Clay Enos: Photographing The Watchmen
July 22, 2009 , 7:16 am | By Bryan Reesman
Veteran lensman Clay Enos landed a dream gig when he was allowed not only to be the set photographer of the dystopic superhero movie Watchmen, but to shoot candid portraits of the cast and crew. His side project blossomed into the superb Watchmen: Portraits book, out now through Titan Books. The entire experience was a “headfirst immersion into blockbuster movie making” for someone who had been on the set of only one other film, 300. Zack Snyder directed both movies and has again hired Enos to do set photography for his forthcoming fantasy action flick Sucker Punch, which will spotlight Vanessa Hudgens in a racy role that will shed her prim and proper High School Musical image.
I first met the laid back but loquacious Enos in person at New York Comic Con in February, where he was promoting Watchmen: Portraits, and I caught up with him again via cell phone this week as he was bravely zigzagging across the country on a Vespa scooter for six weeks prior to working on Snyder’s next film. Along the way Enos has been stopping off at Apple stores to talk about his Watchmen experience. You can follow his tour here, where you can literally track him via GPS. He has nearly a month to go.
Watchmen just arrived on Blu-ray and DVD, and the Director’s Cut features over 24 minutes of new material.
You’ve been a photographer for 20 years. What did you learn working on the set of Watchmen?
Photographers tend to roll fairly solo, and while film and photography are often compared there’s really no comparison. Filmmaking is the most collaborative, remarkable, creative endeavor there is. Everybody on this film brought their “A” game, and I was just so honored to be a part of that. It was really a spontaneous effort and only doable because of the remarkable folks involved in this movie – hair, make-up, costumes, casting. My work was pretty straightforward.
You shot everything with a Nikon D200?
It isn’t a remarkable piece of machinery, but it’s got a nice handheld simplicity to it. It’s a small camera. Nowadays I have a D 3. The portrait book itself was made with one 15 mm lens using natural light. These images are uncropped and not retouched. I kept it really, really simple. In a sense I stripped away the artifice that we’re accustomed to with Hollywood filmmaking and even Hollywood photography, and I think that honors Watchmen in the way it strips [it] away. It’s a counterargument to the vernacular of filmed comic books.
What did Zack think when he saw the photographs?
I did these photographs without him being aware of it. I was just hustling, making photographs on the side, and he’s a busy guy. He’s making a movie, not a photo essay or a portrait book. But when they emerged – and would get a lot of attention as people would look over my shoulder as I was playing with them on set – he encouraged me to keep going. I was going to do that anyway, but when the idea was thrown out there to maybe put out a book – and I might have had that idea in mind – it was enthusiastically received by Zack and the [other] filmmakers.
These portraits are stark and candid, capturing people in the moment.
Yeah, and on some level, by stripping away all of that movie magic, this is a document of the unsung heroes of a superhero movie. These are the people, these are the textures, these are the little details that make something like Watchmen believable. I also think that black and white is in our heads. It taps into some little piece of our imagination that gives it instant authenticity. I’m not sure why, but I like that and I guess I’m trading in that vernacular.
Your gritty, black and white images really make us focus in on your subjects’ faces and their eyes and the texture of their skin.
I think the idea of real in a movie like Watchmen, where you’re in this strange, blurred reality as it is, complements the film’s artifice. It’s like, what am I supposed to believe here? I’m trying to escape and know that I’ve gone to see a work of fiction, and yet I keep getting pulled back in with the incredible level of detail and the incredible reality. That said, though, when you look closely at [my shot of] Ozymandias there’s no hiding that he’s wearing a wig. This is very much a document of the movie, and yet it has a resonance. You can meditate on these images independent of the film, and having seen the film I think there is a real sanctuary in these images.
How many different people did you photograph for this book?
I don’t know how many photos were taken, but we distilled down to 220 of the best. There are repeats of Moloch and a few of the characters because the images complement each other, but I made thousands of portraits, just the white portraits. It became known on set as the “Clay Cube” because originally on the set I had this big contraption of a cube, but eventually we distilled it down to a piece of foam core and a little light block on top. I would work wherever. Wherever the light presented itself, I’d work it.
What other photography have you done prior to this?
I’ve done advertising to far-flung adventures around the world. If I have a camera in my hand I think I engage the world a little differently and with a little more serious intention. And apply it however I can for whomever has hired me, or maybe I’m just hitchhiking around. I treat the world journalistically. I’m immersed in a nonfiction sensibility. But the camera affords entré. You can’t sneak the thing in, not my cameras. You must work the rapport. We all have cameras nowadays, too, so it’s not like I’m bringing a different kind of device to play. I’m simply moving with a different intention, and I tried to do that with this movie.
What are you doing at your Apple store talks?
I’m sharing a bunch of the behind-the-scenes photos, but there are also a number of photographers in the audience, so I end up trying to be an inspiration without going into Tony Robbins territory. But the feedback so far has been really inspiring and really nice. Now there’s this great Wired video of me shooting on the street the same way I shot Watchmen stuff, and that’s getting great feedback. There’s also a web site called Strobist that linked to it, and thousands and thousands of people have been coming my way.
Has Watchmen: Portraits done well for you?
For me personally, I have no vested interest in the book. I don’t make any money. It’s a promotion vehicle for Warner Bros. But it’s always a thrill to be published, and one would hope that I could get published again due to the fact that there’s already one [book] in existence. I have no idea how well it did.
What has it done for you since it came out?
It’s a fabulous boost to your credibility. Whether it’s warranted or not is not really for me to quibble with. [chuckles] It’s just a lovely calling card, and the more people that see a book like that and then realize that it was done so simply – the Wired video being a really nice follow-up to the book and only possible because of the book – it’s just really nice to be able to reach out and touch folks that you never would have prior.
What are your favorite shots from Watchmen: Portraits?
I love the Vietnamese girl who winds up getting shot in the movie. There’s something really neat about that one. I also really love the close-up of Mothman, and the close-up – if you pull the dust jacket off of the book – of the original Nite Owl.
Why are you traveling around the country on a Vespa?
I figured while I was on deck [for the next movie] I would slowly go that way, make an adventure ahead of time and explore America on this Vespa scooter. I’m also only doing it by eating food from within 150 miles of wherever I am, so cows and pigs and chickens and eggs all were raised and harvested within 150 miles of wherever I am. That’s proving to be quite difficult. So if I don’t find it I don’t eat. I’m really interested in the local economy, and eating organic and buying local, and food is the perfect example of where spending money locally also probably improves the quality of that food. It’s fresher. You probably know the farmer or can get to know the farmer. There’s an accountability. It’s been a real eye opener — what’s available and the whole infrastructure of food. It’s emblematic of a lot of other stuff in our culture that we’ve lost touch with or changed our relationship to, right on down to friendship.
What side project do you plan to do for Sucker Punch?
I’m looking to do portraits, but I’m also hoping to make something a little sexier, a little edgier, a little more eclectic. It’s hard to know. Before you get in you can imagine all you want, but once I’m there we’ll see. I’m putting it out there that I’m hopeful that I can do something sexy just due to the fact that there are five young women in this movie, and it’s going to be over the top, cool stuff. So I’m hoping my photos can reflect some of that, and I could have a stand-alone book. That would be just so sweet.
Clay Enos/Watchmen Portraits (Titan Books); Watchmen and all related characters and elements are trademarks of DC Comics © 2009. All Rights Reserved.