Step into the world of Daniel Tremblay! As founder and owner of Flatblack Productions, Daniel and his team's expertise encompasses everything needed for a seamless photo production. Set against the backdrop of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Flatblack Productions is renowned for its world-class offerings and collaborations. It was a pleasure talking to Daniel about his work, his process, and his personal creative philosophy.

How do the scenic landscapes of Alberta inspire your work?

Wide-open soft blue skies, gentle chinooks, and low rolling hills in varying intensities of yellow are the icons of the Alberta landscape. When I started out as a photographer, I would travel far from the city to places like Indus, Blairemore, and Millarville just for the chance at photographing a train weaving through a particularly attractive curve of track, a grain elevator with the perfect patina, or a whitetail buck leaving a wake in a canola field as it ate its way through the bright yellow flowers. To me these scenes communicate down-home traditions, civil freedoms, and the pioneer spirit that embodies the best of Alberta in my eyes. 

How do you balance fulfilling a client’s creative vision with exercising artistic freedom?

For commercial work it is always the photographer’s job to fulfill the client’s vision to the highest degree possible. The collaboration between client and photographer is optimized when the client holistically articulates the desired outcome, and the photographer surpasses expectations by bringing forth a final product that most accurately reflects the stated goals.

The artistry surfaces in the artist’s ability to bring the vision to life by employing lighting techniques, production methods, intuitive framing and juxtaposition, and post-production workflows that might not occur to the client but are nonetheless called for. Success with such an interchange occurs as a result of a wealth of experience; a deep understanding of the technology, setting, crew, and talent required to match the deliverable with the vision.

In terms of importance, where does collaboration rank in your creative process?

Photo and film production are by nature so collaborative, the creation of a perfect scene requires the committed attention of at least 5 or 6 people. I think this speaks to why photographers don’t often refer to themselves as artists, as that word conjures up images of a recluse hunched over a canvas in torn jeans and a long sweater smoking. Photo and film sets are at their best reminiscent of a well-oiled modern industrial machine operating according to capitalist principles with a military hierarchy.

They are by their very nature collaborative - one assistant holding a reflector here, another adjusting a strobe there, a stylist clamping the clothes back while a makeup artist blots the talent’s forehead, a creative director watches Capture One while the photographer builds rapport with the model… everyone pulls their weight, and we’ve all seen how quickly things can fall apart when someone doesn’t. Even in terms of attitude and energy, a single drop of doubt or negativity can spoil the creative process. So being highly collaborative, and choosing who to collaborate with can make or break a career. 

How do you continue executing your vision when things outside of your control don’t go according to plan?

Great follow up to the former question. When the team hits a bump in the road, it’s important to go for a quick win to bring the energy back on track. Maybe the wind took down a silk that wasn’t secured properly, or an animal handler forgot to mention that this stunt dog can’t be around strobes. If the production team rolls their eyes and throws up their hands, begins whispering under their breath, or panics and starts barking orders, the jig is up. Now everyone is tense. When things go wrong, they need to be handled quietly, calmly, and quickly. While assistants are making corrections and focusing in on the fix, the photographer should be thinking broadly, coming up with a creative idea to make the best use of the client and talent’s time. Sometimes the on-the-spot idea will become a highlight, imbued with the spontaneity, unpredictability, and acceptance of “what-is” that defines creativity itself.

What role, if any, does spontaneity play in photo production?

Once again! Perfect transition from where we left off with the last question. I referred before to the almost military-like nature of a photo shoot. Success in execution will depend on a great deal of planning and preparation, knowledge of the tools at hand, and in putting together the right team. But the best photographers do know how to go off-script so to speak and adapt in order to capitalize on a magical moment.

Once again though, this is where the energy that’s being put out needs to be curated carefully, because you don’t want to pull people’s focus out of a moment that’s working just because you’ve spotted another one out of the corner of your eye, lest the whole shoot become inundated with a schizophrenic nature, which can create unease. Ride out the part of the shoot that was planned without interrupting its flow, and find your moment to introduce a new idea without derailing the shot list.

How do you overcome obstacles that arise as a result of conflicting opinions at any phase of the production process? 

Try it both ways. In trying it both ways, don’t go “Ok let’s try it your way,” and “now this is my way.” Remember this is all about the collaboration. The way to frame this would be to celebrate that there are an abundance of ideas surrounding the project, and explore them all where time allows. Also, ask questions. Engage in a dialogue where you give someone an open platform to present their solution without the need for any ego, because you’ve stated that you’re willing to try things out in a multitude of ways. Don’t get defensive of your ideas.

Remember that if a concept or process is hard to explain, it’s probably hard to understand, and will be hard to bring to fruition. The best art is made when we remain in a flow state, practice acceptance and act as a conduit for ideas, so don’t be a brick wall. Practice “yes-and-ing” and watch obstacles flourish into new possibilities.

Do you look for inspiration, or does inspiration find you?

What happens with me is I’ll see an image or scene that inspires me and then get hungry for more and build out a vision board that speaks to that original spark of inspiration. I love Pinterest for this process, and I’ll also often have a mix of my own work and the work of others on my mood boards for a shot. I like to integrate the elements of setting, palette, styling, and era into every board, and include a variety of wide, medium, and long shots to encapsulate the whole idea.

If you could advise photographers at the start of their career against one thing, what would it be?

I have advised many young photographers and the most important thing I recommend is to avoid working for free. Here I’m not talking about planning your own shoots to bring an idea to life that was yours. Everyone should do that and it’s a great way to build your muscles in terms of pre and post production processes, putting excellent teams together, and leading a shoot from start to finish. However I am of the opinion that no matter how green you are as an assistant, you should never assist another photographer for free. Even the simplest shoot will take at least four hours of your time. You need to be agile, helpful, strong, resourceful, and personable to be a good assistant, and those soft skills are worth something, even when you’re starting out and haven’t built up the repertoire of technical skills that will allow you to price your assisting services at a premium when you advance.

Lots of talented and sought-after photographers hired me to assist when I was new to the game, and these people remain valuable industry connections to this day. There were a handful of photographers who convinced me to assist them for free when I was starting out, and I was never asked to work for any of those people for a paid gig later on, even after I had a wealth of experience. Your work and time are worth something, and anyone who gets it for free will never value it. In furtherance to that, find out what you should be charging by asking other photo assistants with a similar amount of experience as you what they charge, and charge the same. Increase your rates as you add certifications and accolades to your resume, continuing to stay in keeping with the market standard for your experience level. 

We thank Daniel Tremblay of Flatblack Productions for taking the time to talk to us about his work and creative process. You can check out his member page here, and his website here.