Capturing the peculiar

Photographer and writer Leah Gallo, MA ’08, works on set with filmmaker Tim Burton, documenting the creative process.

Old-timey photo showing a group of odd children in front of a house.

Leah Gallo, MA ’08, who works with filmmaker Tim Burton, created this photo for the set of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. In the film, the photo sits on a table in the parlor, and after the house has been destroyed, Jake (Asa Butterfield) picks it up off the floor and brushes off the dust. In those scenes, the head of the character Abe (Terence Stamp) is Photoshopped over Butterfield's. This photo, the original, appears in the closing credits and in Gallo's book The Art of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. The cast includes, seated in front Joseph and Thomas Odwell and, standing, left to right, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Ella Purnell, Georgia Pemberton, Butterfield, Pixie Davies, Raffiella Chapman, Finlay MacMillan, Milo Parker, Lauren McCrostie, Cameron King and Eva Green.

For almost a decade photographer and writer Leah Gallo, MA ’08, has worked as a stills photographer for filmmaker Tim Burton, documenting the creative process. Her behind-the-scenes photos and collected art have been compiled in visual-companion tomes supplementing films such as Big Eyes, Frankenweenie and Alice in Wonderland. Her newest work forms the book The Art of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

Woman with a bird blowing fire out of a tobacco pipe.

I took this photo after my formal vintage series portrait shoot with Eva Green as Miss Peregrine. Eva was done for the day, and feeling relaxed. She mentioned that she had seen a photo from The Birds of a crow lighting Tippi Hedren’s cigarette. She brought the picture up on her phone and we thought it would be fun to try and recreate it. The props department took the fake bird prop from the birdcage, and found us the match, and this was the end result.

Q: Is shooting for a Hollywood A-lister Tim Burton as sexy and glamorous as everybody thinks it is? How did you end up doing it?

A: Being a unit stills photographer is the opposite of glamorous. During my full-time stills gigs, I’m basically trying to make myself as small and inconspicuous as possible, contorting myself into odd positions to take a decent photo without being in the way. I try to make friends with every other crew member, because being the stills photographer puts you at the bottom of the food chain, and other people can make or break my job by allowing me to have room or not. I’m always carrying around heavy equipment, and since I’m a solo department, it’s up to me to figure out what is going on at any given moment, so I’m always trying to eavesdrop on conversations, so I know where I have to be when, so I can figure out where my equipment needs to be, where I need to be, and what I should be doing.

Film days are long — 12-plus-hour days. Sometimes filming happens on a stage, sometime you’re out in weather (rain, mud, fog, heat, the tick infested grasses of Braaschaat — you name it). Then I have to go home at the end of it and find the energy to process my photos (or do it on the weekends). It’s grueling and exhausting. That isn’t to say it doesn’t offer some great experiences. I get to do some cool things and meet very cool people, but it’s definitely not glamorous.

Old man and and young boy.

This is a still from a flashback scene where Abe (Terence Stamp) comforts his grandson Jake (Aiden Flowers) after he has been ridiculed by his class for believing in the mysterious photos of his grandfather’s peculiar friends, such as an invisible boy and a levitating girl. It’s a key point in the film where Jake stops believing in his father’s stories, and must discover for himself much later the truth behind them.

Since the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children book by Ransom Riggs centered around found, antique photos, Tim thought it was important to incorporate similar imagery into the film. I was assigned these photos, which became a character portrait series of the peculiars. That was a lot of fun. We tried to stay true to the spirit of the book photos when we could, or when it made sense. It was as much about creative thinking and problem solving as anything else – taking all of the various elements (actors’ schedules, when the photo was needed, ideal background of the photo versus where I was when I had to shoot it, location scouting, wrangling help–costume, hair and make-up, props, a stand in, an electrician), and weaving them together into a photo. We had to work around the schedules of the actors, most of whom, being kids, had very limited hours they could work. So it was often about getting the setup and lighting perfect and then hoping to get a minute with a kid to shoot it. My favorite of all the photos is the one of Olive. I love how the light worked — one light, but so important that it was the proper light and perfectly placed. And then the happy accident that the ruffles on her dress look like fire — I just love when unexpected details like that emerge to create something greater than you’d hoped.

Girl holding fire.

This is Olive’s photo for the vintage portrait series. Her peculiarity is fire. This photo closely mimics the one in the book. I particularly love how the ruffles on her shirt give the illusion of flames.

That’s the stills part of my life. Then there’s the editing/writing/art show/printing and sundry other part of my job working for Tim’s office when I’m not shooting a film. After most of the movies I’ve worked on, I’m involved in book projects. Editing, toning and lately writing. I work on the film companions that are sold, and the limited edition books that Tim gives to the crew. That’s another way I spend my time during film jobs — trying to shoot a photo of every single crew member. There are something like 700-plus crew members getting a crew book for Miss P, so it’s a lot to juggle at times).

Group photo of film crew.

Part of my responsibilities was photographing crew group photos for a crew book Tim gives as a gift to the cast and crew after the film is released. I try to use as many of the unique sets as possible, and the vault where Barron does his experiment is definitely one of them. David Balfour, the prop master, and his department designed the helmets and most of the equipment in the room. This is him and about half of his team (the other half we took on a different set - it’s really hard to get entire departments together during filming).

When not working on a book, I’m working either on his traveling art exhibit, or whatever comes through the office that needs doing. One nice thing about my job is it’s constantly different, and usually interesting. My co-worker Holly Kempf Keller and I always have these silly fantasies, like it’s going to be quiet at the office soon, so we can finally get to that project of organizing Tim’s art (which is a massive endeavor since he’s so prolific). But quiet periods seem to only ever last a few days, just enough time for me to dig out my desk.

Boy in a bunny suit

This was a set decoration photo, meaning that it appears in a scene of the film. It’s also based on a photo in the book. It’s Frank, Jake’s dad, as a young boy, disappointed because his father, Abe, has missed Halloween yet again. It represents the disconnect between Frank and Abe, whose relationship was always strained due to Abe’s long absences. Tim always liked the book’s version of this photo which is why we recreated it. The scene eventually got cut out, but Tim included it in the end credits anyway.

I also occasionally do photoshoots outside of the films. The latest was taking various portraits of Tim for a variety of media outlets, mostly to use as press for Miss P. I actually took time off of work to do those, even though, ironically, I’m spending them with Tim! Probably the most fun, non-work photo project I did recently was shooting a series of pictures of ladies in Rolling Stones underwear. It’s a long story.

Ransom Riggs in front of a quaint country house.

Another part of my job is taking photos of VIPs that come on set: in this case, Ransom Riggs, the author of the novel the film is adapted from. Ransom is a great guy, very down to earth, and he let me take photos in various locations over the course of his visits to set. This particular one was in Cornwall, which was doubling for Wales. I thought the Priest Hole was an iconic set piece in both the book and the film, and would make a good backdrop.

This was never my life plan. I was set on being a journalist, scraping by, and using my photojournalism as a means to travel. I probably would have supplemented with wedding photography when I needed the money. Then I met my husband, Derek Frey, who has worked with Tim now for 20 years (10 at the time I met him). He introduced me to Tim, and I got sucked me into this world. It did feel a bit like being sucked in — caught up in a whirlwind, and here I am in London, still working for Tim and married to Derek with a two-year-old son named Desmond, who definitely has his father’s energy. I never once thought about working in the film industry before I met Derek. Not even a passing dream, not a single, solitary moment of my existence. But I’m glad I took the opportunity when it presented itself, because it gifted me a great husband and career.

A young man and a young woman in a room.

This was part of the month I was doing the main stills work, which is when a photographer tries to represent the film for documentation and potential marketing. This is from a scene where Jake (Asa Butterfield) tells Emma (Ella Purnell) that he has to leave and will never see her again. I particularly like this one because of the visible angst. She is upset but trying to hold it together by not looking at him. There’s a longing between them, and an anguished separation, and I think the awkward spacing contributes to that.

Q: What might people be surprised to learn about working for Tim Burton?

A: He is really down to earth, funny, generous, and generally dislikes the spotlight. Lots of weird, fun opportunities arise working for Tim. He loves to take a step back from big studio filmmaking and do little projects here and there. He directed the Killers video “Here With Me” in Blackpool. He made it with a tiny crew, half populated by his office and some of our close friends. It was three insane 17 hour days where we spun Winona Ryder on a torture wheel and lit her and Craig Robert’s heads on fire, and made Craig run around and dance with a really heavy replica of Winona that probably left him achy for days. I acted as stills photographer, did a little bit of set decorating, played an extra, ran and got lunches…whatever was needed. It was an intensely creative experience for everyone. I think Tim ended up spending some of his own money to make it, but he didn’t care. He felt recharged afterwards. I think it’s what inspired him to go back to Blackpool for Miss P.

Crowded set full of a crew filming a movie.

Part of my job is to capture behind the scenes moments. I try to take at least one unique overview shot that shows the scope and chaos of filming. For this particular image I had to enlist a stuntsperson to climb up the outside of the set onto the rigging above it. Not all sets have such open access but because a lot of stunts were taking place during this scene it afforded a nice opportunity for a peregrine’s perspective.

Q: Would you consider your work photojournalism? Does it fulfill your professional itch?

A: What I do in my stills capacity is definitely documenting — in this case, the process of filmmaking. I use my photojournalistic background a lot when I’m shooting. It helps me to sneak in and find a spot, and I’m much more aware of what’s going on behind the camera, which lends itself to some decent behind the scenes photos that go into the books that usually accompany Tim’s films. It’s a good living. But it’s not journalism in its purest sense. And I do occasionally miss that.

John Higgins with a camera.

I try to take as many "in action" shots of the crew as possible. This is John "Biggles" Higgins, the gaffer, who is the head of the on-set electrical department. He works closely with the DP to achieve the lighting. He’s looking through a piece of gaffer’s glass, used to give a clearer picture of where the light is, especially in an outdoor setting to help locate the sun behind clouds.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

A: Raw talent is important, but it’s just as vital to be prepared, to know your equipment in and out, your job in and out, and to have people skills. I can’t stress the latter enough — it’s hard to get a lucky break if people don’t want to give one to you. So try to be respectful of others and just be a decent human being, I guess. Also don’t be so goal oriented that you miss possible opportunities that present themselves. Doors may open that you never expected, and life can change depending on whether you are willing to walk through them or not!

Twin children in white masks.

I shot this for use by set decoration - it appears in the background of the film as a framed photo in the parlor. The only direction I was given was to take an assortment of photos of the kids. I thought one of the twins hiding together might be fun, and we found a little alcove in the dining room to take this shot. Tim liked it enough to include it in the front credits.

Q: What was the most important thing you learned during your time at Mizzou­­­?

To care. And not to give up. Even in dark times.

Tim Burton

This shot is very personal to me. I took it during one of my days as the main stills photographer. Tim Burton, the director, was showing Asa Butterfield (not pictured) where to come in for the scene. Tim is very expressive with his hands, and it almost seems to me in this moment like he’s dancing. It reminds me a bit of the Mary Ellen Mark shot of Fellini on the set of Satyricon. I by no means think I’m anywhere near the level of a Mary Ellen Mark, but the shot always makes me smile, because she also worked for Tim as a portrait photographer, and became a friend of mine. She was always very encouraging of my photography, and I think she would have liked this shot. It makes me feel closer to her.

Q: Any regrets?

A: I have a lot of regrets. I am always thinking of what I should have done, the photo I should have taken, the spot I should have been standing in. If there are a bunch of people telling me they love a photo, I can often only see its flaws. But I think (hope) that this keeps me from being complacent.

Probably my biggest regret, photographically, was that I didn’t spend enough time with a subject of mine, who was also a good friend, who had cancer and died. At the time, there was always a good excuse — classes, other projects, my job, exhaustion. But looking back, all of that other stuff seems meaningless, and I wish I’d just spent some more time with him when I had the chance. If there’s a lesson in that, it’s to try not to let the excuses get in the way of what you know in your heart you should be doing. The rest of it will fall away, and all that’s left is what you put in, and all you can hope for is that it’s good enough.


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