A Flurry of Fun - Ashland is Base Camp - Winter '24 Issue

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Still Photographer Dale Robinette


Roll Cameras.......ACTION!!

Still Photographer Dale Robinette

Story by Lynn Leissler

Photography provided by Dale Robinette


When you see a photograph on a movie poster, a billboard, or a film review, you probably don’t consider how the photo came to be. But if you do, you might conclude you’re seeing a printed frame of a studio photo session or a photo taken during the actual movie making. Dale Robinette, a still photographer, explains how the process really works.

The shutter speed of a movie camera is 1/50th of a second (film or digital), which can create a blur if anything is moving quickly within the frame—a pitcher’s fastball, a boxer’s punch, a racehorse’s galloping hooves. When working on a movie set, Robinette adjusts his shutter speed to 1/250th of a second or more to assure nothing is blurred. 

The studio uses his photographs, called publicity or production stills, to advertise and promote its films. In bygone days, publicity stills were often used by actors and actresses to autograph for adoring fans.   

Before shooting stills, Robinette acted in plays, television series, TV movies, commercials, and soap operas while working in New York City, Los Angeles, and the Midwest. He always had a love for photography and while in California, he shot a few snapshots for the L.A. Weekly. Producer, Harry Sherman, saw his images and asked him to shoot the stills for a TV movie he was producing. Dale says, “I enjoyed the new career, so I soon transitioned from in front of the camera to behind it.” 

Early on, he took slides. Studios required two cameras in order to shoot both black and white and color. A large black box, called a blimp, encased the camera to muffle the shutter click. Today, however, silent electronic shutters eliminate that need.

It was the independent film Donnie Darko that propelled his career. Because it opened the weekend after the 9/11 tragedy, not many people saw the film. It has since become a cult classic, one of the midnight movies and often shown on college campuses. “While recently shooting nights in Vancouver, BC., I was wearing a Donnie Darko sweatshirt and was overwhelmed with questions from fans of the film.”

He has worked in over 100 films he affectionately describes as the good, the bad, and the ugly, all with their unique challenges. Up in the Air (2009) with George Clooney and Vera Farminga filmed in five cities in seven weeks. Robinette speaks fondly of working on The Help (2011). The tension portrayed in a movie that was set in the pre-civil rights South added emotional depth to his filming experience. “Mississippi in July is hot. But the heat did not deter the awesome actresses, despite their padding, pantyhose, and girdles. There were still lots of laughs to be had.”

In 2016, Dale was the still photographer for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The film pays homage to the golden age of musicals and won six Academy Awards. His shot of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dancing with a Los Angeles twilight backdrop became an iconic poster. Robinette only had a brief window to capture that image. “With a fifty-foot techno crane camera swishing in and out, I had to do quite a dance step myself to avoid getting hit or being seen in the shot,” he says. The entire romantic dance date was done in one continuous four-minute take. 

Robinette constantly considers what will help sell the film. Artistically, he tries to capture the essence of the movie, a scene, or a character. Often he reads the script beforehand, other times he goes in blind, preferring to be pleasantly surprised by each scene. He loves to shoot behind the scenes, candid moments such as a director or actor doing something unexpected.  

Robinette’s latest project, Timmy Failure, is currently streaming on Disney+. Timmy is an 11-year old boy who believes he is the best detective in town (Portland). He runs a detective agency, Total Failures, with his best friend—an imaginary 1,200-pound polar bear.

At one time, still photographers were in danger of being eliminated or their hours on set greatly reduced. Dale gives an example that illustrates how essential it is for the still photographer to be on the set daily. Wanting to beat L.A. traffic, he showed up in Pasadena before the scheduled shooting time. To his surprise, they were already shooting. He clicked a quick few frames and captured shots that became the worldwide one sheet of Aaron Eckhart, the star in Jason Reitman’s hit, Thank You for Smoking.  

On set with younger actors his friendly and helpful demeanor have earned him the nickname

Uncle Dale. On the last day of filming, he gives the cast and all of the crew Uncle Dale’s Fun Family Photos, a compilation of them doing their job.

What brought the Robinettes to Southern Oregon? Like many tired of Southern California traffic, they sought a quieter pace. They looked at various locations, eventually buying 20 acres in the mountains, excited to make Ashland their new home. Dale has shot for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and recently taught an OLLI photography class.

There are good and bad days when shooting a film. The crew works long hours, sometimes in harsh weather, and the still photographer often tries to be invisible while attempting the ultimate shot. Dale has waded through Louisiana swamps with water moccasins and alligators supposedly removed, shot in a flooded tomb in hot water up to his chin, dodged pyro effects being hurled near the camera, and dealt with many other challenging circumstances. Some stars, like George Clooney, Jessica Chastain, Hugh Jackman and many others, are cooperative and a constant joy. Others—not so much. In that case, he focuses on staying calm, quiet, and being invisible.  

Dale Robinette could sit for hours with a cup of coffee and talk of the people he’s met, of the movies he’s been privileged to film, and about the movie industry. He loves what he does, and plans to keep working for as long as he is needed.

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