Coco van Oppens. Photo: Fiona McPherson
Coco van Oppens. Photo: Fiona McPherson

SA photographer lauded for capturing magic of the silverscreen

By Sam Spiller Time of article published Nov 24, 2020

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A Cape Town-based photographer has been accepted in a prestigious Hollywood fraternity.

Coco van Oppens is a avid photographer in the theatre and film industry. She is the first photographer from Africa to join the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers (SMPSP).

Coco van Oppens. Photo: Fiona McPherson

“We are thrilled to welcome Coco Van Oppens as our first Africa-based member, said society president Hopper Stone. ”Hopefully, one day we will exhibit in Africa as well, now that we are represented on the continent.“

“I feel elated, honoured, and privileged,” Van Oppens said. “It allows us to have access to the other members which is wonderful. You get so much information from them. Suddenly, the doors open for you.”

Founded in 1995, the society is an honourary organisation that focuses on the promotion and preservation of film and television still photographs, and carries out its mandate with the help of major film studios, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which hosts the Oscar awards ceremony every year.

Van Oppens said it was an honour to be accepted following a stringent approval process.

“You have to have so many years in the industry shooting stills, you’ve got to put together a curated portfolio for them,” she explained. “You need to curate something specific for them. You need to maybe find pictures that you wouldn’t normally show off, stuff that shows the more artistic side of being a unit stills photographer.”

Born in Johannesburg, Van Oppens travelled the world since a young age before going to the United States to study photography. She was a student at the Brooks Institute of Photography where she got her degree in commercial photography.

“My journey in film goes far back,” Van Oppens said. “Every one of them has its own magic.”

Van Oppens’ big break came in 1992. While living in Costa Rica, she was invited to join the crew of Ridley Scott’s film 1492, a biopic of explorer Christopher Columbus, starring Gérard Depardieu.

“I called them up, introduced myself and said I would like to work on the movie,” she said. “The guy I spoke to thought my name was quite funny so he said to come and see him. Because I speak Spanish, they thought I could be quite useful in the assistant director departments. I was put in the second unit as a third assistant director. My job included translating for the snake wranglers, moving the unit from place to place, and delivering call sheets.”

Since then, Van Oppens has worked internationally and has served as photographer for films such as Black Beauty and 24 Hours to Live, as well as TV shows such as The Crown, Call the Midwife, and Doctor Who.

Another major project Van Oppens worked on last year was the Amazon Prime series Raised by Wolves, which was executive produced by Ridley Scott and filmed at Lourensford wine farm near Somerset West.

Van Oppens local work includes still photography on the HBO Max series Raised by Wolves, executive produced by Ridley Scott and filmed in Cape Town. Picture: Coco van Oppens/Warner Media

During Level 5 of the lockdown, when South Africa’s filming productions ground to a halt, Van Oppens kept busy by collaborating with fellow photographer Nicky Newman to shoot photographs of the Mother City. “We were busy photographing this vastness and emptiness of Cape Town,” she said. “That was an interesting aspect of the lockdown I enjoyed.”

Van Oppens said her acceptance into SMPSP was indicative of a growing recognition of local talent in the film and television industry. “I speak to a lot of people on international sets and am always happy to hear they love South African crews,” she said. “The crews have grown with the amount of international productions that have come here. We understand what they need and how to get it. Back in the day, they used to send out their own stills photographers. They didn't think we were up to par.”

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