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.
By William Sawalich, Photography By Nels Israelson
Working With The Talent
Publicists are just one of the forces to be reckoned with when shooting celebrities. But unlike many photographers who get famous from photographing the famous, Israelson doesn't see his clientele as prima donnas. He enjoys working with actors because of their skill in front of the lens, and he especially values their input.
“I have a hard time with the term ‘celebrity,'” he says. “They're all real people to me. The big difference for my work is that I've never shot magazine portraits where the subjects are the actors being themselves. In working on film advertising campaigns, I don't shoot actors—I shoot characters. At times, I have the peculiar responsibility of giving small amounts of direction. But how would I ever presume to direct actors like Halle Berry or Ed Harris? At most, I try to provide a context where I can give feedback about how something is working to the camera, whether it's playing too big or too quietly, and maybe that a particular aspect of the character seems really juicy for the poster. You'd be amazed how much a skilled actor can throw into a lens in 10 minutes of focused work—after all, it's their job.”
Says Israelson, “I collaborate with everyone I photograph. That's the fun of it. It's like a conversation. That interplay brings life to the image we're making. Otherwise, to me, it's not photography; it's more like taxidermy: perhaps nice-looking, but dead.”
Acting For The Still Camera
"I was shooting Sir Ian McKellen for X-Men 2, and one of the poster ideas involved the entire cast striding toward us like gunslingers. I knew we had only a few minutes to work before he'd be needed back on the set, so I quickly described the idea. I said we'd be shooting everyone walking straight to camera and we'd composite a group in post. I showed him my focus mark on the stage floor. I stepped back a few paces, then walked across the mark to demonstrate, indicating that we'd cycle through this several times to get a variety of coverage as a fan was blowing his overcoat open.
"I moved back to the camera, asked Sir Ian to step to the mark for focus, then told him I was ready. He moved back several paces, then stopped. He looked forward, assumed an air of dignity and gravity as befits his character, took a halting step forward and stopped awkwardly. I trotted up to him, as he looked perplexed. He just looked at me and with complete earnestness he asked, 'How do you walk?'
"This is instructive, as I hadn't asked him to go somewhere. I'd just asked him to walk and essentially he'd realized this really wasn't enough to work with. After we had a brief chuckle I said, 'You could start here and take it as if you and your fellow X-Men are stepping out through a big doorway to confront the enemy.'
"Boom! Big difference. He strode across the mark and, after several perfect passes, he made this wonderful big gesture of reaching forward the way his character, Magneto, throws his power. I rushed up to him and told him we had plenty of great material of walking and that I wanted to move in and just frame in static on that power gesture, as if he was levitating me and my camera. I indicated tight framing around his head and shoulders and trotted back to the camera. He then silently unleashed a dozen-plus frames of gorgeous variations on that reaching gesture, ranging from menacing rage to childish wonderment. The whole time he kept his hands perfectly in frame, but just outside his face. Just thinking about that sequence still gives me chills."