Mathieu Plainfossé, AFC, "Going Elsewhere"

By Ariane Damain Vergallo, for Ernst Leitz Wetzlar

Contre-Champ AFC n°345

[ English ] [ français ]

Just after the 39-45 war, Mathieu Plainfossé’s architect great-grandfather, inspired by the faith of the pioneers, set about rebuilding the town of Saint Malo, which had been almost destroyed by American bombing raids. It was a mammoth task that lasted more than 15 years, and which he oversaw with talent and perseverance. As for his grandfather, a renowned equestrian veterinarian, he had operated on nothing less than the Queen of England’s racehorses and those of the Aga Khan in his famous Grosbois clinic, using a technique invented by him. Remarkable men of whom he could later be proud.

For the generation that followed, the evolution of society brought its share of uncertainties and failures, taking the men away from the family and leaving the children to their mothers. Mathieu Plainfossé was raised by benevolent but strict women, afraid that this amiable but dissipated little boy would follow in the footsteps of a sire too flamboyant to carry out his plans.

He lives in Boulogne-Billancourt with his mother and older sister, and loses all interest in school where, as a poor student, he gets no recognition and ends up believing he’s not a good person. Apart from playing soccer with friends his own age, one of his greatest pleasures is Sunday afternoons when his father takes him to the cinema to see films like Top Gun and Greystoke, in which men, played by Tom Cruise and Christophe Lambert, are finally heroes.

But in 9th grade, Mr Lesage, his French teacher, finally recognizes him and, week after week, reads his essays to the class. A small glimmer of self-confidence and hope for the future appeared.
Mathieu’s scientific baccalauréat came late. It was 1999 and Mathieu Plainfossé was 20 years old. As he had absolutely no idea what he wanted to do, he decided to study medicine. It’s a mistake, of course, and he realizes it in a strange way.

The Faculty of Medicine is located near the Luxembourg Gardens, where he spends a lot of time walking around and reading Dostoyvesky’s Crime and Punishment, about a young man his own age who commits a crime on an experimental basis and carefully observes the consequences.
For some reason, this book was a revelation. He drops out of medical school and convinces his mother to take up film studies.
His godfather, thinking he’s being lectured, instead instills in him a rage to succeed and prove to the world that he’s right to follow his instincts.
And just as he had embarked on a series of haphazard experiments, he suddenly became serious and threw himself into studying cinema with a passion.

He obtained a BTS in Audiovisual Image and, for two years, with a few friends, began to work as an electrician on a few shoots, but the "big" cinema was a long way off.
He then remembers that the neighbor of his family’s house in Saint Malo is a producer, Éric Névé, who gives him the telephone number of cinematographer Guillaume Schiffmann, whom he pesters on the phone for weeks until Schiffmann, fed up, offers him a job as an electro trainee on a short film.
From this first experience, on location and in the middle of winter, he learnt that it was imperative to have very warm clothes, and he equipped himself accordingly.

Éric Névé then took him on as a trainee on a feature film, but he realized that he was only "the trainee brought in by the production", a rather unfavorable position for joining a team. A TV film later, he also realized that cinema is a family with its own codes and customs, and that it’s not so easy to become part of it.
To complete his training, he took a color-grading course with Isabelle Julien at the Éclair laboratory on a new machine, the Lustre.
We’re at the dawn of the 2000s, and digital technology is booming. He was dazzled by the work of Yvan Lucas on Oliver Stone’s Alexander and couldn’t believe he was rubbing shoulders with the stars of the image world at the tender age of 20.
“Looking at their images, I projected myself into the minds of great cinematographers like Tetsuo Nagata and Rodrigo Prieto and got a glimpse of what cinematography could be.”
This was followed by several short films as a grip, then months of hard work as a checkroom attendant at Tryptique nightclub.

In 2005, Mathieu Plainfossé turned 26 and everything happened at once. He made his first music videos as a cinematographer and, at the same time, was hired as second camera assistant on the biggest film of the year, Da Vinci Code, shot in 35mm.
At the Louvre Museum, he loaded the magazines of the 5 cameras on the shoot in front of The Mona Lisa and The Marriage of Cana. It was a "phenomenal experience" that gave him wings.

He became friends with André Chemetoff and Laurent Tangy, nicknamed Renzo, whose assistant he also became. All three shared the same ambition and love of cinema and light. Renzo was godfather to his daughter, born a month apart from André Chemetoff’s. A generation of promising young cinematographers was being born, and they would remain friends.

Mathieu Plainfossé, en 2023 - Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo - Leica M type 240 en monture PL, Leitz Summicron-C 100 mm
Mathieu Plainfossé, en 2023
Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo - Leica M type 240 en monture PL, Leitz Summicron-C 100 mm

Then everything accelerates with the first commercials shot abroad. Producer Mourad Belkeddar set up his own company, Iconoclast, and produced the artist Yoann Lemoine "Woodkid", who directed the beautiful "Iron" video, with Mathieu Plainfossé as lighting director.
The clip, in black and white, was shot in the studio against a green incrust background. He experimented with different amounts of light on the green background to create different densities of gray, which served as a backdrop for subtle foreground lighting work.
"Iron" is an international success - the clip will have 100 million views on YouTube - which obliges him to take on an agent in the USA. His career was already exploding when it had barely begun. Advertising and music videos demanded his attention, while cinema was temporarily on the back burner and a first divorce was on the horizon.

Mathieu Plainfossé moved to New York to follow “a summer love that turned into a winter love”. A new partner and a new child.
He worked on major commercials and music videos for stars such as Sia, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. He becomes bilingual and makes his first feature films, including Ty Roberts’ The Iron Orchard, which will be promoted at Camerimage in 2018. “It was at Camerimage, when I was already 40, that I started to feel a bit happy with what I was doing.”

In 2019, he divorces his wife and returns to Europe. In Paris, he lives with his mother, in his childhood apartment, but most of the time, he lives in London, where his son’s mother has settled. He began working on Netflix series such as "Mortal" and "La Révolution" and continued to cross the Atlantic for commercials in the USA until that phone call in November 2019, which would last over an hour, when director Anthony Byrne offered him the chance to shoot the sixth season of the Peaky Blinders series.
He began location scouting in Manchester, photographing all the 19th-century settings with his Leica M6 camera.
But at the beginning of 2020, Covid struck, and lockdown was declared a week before shooting was due to start. Mathieu Plainfossé fled to Paris with his 3-year-old son.
He was exhausted but welcomed the chance to spend some time alone with his son. “At the time, I was living at a hundred miles an hour, and the confinement saved my life.”

And so it was that, in Manchester, he happily set about filming season 6 of "Peaky Blinders", which is being shot in large format in three distinct universes.
For two of them, Leitz’s Leica R and M0.8 optics proved “brilliant and clear, with beauty in the blur and also, as they are basically photo optics, a slight distortion of the point tracking which I found interesting”.

Strangely enough, the international success of the series gave him a new lease of life in France and Germany. He went on to make two feature-length films, including Tropic by Édouard Salier, the director and friend who had given him his start 12 years earlier.
He met up with him again in 2023, on the Canal Plus series "Les Sentinelles", set during the 14-18 war.
Mathieu Plainfossé is particularly delighted by this close collaboration with a director because he only feels at home when he’s at the service of a filmmaker and a story.
“I’m not an incredible skipper, but I’m a very good sailor.”
Sailing away, somewhere else.