Caroline Champetier, AFC, talks about her work on Leos Carax’s "Annette"

par Caroline Champetier

[ English ] [ français ]

Leos Carax is back in Cannes’s Official Competition nine years after Holy Motors with Annette, a sung-through film written and scored by the musical duo Sparks. Telling the story of a star couple (Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) and their young daughter, Annette is Carax’s most spectacular work. The director’s faithful companion in arms since the medium-length movie Merde (2008), cinematographer Caroline Champetier, AFC, recounts here the making of Annette, whose every sequence was a technical and artistic challenge. (YT)

Today, in Los Angeles. Henry is a stand-up comedian with a fierce sense of humor, Ann a singer of international renown. In the spotlight, they are the perfect couple, healthy, happy, and glamourous. The birth of their first child, Annette, a mysterious girl with an exceptional destiny, will change their lives.

You and Leos Carax started preparing Annette, which was shot in 2019, as early as 2016. How did this long preparation take place ?

Caroline Champetier : Leos told me Annette’s story in 2015, pretty soon after Holy Motors. I was shaken by his account because I saw connections with him and his existence. But I found it magnificent that we would navigate together the next chapter of Holy Motors, which had been both a beautiful and violent experience.

With the exception of some exteriors he needed in the U.S., LC [Leos Carax] wanted to shoot Annette in Europe. He imagined the many performance halls in the film as Parisian. Probably because he knows those spaces better, perhaps also because he wanted to protect himself from a certain American way of working. So we started location scouting in Northern Europe for production reasons in the winter of 2016. But we quickly realized that we needed a long period of preparation and wouldn’t make it under pressure. We needed at least four or five theaters and therefore had to shoot in August when they were closed. That’s why we stopped and resumed the actual work in late 2018 with another producer.

Had the film’s soundtrack been pre-recorded by Sparks ?

CC : Yes, Sparks performed all the roles, except those of the opera singer. But since our ambition was to shoot with direct sound, the actors also recorded their songs in the spring of 2019. So a lot of demo work was done by an extraordinary team led by the sound mixer, Erwan Kerzanet, the music supervisor, Pierre-Marie Dru, and the arranger, Clément Ducol. There was also the long training of the extras-singers by Marius de Vries, his collaborator, Fiora Cutler, and our assistants, Amandine Escoffier and Juliette Picollot. It was Leos who spotted Marius, who had worked as music producer on La La Land. Since Marius is British, Leos—who likes small deterritorializations—said to himself : “Oh, an Englishman in the U.S. He’ll probably agree to come to Europe.” And it was the case.

Did you scout locations in Los Angeles with Leos Carax ?

CC : We had a team there that scouted locations and sent us pictures. We had created a double assistant director position : Michaël Pierrard assisted us on set, while Amandine Escoffier kept up the pace of preparation on the upcoming scenes. It was a terrific production decision that allowed us to move forward on both levels, the shoot and the preparation.

LC always wanted to shoot certain scenes of Annette in Los Angeles : the opening sequence in the iconic The Village Studios ; the arrival of Ann’s limousine at the beginning of the film in front of the Walt Disney Concert Hall ; and Henry’s motorcycle sequences. We went to L.A. with a small crew at the end of our shoot in Europe. That’s also where we filmed the scene in which Henry and Ann sing “We Love Each Other So Much” in the forest. We had shot that sequence once on a sunny day, early on in the shoot. But we shot it again in the hills of L.A. to strengthen the complicity between Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver.

How did you and Leos Carax work out the choreography between the camera and the actors in Annette ?

CC : Leos often puts himself in the shoes of the actors, men or women, to experiment with the rhythm of a scene. I often film him with my iPhone. For instance, he had rehearsed Henry’s first stand-up performance—by himself, then with an understudy—to understand the character’s movements from the backstage area to the stage. In this sequence—shot at the Forum of Liège, a huge 1930s performance venue—there were multiple cameras, including one in the first row operated by Jo Vermaercke, another high up in the boxes, on the right side of the stage, and mine on a tracking shot that spanned the entire width of the theater, thanks to a dolly pushed with great skill by Témoudjine Janssens. We were following Adam Driver’s movement, and I was getting closer to and farther away from him with an Angénieux 25-250mm zoom—an old lens with a long focal range. This scene, which opens the film and to which we had given a lot of thought, was nevertheless improvised according to the actor’s rhythm.

Michaël Pierrard, Leos Carax, Caroline Champetier et Jo Vermaercke au KVS de Bruxelles - Photo Kris Dewitte / Facts of Emotions
Michaël Pierrard, Leos Carax, Caroline Champetier et Jo Vermaercke au KVS de Bruxelles
Photo Kris Dewitte / Facts of Emotions

I would say that’s what I can put at Leos’s service, classic camera movements. That is, working with a dolly on rails and a zoom, like in the sequence of the conductor leading the musicians and confiding in the audience about his love for Ann. One might think it would have been easier to circle the actor, Simon Helberg, with a Steadicam, but there had to be big rhythmic breaks in this shot. So we set up rails and turned around him at different speeds with a zoom. That allowed me to move closer or farther away depending on the music, since the framing absolutely follows the music in this sequence. The Steadicam could have been a way of doing it, but the dolly yields something more stable that can be settled. A Steadicam movement cannot be interrupted—you have to follow it through, because it continues to float if you stop it. On the dolly, you can interrupt a shot and then start over. That’s the reason why we also used a dolly in the sequence shot in which Ann sings alone in her room and understands that Henry might not be the man she thought he was. That being said, the speed and violence of Henry’s movements on stage often required a Steadicam.

How did you participate in the creation of Annette’s puppet manifestation ?

CC : Annette’s puppet was a long work in progress with puppeteers Estelle Charlier and Romuald Collinet starting from May 2018. Annette had five bodies—from her birth until she was six years old—each of which had several different masks, such as the laughing mask of the moment when she dances with her mother on the patio of their house or the worried mask during the storm. For my part, I focused on the puppet’s textures so that it would have a luminosity that could be that of a child. I also filmed pretty early on my daughter Jeanne with one of Annette’s first masks. We realized that a young woman and a puppet worked together. That is to say that the feeling of humanity was there. Same thing when Marion Cotillard rehearsed the dance scene with the unfinished puppet : we were all moved.

Premiers essais pour les textures d'Annette
Premiers essais pour les textures d’Annette

Then, from May 2019 until the shoot in August, we set up camp in a factory in Brussels, in which each department, from costumes to sets, built its own workshop. I wanted there to be a Black Maria—the name of Edison’s studio, the first in film history—where we could train, like in the small Panavision studio in which we shot a lot of things. So we built a black box where we did all our tests, from Adam Driver’s costumes to the puppet’s last tests. We saw how it unfurled, walked, closed its eyes, but also how to dress it and make it fly. It was really a work of taming the puppet through the camera.

Caroline Champetier, Annette et Estelle Charlier dans la chambre d'Annette - Photo Kris Dewitte / Facts of Emotions
Caroline Champetier, Annette et Estelle Charlier dans la chambre d’Annette
Photo Kris Dewitte / Facts of Emotions

The shoot started with Annette’s first performance, because the Opera of Liège, where we shot that sequence, was only available on those dates. We had decided to leave everything in the dark and therefore easily managed to erase the puppeteers, themselves in black. Annette was lit with a tungsten light on tracks, operated by a lighting technician : it was very “old-fashioned.” Then, when Annette ascended with her song, we used spotlights that belonged to the theater and produced lightning effects : a motif that we repeated outside Ann’s opera and during the storm. Finally, since the film was a Japanese co-production, it was Japanese visual effects artists, Yu Inose and Naotaro Takahashi, who took care of erasing the puppeteers during Annette’s levitation and elsewhere, while the other visual effects technicians were rubbing their hands, saying : “We won’t be the ones doing it, because it’s a hell of a job.” [Laughter]

What were the stages of making the impressive storm sequence ?

CC : Florian Sanson [the production designer] came with a drawing—taken, I think, from a comic book—in which there were characters on a boat’s deck and a sea that covered the top of the image. I translated this into verticality and thought of surf waves : those big vertical waves you see in surf movies. I’ve surfed a bit myself, and for a surfer, the sea is not flat. So I suggested to Leos that we do projections of vertical waves behind the boat’s deck. To represent a raging sea, one necessarily ponders whether to show the sky or not. And it was only after seeing images of vertical waves that LC admitted the possibility of not showing the sky.

Croquis du dispositif de la séquence de la tempête
Croquis du dispositif de la séquence de la tempête

We shot this sequence in a traditional studio, without a water tank. The boat is mounted on a gimbal bought from another production : a tool allowing a left/right and front/rear oscillation. We put up a 20-meter-high and 30-meter-long semicircular screen stretched across a gray canvas : a magnificent work of machinery. Finally, we had several water cannons installed on either side of the boat to spray water onto the actors. On this canvas, the images of waves are projected in a loop by two 25,000-lumen Tri-DLP Christie projectors. The difficulty in calculating the projection was making sure it didn’t reach the actors.

Adam Driver et Marion Cotillard dans "Annette" - Photogramme
Adam Driver et Marion Cotillard dans "Annette"

The lighting setup of the sequence was rather simple : a ceiling of 5500K SkyPanels and other SkyPanels for the lightning bolts, all slightly backlit. The challenge was the conception of the shots, how we were going to film the scene. LC wanted us to be on the boat with Henry and Ann. I was pretty quickly convinced that we had to be outside to feel the movement. When you’re on a moving platform in a car and attached to the passenger compartment, there is no movement : the movements cancel each other out. I convinced LC that we had to be outside the boat. So we built a platform at the level of the bottom of the lull, from which we filmed the sequence intuitively with a dolly and the 25-250mm zoom, without rehearsing our movements. For me, we had to see the danger from a place that didn’t belong to the characters but to the mise en scène. I must add that I wouldn’t have had as much faith in the apparatus of this sequence if we hadn’t already done front projections in Holy Motors’s limousine sequences.

Click on the image below to see the first tests for the storm sequence [NDLR]

The shot in which we see Ann’s body sink into the depths of the sea through the boat’s porthole is a direct reference to The Night of the Hunter, right ?

CC : Absolutely. The Night of the Hunter is one of LC’s favorite films, and the children in it were in his visual references. But I think it’s almost unconscious on the part of Leos, who, like Godard, has a great nostalgia for what certain films have been to him. A nostalgia of wonder.

How did you find Ann and Henry’s villa, which is a character in its own right in the film ?

CC : Florian Sanson’s first references included the house in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and houses designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But finding a Californian villa in Northern Europe was not easy. We chose the house in the film for its very special character. It’s a house in which you feel that every line has been thought out, but it was small. So we had the two rooms upstairs—Ann and Henry’s, and Annette’s bedrooms—built in a studio. We also expanded the deck next to the pool on which a lot of scenes take place.

The pool’s green light seems to embody Henry’s murderous drive.

CC : LC had associated green with Henry and yellow with Ann. He absolutely didn’t want the pool to be blue, but green. What was difficult for us was to make it powerfully green. An RGB underwater light system was too expensive, so we had to fall back on something much more rudimentary : lights that could be submerged and on which we attached color gels. Even today, the gaffer, Wim Temmerman, is mad at me for not [digitally] removing the clips in the pool, but I know nobody’s going to see them. [Laughter] That’s part of the risks you have to take when you’re not in the Hollywood system and have to meet financial constraints. Each time, you must find a way to solve the problem and fulfill the director’s desire in the film’s own production setup.

We shot Annette in 4K. But all the pool sequences—except for the conductor’s murder—were shot in 6K, because I wanted them to be more immersive. I think the future is about working in different resolutions in each sequence, and I would have liked to shoot in 6K other sequences of Annette : the prologue, the storm, the murder, and the epilogue.

The sequence of Annette’s last public appearance in the stadium pits two image regimes against each other : CGI and live action.

CC : LC initially wanted to shoot that sequence in a real stadium. So we scouted a few in 2016. We knew we couldn’t fill up an entire stadium and were already thinking of digitally multiplying the crowd : there are very sophisticated softwares today. Annette would stand on a light cube that echoed Henry’s smoke cube onstage : a great idea by Florian Sanson. In Annette’s cube, there wouldn’t have been smoke, but waves that evoked the storm scene and what Annette saw through her cabin’s porthole. We were thinking of shooting this cube in a studio or a real, empty stadium at night, and we were hoping to film between 30 and 50 extras near the cube, below Annette. So we once again had tangible leads, in a reality in which we all believed.

But the costs of building the set elements became such that the production took away the cube and the stadium. We decided to keep only the base of the cube, which then became a monolith. It was the visual effects company Mikros Liège that already had the stadium structure seen in the film and which I would have liked to make less elaborate.

Annette is the product of a creation during which people of course made a living, but which has to do with amateurism in the original sense of the word—that is to say, loving what you do. I think the visual effects technicians enjoyed working on Annette. But it’s another world for us who are in a way artisans of cinema, and for whom the shoot retains its majesty, magic, and authority. Without all these production contingencies, I think we could have gone further in this sequence with something that departed from reality and that Leos would have twisted in his own way, and the VFX would have been there in support, like they are at certain moments in the film.

The highlight of this sequence nevertheless remains Henry’s closeup in the booth, when he realizes that Annette is going to denounce him, and he can’t hold back his tears.

CC : Yes, it’s a shot that particularly moves me. In the first breakdown of the sequence dating back to January 2019, there was a tight shot of Henry that got me hooked. I thought : “What if we played out the scene in Henry’s gaze ?” We would put a glass pane between him and us, and everything would be a reflection of what he sees. But Leos needed the arrival of little Annette on the luminous platform : he had fantasized about it for a long time ; we had tried it out. That’s also the organic quality of a team—the intermingling of everyone’s dreams. My dream was Henry’s moment of utter distress and downfall, shot in a studio and performed extraordinarily by Adam Driver. We had formed a team in which assistants could also be cameramen. It was one of the Belgian assistants, Didier Frateur, who operated the crane movement on the booth with Henry and the presenter, while I got closer to Henry with a zoom, on a tracking shot mounted on a platform in front of the booth, with my indispensable assistant Inès Tabarin pulling the focus.

Caroline Champetier, Marion Cotillard et Leos Carax, scène de la plage - Photo Kris Dewitte / Facts of Emotions
Caroline Champetier, Marion Cotillard et Leos Carax, scène de la plage
Photo Kris Dewitte / Facts of Emotions

What’s also interesting in this sequence is that we combined two types of lenses : an old one and a modern one. As we didn’t have the means to afford a long-range Angénieux Optimo zoom throughout the shoot, we got an Angénieux 25-250mm zoom, which has existed for 30 years on sets, and which I used on [Jacques Doillon’s] Ponette (1996) and many other films on which I enjoyed accompanying actors in tracking shots and zooms. It’s a beautiful lens, poetic through its way of interpreting blacks and making them very enveloping around a lit face. Our fixed focal lengths were Zeiss Supremes, superb and dense modern lenses with a very defined separation between highlights and blacks. In the color grading, we had to marry the two and be in the middle ground for blacks between a modern lens and an old one. We “blackened” the modern lens to recapture the feeling [of an old lens]. The way old lenses made light emerge from darkness is one of our cinematic wonderments. Today, we have to recreate that vignetting effect in the color grade, because modern lenses perform so well that they don’t vignette at all anymore.

Annette was shot with the Sony Venice. What were the advantages of this camera compared to the Sony F65, with which you had shot Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents (2016) and Xavier Beauvois’s The Guardians (2017) ?

CC : The Venice is a more recent camera, whose biggest difference with the F65 is that it has a 24x36 sensor. Its ergonomics are also much more compact, with a lens/viewfinder unit—the Rialto—that can be separated from the recording unit. It’s a setup that allowed us to have the camera on the shoulder and that we used in Annette’s bedroom or when Ann looks for Henry inside the boat in the storm sequence. Steadicam cameraman Jo Vermaercke also used the Rialto in scenes that required multiple cameras, such as Henry’s first performance. But the main reason I chose the Venice is because it seems to me to be the most precise camera in terms of color sampling. We wanted a film where colors—which needed to stand up to blacks—would be magnified, and where skins would be captured in all their variations.

(Interview conducted and translated into English by Yonca Talu, for the AFC)

Caroline Champetier thanks : Aurélien Senanedj (Panavision Belgium) ; Patrick Leplat, Alexis Petkovsek, Cécile Rémond, and their team (Panavision France) for their unfailing welcome ; Annick Pippelart, Arnout Deurinck, and Dailies colorist, Pieter-Jan Uvyn, (Mikros Belgium) for their infinite patience ; Gilles Gaillard and Julien Meesters (Mikros France) for their attentiveness ; Olivier Patron and Frédéric Bois, VFX guardian angels.

Yonca Talu thanks : Florian Sanson and Pascaline Chavanne for their availability and answers to her questions ; Steve Mears for his careful rereading of this translation.

  • To find out more about the making of Annette, read Yonca Talu’s interview with Caroline Champetier for Film Comment.