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Importance of the Still

The still is one of the least expensive and most common AND most misunderstood collectible in our hobby. Collectors primarily look at the still as just a small piece of the presskit and therefore insignificant. We wanted to follow the still through the film making process to show just how important the still actually is.

There are a great many steps in getting a film started into production. Let's start with a script that has been green-lighted and a team has been put together consisting of a small growing army that will start putting together the behind the scenes functions. While the director assembles his staff and the producer creates the budgets for each department, a tremendous amount of decisions have to made from shooting locations, cast members, storyboarding, shooting crew and costuming, etc.

OK... "what does this have to do with the still?".. you might ask.

You basically have 2 different filming processes going on at the same time during the shooting of the film. While the motion picture camera man is shooting the actual film, a photographer is also capturing all of the scenes with a still camera.

At the end of the day, the negatives of these 2 processes go to processing and editing but in completely different directions. While the movie film goes to it's processing for the editing of the film, the stills are processed and sent in a different direction.

Again the 'WHY?'..... well, stills taken by a photographer on set are a lot easier to use than the actual movie film. These stills give the publicity department clearer glimpses that could then be used in a wide variety of ways....... plus the publicity department wouldn't have to wait on the editing department of the movie film to finish before the publicity department can have the material that they would need. While the movie film process is also interesting, we want to follow the processing of the stills.

To understand the process let's back up and start with the duties of the unit photographer and then the additional photographers.


The images taken by the unit photographer or overflow photographers were developed daily and distributed to various departments for specific purposes. These include the following:

• Pre-Production
• Production
• Scene Continuity
• Publicity

* Key Set Creation
* Exclusive Uses
* Advertising
* Creation of Posters
* Creation of Lobby Cards
* Press Use – Studio/National Screen Service
* New York Newspaper Set

• Special Uses


The first stills taken on a film were normally done before filming actually began and part of the initial planning and development. Sample costumes were made and the main cast members were normally sent to photo sessions in these costumes. These photo stills were used in a variety of ways from administrative planning, storyboarding, budget and production meetings and sometimes being sent to artists to start conceptual artwork for advance publicity.


Once filming began on the project, the unit photographer had several jobs. One of the jobs that is normally overlooked was keeping track of the production SETS. At the end of that day’s shooting, the photographer took photos of all of the movie’s sets.

Scene Continuity – In addition to their use for publicity and advertising purposes, the still photographs which were taken at the end of a day’s film shoot were used by the director and his staff to ensure continuity of scenes for the next day’s shooting. These photos allowed the crew to compare the sets from the prior day’s shooting to make sure that it was consistent.

During the production the unit photographer was responsible for capturing thousands of still shots while the movie cameras were running. Some of the photos would offer a different angle to the motion picture camera. In other cases, the photographer would stand next to a movie camera operator. And some of the shots would be behind the scenes with actors and directors.

After the final production still shots were taken each day, the roles of film negatives were placed on contact sheets (created by laying the negatives on a piece of printing paper and exposing them to light to create a set of mini prints the same as the film frames) (IMAGE) The contact sheets were then forwarded to the publicity department. The Publicity Department could then view the full roll of 36 images at one time with a “ring” or magnifying glass.

Publicity Department –The Publicity Department was, among other things, responsible for generating early publicity about a film, including providing information to magazines and publications. In addition, they were responsible for providing the Advertising Department with information necessary to create the film’s promotional materials. The publicity department would review the contact sheets and select images for specific purposes, such as creating a key set, keeping track and providing exclusive images to magazines and publications, and sending the advertising department information necessary to begin preparation of promotional materials.

Key Set Creation - After a review by the publicity department, the better images were picked to become part of a key set. The selected images are numbered by placing an assigned number by the studio for that particular film, called the production number, and then a dash and the assigned individual still number. THIS is called the Production Code number. For more on this, see our artilce on Production Stills Numbers.

The selected stills were then printed and placed into the key set binder. The rejects are skipped over and left unnumbered. The negatives and contact sheets were then filed. These may be pulled at a later date when someone wants something different.

By the end of the shooting, this 'key set' would normally be hundreds of the better still shots to be used in a variety of ways by the publicity department. The stills used in this 'key set' would have numbers put on the still to help the publicity department identify and keep up with the different stills. They were kept in large bound books that could be used at any time for reference.

Exclusive Use – Major magazines and publications would quite often want exclusive photos to do an article on the upcoming film. This was a tremendous way for the film to get FREE publicity. To accommodate them, the publicity department would put a hold on numerous stills and send over a group for the editor to choose from. Once the exclusives were picked, the tags would be removed from those images not selected so they could be used for other purposes

As a side note: (just to add in a little confusion) SOMETIMES…. For larger and favored publications, the publicity department would choose certain images and enlarge them to 10x13” or 11x14”. These larger shots gave the image a more portrait appearance and would quite often win more publicity space.

Advertising Department – The advertising department was responsible for developing and initiating the advertising budget to be used for promoting the film. Once the budget was established, the advertising department would line out their complete advertising campaign. The black & white and color stills provided by the publicity department would be used in a number of ways, including the following:

Creation of Posters – The advertising department would select certain stills and provide them, along with a synopsis of the film, to the art department. It was the art department’s responsibility to design and complete the poster art, either using in-house staff or contracting with a commercial artist.

Creation of Lobby Cards – The art department would also utilize the color stills provided by the publicity department to make lobby cards.

Creation of Advertising Clips – The advertising department would use both stills and artwork provided by the art department to create the ads that were to be used by the theater managers to promote the film locally.

In the silent and early ‘talkie’ years, this artwork would be sent to contracted companies to produce the ads on wood blocks that could be ordered by the theater and sent to the local newpapers for publication. This was replaced by the lighter plates and then eventually by Ad Supplements that had clip art that the theater could send to the newspaper.

Press – Prior to National Screen, the advertising department would offer sets of stills to individual theaters for their use in advertising a specific film. When National Screen Service took over the distribution of movie paper for the major studios, the NSS would offer press stills to theaters and exhibitors along with the other sizes of movie posters and all types of promotional materials. Beginning in the 1970’s, press stills became part of the press kits that were distributed by NSS.

New York Newspaper Set – Starting in the 1960’s, the advertising department would provide a basic pack of stills, referred to as The New York Newspaper Set, to wire services and newspapers around the country. This set included 30-40 stills selected from the key set.


In earlier days and on smaller productions, the color photographer was also the unit photographer. But for larger productions, it was very common for a second photographer to be used on the set just to produce the color stills. This really increases in the 1960s when magazines and major publications started demanding more color.

These stills were handled exactly the same as the standard black and white stills EXCEPT that they were a separate operation. In other words, different personnel handled the color and it had very little to do with the regular stills operation.

The rolls were sent on contact sheets and chosen the same way. The color desk also sent over the selection to the advertising department that was going to be used to make the lobby cards.


For certain circumstances, such as blockbusters or some major films, specially contracted photographers were used. This would normally be a certain photographer that one of the stars happened to like that would requested to come make special promotional shots. These photographers would be allowed on the set for major scenes or at the end of the days shooting where the star would recreate a certain scene or pose for publicity purposes.

Sometimes it might be a publication that was going to do a major feature on the upcoming film that would send down their own special photographer.

In these instances, the photographer would own the copyrights to the shots under certain circumstances with the understanding the if there were any shots that the studio wanted, the special photographer would release them to the studio.

From time to time, the studio would request the usage of one or more of the special photographer’s images. These images would then be incorporated into the key set or other press materials, with the permission of the special photographer.

For more on identifying the different types of production code stills, see our article on Identifying Production Stills.



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Introduction to Production Logs

US Movie Studio Production Logs:

20th Century Fox - Letters - 20th Century Fox - Numbers



Fox Pictures - Letters - Fox Pictures - Numbers

Goldwyn Picture - see MGM

Grand National

Metro Goldwyn - see MGM

MGM Shorts - Letters - MGM Shorts - Numbers - MGM Numbers

Monogram - Letters - Monogram - Numbers (includes Allied Artists)

Paramount - Letters - Paramount - Numbers



RKO - Letters - RKO - Numbers

Universal - Letters - Universal - Numbers

Warner Bros. - Letters - Warner Bros. - Numbers


A special thanks to Rudy Franchi for his help and knowledge in this area.

This section is for reference use. Images found on this site are property of L.A.M.P. and are for reference purposes only with NO rights implied or given. See LAMP Disclaimer
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