Conversation with Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC

Chinese Luck

Contre-Champ AFC n°314

[ English ] [ français ]

On the occasion of his being awarded a lifetime achievement award, Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC, answered questions from Jean-Marie Dreujou, Caroline Champetier, and Denis Lenoir. During their conversation, which was broadcast live on the 2020 Camerimage Festival’s online platform, they discussed the start of his career in France and abroad, including his work with Nestor Almendros. In keeping with his relaxed attitude and straight-talking approach, this recipient of three César awards and one Oscar delighted his colleagues with many memories from shoots and a discussion of the risks a DP sometimes has to take, and the opportunities he has to seize, on set. (FR)

Diva, by Jean-Jacques Beineix :

“When I met Jean-Jacques Beineix, he shared his desire to shoot an almost monochromatic film in blue and black… He wanted us to take inspiration from Jacques Monory. He sought me out because he’d seen an earlier film I’d shot (Pour Clémence, Charles Belmont 1977) with completely violet outdoor night shots. I remember that we’d had to totally deprogram the lab’s printing machines in order to get that crazy color. Personally, I’ve always liked blue a lot, but I was a bit afraid that if we worked in that completely monochrome way, the viewer’s eye would gradually get accustomed to it and wouldn’t notice the color blue anymore… That’s why I had the idea of also using yellow, in order to awaken the dominant color with its complementary color. It was pretty much the same thing as working on desaturation in a film : it’s great for ten minutes and then you begin to get tired ! Roughly speaking, that’s how we agreed to make this movie.

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On set, I remember that Hilton Mac Connico’s art direction played a central part in making this film, such as the large painting in the character’s loft, with the car and its yellow headlights. The loft set with the bathtub was shot in a former factory on the banks of the Canal Saint-Denis. We absolutely didn’t have the budget to light the space at night. So, I opted for an indoor day-for-night setup by literally covering all of the windows with the blue transparent vinyl that’s usually used by schoolchildren to cover their notebooks and textbooks. Simply because the film was so broke that gelatin rolls were out of budget ! I even remember that indoors, I used HMIs reflected off of Styrofoam that we painted blue. We couldn’t even measure the color temperature using the thermo-colorimeter… it was over 15,000 Kelvin ! It was definitely crazy but, to my great surprise, the image was pretty good in the end. The film even had a great deal of success, and a lot of other filmmakers tried to copy that blue image later on.”

The Emerald Forest , by John Boorman
“I’d met John Boorman while shooting Arnaud Selignac’s Nemo, a rather forgotten fantasy film for children that he was coproducing. The shoot took place in an improvised studio inside of the kind of pressurized bubble that protects tennis courts. The ceiling of the bubble was painted midnight blue, which allowed us to shoot in studio conditions with a 360° fake sky as our background. I think he was impressed by the setup… even though later on he (nastily !) told me that anyway, he hadn’t been able to find anyone else willing to spend six months in the Amazon !

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In any case, shooting in the jungle was really hard. It’s very hot there, it’s full of bugs that try to eat you alive, and the tree canopy is so thick that every scene has to be re-lit… there are even some day scenes at the start of the film that we ended up filming at night and lighting as though we were in studio, in order to accommodate the shooting schedule.”

Thérèse , by Alain Cavalier

“There was no makeup, no makeup artist, no wardrobe assistant on this film. We shot it with a crew of eleven. Everyone did a bit of everything… Maybe the quality of the skin-tone on the image came from color grading ? Everything was shot using tungsten. The most powerful light source was, if I remember correctly, a 10K Fresnel. The rest was mainly redheads, blondes and Styrofoam boards. But to tell the truth, besides the faces, there wasn’t much else to light ! The image could pretty much be summed up as a group of women against a grey background ! Pretty easy to shoot, right ?
Since there were no wide introduction shots, and pretty much only close-ups – there was nothing to it. In any case, the director requested that we should never clearly indicate the presence of a (nonexistent) set outside of the frame. This was chiefly a film about a group of women, and obviously not a film about religion. The light was there to simply show what there was to see. Never to show off or to be clever.

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I also remember that I had to redo a take because of an overly visible backlight that made the scene too pretty. Doing the bare minimum isn’t always easy. It doesn’t mean doing nothing, it means finding the right balance between what’s right and what’s superfluous. There’s no recipe for that.
And the actresses were so extraordinary that their faces and their acting transcended everything else in this film.”

Hope and Glory , by John Boorman

“This was a totally autobiographical film mainly shot in studio on a former air force base (the street and the bombed-out houses during the story). This was a very flexible set where the main house had been built twice, one at each end of the street. That way, we could set ourselves up on one axis or the other and visually duplicate the set for the same budget. In American cinema jargon, that’s called ‘doing it Chinese style’. Back then, we didn’t have digital to rely on, so everything had to be done with the camera.

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For the bombing scene, with the neighbor’s house consumed in flames, my biggest question was how to imagine the level of light that would be given off by the fire at night, and to anticipate the DCA lights in the smoke. We could only do two or three takes once the fire had been started, since it couldn’t be stopped after that. That’s the type of setup where the director puts you in a really difficult position and which can cause you to break out in cold sweats !”

Dangerous Liaisons, by Stephen Frears
“Oh ! Stephen is one of those directors who can really make you go crazy. The film was mainly shot on location in France. A scene shot in Paris in the Hôtel de Sully at the end of the day, where the candles in the chandeliers are being lit : I had to block the daylight and recreate the effect of the setting sun, so that we would also be able to capture the effect of the candlelight. That blocked off the windows, but Stephen wanted the camera to go towards the windows and even wanted the actors to be able to look through them. It was completely pointless. I’d run out of arguments and I said to him : ‘Look through the window, what do you see out there ? A big grey concrete wall ! We’d never be able to shoot in that axis anyway !’ Since I realized he was still stuck on it, I added : ‘Anyway, I’m going to hang a poster of Valmont up on that wall !’ (the adaptation of the same novel that Milos Forman was shooting at the same time as us). You know, actors don’t care if you put lights behind the windows… Truly, I think they even prefer to see lights.

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About my use of Chinese lanterns, I think it was on Hope and Glory that I used them for the first time, not on this film. On this film, I sometimes used a mini Space Light with a 2K tungsten lamp, but the setup was cumbersome because of the very small sets the film was shot in. It was my gaffer at the time, Chuck Finch, who suggested Chinese lanterns. Their lightness, their ease of setup, the fact that you can adapt quickly to any situation in function of the actors’ performance… This is a soft light, which can be placed very close to the actors’ faces. And it doesn’t bleed out too much onto the rest of the set, unlike a soft light you put 3 meters away from the actors’ faces which also lights the backgrounds. This way, you can easily separate the actors from the rest of the image and give them their own light. Anyway, that was one of Stephen Frears’ requests from the start : film faces as much as possible and forget about the sets. I remember that during our first meeting, he showed me a postcard showing the interior of one of the châteaux we were going to film in. An 18th century interior, all in gold, much too brightly lit, and he asked me : ‘How can we avoid this ?’ My answer : ‘By not lighting the walls !’

Queen Margot , by Patrice Chéreau
“The day before the great marriage scene in the cathedral, I remember asking Patrice Chéreau how he imagined the scene, and where he wanted to place the camera… His answer was : ‘Light first, and I’ll tell you after’.
He had his own way of working, which was unparalleled in the profession. Of course, we’d exchanged a few references from paintings (he was very cultured in terms of fine art), such as a painting by Rembrandt that we used as a model.
For the first shots, where Queen Margot is surrounded by clergymen in a warm light that gives off a chilly feeling, it was supposed to be evocative of the character’s isolation in relation to the rest of the crowd amassed in the cathedral, which was lit by a colder light that was coming in from outside. Chéreau concentrated first on the actors, which I think was an inheritance from his work as a theater director. Even though he paid a lot of attention to the sets, they could be left in the shadows since they weren’t what he wanted to show. For example, even though the film takes place in the 16th century, he didn’t want to use that style of decoration, which would have been much too elegant for the film he was making. Most of the locations chosen for shooting were much more modern, like interiors from the 17th or 18th centuries, which were much more austere. The end of the film, for example, in the baroque church, is a good example of that.

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He had a very particular way of shooting. Patrice used to call everyone onto the set from the start, everyone down to the last extra. A bit like one might do in the theater. And he would organize his shooting script, his camera movements, and each shot was a master shot ; the “breakdown” would be done during editing. Since he was a perfectionist for every detail, every position of every actor, down to the extras, and each of their tiniest gestures, it could take hours sometimes. At the end of these rehearsals, we had to shoot straight away, otherwise it would all be lost : the position and all the rest ! That’s why I had to adapt my own way of working on this film by literally covering the ceiling of every set with a network of Chinese lanterns hooked up to a control panel. There were a lot of them, really as many as I was able to hang. During the rehearsals, I’d program the lanterns to turn on and off with each camera position. During shooting, I would activate the different settings as the scene moved forward, without ever having to touch a single lantern physically. It was a sort of on-the-spot improvisation that I made up as I went along ! I learnt a lot on this film, and from this unique director.”

(Excerpted by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC from the Conversation with Philippe Rousselot during Camerimage 2020, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe)