Guillaume Deffontaines about his work on "The Voyage aux Pyrenees"

by Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu

[ English ] [ français ]

During the last Cannes Film Festival, the AFC published on its website a series of interviews with directors of photography, some members of the association some not, who had a film in one of the selections.
On the occasion of the film’s release in theaters, we offer an interview with Guillaume Deffontaines about his work on The Voyage aux Pyrenees by Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu.
With Sabine Azema, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Arly Jover, Gurgon Kyap

After graduating from the Ecole Louis Lumiere, Guillaume Deffontaines first made two short films (including The Model 1997). In parallel, his career as an assistant operator led him to work alongside François Catonné, Bernard Lutic or Christophe Beaucarne, with whom he met the Larrieu brothers (on A Real Man).
To Paint or Make Love and in the absence of Christophe Beaucarne retained by another production, the two directors from Lourdes turned to Deffontaines to do the cinematography for their new fantasy, Voyage to the Pyrenees. This film therefore marks his first feature as director of photography.

What does it mean to you to do this first feature as director of photography ?
First of all Voyage to the Pyrenees marks a kind of return to their roots for the Larrieu brothers, a return to the Pyrenees mountains they are so familiar with. For me it was very pleasant to be guided in a way through scenery and lighting that they know so well.
It’s a film based primarily on natural light, but whose fantasy sometimes appears in the image by disrupting certain ambiances with more "artificial" lighting, for example, with lightning...

So it was primarily an outdoor film...
No, not only. In fact, we even shot on a sound stage, a first for the Larrieu brothers (sequences inside the cabin were recreated on a stage because of space problems in the real cabin). Nevertheless it remains true that one of the main characters of the film, if not the main character, is the mountain. And for the Larrieus it’s not just a well-lit mountain, a sort of postcard, but really a way of telling a specific story. Both a way to tell their story, and that of the region.
To give you an idea, on this film, we often left the cottage in the morning by truck, then climbed into 4 wheel drives, then continue in quad vehicles, and finally ended up walking to the location chosen by the two directors ! And on every leg of the journey we went from one stunning place to another stunning place... To finally arrive at the place that corresponded closely to the story and the scene. You should realize, however, the challenges represented by these sequences. The fact of bringing a full crew up to an altitude of 2 500 meters, and to be able to stay up there for an entire day, is quite exceptional.

What were the challenges in preparation ?
The location scouting was done with a lot of caution. The position of the sun was almost always the predominant element. By using a Sunto sextant, and recovering data from a small predictive program, I was able to very precisely determine the sun positions in each location. And therefore be able to anticipate a shooting schedule with possible shooting angles depending on time of day.

Did you rely on photographs ?
Yes, I took some photos. But the Larrieus really don’t have any pre-established shot list, nor any predetermined choice of angles for scenes. So you have to adapt a lot, be very flexible, and above all have faith ! But they are seasoned mountaineers and they are even able to anticipate some weather phenomena. For example, during a day of fog, which seemed to undermine any chance of shooting, they took full advantage of it for their story.

What did you opt for in terms of equipment ?
In the mountains, being lightweight was absolutely necessary. We opted for Super 16, and for a lot of modular and slimmed-down equipment. For power, I used batteries because they could not bring generators into these difficult to access locations. At one point I even considered getting a liquid hydrogen generator for the few high altitude night exteriors, but in vain.
The sequence of the encounter between Alexander and Tenzing in the small shelter was entirely lit with battery sources and gas ramps.
On the other hand, some scenes, such as the day exteriors in the garden of the shelter, were largely lit with conventional HMI equipment in order to maintain continuity throughout the day.

And the camera ?
With the Super 16 camera, I decided to use a set of 35mm Primos to get the most out of the image. The 2K digital post-production, done at LTC-Duboi, also allowed us to accent the hues of autumn, while retaining a natural ambiance. I find this digital workflow is a great tool when starting from a Super 16 image. The tool is very cumbersome, but it offers leeway that doesn’t exist in the traditional workflow.

When did the shooting take place ?
In all, we shot six weeks in late fall (October November) and we had extraordinary luck with the weather. This enabled us to obtain not only fall colors in the landscape, but also a wonderful raking light, which is much more graphic at high altitudes than summer light. Of course, this decision was not without constraints in the shooting schedule. We had to be very precise as to scheduling, with the need to move very quickly on each set-up, as the lighting changed dramatically in the space of an hour. Sabine Azema, with her mischievous air, often pointed out to me how lucky I was to have, on my first movie as director of photography, such landscapes, such light and... such actors !

In this kind of situation are you sometimes tempted to focus on the landscape to the detriment of actors ?
Here, the division of labor of the Larrieus comes to play. As there are two of them, one deals more with the actors while the other one works with me on the image side, dealing with the mountain, the landscape. In any case, their mastery of the environment and their experience always allows them to take the time to enter into the scene, and to only shoot once the actors are really in it. Even if, as a cinematographer, you see time passing, and you aren’t always reassured ! But there again it’s a just a question of mutual trust...

(Interviewed by François Reumont for the AFC, translated by Benjamin B)