DPP Home Profiles Nels Israelson - Lights, Camera, Action

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.

“Often the images I deliver aren't intended to be used exactly as I shoot them,” he explains. “It's important to leave flexibility in the image so that we don't foreclose on good options down the line. For example, I wouldn't be doing my job if I delivered truly rim-lit silhouette character shots with black shadows. There's no reason that the shadows can't have plenty of detail in there. You can always crank up the contrast in post, but if the shadows are black, you can't get anything back if you want it later. The digital backs have wider latitude than film—up to 12 stops. But as you prep your shoot, you can create a profile for the captured images that ramps up the contrast, nudges the global color balance, and locks the look you're creating into all your previews. The beauty of this is that you can come back later and reprocess the RAW camera file differently. So part of what I need to do is interpret the intended destination for the image and deliver material that gets you there, but that also can be tweaked in a new direction if need be. This is why I'll often deliver a prototype that takes it that last step. I don't want the client to look at the shoot I deliver and say, “Hey, I thought we were going for a dark, contrasty comic book look?”

The Comic Book Look

The comic book look is everywhere in Israelson's portfolio. Although he shoots campaigns for a variety of films, it's the comic books that stand apart. Along with Spider-Man, he has shot for Daredevil, The Punisher, Spawn, X-Men and Fantastic Four. He always has been interested in the dark and dramatic nighttime lighting of many comics, but Israelson is equally gifted with more traditional portraiture. He got his start photographing musicians, and even then he had a flair for the dramatic.

“I'd make a more dramatic shot than necessary for a basic publicity shot, and this would wind up as part of the album package,” he recounts. “Then I moved into specifically shooting photo illustrations for albums as well as portraits and band shots. I just went from one project to the next and tried to make something extra-special or fun or eerie happen on each shoot. I got into the movie business simply by working in L.A., as there was a lot of overlap between the people designing music packaging and those designing film campaigns.

“I'm not into the Hollywood hustle,” says Israelson. “I don't advertise, I almost never do lunch or social stuff, and since I've never shot editorial work where I'd actually get a photo credit, my name isn't known outside a very small circle. So whether the agency suggests me to the studio or vice versa, it's all about this small group of key people feeling confident that together we're going to get the ball down the field. The goal isn't to make art—it's to get the public excited about a film. But my personal sense of it is that the film-going public responds to an elegant, well-crafted image as much as all the marketing metrics. If you can do that extra bit of lifting to really grab people by the eyeballs, then you're dealing in magic, not marketing. And if that doesn't sell a movie, nothing will.”

Along with grabbing viewers by the eyeballs, Israelson sometimes applies a more subtle approach to his work. He even has mastered his own digital style of classical portraiture, reminiscent of the iconic images from the golden age of Hollywood.

“I've always been a big fan of George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Horst, Irving Penn…,” Israelson says. “When I started really trying to light like those guys, I didn't like using hot lights because my studio was in an old brick coffee warehouse in downtown L.A. and there was no air conditioning. People don't look glamorous when they're gushing sweat, so I found ways to simulate that hard lighting look with modern studio strobes. But there's a problem: shoot someone on large-format with hard lighting and even a two-year-old can look lunar. I had to learn how to do that old-fashioned technique called etching and spotting on my 16x20 black-and-white prints. You literally shave away the surface of the paper with a tiny blade to lighten the dark spots, then use inks with a spotting brush to knock down the light spots. After years of that kind of handwork, I can blaze at Photoshop when I need to clean up a skin tone. This allows me to shoot with that hard lighting and not get assassinated by some actor's publicist.”


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