with a large group?
I have done a number of large shoots, and the key is preparation. If your shoot is well catered, you have good facilities in place, and you have enough assistants around to answer queries, then you can concentrate on the filming. There’s also what I can only describe as a discipline issue. If you have a set with 20 actors who you want to make laugh or shout or jump around, then you have to be able to get everyone excited and in the right mood, but then also have them be quiet quickly to listen to instructions. I am very clear at the start of the day about why I need people to listen and concentrate. Crucially, never run out of food, drinks, or chairs!
How do you scout locations, and what are the challenges in different environments?
I use location agencies for most of my shoots, and I also have a studio with a green-screen option that is invaluable. I only scout locations if it’s a high-value shoot. Otherwise, that day away from pre-production or editing can’t be justified. I expect numerous photos of a location. It’s brilliant when a scaled floor plan is available, letting me see where the natural light sources are and what depth of shots I’ll have.
Odd issues crop up, though, such as large unmovable pieces of art that you can’t have in-shot, people working in a building and walking through your shot, or that the photos you’ve seen are badly out of date. It’s all about flexibility and thinking on your feet. Always take more extension cables than you think you’ll need. Always take a few white sheets for covering things up. Leave extra time for liaising with building managers, security, and by-passers. These are the things we never plan for that soak up valuable filming time.
What’s your favorite clip in your collection and why?
My favorite clip has to be from an aerial shoot over London taken on a slightly hazy day. It was fun, challenging, and the clips that came from it are great. It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone — which for me, is business and lifestyle filming — and do something extraordinary. Filming over some of London’s most famous landmarks from a helicopter definitely provided me with a fresh take on shooting.
What would you say are the defining characteristics of a successful stock-footage clip?
For me, successful clips are the ones that look natural and genuine. They still have to be polished, that goes without saying, but the content should seem effortless and unstaged. It’s when you get that combination of the right actors, a lovely location, and a clip that actually tells a story.
HotelFoxTrot’s Helen Sarah Fields at work
One of my hobbies is writing, and in fiction, they have a name for writing incredibly short stories, sometimes just 100 words — “flash fiction.” I think that’s what the best stock is. In 30 seconds or less, you should show the concept, a start, middle, and end, and produce something either with a message, a purpose, or entertainment value. Perhaps stock should be renamed “flash films.” If you can tell a story without words in that time, then you’ve created a unique and marketable clip.