When shark-obsessed photographer Michael Muller isn't working on campaigns for Marvel's movies, he's diving for great whites.
Like the fictional comicbook character that exclusively captures images of Spider-Man, Muller has become Marvel’s go-to-photographer to shoot the best angles of its superheroes.
As is the case with most photographers hired by Hollywood’s studios, Muller isn’t a household name, but his work’s certainly recognized around the globe, appearing on posters, billboards, inside movie theaters, and even on soda cans and toy packaging.
His work can currently be seen in Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 3” campaign, which has been rolling out gritty battle-worn character portraits for the upcoming release, along with “Spring Breakers” the final season of “Spartacus,” Relativity’s “Out of the Furnace,” and “Olympus Has Fallen.”
But it’s his resume, that includes all of the “Iron Man” films, “The Avengers,” “X-Men First Class,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” as well as older Marvel-based titles like “Spider-Man 3,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “X-Men Origins Wolverine” that has made Muller Marvel’s man.
Like many jobs in Hollywood, Muller says relationships have been key in landing his gigs. And when it comes to Marvel, it all goes back to Muller’s years-long friendship with Iron Man, himself, Robert Downey Jr.
“We’ve just enjoyed working together,” Muller says. “Robert’s a genius artist to work with. I love shooting Robert. He turns on with the camera. He gives you the expressions. He’s so improvisational.”
That kind of trust has also paid off with Peter Berg, who involved Muller on his campaigns for “Hancock,” the short-lived NBC’s actioner “Trauma,” and more recently Universal’s “Battleship.”
Muller’s first foray into movie posters began with yet another Marvel-related campaign, Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” after studio marketing chief Tony Sella saw one of the photographer’s prints of Batman smoking crack.
“I knew nothing of the formula,” Muller says. “I wanted to do what I do and collaborate with actors.”
What’s also helped is that instead of posing actors in generic poses and stringing together shots for a final image, Muller prefers to shoot posters in camera, directing scenes on set where actors tend to feel more comfortable and are already in costume.
“In between takes, the actors will run in and create our own moments,” Muller said. “it’s much easier if you’re shooting a poster and they’re in character. Actors love it. They hate it when four weeks after the movie’s wrapped they have to come into the studio and do a photo shoot for the poster. They’re not comfortable taking pictures. For some reason, a still camera is a completely different thing than a film camera.”
Muller’s also gained respect for being quick. He shot “Iron Man” in 12 days, “Hancock” in 10 and “Battleship” for nine.
“If you can shoot fast and make (actors) look good they love it.”
Muller is one of only a dozen photographers studios turn to photograph their stars for their marketing materials. Not only is it a competitive business to compete in, but “very few people can deal with managers, agents, publicists, and studios,” Muller says. The time can be limited (sometimes just 20 minutes) with three different lighting set ups. But the main reason is who marketing teams can trust with talent.
“Trust is huge,” Muller says.
Over the years, comedians have proved his Muller’s toughest actors to work with.
“Comedians are definitely a dark bunch,” he says. “Everyone’s different but I try to gauge people when they step into the studio. When they come into my world I watch them. I try to read them. It’s part of my job — the study of people.
“With comedians they’re so funny you think they’re going to crack jokes,” he says. “They’re usually the opposite. They’re very serious and intense.
At the end of the day it boils down to comfortability, Muller says. “I have to earn (a person’s) trust really quickly,” he says. “I have to get them to trust me to show a side of them many people haven’t seen and co-create with me to make an amazing image.”
That trust factor isn’t expected to go away anytime soon. Not as more thesps feel the pressure to open films at a time when so many moviegoers are distracted by other sources for entertainment.
“Marketing is such a huge part now of movies,” Muller says. “There’s so much out there. If the marketing isn’t good it can have a detrimental effect on movies.”
Muller’s relationship with superheroes may explain why he has the courage to pursue his true passion: diving the depths of the world’s oceans to capture one of his favorite subjects, sharks.
He spends his free time funding trips that take him and his small staff to South Africa where he can chase sharp-toothed great whites.
The images he gets offer up an extreme spine chilling close up of these underwater beasts.
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the irony that one of Hollywood’s top photographers is obsessed with sharks. But the trips have proved more than just a hobby..
“They all affect each other,” Muller says. “The superhero stuff has effected the way I shoot sharks. The way I shoot the shark stuff effects the superhero stuff. The big commercial superhero stuff is what fuels and allows me to go do these trips to South Africa.”
But others have caught on to Muller’s obsession, with Discovery Channel licensing images for “Shark Week’s” 25th anniversary.
It’s hard to ignore the similarities between the powerful shark imagery and his superheroes.
Muller’s work is often centered around a strong individual in an iconic pose. He prefers them to be displayed that way, as well, and not muddled with too much extra text and added graphics.
“If you deliver a really strong image you don’t have to hide it with a bunch of font, a bunch of words,” he says, citing the Joaquin Phoenix film “I’m Still Here” and “The Avengers” as some of his favorites.
For Muller, marketing stills only work if the image looks real and resonates with the viewer. “There are so many components (that go onto a poster), you just pray it falls into place,” he says. “I do these shots and give (studios) the best photos I can and hope they don’t put too much stuff on it.”
His favorite film campaign: “X-Men: The Last Stand.”
“It was so completely different from any other superhero movie,” at the time, Muller says. “Plus, you always like your first.”