Photographer Profile - Derek Shapton: "The opportunities to move into motion are there now"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 31, 2015

A good way to see where Toronto-based commercial photographer Derek Shapton  is going in his career is to view the series of television commercials he created recently for the United Way of Canada. The unique promotional pieces, which combine still imagery and motion in an emotionally effective way, are the work of a talented photographer in the midst of transition. They also reflect how fluid the two mediums have become as they overlap and interact with one another.

The 30- and 15-second TV spots, which began rolling out in December, were conceived by the Taxi Canada  agency of Toronto. Writer Jake Boguch and art director Yuko Brown were tasked with communicating the idea that behind every life that is changed in a positive way, there are many people who helped make it happen, and that behind the United Way there likewise exists a crucial network of donors. Boguch and Brown thought they could bring the concept to life with a visual metaphor—shots in which focus pulls would shift viewers’ attention from a person in the foreground of the frame to people in the background.

“The work is rather unlike anything I've seen,” Shapton says.

The Parallax View

Boguch and Brown called in Shapton, who they had worked with before, to create the images. They also wanted to make use of a post-production effect known as the Parallax technique, which, in essence, involves taking a still photograph, separating it into layers, and then using a compositing software like Adobe After Effects to reconstruct it in a three-dimensional space. Further animation effects are used to create an intriguing visual with both a sense of depth and movement.

To create the effect, the agency reached out to UK-based Joe Fellows of Make Productions, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the Parallax technique. A widely seen tutorial video  that Fellows made for the Creators Project showing how the compositing technique works had caught the attention of Boguch and Brown, as had apromotion  that Fellows made for the World Wildlife Fund using photos from the organization’s image archive.

For the United Way project, Fellows would be working on set helping to guide the photographic process, a prospect he was excited about. “The shoot was incredibly liberating because we could set up the layers in real life,” Fellows says. “We were able to shoot clean back plates and to capture specific foreground and background objects for set dressing and to isolate the main characters. The advertising campaign also required there to be a rack focus. This meant that everything had to be shot in focus so we could mimic the change in focus in post-production and create that cinematic depth of field.”

For his part, Shapton says he was thrilled to be working with Fellows.“I’ve seen terrible examples of the Parallax technique, but Joe’s got impeccable taste,” says Shapton. “There’s nothing overblown, nothing garish. It doesn’t feel like a stunt. It was nice because it dovetailed with my photographic approach, which was to keep the images as low-key and natural as possible.” Shooting at United Way facilities across Canada with actual clients and organization staff added to the authenticity of the visuals.

“We shot it all RAW and did a lot of color correction, and then Joe headed back to England with the files and went to work,” says Shapton.

The final TV spots have the sheen of high production values, even though they were achieved with a budget that was minuscule compared to other types of film work. Shapton notes that he shot all the stills with a Nikon D800, producing 36-megapixel images. “That resolution would be in excess of 12K video footage,” he says.

The Importance of the Story

At age 42, Shapton has earned a reputation as a resourceful photographer who has worked in a wide range of genres, from portraiture to still life. Now, he says, he’s ready to create more motion projects, in part because of the freedom it gives him to tell stories. “One thing I’ve been realizing is how much I like the writing aspect of it,” he says. He has also noticed that more and more of his photo clients have been asking for motion treatments when he bids on jobs.

“The opportunities are there now for moving into motion in a seamless way,” Shapton says. “That’s intimidating for a lot of people, because it’s not something you’re taught when you go to college for commercial photography.”

Shapton's photo education began at the fine-arts high school he attended in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. At first he thought about studying to become an illustrator, as his sister was doing. But while Leanne Shapton  went on to become a celebrated illustrator and writer—her memoir Swimming Studies received the 2012 National Book Critic's Circle Award for autobiography—Derek got sidetracked when he took a required photo course.

“At first I didn’t even consider photography an art,” Shapton says. “I had that kind of high-school arrogance and an elitist attitude. Consequently I was a terrible photographer but couldn’t figure out why. So that became intriguing to me, and that semester photography was all I was interested in.”

He spent a year studying photography in college, then went to work as a photographer’s assistant. “My idea was to just take a semester off, but I ended up not going back,” he says. He started his own business at 21, primarily doing environmental portraiture, an area he got into by shooting his friends’ bands and then album covers for local record companies. Now most of his income comes from advertising work. His client list includes Air Canada, Mercedes-Benz, Sony Music, the Bank of Montreal, and Levis. He’s also shot editorial work for magazines like Outside, Der Spiegel, Wired, and Elle.

“Canada is a kind of market where if you’re lucky you get to try a lot of different things,” he says. If that’s the case, Shapton has been a lucky photographer. Read more about his varied work—including the time he shot the world’s largest photo  of a shelf—at his Planet Shapton blog.


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