Thursday, June 14, 2007
Nels Israelson - Lights, Camera, Action
Nels Israelson does more than put the public face on Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. He sculpts light and creates a distinct mood that makes his photographs stand out.
Shooting with a composite in mind isn't the same as relying on a retoucher to fix it in post, however. Big-budget, extensively collaborative advertising campaigns that often accompany major motion pictures make it even more essential that the photographer excel in the studio. Elements from lighting design to depth of field are established in-camera to create an ultimately believable and “realistic” image.
“We knew the final image would be backlit and would have a golden tone, so I used strong backlighting with lots of low-angle fill,” says Israelson of the Spider-Man image. “An overall golden look is more fruitfully accomplished in post, but I used a variety of warm and cool tones in my lighting to enhance the depth of the image and to simulate the look of magic hour. The Spider-Man suit itself was, of course, designed to be photographed. It's a work of genius and a wonder to light—gorgeous textures and an iridescent sheen. Lighting a piece of art like that suit is unlike working with conventional attire; it's more like lighting a bronze sculpture in the way it wants carefully placed highlights. So part of the illustrated look comes from the wacky lighting, part from the suit itself and a good measure of noodling in post.”
That postproduction work is delivered by a team of creative artists and retouchers guided by the studio's marketing plan and the art department of the agency in charge. Although he ultimately may be limited in terms of delivering finished images, Israelson often is involved in the conceptual decision-making from the get-go. Even when he isn't around for the genesis of an idea, he's sure to make his influence felt by delivering more than what his clients ask for. For Israelson, that's a necessity in the digital era.
“I'm one of the many nuts and bolts in the machinery that creates these images,” he explains. “It's a collaborative process from the outset to the end, with overlapping teamwork that includes sometimes dozens of people at the various stages. It's a lot like moviemaking in many ways—kind of a fractal miniature of that process—and I'm usually more like a cinematographer than a director. Sometimes I get to read a screenplay and participate in the process of visualizing concepts; sometimes I'm not included in the conceptual process at all. Sometimes the conceptual process only catches traction after the photography is delivered, in which case I'm on a kind of fishing expedition.
“For me, the shoot is the creation of a library of options,” he continues. “Sometimes this is very specific and preordained. Sometimes we're really just seeing what can be spontaneously cooked up from the ingredients of the actor's portrayal of the character, the on-site creative direction of the advertising agency and the input from the marketing department of the studio.”
The desire to create images that deliver the correct mood, but still allow enough room for adaptation and alteration means the photographer must be comfortable with his studio techniques, and the limitations and nuances of his equipment. Increased latitude becomes crucial, and refined lighting ratios and precise exposure control allow Israelson to feel confident that an image can meet the dramatic requirements of a concept as well as the practical ones.
“There are some aspects of the shoot that have changed for me with the high-res digital backs, such as the ability to have perfect calibrated review of every frame right there on set,” says Israelson. “I can tweak my lighting with so much more precision knowing that I'm essentially seeing a finished image. It also allows less over-coverage, as the client, art director and I can see a proof sheet with just a few great frames on it and know we can move on to other setups.
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