The Classroom

directed by Laurent Cantet, cinematography by Pierre Milon, AFC

par Pierre Milon

[English] [français]

Awarded the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival

Pierre Milon, AFC, was in the penultimate class of the IDHEC, the French national film school that was the ancestor of the Femis. Among his classmates was director Dominik Moll. Milon lit Moll’s first film, Intimacy.

Milon quickly began working as a cinematographer on documentaries and short films. His transition to fiction came when director Philippe Faucon entrusted him with lighting three television films. Since then he has worked with Eric Zonca (The Little Thief), Lucas Belvaux (The Trilogy and The Right of the Weakest), and Robert Guédiguian (Lady Jane). He came to the Cannes Festival this year with The Classroom, his third feature film with Laurent Cantet.

How was the film prepared ?

Pierre Milon : The film follows the approach of the book from which it is adapted : a dialogue between a high school teacher and 28 students throughout the school year. The great majority of scenes are filmed in the classroom.

As he does on most of his films, Laurent Cantet likes to prepare well in advance. He did this, for example, on Human Resources by collecting numerous testimonials from jobseekers. For this new project, he hosted a yearlong workshop with students from the Francoise Dolto high school in the 19th arrondissement in Paris.

It was from this simple starting point that the film was gradually built, students improvising around situations and themes chosen by Laurent. Little by little the children began to pick up the thread, and proved quite capable of improvising situations in a constructive manner. It followed quite naturally that they play themselves in front of the camera during two months of the 2007summer vacation.

What were your constraints ?

Pierre Milon : We had to be very flexible in terms of shooting, to be able to catch all the potential improvisational situations in the classroom. It was therefore logical to shoot in HD, using three cameras (Panasonic Varicams). The two main cameras were on the children, and the third was mostly directed at the teacher. Because of the rapid dialogue between them, it was necessary to be very fast in order to get it all.

The entire film was shot handheld. Given the weight of the Varicam with the zoom, it was physically demanding on the operators. To facilitate things, I had small chairs made, equipped with roller skate wheels, this allowed us to move very quickly about the classroom. We could change angles while staying at the same height as the students.

The film is often shot in close-up with a long focal length, and I decided not to use focus pullers on the three cameras. Each camera operator handled his own focus, and would choose when to zoom to this or that reaction, or this or that expression…

In the end, the technical setup was fairly extensive, but the teenagers became unaware of the process fairly quickly.

And the lighting ?

Pierre Milon : I setup an entire classroom, and lined the ceiling of with Kino Flo fluorescent tubes, which allowed me to quickly adjust the lighting conditions, depending on the ambiances, and to adapt to the windows. In addition, as HD isn’t very tolerant of overexposure, I carefully prepared the windows with neutral density ND6 and ND9 gels, which we changed depending on the weather. Fortunately for us, the summer of 2007 was relatively overcast, so I didn’t have to worry much about big spreads in contrast with exteriors.

To show the passage of the seasons, we relied on the students’ clothing, and also a little on the lighting. For example, by shooting late in the day, or even at dusk, to give the impression of autumnal or winter light. In the end, when you see the film, time passes on the screen more through the relationship between the teacher and students rather than in terms of light or atmosphere. This is because the children’s faces and their performance quickly take precedence over everything else.

Did you do tests to select the cameras ?

Pierre Milon : During prep, we considered shooting with 3 small Panasonic HVX 200 cameras in order to lighten the equipment. Nevertheless, I made some comparison tests using big Varicam cameras, and I realized that their rendering was indeed superior in terms of focus precision, of the quality of soft focus, as well as the rendering of the faces (the students all had very different complexions). By using the cinema gamma curve (Cinelike gamma), I even obtained, upon return to 35 mm, some really pleasant skin tones.

Although all three cameras had been meticulously prepared by TSF Camera, this did not, however, prevent one of them to gradually drift during the shoot. The offending camera had to be sent back to the rental house twice to be re-calibrated during production.

Do you diffuse the image ?

No, I didn’t use any diffusion. HD diffusion is very difficult to quantify, and depends heavily on lighting conditions. I noticed this during my work on Lady Jane, where I used Mitchell diffusion filters, and the result was not always what I had expected. And, as a result, I sometimes needed to harden-up some images in the color timing. In the end, I feel that it is better to diffuse with the tools available in DI.

How did postproduction go ?

Pierre Milon : The film was color timed at Mikros, and transferred to 35 mm at Arane. The end result is very good. My only regret is the slow and cumbersome nature of the digital process. Three weeks spent color timing a naturalistic film shot on one set, this seems a little disproportionate compared to what could be done in the classic film process. Ultimately, it is justified because opportunities for correction are almost endless.

The problem is that sometimes one stops for several hours on an image, being tempted by this or that nuance in flesh tones, without realizing that this is an option that will not hold for the entire sequence. This method is very different from what we used to do in classical color timing, treating entire reels in continuity, without stopping on each shot.

And then there is always that little uncertainty in the transfer to film, with its slight deviations compared to what was seen in digital projection…

Translated by Benjamin & Kim B