Behind The Scenes with Bil Zelman

November 8, 2012

By Jacqui Palumbo

© Bil Zelman

Halloween party for 2012 Bud Light campaign.

Bil Zelman has learned over the years that snapping the picture is not the most challenging part of his photo shoots. “I feel my role has become more that of a director than a photographer,” he comments. “The real work is planning and creating the perfect environment and mood.”

Zelman’s images celebrate spontaneity and he always aims to be as authentic as possible. He became an observer at a young age and photographed his surroundings as he wandered through his teenage years, away from home. “I was always good behind the lens and shot bands and friends and the culture around me. It pretty much chose me as a profession,” he says.

Keeping that sense of genuineness as an observer is always a main point of focus for Zelman. When asked to convey an emotion in a photograph, he doesn’t ask his subjects to act it out. Rather, he creates a setting that will evoke the emotions in his subjects. In the past year, he says he has been asked to shoot campaigns that emote contentedness, pride, elation, celebration, defeat, consolation, intelligence, a sense of loss and pensiveness. He explains. “Figuring out ways to make those people genuinely feel those emotions is the secret sauce.”

Earlier this year, Zelman was commissioned to shoot a year’s worth of campaigns for Bud Light in collaboration with agency McGarryBowen. The themes, which included Halloween, a Vail snow sport theme, NHL and UFC, were all shot during one week but will be launched at timed points throughout the year. Zelman worked closely with the art buyer and with Creative Director Frank Dattalo to plan out the shoots. He says, “They really believed strongly in my suggested production approach and fought hard to let me run things in a way the client had never seen before.”

Above: Outtake from Zelman’s Bud Light shoot.

Zelman was asked to create a genuine sense of excitement in the first Halloween shoot, so he and producer and casting director Heather Smith decided to throw a real party and offered a prize for the best homemade costume. He hired a local DJ he frequently works with and had food grilled and drinks served for the duration of the shoot. Smith and Zelman almost always hire non-pro talent because “they don’t arrive with pre-conceived notions or expectations,” he says. He isolated them from production as much as possible, keeping the client, agency and digitec all out of site in another area. 

As the party progressed, Zelman started to pull the “heroes” together to interact. He was careful not to interfere too much. “The trick is not to let people know what you expect of them or want them to do and get them reacting to things,” he explains. If he noticed anyone begin to “act” for the camera, he would introduce a new obstacle to drive them in a different direction.

This method is what Zelman often uses to illicit certain moods for his imagery, but when he strips down his production, he finds that improvisation is also his friend. When he met with the KCRW 89.9 Los Angeles Marketing and Art Director director Greg Lewis at a nightclub, they struck up a conversation on the radio station’s long-standing tradition of photographing influential figures and celebrities. Zelman’s 90-second celebrity portrait series KCRW Diaries was born.

Zelman began arriving at the station to meet with guests on KCRW, but the guests were not told he would be asking for their portrait. In 90 seconds, he had to meet them, convince them and take the shot. So far, he has photographed personalities such as Kristen Wiig, Werner Herzog, Thurston Moore, Kimbra, Don Cheadle, Jason Segel, Glenn Frey and Louis C.K., among others.

Adaptation comes naturally to Zelman, and was necessary in this setting. The shoots take place in the recording studio in a 350 square-foot area underneath a staircase. “On multiple occasions I’ve found myself balancing with one foot on the wall and another on stacks of water cooler bottles, all while trying to convince my subject that I know what I’m doing and that this guy they’ve never met before is a serious photographer,” he laughs. He has also cut down on the equipment he initially brought sticking to his camera, two lenses, a few black clothes and nets and a small flash, learning that “less is more” works best for this project.

Constantly keeping his subjects engaged and in motion generates the best result. When photographing comedic actress Kristen Wiig, he challenged her to make 20 faces in 30 seconds. “She stared at me for a second and I made a loud noise like a bird,” he recalls “I made a face at her and she laughed and made a face back, and I made one at her and she one back. It was this beautiful little dance we were doing and I simply snapped one shot each time she hit a pose.”

Top: Actress and comedian Kristen Wiig in 90 seconds.
Bottom: German filmmaker Werner Herzog in 90 seconds. 

The project is ongoing and Zelman says it has challenged him to innovate his techniques and gain perspective on the way he shoots. He is constantly evolving and honing his craft, but he says when it comes down to it, his style is ingrained in him. “My artistic style is really the accumulation of my life experiences. There’s a big piece of me in all of my work and you can tell it’s mine whether it’s personal work hanging in a gallery, a poster of Ozzy Ozbourne or a Coca Cola campaign,” he says. “There’s a thread there I can’t cut.”

For more of Bil Zelman’s work, visit his Web site.