Clay Enos has a geek’s dream gig: He shoots superheroes for a living. The veteran photographer has been working with director Zack Snyder since his 2009 movie Watchmen (which led to Enos’ book Watchmen Portraits) and has been set photographer for most of his movies since, including Sucker Punch, 300: Rise Of An Empire, Man Of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. He’s also captured set images for the upcoming DC Comics movies Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman.
Clay’s work extends to mere mortals as well. He has been a set photographer for more intimate movies like Rob Reiner’s And So It Goes, and since 2000 his Streetstudio project has allowed him to photograph over 20,000 people in the street from London to Bangkok to NYC. But his work on high-profile Warner Bros. projects has led him into some unusual on-set experiences that indicate how the rise of the green screen has radically changed the way that movies are created.
He spoke to Playboy.com about how he handles shooting in virtual environments, his approach to photographing actors at work and his global travels.
Being a set photographer is not what it used to be. What challenges does green screen create for you?
I think the main concern is always, What is the moment being portrayed? And not getting too distracted by the fact that there’s a green hue on [the actors] or there’s nothing behind them. Then you sort of pick and choose. If it’s just some chitchat on another planet, you might just let it go. Or if it is something dramatic like a fight between Batman and Superman, then you shoot everything regardless. The next step you would do is try to put some set piece behind them so when they do in fact go to build the finished product you’ve kind of given them a chance. For sure I did that on 300: Rise Of An Empire. That whole movie was done in stages. There are lots of sea battles. So you just look for good set pieces to put behind them by finding the right angle and then carrying on.
Is it easier being on location or in the studio with green screen?
It depends. When you’re out and about, there can be green screen but it’s usually a set extension, so the majority of what you’re dealing with is real. Then at the end of the road, when you can imagine the city goes on forever, they throw up a green screen. I think Aircover Inflatables won a technical Academy Award this year for these giant inflatable green screens [the Airwall]. They can move them in, blow them up not unlike one of those party jumping castles, and it just happens to be a green screen.
It sounds like a big float.
In a sense. They can unroll it in, fill it up with air, and it’s a giant green screen. We definitely used those on Suicide Squad where we had fairly limited time to get in and out of downtown Toronto city streets in the middle of the night. There’s no way you could bring a bunch of riggers days ahead of time to put up a giant scaffolding, create the green screen, and then take it down. You come in, unfurl it, blow it up, and have a green screen. It’s pretty impressive, and you can understand why they won an Academy Award because that really does change what’s possible.
Blue screens were used in the original Superman movie and was groundbreaking at the time. Now green is the predominant color, but they occasionally still use blue. Why?
We had a scene the other day where there was some vegetation, and the real object in the foreground was green. Let’s say the Joker’s hair doesn’t do green screen very well. So you have to really consider that, depending upon what kind of green screen or what you’re going to replace.
Of the three leads in Batman v Superman—Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, and Gal Godot—who was the easiest to shoot?
It’s hard to say. Gal is so beautiful and strong and awesome. She’s a ton of fun and she’s new to the genre of superhero films. But then Henry is the spitting image of the Superman that you have in your head. It’s crazy. When he’s got his cape on and he’s in full costume, you’re shooting Superman. The only other male icon that’s in your head for your whole life is Santa Claus. And then Batman is a giant, hulking awesomeness of dark who presents challenges because his costume is dark. He’s also so awesome that you let it go. On some level it’s just a chin for Ben as Batman. But what a chin it is.
You’ve worked with Zack for nearly a decade now. To what do you credit your long association?
There’s nobody like Zack Snyder. He is so effervescent and talented, and he inspires everyone who works around him to do their best. I’ve just been trying to do that, and he recognizes and appreciates it. It’s family at this point. Hollywood is a fickle friend, so I won’t presume to always work for him, but wouldn’t that be great if I could? I work my ass off just like he does. We love what we’re doing. I’ve come around to it a little slower. He’s always known what he wanted to do before college. I had no idea what set photography was, and after Watchmen I thought, “Man, I’ll never do that again.” But sure enough, I figured it out a little better and now I’ve got it down to where I am not killing myself every day to get the job done.
How did you meet Zack? Had you known him before you worked on Watchmen?
No. His wife Debbie was one of the producers. We went to college together, then they started dating and eventually got married. I visited the set of the first 300, and that was the first time we’d actually met. Of course, it was on that set that I saw there was a photographer and saw this incredible thing that was happening before me, and I was curious. Long story short, they gave me a shot with Watchmen, and it’s worked ever since. I recognize and can see from their perspective all of the assets that they need to gather. Since I love making photographs of any sort, I’m their guy to gather them. There’s not a lot of ego attached when I’m shooting the floor of a set that will become the pedestal for a 1/6 scale toy. Some photographers are maybe above that, but I kind of dig that. That’s awesome. This is my medium, and it’s being used in ways I couldn’t imagine.
My dad is a Nikon man. I am a Nikon man. You were a Nikon man, and then you switched over to Sony. How dare you! What happened?
For one thing, Sony makes a completely silent camera so I can shoot on set without a blimp, which is liberating to say the least. Also, Sony makes smarter cameras than Nikon. Nikon have gotten lazy and are overpriced. I can buy two Sonys for the price of one Nikon, and I have the entire frame which I focus anywhere with facial recognition, better tracking focus. It’s really quite something.
Film or digital?
Digital. My R II units are 43 megapixels. I don’t shoot film, but it would be a novelty. It’s not practical for anything other than the artsy stuff.
You do have a lot of non-movie photos up on your website, including some Asian travels and some candid nightclub shots. I’m not sure where the latter were shot.
Some are Coyote Ugly. Some of those are fancy parties too.
What’s the secret to taking photographs of people who are potentially very fucked up and could sue you later for running their photo?
Some of that is it’s just a public arena. A lot of places where I was shooting had disclaimers that says you may be photographed. I also don’t feel like I’m jeopardizing identities to some extent. There’s a little bit of all of us in those things, so I don’t get too hung up on it. Maybe down the line someone might say, “Hey, isn’t that person now the president of…?” Maybe. Guess what? [chuckles] Nobody’s doing anything there that’s illegal. It’s youthful exuberance. It’s having a good time as we define it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, so I’m okay with it.
What’s the most unusual gig you’ve ever gotten?
Hitchhiking through Burundi to get from Rwanda to Tanzania to shoot coffee. That was for a coffee importer in Portland. I had an amazing time. And also just recently volunteering for Ben Affleck’s charity in eastern Congo. We met up and shot former child soldiers who were being retrained with skills and reintegrated into society. That was magnificent and just an incredible part of the world.
If Playboy offered you a gig to shoot some hot models, would you take it?
I’m not sure I could. That’s a really specific genre. I don’t know. I’d rather go do some reportage for them. I’m much more somebody who finds an image the way it is with the slightest of manipulations. I’m not the biggest constructor of images. I have no aversion to doing so, of course, but I’m not sure I’m qualified.
As a set photographer, you have to make yourself invisible at times. Is there a trick to that, especially if someone’s having a bad day or moment?
I would generally step away. I know that they’re not making a still photography project; it’s a movie. But that rarely happens. Maybe it’s the way Zack runs the show, but there isn’t a lot of that. Sometimes if it’s a sensitive scene or highly emotional and I’m asked to step away, I don’t take it personally. I just know that they need that to focus.
(Playboy contributor Bryan Reesman looks forward to the day when he gets his portrait done by Clay Enos. He needs a cool costume first.)