Chiabella James on capturing movie magic as unit stills photographer on Dune, Mission: Impossible, Saltburn and more

A photograph of Tom Cruise performing the Halo jump in Mission: Impossible Fallout by unit stills photographer Chiabella James
Tom Cruise's epic Halo jump. Picture by Chiabella James

GROWING up on film sets alongside her father, legendary unit stills photographer David James, Chiabella James gained invaluable insight into how movies are made – and, more importantly, the art of capturing iconic, intriguing images from scenes in progress or specially posed shots which can be used to sell the films to the public.

Having witnessed her dad working regularly with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, London-based Chia (39) eventually followed in his sizeable footsteps to shoot unit stills herself, at first working as his assistant on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mission: Impossible – Fallout before striking out on her own to document magical movie moments on films including The Mummy, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, King Richard, Dune: Part One, Saltburn and Bob Marley: One Love.

A photo of Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune: Part One by unit stills photographer Chiabella James
Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune: Part One. Picture by Chiabella James

Thus, Chia is uniquely well-placed to discuss her craft at next week’s RENDR festival in Belfast, where she will give a talk titled Capturing A Film In One Shot.

“This originated with Dad and our mutual love of Guinness, I think,” she chuckles of how her father – who recently retired from unit stills work – recommended the Portview Trade Centre-based event after taking part in its 2019 and 2023 programmes.

However, the photographer reveals that the title of her RENDR talk may be slightly misleading.

Read more:

A behind the scenes photograph of the cast and crew of Dune: Part One by unit stills photographer Chiabella James
Behind the scenes of Dune: Part One. Picture by Chiabella James (Chia Bella James/Chia Bella James)

“Every film is incredibly different and there are now multiple outlets for each film,” Chia explains.

“So, the focus I’m going to try and take is that ‘one shot’ is really more like ‘21 shots’.”

Those 21 shots will help form the public’s first impressions of a particular film and, hopefully, build anticipation for its release. They may be seen everywhere and anywhere promotional opportunities exist, from magazine features and newspaper articles to social media feeds and, of course, movie posters.

“When it comes to unit stills, we are as a group, the most published photographers on the face of the Earth – and yet no-one knows who we are or understands what we do,” she observes.

A photo of Chiabella James and her camera
Chia and her camera have captured some incredible movie-related images
A behind the scenes photo from Dune: Part One by unit stills photographer Chiabella James
Behind the scenes of Dune: Part One. Picture by Chiabella James

“I find that quite an interesting conflict of interest, almost. So I find that by doing these things and explaining a little bit more about the role, how it functions, its importance and the names behind it is valuable.

She adds: “The thing with stills is we’re usually the last person to be hired, because the production itself needs to get up and running before they think about selling it. I think I got the phone call for Dune about 10 days before production started, in another country.

“So, sometimes it’s very last minute. But occasionally, I will get a call six months ahead, because it’s a film-maker who knows they want me and they want to lock in my availability.”

Steven Spielberg on set. Picture by David James
Picture by David James

As mentioned, David James was a favourite of Steven Spielberg, so Chia got to hang out on the sets of Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers as a youngster.

Her father also formed a solid relationship with Tom Cruise after shooting Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi, Minority Report, working with the A-lister repeatedly thereafter on films such as Knight and Day, Oblivion, Live Die Repeat, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and several Mission: Impossibles.

Cruising at 2,723ft. Picture by David James
Picture by David James

Chia has now also enjoyed working with Cruise on a number of occasions – often several thousand feet above sea level.

“The plane crash sequence on The Mummy is one of my favourite shooting experiences of all time,” she enthuses of capturing stills for the 2017 film, which involved shooting aboard a huge cargo plane dubbed ‘the vomit comet’ which repeatedly dives in order to create ‘zero-gravity’ conditions.

“I was very nervous going in, because I fully expected to vomit – and a multitude of our crew did. I think we did maybe two ‘drops’ before I realised ‘I’m actually really enjoying this’.

“It was definitely a tricky thing, to be able to photograph the scene while floating, but I absolutely loved every second of it. I really thrived up there.”

A year later, the pair were back in the air to shoot the Halo jump sequence for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, in which Cruise actually jumped out of a C17 cargo plane at 25,000ft – a key moment for the film that James underwent special training to shoot.

“Part of Tom’s whole ‘brand’ is that he does his own stunts,” she explains, “so he likes to have myself there to prove it.

“At one point, he got up and he walks into the centre of the plane with the back open, and he looked at me and he gestured like, ‘Come on, let’s take a shot’.

However, at that point, the photographer was safely belted-in at the rear of the cargo area, far from the open hatch where the crucial shots would actually happen.

“I just sort of turned to the skydiving professional beside me like, ‘What do we do now?’. I wasn’t wearing a parachute, so she clipped herself to me and the two of us ran out to the middle of the plane. I quickly took a few stills and then we hurried back before I ran out of breath.

A photo of Tom Cruise in his Halo jump gear, bathed in red light, taken in the belly of a C17 transport plane by Mission: Impossible - Fallout unit stills photographer Chiabella James
2017: A Tom Cruise odyssey. This shot was used as a cover for Total Film magazine. Picture by Chiabella James

“And then Tom jumped out the back.”

Eventually, Chia persuaded the stunt unit to give her her own oxygen tank and a safety tether long enough to get right up to the open cargo door in order to capture the actual moment of the jump itself.

That kind of thing was a world away from her recent job on Emerald Fennell’s acclaimed drama/thriller Saltburn, underlining the varied skill set required of a good unit stills photographer.

A unit stills photo of Alison Oliver, Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan in Saltburn by Chiabella James
Picture by Chiabella James (Chiabella James/Chiabella James/Prime Video)

“As a creative, there is something lovely about ‘changing it up’,” enthuses Chia, who recently published a book of her photography from the set of Dune: Part One.

“However, I have to say that coming out of Dune and going straight into Saltburn was actually slightly intimidating. You know, there were no battle scenes, no epic adventure to catch visually – it was all little facial expressions and framing.

A photograph of Barry Keoghan as Oliver, in the bath, in Saltburn, taken by Chiabella James
Barry Keoghan. Picture by Chiabella James

“I came into that going ‘Oh my God – can I do this?’. But it worked out wonderfully. Barry [Keoghan] and the cast were fantastic. I think what helped was it felt like a passion project for everyone involved.

“All members of that ensemble cast really wanted to work with each other – and me.”

Barry Keoghan as Oliver in Saltburn, carrying a birthday cake with lit candles down the stairs while wearing antlers, photographed by Chiabella James
A shot from the climactic birthday party scene, featuring Barry Keoghan as Oliver (Chiabella James/Chiabella James/Prime Video)

Chiabella James: Capturing A Film In One Shot, Friday March 1, RENDR, Portview Trade Centre, Belfast, 9pm. Tickets and full RENDR festival programme available at rendrfestival.com.