Claire Mathon, AFC, discusses her work on Mati Diop’s film “Atlantics”

par Claire Mathon

[English] [français]

Cinematographer Claire Mathon, AFC, sat down with François Reumont to discuss her work on Mati Diop’s Atlantics. We are pleased to share with you a transcript of her words.

Discovering Dakar
When I began to discuss this film with Mati, whom I’d already met during work on Mille soleils (2013), she immediately mentioned what she felt was Dakar’s very ghostly atmosphere, and her desire to slide into the fantastic. She cited several of Carpenter’s films (Fog, Assault), but not as a direct reference. I felt that the fantastic was going to be born out of an immersion in Senegal.
During my first trip, I scouted a number of locations, spent the night in different neighbourhoods of Dakar, and discovered the omnipresence of the ocean. We admired our first sunsets together. I chose to only work with the lighting equipment that was available on location and only accepted to be accompanied by my first AC, Alan Guichaoua.

The choice of two cameras
The first screen tests took place in Paris to choose the camera and begin making choices about lighting and colour. The green laser, which became an important motif in the nightclub scenes, was present during these initial tests. We decided to use two cameras for this film, a daytime and a night-time camera.
The dynamics of the RED Epic in daylight give a dreamy quality to the images captured in a sometimes-documentary style, and sublimates the locations drenched in sunlight, and situations that are often very contrasted. We really liked the subtle rendering of the sandy heat that characterizes Dakar.
At night-time, the high sensitivity of the VariCam 35 allowed us to film light and free in areas of Dakar that are practically entirely plunged in darkness. We often called them clairvoyant nights. Atlantics is a film of ghosts, and the VariCam 35, whose texture we also liked, provided us with a particular acuity and the possibility of making a land and faces that are seldom filmed visible. This camera seemed made for this film !

Tests shot in Dakar and the first images of the film
Shooting tests in Dakar before actual shooting began was the best way to begin to get a feeling for the film’s artistic commitments and for Mati and I to devise our shared way of capturing the real. This was the opportunity to define the colour of the fake sunsets, the draperies in Ada’s bedroom, the format (1.66:1) or the silvery aspect of the moonlit scenes, and it was also the opportunity to try out our desire to shoot fast, to capture things as they came up, and to invent on the spot. By capturing shots that would end up in the final cut, we were looking for the right way to film Dakar by night, we began to capture the fantastic elements already present in the city, such as the humidity coming off of the ocean that gives one the sensation that even the cars are sweating at night. We shot a first sunset.

I understood the need for very long focal lengths for the film. Mati likes to shoot that way, using 85mm-135mm lenses. We often found ourselves having to shoot from inside a doorframe, a window frame, or even through a mirror.

Outdoors, we were often far away from the characters, which is why we chose a 25-250mm lens. Mati felt that was a way of making them “chosen,” of sublimating them without ever putting them at arm’s length.

These “tests” were truly a beginning of an exploration of a number of lines. Alan Guichaoua, the 1st AC, and I realized that Mati doesn’t like to feel the focus, the shifts in focus, and that was a preoccupation we often returned to during shooting. I thought that it was both pleasant and essential to be able to approach and understand the film along with Mati layer by layer and as time went by.

Materiality and the elements
Our work on materiality and the elements (setting sun, ocean, moon) required a variety of attempts and approaches. Mati has a strong relationship to the image. We sought to make this story of ghosts, possession and enchantment tangible. In the film, men who died at sea return via the (sweating) bodies of young girls.
The rather matte texture, the importance of flares, the quality of the blacks and the brilliances, especially on skin at night, add to the fantastic dimension of the film but still keep the soul of the Senegalese capital present. We liked to feel the materiality of dust, humidity, and the sea spray.
The ocean is the fantastic. We tried to film it as though it were a planet unto itself, an inhuman planet (going there means dying). The viewer had to feel the importance of the heavenly bodies and the characters caught up in something bigger, in the cosmos.

Foundations in the documentary and artistic desires
I remember having long discussions when it came time to choose the locations and the people that lived in them, regarding the apparently contradictory alliance between documentary immersion and very precise desires in terms of locations, materials, and lighting.

My experience shooting documentaries definitely helped me to find the right balance between the desire for the camera to be mainly on the shoulder (with an Easyrig) so that we could adapt to the places of the actors, and photographic or artistic references such as Nan Goldin, Guy Bourdin, etc. Most of the shots were filmed from the shoulder, and I chose to make sure I gave myself latitude in the choice of shot to be able to stabilize the image in postproduction, especially on fixed shots. Bit by bit, the film’s colour palette emerged : a very orangey colour (streetlamps, fire, and sunset), electric blues (the nightclub, neon lights, and screens) and always the green of the laser. I often found it interesting to oppose the orange and the blue, such as in the night scene during the wedding when Ada, Dior and Fanta were on the balcony.

Mati takes great pleasure in watching the scenes and in finding the right shot once the lighting has been set up. She is very sensitive to the way that light can sublimate bodies and faces. Therefore, it was very important to think about the lighting beforehand in relation to our work on the sets.
It was very pleasant to carry our shooting decisions all the way through colour timing with the same level of demandingness. I was lucky that colour timer Gilles Granier supervised the fabrication of the dailies. I spent a lot of time during shooting in discussions to ensure that our visual choices, especially on the darkest scenes, would be present in the dailies.

In the end, I was marvellously well assisted by our Senegalese image crew, who displayed both inventiveness and reactivity. I owe them a great deal.

(Interview by François Reumont, retranscribed and formatted by Hélène de Roux, on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)

Atlantics
Set Design : Toma Baqueni and Oumar Sall
Costumes : Rachèle Raoult and Salimata Ndaye
Sound : Benoît de Clerck
Editing : Aël Dallier-Vega