Case 1 Evaluating your beer
One of the funniest shoots we did was for Brew Your Own, a national magazine for home brewers. Our editor liked using humor to illustrate the lead story, figuring I guess, that people who make their own beer can’t be (or shouldn’t be), too serious. In this case, the story was, Evaluating Your Beer. The topic could have been deadly boring, but with the help of the very funny actor Kurt Johnson and a hydrometer (which measures the alcoholic content of the beer) things got funny fast
By the way, these are from 120mm film; (vintage, shall we say…), so don’t evaluate the images too closely!
We set up the shot against a white background, used a Hasselblad with a 40mm Distagon (what a great lens!), and shot very close to get some distortion. Distortion can be funny. I gave Kurt a magnifying glass as a prop, and let him do his stuff. He was ready to evaluate.
I watched through the lens, and only shot when he got me actually laughing. If I weren’t feeling it, I wouldn’t shoot. I would throw out a direction, like ‘You’re astonished!’ or, ‘ You’re very picky!’ , then he would improvise. He made little whimpering sounds throughout the shoot. They were hilarious. Just imagine little whimpering sounds when you look at Kurt evaluating the beer.
I am a big fan of the sub category of ‘Funny’, which is, ‘Stupid Funny’. When smart people start exaggerating, and act stupid, I start laughing.
I did very little to make these pictures funny. It was all Kurt. All I offered was encouragement, gave him all my attention and laughter and let his creative generosity take over.
Case 2 Bathing with your beer
This time, the lead story topic was even more deadly: Sterilizing your Bottles. Boring. I went outside, sat under a pear tree and started sketching. I don’t know where the idea came from but there it was: A guy in a bubble bath, naked, washing bottles.
I had just the guy-Rick Klieber (who had played one of the pirates in the movie, ‘Hook’).
I have included two pictures to show how DIFFICULT it can be to see what is funny, what ‘works’. The bottle-cleaning picture is close to what I had imagined under the pear tree…but it is not funny, it’s just strange. I shot a lot and remember trying to squeeze all the possible humor I could out of the setup. I wanted it to be funnier than it actually was.
Now I can see the shot was taken from too literal an angle (you could see too much reality, not enough distortion), and the bottle brush cleaning motion was unfamiliar for people to relate to quickly. It was labored and slightly confused. Not funny.
I didn’t know what to do. Instead of getting upset, I just started playing with the situation. I mean, how often do you get a chance to shoot a great looking big guy in a bathtub with floating beer bottles? Not very often, I’ll bet.
So I went to a lower angle (sort of got in the tub with him, photographically speaking) and started getting something funny.
The lower camera angle distorts things more, giving the space some energy, the composition is better, and the way his face, his belly button and the rubber duckie line up vertically really helps keep the picture organized, with the bottles randomly floating around that definite sight line. And, his belly button actually looks ‘happy’ in this shot (to me. It may not look happy to you, I understand that) . Also, everyone can relate to tipping an ice-cold beer back, just NOT IN THE TUB! Hot water, ice-cold beer. Good contrasts. There is also a nice ambiguity with the floating bottles. Are they sanitized in the soapy water, or are they just empties? That’s funny.
And Rick did a wonderful job performing one of the most difficult feats you can ask a model to do-he smiled while drinking from a bottle! Try it some time. Not so easy!