About Guillaume Canet’s "Astérix and Obélix : The Middle Kingdom"

"André Chemetoff : Extreme Art", by Ariane Damain Vergallo

Contre-Champ AFC n°339

[ English ] [ français ]

July 29th, 2021, the sun is sinking beyond the horizon, turning the sky a glimmering, rusty color. After a 65-day shoot, director Guillaume Canet is shooting the last sequence of the most expensive and most eagerly awaited film of the year : Astérix and Obélix : The Middle Kingdom.

Not only has today been intense and difficult, but it was also unusually tense, as if such an endeavor could not end in anything but a frenzy. In the last shot, Astérix – played by Guillaume Canet himself – and Obélix, performed by Gilles Lellouche, drink the magic potion, as 70KW off-screen projectors send flashes of lightning ripping through the air, and huge wind machines conjure up a storm that blows everything away.
Final clap, the deafening applause of a the fifty on-set technicians and the hundreds of extras - impersonating Roman and Chinese soldiers –, all deeply moved by such a beautiful, emotional moment. Guillaume Canet takes a microphone and turns to his partner in crime – cinematographer André Chemetoff – expressing his deep gratitude, before anybody else, as if they could not have seen this incredible feat through without him and his wholehearted, single-minded dedication and unique capacity never to give up on the beauty of a shot.

Guillaume Canet sur le tournage d'"Astérix et Obélix : L'Empire du Milieu" - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
Guillaume Canet sur le tournage d’"Astérix et Obélix : L’Empire du Milieu"
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
André Chemetoff - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
André Chemetoff
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo

It all started eighteen months earlier, in 2019.
André Chemetoff had just finished shooting a Dior commercial with Marion Cotillard, the face of the brand who recommended André for Guillanme Canet’s film, Astérix and Obélix : The Middle Kingdom, the fifth film adaptation of the famous comic book series, which was supposed to start shooting a few months later.
Preparation started in December and department heads were all celebrities in their respective field ; Madeline Fontaine for wardrobe, Aline Bonnetto for set design (although she would later leave to work on Star Wars and be replaced by Mathieu Junit) and André Chemetoff came on board shortly after. And since Guillaume Canet was also the lead actor, he asked Rodolphe Lauga – who had directed two features – to be the first camera operator and his technical advisor, thus freeing André Chemetoff to dedicate himself fully to photography.

This is a very ambitious film : a French blockbuster to be shot in China, Morocco, and France. And Guillaume Canet’s references were none other than Stephen Spielberg and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Early 2020, as the insidious Coronavirus pandemic was making its way throughout the world, the team was beginning its long, rigorous preparation that consists in deciding the films’ visual identity through set design, wardrobe, and props and then thoroughly storyboarding each sequence of the film.
Playmobil plastic figures were bought specifically to reenact the numerous battles. The famous pirate ship, which children hold so dear, is also used for the technical breakdown of the battles on the Chinese Sea between the indomitable Gauls and the skillful Chinese warriors.

Come March 2020, playtime was over. Coronavirus won and life on Earth came to a standstill. Two months later, the preparation team reappeared, rather punch-drunk from the lockdown. Astérix and Obélix : The Middle Kingdom could still not resume – the fact that the virus originated in China clearly didn’t help – and while he was waiting to see things more clearly, Guillaume Canet planned to make a “small” film, so as not to completely lose it and to keep his team active.
Modestly entitled Him, the film was shot on the island of Belle-Île in September 2020, with André Chemetoff as the cinematographer and Rodolphe Lauga as the camera operator. It was a way for the trio to bond and get on the same page to get ready for the “big” film that was about to start.

And the second preparation of Astérix and Obélix did, in fact, start on January 4th, 2021, although shooting in China was no longer an option. André Chemetoff spent quite a long time convincing the production company – Alain Attal’s Trésor Films – some of the technical and artistic choices whose costs kept being cut. Indeed, to work with the same production company on such a large-scale film after shooting a “small-budget” film with a limited crew in merely four weeks, adjustments had to be made.
From then on, preparation turned into a series of muted conflicts, and although he didn’t win every battle, he was able to exercise his remarkable force of persuasion and charm, which his team nicknamed “chemetoveries”, proving how innate these qualities are.

Fortunately, it was a steadfast, close-knit team, all working with director Guillaume Canet, a smart, methodical, and organized hard-worker whose sole concern was to see this project through.
Some technical choices were self-evident, such as shooting on a 2.40:1 Aspect Ratio, a rather wide format, perfect for the many crowd scenes as well as the main characters of the films who often appear in twos : Astérix and Obélix, obviously, but also Caesar and Cleopatra. André Chemetoff chose to shoot with a RED Gemini – a recent digital camera – together with a series of legendary lenses : Technovision Cooke anamorphic lens range, used in 1978 by “author of cinematography” Vittorio Storaro on Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, Apocalypse Now.

André Chemetoff et la caméra - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
André Chemetoff et la caméra
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo

Despite the camera sensitivity, choosing that range of lens requires to shoot like one would “in the olden days”, with a lot of light, and therefore a small aperture, F/4 or F/5.5 is optimal and what these lenses were designed for.
The chosen format also requires shooting from quite a distance, and large sets that would be lit by very powerful projectors, totaling up to 400KW of light per day.
Those wonderful sets and lavish costumes must be seen, and André Chemetoff must deliver “rich”, detailed pictures with depth and various shades of color.

Then entered a key crew member, the gaffer – or chief lighting technician – Simon Bérard who was about to work on his most ambitious film yet, his “masterpiece” if you will, that would, in medieval times, make craftsmen masters of their trade. He is said to be an expert on the subtleties and limitations of the Bry-sur-Marne studios where most of the film set was produced and to be able to manage large teams : ten full-time electrical technicians on set and up to thirty on the biggest sets.

Simon Bérard, à gauche, et André Chemetoff - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
Simon Bérard, à gauche, et André Chemetoff
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo

It was his first time working with André Chemetoff and he met “the most surprising” cinematographer “he ever met” who didn’t talk about technique but rather paintings and who warned him that he would never squander the director’s time for lighting and would never compromise on the beauty of a shot. He would always look for that special something to make a shot unique while always allowing for last-minute changes…
So, to square that circle, Simon Bérard suggested hooking up all the studio projectors to the console – which is often the case when shooting adverts but less so for feature films – with one operator in charge who would turn each projector for each scene on, off, or down and therefore be quicker and more reactive should any modification need to happen in “real-time”, as it were, or even during a take.

Another lighting challenge is that Astérix and Obélix : The Middle Kingdom is a period film that takes place in Gaul two thousand years ago.
Therefore, there could be nothing else be natural light, the sun and the clouded sky during the day, and the moon and torches at night. Even candles were only invented ten centuries later !
So, for most of the studio shots, scheduled in May 2021 at the very beginning of filming, the crew would use large and very soft lighting that would come through the windows of the set.
In the studio, the cinematographer is the master of light. He decides what the weather is like ; he is not at the mercy of the elements. And André Chemetoff loves that. However, he knew that, at some point, he would have to keep continuity with the outdoors, which depend on the weather.

André Chemetoff en studio - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
André Chemetoff en studio
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo

When in 1975, French director François Truffaut shot The Story of Adèle H. set in the 19th century, he had this theory that our subconscious imagines the past in a cloudy weather, without any sun.
Little did André Chemetoff know that this cloudy sky would soon prevail over all on-location shots, sometimes along with rain and hail. Whenever the sun pierced through, it would immediately make way for a cornucopia of changes in exposure.
Our Gallic forbears’ greatest fear was that the heavens would fall on their head, and they would appeal to Toutatis, the god of war, to protect them from it. Cut to almost two thousand years later, André Chemetoff spent his time, on location, staring at the sky praying – to no avail, more often than not – that the weather be clear. And since it was very seldom the case, he had the tedious job of managing the endless setbacks and frustrations that bad weather generates. Exhausting.

Such terrible weather undermined everyone’s morale and forced the work schedule to be turned upside down and the crew to go back and forth between Auvergne and its torrential rain and similarly damp Normandy (better bet Cacophonix did it, he can’t sing to save his life and made it rain !)
The Gods themselves would have abandoned Astérix and Obélix : The Middle Kingdom, until a fateful day when - as the crew was supposed to go to sunny Morocco - the production company arranged for a plane for the crew and equipment. They were refused entry into Casablanca International Airport because of some issue with the green pass, and the plane was ordered to return to France. Much like China, Morocco was out ; the film would therefore be 100% French.

Even in France the Gods played tricks on André Chemetoff : in Bry-sur-Marne studios, he had to shoot a fight scene set in a Shanghai marketplace maintaining continuity with a sequence that had already been shot on a cloudy day. He rigged a 700m2 diffusion to cover the square so that the sun is filtered through – since he still thought it may be sunny. The producers thought he was insane, since it was cloudy on the day of the shoot, thus making the humongous backdrop redundant.

André Chemetoff et des toiles adoucissantes - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
André Chemetoff et des toiles adoucissantes
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo

Although softening an already soft and steady light – as it is filtered through a layer of clouds – provides shadowless lighting, much like the one in Astérix and Obélix original comics, drawn with bold, shadowless colors, and no identifiable direction of light.
Indeed, gaffer Simon Bérard spent all thirteen weeks of shooting softening the light even further, to offset the very definite rendering of a digital camera. Although those were coupled with “vintage” lenses, at the end of the day, the image they produced was just as precise.
So, the motto for this film was to shoot with increasingly softer lighting and contrast.

To pull it off, André Chemetoff called onto his second partner in crime on this film, DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) Nicolas Diaz. He demanded the production company hired him on the film to allow for consistent and precise visuals while shooting. He knew that Guillaume Canet and the rest of the crew would get used to what they saw on set and that it would then be difficult to go back on the initial choices when color grading the final edit of the film.
Nicolas Diaz and him, established some benchmark images and, for the camera, twenty-odd LUT, with various contrasts, each for a specific moment in the film or a specific character.

Nicolas Diaz - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
Nicolas Diaz
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo

They had a first go with a pleasing juxtaposition of warm and cool images, of soft and lightly contrasted images with saturated – although not “oozing” – colours, as well as more neutral ones.
They also looked for an emerald-green tint that can be found in the flora displayed one of the films they used as reference - Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ; - searching very specific high-intensity and lightly color-stained lighting – using yellow, bald black shades – and paying close attention to each actor’s skin tone, which are sometimes very different.
Such attention to detail on set, for a “perfect” shot even led André Chemetoff to request such specific color temperature that they became abstract : 4420 K or 7310 K when any other cinematographer would have merely asked for the usual 3200K for the projectors’ artificial light and 5600K sunlight.
Similarly, he needed a significant number of filters – almost 250 for this three-camera film – to be ready for any possibility while shooting (that well-known “last-minute change” that he accepts and even seeks) and to tweak each frame for seamless continuity within a sequence.

That shoot was as intense as an American blockbuster, and the opportunity for his team, and particularly Nicolas Diaz (who had to deal with 240 terabytes of rushes) to outdo themselves and “fight body and soul” for André Chemetoff, a cinematographer who experiences things so intensely that he gets deeply affected when a shot is as beautiful as he was expecting it. It is that extreme artistic experience that drove, charmed, and compelled each and every crew member on that “phenomenal” film shoot of Guillaume Canet’s Astérix and Obélix : The Middle Kingdom, even if it was a long, tedious, and sometimes exhausting process.

André Chemetoff - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo
André Chemetoff
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo

September 2021, a few months after the shoot, André Chemetoff was celebrating his twenty-year experience in the film industry. He thought to himself that he was following in the footsteps of the most prestigious members of his family - a constellation of famous architects, photographers, filmmakers, and fashion designers - while making his own way in the world, along with a created family of fellow film professionals.

(Translated from French by Aurore Kahan)

Interviews, by Ariane Damain Vergallo, of André Chemetoff, cinematographer, Simon Bérard, gaffer, Nicolas Diaz, DIT, and Étienne Dang, second assistant camera on Guillaume Canet’s : Asterix and Obelix – The Middle Kingdom.