Trying a new “method”….


Shooting head shots for actors in Los Angeles for over 35 years has brought a host of experience my way.  Just when I think I’ve seen everything, some wacky actor comes up with a whole new weirdness.

I once had an actor walk over and touch my forehead with her index finger and inform me that she had to “get in touch with my third eye” before we could shoot. I was just glad she didn’t stick her finger in either of the other two eyes.

This last decade has brought a wave of “Method Actors” that feel compelled to get in touch with their deep feelings before they can smile for a commercial shot. Any photo seems to come with a period of time where they stare at the floor and dig up piles of past crap so they can emote.

While I think this is a big fat waste of time and energy, I nevertheless, just hang out by my camera waiting for them to make their magic so I can take a photo.

Here’s a video of one such actor. He’s kind of new at this, but I think he has talent. He seemed to lose it at the very last second though and took it out on his cell phone.


Japan Trip – Glass Making

A day after the funeral, we decided to do something creative to cheer us up.
My GF’s friend, Seri, set up the glass making class for me.

MichaelHelms - actors Headshot photographer









Michael Helms - actors Headshot photographer My cheek hurt … it’s hard to get the bubble going, but once you do, then it gets easier.







CLICK HERE for Michael Helms – Glass Making Video
Michael Helms - actors Headshot photographer

I decided to make a bowl. I chose a kind of teal color with a red rim. Here we are shaping it a bit before blowing again to enlarge it.

Michael Helms - actors Headshot photographer Michael Helms - actors Headshot photographer



Here I’m expanding the opening in the bubble to create a bowl. It takes a little pressure at first and getting the bowl perfectly round is tricky.




Still expanding the bubble to form the bowl while the glass is red hot. Then I changed the angle of the tongs to flare the top of the bowl a bit.


In these last two photos, you can see the finished bowl. It has a bubble in the glass, a flaw but some glass blowers think of it as character and leave them in. I like the “flaw”.

Also…my bowl isn’t perfectly symmetrical, but

again, I like it. Gives it character.

Michael Helms - actors Headshot photographer

Michael Helms - actors Headshot photographer


Today’s Odd Journey

I flew hang gliders for about 34 years but officially retired about 6 years ago. It was a sad day and I miss flying terribly. Today I drove over to the place where all the hang gliders land.

Soon as we exchanged greetings my friend Joe offered,”Hey wanna fly this glider?” and I said “Nah, I don’t have a harness” then another pilot/friend, Fred volunteered,”I’ve got a harness”. Me,”I don’t have a helmet”. Fred,”I have a helmet, too!”

Next thing I knew, I was headed up the mountain with a truck load of fellow flyers. We quickly set up our flying machines then ran off the mountain into the beautiful sky. I visited places a few miles away that I hadn’t seen in a long time and watched as a Red Tailed Hawk circled in an updraft hundreds of feet below me.

So many memories from hundreds of hours floating thousands of feet above the Earth were flooding my brain.

One particular memory was  meeting my dear friend, Wayne Yentis.  I met Wayne 25 years ago in the hang gliding landing zone (LZ). He was a tall lanky man with a twinkle in his eye and was most probably the brightest individual I have ever met. Truly a renaissance man… he was an artist, a photographer, an electrical engineer, a musician, a computer genius, an inventor (of  the Clavitar) and a host of other things. He knew more about more than anyone I have ever known. Wayne had a recording studio in his house and was constantly sending me files of music he had written, played, and produced. Beautiful music.

One particular day I was in his studio and we were having a beer…or two…or many… and I got this goofy idea to take Karaoke music and substitute hang gliding lyrics. It was utterly silly stuff that made no sense to anyone other than another hang glider pilot but in our compromised condition, it seemed a marvelous plan.

I said to Wayne “How about “I got VG?” as I sang the tune of “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher.  He beer giggled.

For non-hanglider pilots, VG stands for “Variable Geometry” and refers to a string a hang glider pilot can pull that changes the shape of the wing in flight.

Then I started singing “On the Road Again” just like Willie Nelson, except I sang “In the Air Again.”

More beer giggles as Wayne recorded and mixed it.

The following week, I played one of our recordings for a fellow pilot who unwittingly believed we were serious and asked for a copy of it! Nothing feeds a gag like having an audience so I drove back to Wayne’s house with more beer, more Karaoke, and more silly lyrics. We recorded 15 songs, 12 of which made our cut onto the “Pelican Tunes” CD. When word got out, the local pilots bought them like hotcakes, then the Editor of Hang Gliding Magazine somehow got his paws on a CD and gave it a rave review in the international magazine! We were amused that pilots enjoyed the absurdity and got the jokes. Orders started coming in and we sold this CD all over the world.  That was over 7 years ago.

Today after about an hour of flight, I touched down and chatted with the guys in the LZ, when one of them mentioned “Pelican Tunes” had been used in a video of the European Hang Gliding Championships. I was shocked to say the least. SO…I did what any irresponsible gag writer would do, I Googled it…and wow….there it was…

I  seriously considered doing “Pelican Tunes 2” but Wayne Yentis passed away this Wednesday January 23rd, and with the passing of my partner in crime, my motivation is gone. The lyrics in my desk drawer will have to collect dust as the ink fades.

But have a beer and enjoy our goofy time together on YouTube.

Here’s to Wayne.

Repost – Japan Trip 2011 – Final 2 days – Sendai-Fukushima-Tokyo-LAX

A final word on Minamisanriku, then on to Fukushima.

There was one building I really wanted to shoot when we went to Minamisanriku. It was the place where Miki Endo worked. She was a lovely vibrant 24 year old newly wed who worked at the Minamisanriku Disaster Response headquarters. It was her responsibility to announce the warning of an approaching tsunami.

“Tsunami warning, get to higher ground”, she repeated over and over again. In many of the videos from that fateful day, you can hear her voice echoing through the town as water rushed in and swallowed everything in it’s path. She was on the second floor of the building. Thirty people worked there and when the tsunami came they all rushed higher and higher but Miki stayed at her post issuing warnings until the very last second in an effort to save as many lives as possible. Along with others, she hurried to the roof, but the raging tsunami ripped the skin off the building and gutted it, taking everything and everyone inside, and then it rose even higher. Among the people working in that building was the Mayor of Minamisanriku. Nine people made it to the roof pushing their Mayor ahead of them…but still the tsunami rose higher. They climbed a radio antenna and clung to life while just inches beneath their feet all the places knew and people they loved disappeared beneath the roaring torrent.
Nine people will never forget that day, suspended above the furious tsunami, clinging to fragile life while 21 of their friends and coworkers, including Miki Endo, were devoured in the deluge.

Minamisanriku by Michael Helms photographyThis is a composite photo of the building where Miki and 29 others, worked. The top frame is as it was, the center frames show the Mayor and 8 others hanging on for the lives while the entire building is devoured, then the water begins to recede. The bottom frame, I shot, and you can see MUCH of the debris has been bulldozed away. Initially, people wanted to make the building a memorial to Miki and the tsunami victims, but her parents (who were saved by their daughters warnings), could not bear to pass by it and asked for it to be demolished.

Miki Endo’s body was recovered in April.

When we left the hotel at Minamisanriku, 3 attendants rushed out with a 10 foot long banner that said “Thank you for coming!” and then they bowed graciously as our bus pulled away. It was raining.
It was a couple of hours bus ride back to Sendai to catch a train to Fukushima. On the bus my gf got a call and turned to me,”Wanna do a shoot in Sendai!?”
Me,”Huh? Uh….OK!”
Sometimes I think she knows every single person in Japan. Someone heard we were there and knew my work. This guy SHU CHIBA represented a Taiko Drum group. This particular group has been traveling a lot doing fund raisers for the earthquake/tsunami victims. They wanted to shoot at this particular shrine in Sendai that is the grave site of Date Masamune who was the founder of Sendai. If you Google him, it’s a fun read.
Hauling all my gear and a packed suitcase, we caught a bus for a half hour bumpy ride, then walked another 6 blocks to the entrance of the shrine. When we arrived at the shrine we rounded a corner and stopped dead in our tracks, staring at 650 million wet and slippery stone steps.
Michael Helms Photography, Actors headshot los angeles“Awww…. I can’t do this” my gf whined.
“YOU got us into this, so come on…they wanna shoot up there…so let’s go!” I grumbled
When we got to the top we were sweating in the chilly drizzle. There was a kiosk where the band and their rep were hiding out, so we all exchanged greetings and headed out to our shooting location. Much to our horror, we rounded a corner and came face to face with another set of 650 million wet and slippery stone steps.
I glared at my gf but couldn’t be irritated because she looked like a soaked kitty and she was just standing transfixed staring glassy eyed at the steps.
Michael Helms Photography, Actors headshot los angelesIf misery does indeed love company, it didn’t seem to exhibit itself that day. Even the Taiko Band made jokes about their location choice. But fortunately, there was a nice location at the top where we could shoot and they could be out of the rain. Unfortunately, yours truly, had to stand in the drizzle and try to get a good shot in between tourists walking through the backgrounds of my shots.

Michael Helms Photography, Actors headshot los angelesWe took a taxi back to the station, caught a train for Fukushima, and watched out the window as the clouds parted in time for a lovely sunset.
Yet another bar in Fukushima. More sake tasting. More staggering back to our room…well, I staggered… my gf can put me under the table SOOOO easily. Whatever.
We are upwind and on the opposite side of the mountain range that separates Kitikata from the nuclear reactors that blew. There is less radiation here than there is in Tokyo but just the NAME ‘Fukushima” stops people in their tracks, so the economy in this area is suffering horribly. It’s so sad because the crops here are fantastic but are virtually unmarketable.
At 6 AM we received a wake up call from Mom Nature… an earthquake. I’m a kind of twisted sort – I LIKE earthquakes. Only one made me nervous and that one was the 6.7 Northridge earthquake of 1994. I lived 10 miles from the epicenter. So the Fukushima quake was kinda fun but a solemn reminder of all we had so recently seen and experienced.

We took a nice tour of the city with a local guide and he overwhelmed us with tons of information about this 1500 year old city. Many of the buildings have double roofs for insulation. Fukushima is known for it’s roof tiles, brick, soy sauce, and of course, the local sake. So, of course, part of our tour was, yet again, another sake brewery. Geeez… Japan was beating me to death… I finished the tour in a daze after sampling all the local brews.

I would like to pause for a brief second and say one thing. Of ALL the MANY and PLETHORA things I love about Japan and it’s culture… what the hell is it with their TOILET PAPER!!!! It’s so thin you can almost see through it and you have to be careful not to get a paper cut. OK…it’s not THAT bad but GEEEEZ PEOPLE… you have complicated electronic toilets but ya can’t get the paper right!??? WTF??? OK…rant over.

Michael Helms actors headshot Los AngelesNow…I feel better…so back to my story. We were driven around the city by the owner of the local sake brewery YAMATOKAWA  (don’t ask me how my gf knew HIM – she seems to know everyone on Earth) and we stopped at a town center where a small gathering of locals were celebrating a low key version of harvest festival. They invited all five of us to have lunch with them (by this time we had been joined by my friend Jim Beaver and his guide, Kazumi) so we sat down to a HUGE spread of marvelous marvelous food. My girlfriend’s ancestors are from this area, so as we spoke with the locals, they connected the dots and several of them, it turns out, actually knew her grandmother. “She was a good Doctor” one guy said nodding approvingly.
Michael Helms actors headshot Los AngelesBut then… “She was a drunk…. and she touched me!” said his friend.
Maybe it was the sake but I’m pretty sure that was one of the funniest things ever uttered by a human being. The timing couldn’t have been better.
In her defense, my girlfriend’s Grandma WAS a good doctor and was VERY aware that the locals often didn’t have the money to pay her. So they brought her food, housewares, and of course, SAKE! Being Japanese, she HAD to drink it so as not to offend. It also came to light that her “touching” was chest tapping done during an examination. But…even so, it was hysterically funny and delivered ever so perfectly by an eight hundred and thirty five year old wrinkled little Japanese man. Classic.
From the celebration we drove over to a property still owned by my girlfriend’s family. I had visions of fixing up the house there and turning it into a Bed and Breakfast and getting out of Los Angeles… going somewhere that I can’t actually see and taste the air.

Michael Helms actors headshot Los AngelesWe boarded a train and headed for Tokyo, our heads spinning with 11 days of madness. More than once on this trip, I had asked where we were.
Back at the Tokyo Hilton we picked up a few bags we had stored and headed for Narita Airport. We passed, I kid you not, a hotel named “First Wood”… then “Hotel Slit”… then “Hotel Rainbow”. I guess some things just don’t translate.
My friend Jim speaks a bit of Japanese so he did his best to leave a good impression. As he was getting off the bus, he MEANT to say,”Thank you for driving us”… but he attempted to use past tense and failed. What came out was, basically, “Thank you for driving us… NOT!”
We are STILL laughing WITH him over that.

I stopped in one of the tourist trap shops to buy a pen before we boarded and was a bit undecided. My gf handed one to me and said “this one!”. I guess I must have looked at her quizzically because she snapped,”Hey, I’m Japanese, I know more about pens and toilets than you do!”
I bought the pen… and by the way…she was right.

On board the plane I watched the little monitor’s trace of our flight path over the ocean. I didn’t want to leave that beautiful charming land. I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend EVERYONE visit Japan. It fits the bill for something John Muir once said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread…places to play in and pray in…”.

Repost – Japan Trip 2011 – 11/17 & 18 Sendai-Akita-Minamisanriku

Today we are back on the bullet train heading for Akita. Funny thing about bullet trains…they don’t turn around but rather go to a destination the go backwards over the same tracks. As a result of this, all the seats rotate 180 degrees so passengers can always be facing forward. But it’s odd to look for your seat and notice the numbers going up sometimes and down sometimes depending on which way you are headed.
We had a nice breakfast in Sendai. My girlfriend went ahead to our room to pack while I took a few photos. I went to the restroom in the lobby and as I sat there communing with nature and enjoying the wonderfully heated toilet seat, I noticed a narrow  door in front of me. Out of curiosity, I opened it. A mop with gloves fell out of it and scared the crap out of me! Curiosity will be the death of me.  As I left the restroom, I realized I couldn’t remember what room we were in, I didn’t have the key, and I most assuredly didn’t speak Japanese. Fortunately the charming young ladies at the front desk were helpful and spoke enough English to get me on my way.
Michael Helms Los Angeles Actors Headshot PhotographyWe had purchased a JR (Japan Rail) pass for our trip and it has been wonderfully convenient. So much better than buying tickets every time. It has probably saved us over a thousand dollars in all our travels.
On the way to the airport, our cab driver told us that although he and all his family survived the tsunami, his condo was swept away. I would imagine every person in Sendai has some sort of story about that fateful day.
At the station my girlfriend struck up a conversation with a little old lady who was headed to Akita for a reunion with some of her classmates. She was 86! She was so delightful, cheery, and full of life. She declared,” I will die with my legs and brain working!” So adorable. She gave us 3 heart shaped little felt bags with lavender in them that she had made by hand. Their aroma was yummy.
Out the window of the train we are passing through beautiful autumn colors with snow capped mountains that remind me of my boyhood days in Virginia. The difference is, sticking out of the gently rolling, tree covered mountains, is an occasional steep sided, two times taller, snow covered volcanic peak! Japan is a land of fire and ice, for sure.

Again, it is an odd time displacement, that from the last words I wrote til now has been 18 houMichael Helms Los Angeles Actors Headshot Photographyrs. We arrived in Akita and had just enough time to catch a cab, throw our stuff in the hotel, and meet our ride to Akita University where my girlfriend and I are guest speakers. We’re addressing a bunch of students there on the topic ” the conditions of success in Hollywood and effective ways of cross cultural communication, image making, and self advertisement.”
One of my girlfriend’s specialities is corporate training in the area of body language, speech patterns, and intercultural communications. I spoke about corporate image making with, of course, the emphasis on photography and corporate style and marketing imagery. We opened it up after our talks for questions, and had so much fun teasing the students. We got a good laugh by calling their “Drama Club”, the “drunk club”. My girlfriend and I are a good speaking team because we banter a lot. The professor in charge, who was a co-founder of the University, told the student body,”Let’s finish this, so they can continue their argument!” Everyone laughed. It was a lovely evening and charming to see all those young faces with so much of life in front of them. It was so apparent they all had hopes and dreams and I wondered how many of them would realize even a tenth of what they hoped. Most of all, I felt so fortunate to have seen and done all the things I have in my life, including standing where I was at that moment.
Akita International University has, in only 8 years, become the number one foreign language (the students are all required to speak English) school in Japan. An amazing accomplishment.
Professor Katsumata treated us to a wonderful dinner afterwards and again, I got buried in sake. The Japanese can drink and I’m such a lightweight. After ONE day sober, here I was staggering back to my hotel room. My lovely girlfriend can easily put me under the table every time even though she’s a teeny thing. For some reason I don’t get a pounding headache from it though, so that’s good.

Another morning… right now we are on yet another bullet train heading back to Sendai and on to Minamisanriku. While I am looking forward to it, I also have grave feelings of dread. It is a city that was 95 percent destroyed by the tsunami. Fifty percent of the population was washed away. How to shoot it and put a positive spin on that sort of subject matter is clearly impossible but I hope to capture something that speaks of hope. What we are heading for , I am sure will be an immensely moving experience so I will carry a box of kleenex. Strange to be riding the train through beautiful countryside, peaceful farmlands, and lovely homes, knowing I am headed for ground zero of one of Japan’s most horrific natural disasters.

Another time displacement…we spent the night here in Minamisanriku at the gorgeous Kanyo Hotel. It’s unbelievably beautiful. The hotel sits up on a cliff about 150 feet above the ocean. The foundation structures go deep into the rock and all the way to the water. The tsunami tore apart some of the foundation and part of the first floor but the hotel held strong and has been almost completely repaired. It reminds me of Monterey, California. I hope what happened here will never occur there.
We had an amazing dinner. It’s so hard to function normally here knowing what the people in this area have experienced. After we checked in and were headed to our room, we noticed an art show in the lobby. Some wonderful paintings by artist Toshie Hashidate. She was there signing autographs, so we stopped to chat. SEVEN of her family members died in the tsunami. I noticed the head shot on her promo wasn’t very good, so I asked if I could take her photo. She was kind and gracious. I set up some lights and shot her standing next to a row of her paintings. She was gracious and grateful for her new photos. As my girlfriend chatted with her, they discovered they were from the same neighborhood in Chiba, near Tokyo. Small world.
On a side note, it’s so refreshing to be able to shoot most anywhere I want. In Los Angeles, I’d have to get a permit, hire security, and sign all sorts of waivers to shoot in a hotel lobby. Here I didn’t even ask and people were happy to see a photo shoot taking place.
Our room is on the 10th floor facing straight into the Pacific. I can’t begin to imagine the horror they must have seen coming across the water. How do you watch 95 percent of your city wash away knowing many of your friends were taken? This was a resort town but now it is a tragic skeleton. The fishermen who still had boats went right back to work. And oddly, they are building more structures right down near the water’s edge. It seems they HAVE to do this in order to ensure the catch of the day is fresh when they cut it up and prepare it for market and this is Salmon season.
The river that flows through what used to be a town is calm these days except for the fact, it is full of spawning salmon. The salmon have no idea what happened, so they have returned full force with less pressure on their numbers since most of the town has been washed away.It’s odd to see lots and lots of dead Salmon (they swim up the river,spawn, and then die) all over the river banks. It seems strangely metaphorical.. sort of a “cycle of life” kinda thing, I guess. I got very emotional watching the salmon struggle through the shallow parts of the river. I’m sure it is because, just being here, brings everything that is human and compassionate so very close to the surface.

Much of Minamsanriku cannot be rebuilt because the whole area subsided and when the tide comes in, it is now underwater. Some places went down 6 feet or more.

More on all of this when I get home. I have no more time free while we are here…
Off to have more sake! F**K sobriety…I’ll dry out when I get home!   :)