Press & Stills
KODAK ON FILM Q & A
Q: How did you end up becoming a cinematographer?
A: At a young age, I knew I wanted to go into this field. I was interested in light, visual representation, photography and painting — but also in storytelling. By the age of 10 or 11, I was already writing stories that were full of description and imagery. By 15 or 16, I was saying I wanted to be a feature film cameraman.
When I was in CEGEP [college], schools were just starting to set up AV departments, and I was fascinated by the numerous possibilities. I took every course I could that had to do with film. A few of us students actually set up a kind of alternative film program, supervised by a teacher and the school. That's when I actually got involved in production. I knew I was hooked.
I entered the job market as soon as I finished college. I got a job as a clerk in the newsroom at Radio-Canada [the French side of Canadian public television, or CBC] and a few months later was offered a job as a film assistant. My tasks in that job ranged from operating the projector to cleaning film — and this was all for broadcast purposes, since TV still used film at that time [early 1970s]. Essentially, it was an assistant editor's job, but in a film versus video environment. TV stations had large film departments, including their own film labs.
At the end of my first year at CBC, I got a job as an assistant camera operator. For the next four years, I worked on several public affairs shows, but mainly one called Le 60. I was travelling extensively.
I learned a great deal by watching TV news camera operators during this time. The kind of 16 mm shooting they did required a lot of technical precision. The exposure had to be dead on. The film stock they used wouldn't allow any kind of under- or overexposure, even by a half-stop. What the cameramen shot was what aired. There was no colour timing.
This taught me a very rigorous and pragmatic approach to shooting. At that time, we travelled with a small suitcase containing a few 1,000-watt spots, a few gels and a little diffusion. We had to be able to use the power that was available on site and shoot quickly. Yet in spite of these constraints, the cameramen still wanted the shots to look good. I approached my camera assistant's job in the same way and helped them set up lighting. So I learned my job in the field, in a news environment.
Q: So you received a good deal of your initial training in this environment. You weren't inspired to go into documentary filmmaking?
A: If I had been more interested in shooting documentaries, I would have stayed on longer at CBC. But I knew that I wasn't just interested in facts and that I wanted to explore narrative filmmaking. This was already quite clear to me. I was already shooting and directing experimental narrative shorts. I also knew I wanted to go abroad and learn English. So I left CBC and got a scholarship to study in Britain, at the London International Film School, now called the London Film School. I really appreciated that the school was structured like a real film studio.
I'm still in touch today with people I worked with back then, almost 25 years ago. In fact, an American colleague from the LFS, Sarah Duvall, gave me one of my first breaks as a cinematographer when she came here to shoot a 35 mm short in 1979. That project was definitely a stepping stone — for her, for me and her American producer.
Q: Are there any specific films or directors that inspired you to become a cinematographer of feature films?
A: My desire to go into moviemaking came from Italian films from the late 1960s: Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini. I saw everything those directors had done and went to see all their new films as they were released. I was fascinated by Fellini's imagination, Pasolini's power of suggestion, and Antonioni's more obscure approach and his exploration of the human psyche. These were all major influences on my choice of a career. And these filmmakers certainly helped me see everything that could be accomplished with images and lighting.
A little later on, I came to admire the work of a few great cinematographers. I remember being very impressed with John Alcott's work, particularly his technique and lighting. I was fascinated by what these cinematographers could achieve, and that made me want to become a cinematographer. I was certainly influenced by Alcott, but also by John Seale, Vilmos Zsigmond and Vittorio Storaro, all for very different reasons.
Q: And when you came back from London, you found work easily enough?
A: Yes — and no. Since I already had some experience, I wasn't all that interested in getting work as a camera assistant. Instead, I wanted to make a name for myself as a cinematographer. Fortunately, I had done cinematography on a few independent projects here after I returned from London. That did help, and a director at Télé-Québec [Quebec public television, then called Radio-Québec], Roger Tétreault, gave me my first job. I wasn't yet 30 years old, and I started carving out a niche for myself in the private sector both as a cameraman and as a cinematographer, while developing my cinematography skills. It was a choice I had to live with. Initially, I definitely had less work.
Then I started doing second camera and second unit on feature films. That enabled me to become familiar with private production companies here. That was how I operated from 1982 to 1987.
Then I was hired by Spectel Video for the comedy series Rock et Belles Oreilles with director Michel Poulette. The show was in its second year and I went on to shoot it for two more years. That was certainly a turning point for me. Working on a long-term project, I was really able to focus on lighting like never before. We had to shoot a lot of sketches in a short time. It was a crazy show, so we were able to go crazy stylistically. We were able to experiment a lot — with contrast, textures and atmospheres. For TV, this was pushing the envelope, and it was exciting. I was able to try things I wouldn't have been able to do with the second unit on a feature film. In technical terms, video still required a lot of light in the late 1980s. We used chroma keys rather than the Ultimat, which already existed but which we didn't have access to. That was an added challenge, but great training, too.
Q: Your track record is quite varied, ranging from children's films and comedies to art films and features with very unique atmospheres — Sherlock Holmes films, films on organized crime, and the Les Grands Procès (Famous Trials) series. Would you describe yourself as having a specific style or hallmark?
A: I think every cinematographer has a unique way of treating light, his or her own process and favourite instruments, but basically, our job is to listen. I don't think I have a signature style. My job, as I define it, is to be attuned to the script, the cast and the director.
If you look at my credits, it's true that films such as Pin-Pon and La Nuit du déluge (Night of the Flood) represent very different styles. Pin-Pon takes viewers into a bright, childlike universe inspired by cartoons with highly saturated colours, whereas the universe of Bernar Hébert (who directed The Night of the Flood) is definitely more tormented and requires a greater use of shadows, for instance.
I would define cinematography as the art of translating the intentions of the script and the director's vision into light, atmospheres, colour and contrast. At the same time, we must lay bare the emotions we have been asked to convey and create continuity between the scenes we shoot.
On a more technical level, since film is a two-dimensional medium, I place great importance on creating the impression of a three-dimensional universe. Images must have depth; they must lead to something else.
On a symbolic level, this means that images must have a subtext: what the image means before a single word is spoken. This is very important and must always be considered. On the one hand, something is shown; on the other hand, something is said. Sometimes these two levels of meaning overlap, and sometimes they contradict each other. It's a kind of semiotic game, and I love being a part of it. Of course, the director is in charge of the game. But these issues must be addressed, otherwise we only shoot what is obvious.
Cinematography is not just about lighting. That kind of thinking is reductionist. Light helps to create meaning. A good script focuses on an essential conflict. As a cinematographer, I am looking for the essential light that will be the extension of that conflict and that will enable the viewer to experience it. I would define myself as someone who is attuned to what the director wants to accomplish.
As for my process, people have said that I'm very rigorous and that I leave nothing to chance. There are both scientific and artistic aspects to cinematography. It's important to understand the science of light, and That's partly why specialized training is essential because it helps you understand the chemistry of film stock, densitometry and optics. With that background, you understand the possibilities and limitations of film, and you learn how to deal with them and overcome them. Such manipulations are what enable us artists to achieve the renderings we want and to harness the magic.
Every step in the cinematographer's process is vital, but for me, preparation is the most important step. And it's a rich and stimulating one. I can spend entire days at the library, researching books about art, photography and even architecture. Anything can become a source of inspiration: a specific atmosphere in a historical setting, a line from the script, the opposition between two characters. I'm always on the lookout for any images that come to mind when I first read a script and that are suggested by the essential conflict in the story. These first impressions are often the best ones. The rest of the process unfolds in close collaboration with the director and the production designer.
And further down the line, technical preparation is also essential, in my opinion. In addition to the research I've already mentioned, this means carrying out tests to get the right look. This should be viewed as an experimental stage. You have to test over and over until everyone agrees on the process, be it chemical, artistic or digital. This is a step that some producers are reluctant to invest in beyond a certain basic level. We need to convince them that it is time well spent.
Q: What has been the impact of digital technology on your medium? Do you have more or less freedom than before?
A: We certainly have more creative freedom and possibilities. I would even say the current situation is ideal. Now we can shoot in 35 mm, use a digital transfer for all intermediary steps and effects, and go back to film for the final copy. This gives us far more control over colour and images.
So far, I've been able to use the process for two projects, Savage Messiah and Mambo Italiano, and I've been quite happy to do so. But I should point out that Savage Messiah was shot in Super 16 mm because it was not originally intended to be released in theatres. If I had known from the start that the image was going to be blown up digitally, I would not have used diffusion during shooting. I would have manipulated the light during digital processing instead. But I'm still pleased with the outcome.
As for Mambo, which is even more recent and was shot in 35 mm, we knew from the start that there would be a HD digital transfer — HD but not 2K, to be specific. We knew the film would not be using a lot of digital effects, but the producers had understood that with a digital transfer, we would be guaranteed a better control over colour renderings, for example. The process was a real learning experience. We realized, for example, that to get the same colours on a movie screen that we were seeing on the HD screen, we really had to boost the colours, push the chromas further. This was very important for Mambo, which is a very colourful film.
Q: You were recently nominated for two very prestigious awards: a Genie Award for Savage Messiah and an ASC Award (American Society of Cinematographers) for The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire. Interestingly, these two projects were shot in Super 16 mm, and in both cases, you were up against films shot in 35 mm.
A: As far as the ASC goes, it was very flattering to be nominated for a film shot in super 16 mm — and in just 20 days! And it was quite an honour to be in the company of legends such as William Fraker, László Kovács and Bill Butler. They gave me a very warm welcome. My overall memory of those three days in the ASC environment is that a real bond was created.
William Fraker, who has been shooting for 50 years, told me he was taken aback to see the results we had achieved with a 20-day shoot. But frankly, in the present environment, there is no alternative.
Times really have changed. Now when I think about a lighting set-up, it has to be adaptable on all axes. In TV, when I know we'll be shooting six pages of script a day, I can't be lighting scenes one shot at a time. Instead, I need an overall plan.
These past few years, on studio shoots such as Savage Messiah and Royal Scandal, I've experimented a great deal with new ways of lighting that enable us to work quickly and get good visual results. Cinematographers today need to be able to work fast while still creating interesting visuals. By working quickly, we free up time for the director to focus on the dramatic aspect with the cast.
Some of this speed may also come from working in Quebec. Quebec and Canadian productions often have smaller budgets, so we learn to go a long way with what we have. All those years of working on very low-budget documentaries really pay off today. Even for narrative films, we just don't have the same resources as American studios. Consequently, many Quebec cinematographers have learned to set up quickly, using simple equipment and to rely on natural light whenever possible. And we've been able to pool the knowledge we have picked up along the way. Personally, I use natural light more than I used to, provided I feel it's effective and efficient.
A film's visual aspect is created by three people: the director, the cinematographer and the production designer. Before we even start talking about lighting or film stock, the PD's artistic choices are decisive.
And I don't think it's a coincidence that while I was studying film in London, I studied production design for a time. I really enjoyed designing sets and providing guidelines for costume and makeup design. During my studies, I did production design on the films of a few fellow students. When I came back to Montreal, I actually wavered between a career in production design and cinematography, but I finally opted for my first choice, cinematography. And I have no regrets. However, now, when I sit down with production designers, I speak their language and have a hands-on understanding of their job because I've done it. Actually, when I was a child, I even considered becoming an architect. I was fascinated by three-dimensional spatial organization. Now, I specialize in two-dimensional representation, but it still involves organizing three-dimensional elements — sets, lights and colours.
Q: What would appeal to you as an upcoming project? Is there something you've been dreaming of doing?
A: I have some ideas for scripts I'd like to direct. I would ask my partner, Sylvie Bourque, to direct the actors, and I would focus on the other aspects of directing.
My dream as a cinematographer is to have more time. For Mambo, we actually had 38 days of shooting, which is fairly comfortable. Mind you, there are 200 scenes in the film, many different locations and many characters. But by Quebec standards, 38 days is very decent.
Nevertheless, I do occasionally dream of having 50 days to shoot a feature film. Shooting ratios put a lot of pressure on crews. Naturally, the pace has some impact on the way we work. By working more quickly, we take fewer risks. We can't plan takes that will require two or three hours to set up. The greatest danger, in these situations, is that shoots become standardized—we end up always using tried-and-true recipes.
On the other hand, with experience, you do learn to work quickly. And the film stock can make our job easier. Faster film stocks require less lighting, which enables us to set up more quickly. But even with less lighting, we still want the lighting to work well and need precision in contrast and colour. Camera moves have to be rehearsed, as do the actors' lines. So if I had 50 days to shoot a film, I wouldn't light more slowly. Learning to shoot quickly is very useful, but having more time would enable us to take some scenes as far as they can go, to give the editor more material to work with and to take full advantage of the language of film.
Q: What makes you want to continue to work as a cinematographer?
A: The power of imagery—the power to provoke an emotional response, to spark reflection in the viewer's mind, to connect the audience with the storyteller. The power to delve into impossible worlds and to believe in them for the time of the projection or the viewing. The possibility of experiencing something that we would not access otherwise.
When I started exposing film, I was fascinated, at first, just to get an image. I remember those days when I was waiting for the rushes and anxious about the outcome. What if there was nothing on the film or if it was all black or washed out? Of course, there always would be an image, and each time I was getting more than I had thought: the details, the way the light wrapped around people and objects, that sudden flare that made your black level go up and made you wonder what the hell happened, those hundreds of little photochemical reactions you were unaware of.
You don't have to tell the film to expose. Providing you set an approximate aperture, it will expose something, even though you look away. This is the magic of film. Knowing how to harness that magic is the art of the cinematographer. Now when I look through the camera, I see what the image will look like on the print or in the digital suite and I'm no longer surprised at the outcome. What I'm working at is to find new ways of capturing the light with film.
What is very exciting about cinematography right now is that digital technology has increased our options all the way down the line: during the actual shooting, in the lab and in the digital suite. Everyone along that line is open to meeting new challenges that come from the cinematographer or the director.
Right now, we don't know what the next revolution will be. Look at how far film has come in just over a century. It's come a long way, and it's not about to go away. I don't know what film will become in the future as it's challenged by HD. Will both media continue to follow their respective paths? Will they merge at some point? I don't have that answer, but I know that film and film stocks are here to stay.