AFC Master Class : a look at the work on "Seasons", cinematography by Eric Guichard, AFC

A contribution by Margot Cavret, student at ENS Louis-Lumière Film School

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As students from the ENS Louis-Lumière attended Camerimage, the AFC offered them the opportunity of contributing in one way or another to the articles that are published on our website and broadcast via our newsletters. Inaugurating the column dedicated to them is Margot Cavret, of the ENS Louis-Lumière, who was the first to answer our call with a personal reflection on the work that Eric Guichard, AFC, and his crew did on Seasons.

I saw Seasons when it was first released, when I was a student at the IFFCAM (Institut de Formation Francophone au Cinéma Animalier de Ménigoute). The IFFCAM is a school specialized in documentaries on animals, nature, and the environment, and it is located right in the middle of the Poitevin woods. There, it trains the next generation of animal documentarists, who are both artists and activists. We had judged this film quite severely. We thought it was cheating to use impregnated animals, and to deploy such opulence in terms of equipment and manpower, since we were advocating for a discreet approach to wild animals in their natural habitat, filming alone with our little documentary camera, our tripod planted on the soil, our telephoto lens and our camouflage so that we could pass unnoticed. Because we went to a lot of trouble to capture wildlife without disturbing it, often exposing ourselves to discomfort and unrestricted working hours, we found the methods of a production like Seasons to be injust.

Now that I am a student at the ENS Louis-Lumière, and I am attending the presentation by Eric Guichard, director of photography on that film, I am rediscovering Seasons. One simple thing he said made me reconsider my judgement : “This is not a documentary.” I realize that because it is not a documentary, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to use the methods of patience and discretion of a documentary, because the film is not claiming to show true wildlife.
Eric passionately explained to use how shooting unfolded, how he implemented the director’s desire of remaining as close to the animal as possible by using shorter focal lengths, and how he used all sorts of strategies in order to always be at eyelevel with his characters : whether he had to dig into the ground to be at the level of a hedgehog or to get up on a crane to be at the level of a long-eared owl. How they tried to reduce the equipment noise, since the animals need silence, how they lit at night with helium balloons, how they made the camera run as quickly as a pack of wolves by mounting it on a scooter, how the entire film was written, story-boarded, and prepared in advance over the course of months.
The question of professional or non-professional actors was raised with amusement. Finally, I’m not sure that the owl who fought against his primary instinct to flee light in order to present himself under the spotlights can be accused of amateurism. I’m not sure either that the same can be said about the lynx who was raised by a doe so that he would be ready for the chase scene without relying on his predatory instinct.

This is not a documentary. It is a fiction, which portrays experienced actors in scenes that, although they look realistic, are entirely staged. Once I realized that, I realized that my initial judgement had been totally unfair. How could I continue to accuse him of taking the easy way out when I realized Eric’s unique talent for lighting, which enabled him to light equally well the dark long-eared owl who is afraid of the brilliant barn owl, and to do justice to the subtle beauty of the hedgehog ? When I realize that that little spiky actor is devotedly treated like a true movie star, my qualms about Seasons entirely vanish. Like animal documentarians, Eric Guichard and his crew invested their time, their talent and their energy to create a film that is both environmentally engaged and visually sublime. They used different methods to create a different result, but their message is similar. There was no reason for me to have been offended !

The thumbnail image above shows a scene from Seasons, cinematography by Eric Guichard.