Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, AFC, discusses her work on Robin Campillo’s film “120 Beats per Minute”

par Jeanne Lapoirie

[ English ] [ français ]

The career of cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, AFC, has been shaped by her relations with very different directors, from Téchiné to Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Ozon to des Pallières, and Israeli directors Ronit and Sholmi Elkabetz. She designed the lighting on the first two films by Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet’s set designer and editor. Her first feature-length film, The Returned, was made into an eponymous television series that has become a legend in both France and the United States. After directing Eastern Boy, Robin Campillo made his début at Cannes in the official competition with 120 Beats per Minute. (BB)
Nahuel Perez Biscayart dans "120 battements par minute" - Photo Céline Nieszawer
Nahuel Perez Biscayart dans "120 battements par minute"
Photo Céline Nieszawer

In the early 1990s, at a time when AIDS has been killing people for over ten years, the activists of Act Up Paris begin a series of actions designed to fight the public’s indifference. Nathan, a newcomer to the group, is overwhelmed by Sean’s radicalness. Starring Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, and many others…

The film alternates between scenes of meetings of Act Up’s general assembly and other very strong action scenes. Can you first tell us about your set up for shooting the scenes in the lecture hall ?

Jeanne Lapoirie : The entire film was shot using two cameras, almost entirely from the shoulder. For the lecture hall, we had three cameras on the same side of the hall, one low down, one in the middle, and one high. We shot everything with master shots in very long scenes that sometimes lasted 15 minutes, and included separate vignettes in different parts of the hall. We’d often do up to a dozen takes. So, of course, we had a lot of dailies each day !
Even though we avoided filming wide shots and close-ups at the same time, sound was a challenge for us. We had three boom operators recording the different simultaneous discussions taking place in different parts of the room. We had rehearsed in a lecture hall, which was our way of preparing for the editing issues and of allowing the actors to rehearse together so they’d be more rapid with their dialogues. Those scenes came out really well. The dialogues sound natural, they’re extremely realistic, and the actors have an amazing energy !

Jeanne Lapoirie
Jeanne Lapoirie

What was your lighting set up ?

J.L. : My set up includes SL1s, mandarins, and pancakes. It provided soft lighting in the style of ceiling lights and that allowed us to shoot from every angle without changing the lighting too much. All of the spots were managed from a WiFi tablet, which is a very useful system in this case, as the lights were out of reach unless we emptied the lecture hall and set up a tower in the steps or above the tables.

There is a very particular visual effect in the nightclub scenes, how did you create it ?1

J.L. : For the nightclubs, we used automatics, which are special theatre lights, and we had a specialized technician to program them, and we chose a number of gobos in function of each scene and stroboscopic lights for the last scene. Many scenes of the film bleed into one another without a definitive cut, either by crossfading or by a sound or light effect that links the two together.
An example is when we’re in the nightclub and then the actors are in bed without any cut. Another example is when near the end of the film we’re at the insurers’ conference and then suddenly the light becomes stroboscopic and we’re in a nightclub. There’s also the scene where Robin wanted us to go from dancing people to the materialization of a living space, like microorganisms at the bottom of the ocean, and the virus would attach itself to those microorganisms. So there was a shift from the dancers in the nightclub to the particles suspended in the air, and then another transformation of the particles or microorganisms into the virus.
We did the first transformation while shooting by a simple change in focus and by turning off the lights on the dansers.
For the second, Mikros Image created synthetic images that crossfade into our images.

There was another effect during the Gay Pride parade.

J.L. : Yes, we used 3D special effects to increase the number of people in the demonstrations. For one of the last scenes, the dream scene, the special effects made the Seine entirely red ! The Act Up activists had this totally utopian idea of pouring blood into the Seine to make it completely red. We took a long time to make up our minds as to the camera position to film this scene, and Robin remembered a beautiful film by Marguerite Duras, Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne), where the camera follows the path of the Seine from a barge.
We shot these scenes at dawn, from a boat, and then everything opens up as soon as you get into the suburbs, as those scenes were filmed with a drone. The redness of the water is exaggerated on purpose, it’s not supposed to be realistic. It looks like paint, as though someone had repainted the Seine, somewhere on the border between vision and the artistic gesture.

You shot some scenes to make them look like “real” photos from the archives.

J.L. : In almost all the action scenes, a television cameraman was on set. He was an extra we chose because he was used to filming news reports. We gave him a Betacam from back then, which, I might add, was extremely difficult for us to get our hands on, and we used some of his shots in the film.
The INA [French National Audiovisual Institute]’s archival images were shot with a Betacam SP. We tested a number of different devices, from the Beta SP, to the Digital Betacam to DV. We wanted material with a lot of noise. After we watched the tests, we realized the Beta SP was by far the best, because despite our tests, we were never able to produce such interesting material by degrading images shot using more modern formats. The archives were reframed in Scope and colour graded to boost the contrast and oversaturate the images, a bit like at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Our Music.

Your relationship to the image is tightly linked to shoulder camera and zooms. Why is that ?

J.L. : Robin is the one who actually really likes shoulder camera, his two last films were shot like that, and always using two cameras. But he uses it almost like a fixed camera. As soon as the actors begin to move and we have to follow them, we set up a dolly so that the movement isn’t chaotic. The shoulder camera also helps the image breathe by providing a slight movement that makes things less rigid and more uncertain.
As for me, I like the freedom that zoom lenses provide : being able to slowly zoom in during a shot, being able to change focus quickly without having to wait for a change of lens, and even being able to change focal lengths within a shot if needed, in function of the shot’s events. That gives a documentary-like aspect to the film, and you can stick with the focal length you’ve chosen, but if something happens unexpectedly, you’re ready for it. And as I’ve already said with regard to my previous films, I like the unexpected things that can happen during shooting and I want to be ready to capture them.

Zoom lenses have become light enough to enable you to move around freely with them. Similarly, I don’t like to block the actors, I like filming their rehearsals so that things don’t get stuck. The zoom lens gives me the flexibility to capture more interesting shots while remaining free.
In my opinion, a set is a machine that is in motion and must keep on moving so that things play out smoothly, and to create an environment that is favourable for the actors and for everyone else, too. If you stop the machine, it can’t work properly.

(Interview conducted by Brigitte Barbier on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)

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