Kwaku Alston on shooting Shaq and his mom for new “Got milk?” ad

June is National Dairy Month, and to mark the occasion, an ad campaign is debuting today that pairs milk and Oreos starring NBA star Shaquille O’Neal and his mother, Lucille. (Side note: Can someone please establish National Oreos Month?) Here, Kwaku Alston, who shot the ad for Deutsch, writes about what it took to get the shot, including the challenge of making an Oreo look substantial in Shaq’s hands, which are the size of plates…

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Photo by Kwaku Alston for Deutsch.

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For National Dairy Month, Deutsch Advertising asked me to work with them on an image that represents a mother’s love within the “Got milk?” framework. The idea was that a mother is giving her son milk and Nabisco Oreos (milk and cookies—a classic gesture of maternal affection), and the stars of the ad were Shaquille O’Neal and his mom, Lucille. I worked closely with Bernie Hogya, the creative director, and Helen O’Neil, VP/director of art production, and ultimately we decided to pose Shaq and his mom against a gray seamless.

That may sound simple, but it was not as easy to pull off as you’d think. Days before the shoot, I happened to be talking with fellow photographer Walter Iosss over a few drinks, and he reminded me how large Shaq is and that any attempt to place him in a photo with someone else would make him seem gigantic and would result in a poor photo. Walter suggested it might be best to eliminate everything from the photo, except the skin tones, so that viewers’ attention would be focused on the facial expressions and product. The best way to achieve this was to make sure everything in the photo, including the clothing, was gray or as monochromatic as possible to blend into the background.

But I also had to figure out how to show the milk and Oreo cookie as heroes in the photo. One serving of milk is 8 ounces, and an 8 oz. glass may seem normal to you and me, but in Shaq’s hands it looks like a thimble. And the 1.5-inch-wide Oreo cookie appeared to be bite size. How could I make those stand out in Shaq’s larger-than-life hands? Lots of light—and I mean LOTS of light.

I give my production team, Tom Mason and Emily Vickers of Mason Vickers Productions, a lot of credit for making the shoot go smoothly. They helped to secure Quixote Studios and all the extras. It was also a thrill to watch “mustache maker” and food stylist Norman Stewart prepare the iconic Milk Mustache for Shaq and Lucille. Norman handpainted the staches so perfectly that little retouching was needed.

My retoucher Mandi Riggi, who’s based in LA, worked closely with me and the creative team at Deutsch to make this ad come to life. In the end, the campaign and final image look great. The gray seamless embodies the feeling we were going for: the bond between mother and son. Simple, clean…and full of milk and Oreo cookies. —Kwaku Alston

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