AFC Interviews at Lille’s "Series Mania" Festival

Martin Roux, AFC, discusses his cinematographic choices on the series "Machine" by Fred Grivois

"Can Kung Fu save the proletariat ?", by François Reumont

par Martin Roux Contre-Champ AFC n°353

[ English ] [ français ]

Fred Grivois’ "Machine", co-written with Thomas Bidegain and Valentine Monteil, is a bit of a baroque concept. An intimate mixture of the kung-fu movie (with its codes and combat scenes) and a pure social drama, this series shows us a fugitive ex-solider who returns to her ancestors’ small town to escape the GIGN police forces that are hunting her down… When she gets a job as a temporary factory worker, she meets a charismatic Marxist foreman — and former heroin addict — who is facing a takeover by a large Korean firm. Played by Margot Brancilhon and Joey Starr, the project takes on an unexpected plot and visual journey under the guidance of Martin Roux, AFC. He shares with us his experience on this 6 48-minute episode series (soon to be broadcast on Arte) whose two first episodes were presented in the official competition at Series Mania*. (FR)

A young heroine, a loner and kung-fu master, and a former drug addict and current Marxist, unite forces to lead a workers’ uprising in a small provincial town.

Where did this strange project come from ?

Martin Roux : The concept of "Machine" should be understood through Guy Debord’s situationism. This was an artistic and political movement that, in the 1960s, proposed a radical criticism of consumer culture. The writers had in mind a film such as Can Dialectics Break Bricks ? (1973 - René Vienet and Gérard Cohen, which hijacks a real Hong-Kong martial arts movie). This was squeezed into a 6-episode project, which was of course made softer and more accessible, with a lot of second-degree humor and a very intentional progression in the style and the set design. Indeed, the story begins in a very social context, one that might be compared to that of the Dardenne brothers or Lucas Belvaux, and ends with something much more pop-style, like a music video, that evokes Tarantino’s films and 1970s Hong Kong kung fur movies. It was a real wager in terms of artistic direction to control the story development. Given the pace of shooting, it was simply backbreaking work to manage the stylistic issues in relation with the choice of sets, and at the same time, manage the complexity of the many martial arts scenes.

Fred Grivois et Martin Roux
Fred Grivois et Martin Roux

How many days of shooting ?

MR : 55 days, or a bit less than 6 days per episode. If you perform a simple division, this results in 8 useable minutes per day, which is rather average on set for a series. But when it comes to "Machine", the days devoted to the fight scenes simply couldn’t maintain that pace. On those days, we were down to 1-2 useable minutes, and only 30 seconds for the the day dedicated to shooting the fight on the roof where the security measures were even stricter than usual. So, we had to adapt within the rest of the shooting schedule to save time on the more “classic” scenes, including the decision to shoot most of the indoor scenes in a single location in the studio to save time. We began shooting with those scenes in January 2023, in the former BA112 air force base, which has been converted into studios by Mediawan, near Reims. We also used the backlot for some outdoor scenes, such as those outside the factory.


The two first episodes screened at Lille were wintry in color, I’d even say glacial !

MR : As I mentioned, the series changes a lot from episode to episode. The beginning is about social drama, with very dull colors, and a cyan-dominated color palette. The image was inspired by Atomic Blonde, by David Leitch, in 2017.
The idea was to begin with a depressing atmosphere, in this cold and dark winter context you felt… It was a way of visually evoking a certain type of social cinema, as well as certain Westerns (the character who comes from nowhere and settles in a small town). With the camera almost always on the shoulder and a very direct style of writing… Then, in the second episode, you get traveling shots, and after that, a lot of gyrostabilized camera with more and more long takes… The image then tends towards more pop colors, as the series transitions into the world of action films. This was a way of bringing through on screen that social struggles actually become physical struggles, given our starting idea of combining Karl Marx’s doctrine with that of kung-fu.


What was your approach to lighting ?

MR : Given this shift, I at once felt that I had to maintain maximum control of the camera to create a fairly consistent image throughout the series. Consistent in the sense that I wanted to avoid uncertainties, accidents and the unexpected as much as possible. This is also why filming in studio was a blessing for me, as it allowed me to control the lighting and move towards a certain artificiality on some sets, such as the apartment. This little dose of sophistication also enabled me to create a certain tone from the start, freeing myself from a certain realism and avoiding too big a gap with the latter episodes that take off into a very deliberate kung-fu delirium. The cinematography embraces its artificiality – not in the spectacular sense – but rather in the sense of control...

And why not show color from the start ?

MR : No, we didn’t want to spill the beans. It was very important that this evolution should happen as the series progressed. The first episode is also a portrait of “Machine” (Margot Brancilhon), who becomes less central with the arrival of other characters, like JP (Joey Starr) or the vlogger, Final Fuck (Michael Abiteboul). This is also the arc of a solitary character who is not interested in others, and who gradually becomes engaged in a collective struggle.

We also learn snippets of your heroine’s past...

MR : In the script, these flashback sequences were much more detailed, including scenes of military operations in Africa. We ultimately decided to convey this writing in a slightly more fragmented manner, by evoking snippets of the past rather than an explicit narrative moment. To do this, Fred Grivois and I discussed the use of still images, such as simple photographs (a technique ultimately used in another scene you’ll be able to see in episode 3), and then move towards ultra slow motion which we felt is a technique that is given short shrift in fiction. It’s true... when you think about it, very high speed shooting is quite wonderful ! It takes me back to the origins of cinema, and how the first pioneers broke down movement in the late 19th century. So that’s the direction Fred took, re-writing those scenes so he could shoot them in studio with the Phantom camera and pretty much any level of visual abstraction. It was really very exciting, and the whole portrayal of this backstory was rewritten to be conveyed in very short scenes dispersed throughout the episodes, which gradually reconstructs our protagonist’s traumatic past.

And how did shooting those fights go for you ?

MR : We were supremely lucky to discover that Margot Brancilhon was extremely gifted for stunt work. You see, there were only two shots in the entire series where she was stunt doubled, simply owing to the physical capacity to jump. All the rest was entirely executed by her, in front of the camera. It was a great pleasure to be able to shoot take after take without having to stop at each step to sometimes replace her with her double. Her total engagement pushed me to allow her a lot of freedom with the lighting, so that I could follow her with the camera, and become one with the choreography. It was also a surprise to feel myself experiencing sensations that I had only previously experienced on the set of a film d’auteur… quite different from Asian kung-fu movies ! And yet, they both place us in the same rhythmic demands and inspire the same feelings towards the scene. The only difference is speed and the precipitation that characterizes the choreography. But to me, the camera’s relationship to the actor is nearly the same.

Was there a lot of advance preparation ?

MR : I loved working with Manu Lanzi, the fight supervisor, who was very involved in the production process of the series (he was co-director of the fight scenes), and in cutting them and participating in their editing. This was true teamwork, with a horizontality on set that is very meaningful to me. This is how we rediscover the way cinema is collective labor, in which the director’s power as an individual (or the DoP’s) cannot alone result in a successful shoot. To answer your question more precisely, there were first indoor rehearsals of each fight, which we filmed, prior to the actual shoot. Later, Manu Lanzi would adapt the choreography to the chosen set, in function of the elements on the set or the available space… Then we would give blocking instructions to Margot for the final choreography and the shooting script for each scene. Some examples are that we’d use a traveling shot, or a Ronin shot, or even a very-close-up such as Paul Greengrass pioneered on the "Jason Bourne" series… We really tried to work with her to vary the styles and situations to avoid filming all of the fights in the same way, even deciding to set one of them in the driver’s compartiment of a freight lorry, which is pretty much as cramped as it can get for shooting a scene !

What did you learn ?

MR : I learned a lot from these fight scenes. And I think I still have a lot to learn ! My main takeaway is that you have to know how to keep things simple, and not necessarily try to add camera movements to already complex action scenes. During editing, I was really able to see how well the sequences filmed very simply with several fixed cameras worked. And how the least pretentious plans were in fact the most effective. I remember very well, for example, an extremely daring shot, where the camera jumped into the void with Margot and which simply didn’t work. The enjoyment and effectiveness of a fight on screen comes not from the complexity of the shots, but on the contrary from their accuracy, perhaps even their modesty !

And in terms of choice of lenses ?

MR : As Fred likes a sharp and modern image, I voluntarily set aside any vintage lenses or lenses with a strong character. On the contrary, I chose a Sigma Full Frame series, which has the advantage of being very neutral in rendering, very precise and without notable effects or aberrations. Another important point, they are very inexpensive which allowed me to equip the multiple cameras that we were going to use without worrying about cost. As for the camera bodies in particular, I must admit that I am more and more an adept of choosing the camera body according to the needs of each sequence, always favoring versatility if the camera allows for it. On "Machine", for example, we used both RED Raptors as main cameras, especially for their compact size and their high definition, but also RED Komodos, which are even more compact, drones, Sony Alpha 7s and even a DJI Ronin 4D, which is a camera body stabilized on 4 axes and which really allows you to undertake shots that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. It’s an incredible machine with a completely crazy “camera pen” quality that you have to be able to hold yourself back from using, lest you do something really bonkers !

Florian Berthellot en action avec le DJI Ronin 4D
Florian Berthellot en action avec le DJI Ronin 4D

Tell me a little more about this camera, you are one of the few who use it !

MR : It’s a truly disarming camera. It excels in many areas, notably with its remote-controlled crank head, which allows you to shoot while a grip moves around with the camera... Everything is almost automatic, and it works very well ! The assistants use it without difficulty, and you can even mount other lenses (Sony, Sigma, etc.) on it if you do not want to use the 4 DJI lenses supplied with the machine. It is outfitted with a very good sensor, excellent definition (8K) and very correct color rendering. The only thing is that you have to take care in preparation to do tests (by filming color charts) and develop a mathematical transformation to bring the images it produces into the ACES space. Once this precaution has been taken, you can handle the images in color correction like any other, and the transitions to images shot with other cameras are almost invisible.

What is your takeaway from this unusual experience ?

MR : I will remember that, contrary to what one might think, it is no mean feat to shoot fight scenes. Make no mistake, it’s really more like lace making ! All joking aside, it was a great pleasure to bring this form of cinema into union with such a sophisticated script, and such surprising political depth.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander B. Raiffe)

* "Machine" won the Best Series award in the French competition. It is scheduled to be broadcast on Arte from Thursday April 11, 2024 (April 4 on

Series of 6 48-minutes episodes for Arte
Production : Mediawan
Director : Fred Grivois
Cinematographer : Martin Roux, AFC
Producer : White Lion Films / Fit Production