Cinematographer Hélène Louvart, AFC, discusses her work on Karim Ainouz’ film “La Vie invisible”

par Hélène Louvart

[ English ] [ français ]

Hélène Louvart, AFC, signed off on the image of La Vie invisible, a Brazilian film presented at Un Certain Regard 2019. A story of two sisters that takes place from the 1950s to the present time. She tells us about her working relationship with Karim Ainouz, the director, and about their shared ambition to dare to create striking visual universes, and about how they learned to modulate that ambition so as to avoid being above the story and the characters, visually speaking. (FR)

What brought you to make this film ?

Hélène Louvart : Karim Ainouz is a well-known Brazilian director, who lives in Germany, and whose prior films made me want to work with him. A story of two sisters, each of whom takes a direction in life that will bring them to never again meet, in spite of the strong connection they shared in childhood and in adolescence. This is a lively, energetic film. It is full of life, and at the same time, it’s rather dark, for their fate is guided by their condition as women at a time when women were not able to freely choose the life they wanted.

What direction did you choose ?

HL : We decided on an image that would be modern but progressively fantastic, which was essentially bound to the character traits of both sisters. Without being afraid to push the envelope at certain times at the start, and then more and more as the historical era changes. So the image becomes more and more colourful (through the lighting) despite the always-slightly-underexposed quality of the scenes, with strong backlights and very colourful sets. Not to mention the light in Rio, where the vegetation is lush, and the sun is very tropical.

How does the director work ?

HL : Karim is very intuitive and is very spontaneous while filming. This led us to create very long takes with a mix of generally rather wide static shots, travelling shots for the closer-up shots, and reshooting scenes with the camera from the shoulder in order to pick up sensations and moments, so that we could mix in true subjectivity in the feelings of the characters with the stark choice of distance when we were shooting wide shots. This also provides a notion of memories, perceptions, and the way in which the scenes could have been told by both sisters, retrospectively.

And the lighting follows the same pattern, it doesn’t hesitate to tweak things, almost to the point of unreality, through visually striking moments that come through by touches of unrealistic colour.

The goal was also to give energy and life to the image, as in the costumes and the sets… basically we never sought to create something realistic and true and clean, quite the contrary.
A little touch of visual vulgarity that surrounds the scenes.
To give you an example, a red projector, that was adjusted to be a bit of a top-light above one of the two sisters when she’s on the phone, sitting on the edge of her bed, at night, in her bedroom, in the shadow. The only justification was to tweak this moment of reality.

And Karim really pushed me and encouraged me to create this style of lighting, to depart from our learned experience, and we weren’t afraid to push things too far, to embrace the concept, and above all, to have fun.

Do you sometimes feel you went too far ?

HL : Of course, after editing, the narration comes through again and we became aware of the moments where we should have stepped things back a bit in terms of our lighting designs. We noticed when we were a bit too visible compared with the story and the characters.
We shot with an Arri Alexa Mini in RAW, and the initial idea was to depart from the slightly clinical aspect of digital. We used lenses that went in that direction (Lomo anamorphic series), and we also went towards permanent under-exposure, but brightened things afterwards in postproduction. We also brought back saturation into the colours.
I can say that the Alexa Mini is very good for this type of work, because even if you go a bit too far during shooting, the rendering of the images in RAW allows you to step things back during postproduction.

What were your choices in terms of lighting ?

HL : Sunlight recreated through the windows using two 9 kW and some days we added an 18 kW on a cherry-picker or on a boom (thanks to the Brazilian crew, who were very talented and weren’t afraid to engage in very impressive pre-light constructions).
In the end, also, 575 W HMIs or 800 W Jokers bounced off of the ceiling indoors, modulated by flags (no mix with LED lights, because it was better that way and less costly to work with more traditional spots).

We used a LUT that we specially created for the film, a combination between our lenses and our light tests, and this LUT was applied to the dailies so that the final cut could be done with te light environment that was chosen during shooting.

Hélène Louvart sur le tournage de "La Vie invisible"
Hélène Louvart sur le tournage de "La Vie invisible"

I wish to thank the entire Rio crew, who are all people who love their work, despite their uncertainties about their future.
And the quality of the acting by the characters, which helped me to even better understand the privileged place that we have behind our viewfinders as cinematographers.

(Interview by François Reumont for the AFC and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)

La Vie invisible
Production : RT Features (Brésil), Match Factory (Allemagne)
Set designer : Rodrigo Martirena
Editor in chief : Heike Parplies