Actin filament dynamics underlie key cellular processes, such as cell motility. Although actin filament elongation has been extensively studied under the past decades, the mechanism of filament nucleation remains unclear. Here, we immobilized gelsolin, a pointed-end nucleator, at the bottom of zero-mode waveguides to directly monitor the early steps of filament assembly. Our data revealed extensive dynamics and that only one, of two populations, elongates. Annalysis of the kinetics revealed a more stable trimer but a less stable tetramer in the elongating population compared to the non-elongating one. Furthermore, blocking flattening, the conformational change associated with filament formation, prevented the formation of both types of assemblies. Thus, flattening and the initial monomer arrangement determine gelsolin-mediated filament initiation.