Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC, discusses his vision of the profession

By François Reumont for the AFC

La Lettre AFC n°292

[ English ] [ français ]

Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC, took advantage of his stay in Poland to participate in a number of events and seminars concerning cinematography. The former assistant to Nestor Almendros has become one of the legends of cinematography in France and abroad (John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest, Stephen FrearsDangerous Liaisons, and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot). The most relaxed and informal of these events was definitely the free-flowing discussion he had with the many attendees who came to listen to his vision of the profession.

When he was asked to summarize the evolution of cinema over the past forty years of his career, his first remark was about the rhythm and editing of films. “That’s something that fascinates me,” he explained. “How a film that has over eight hundred shots in the final cut can now be considered a bit slow ! When I directed my own film, The Kiss of the Serpent, in 1997, with about the same number of cuts, I was told at the time that my film was overedited ! I can’t imagine what it will be like in twenty years !”

As concerns the transition from film to digital, the cinematographer said that he doesn’t really think about it anymore. “Of course, the economic pressure that occurred after the release of digital cameras was uncomfortable for us cinematographers. Going from a world where a film camera had a useful life of over forty years to one in which cameras lasted from six months to a year with the early digital cameras, was exhausting. Now, things have settled down and I believe that very good films can be made with either technology. Let’s be honest : I don’t know of any films where viewers have gotten up and left the cinema because it was shot on a particular camera. Now, I just try and do my work the best I can, no matter the production chain chosen for the creation of the film.”

One of the festivalgoers asked about the relationship to the actors. Philippe Rousselot replied enthusiastically. “One thing is certain, that is that, as a cinematographer, you have to love the characters in the film – but not necessarily the people ! Paying attention is the first thing you have to do in the first days of shooting, and that will make everyone feel comfortable. Behind the camera, you’re often the first viewer of the film, and you’re physically close to the actors. The director is often set up in a technical tent, with monitors. At the end of the take, you get to exchange a brief glance, send the signal that every actor is going to understand and that is one of the keys to winning their trust. This is extremely important, and not only with actresses who might feel uncomfortable because they’re twenty years older than the character in the screenplay. I really believe that it’s one of the jobs of the cinematographer to show that he or she is interested by their work. If you’re able to reprogram your brain to forget technicalities, not to think about the movement of your right hand and your left hand on the crank’s gear head, and instead you are able to feel whether or not the take was good for the actor’s performance, then, believe me, your image will be good.”

On the theme of failures, the cinematographer said that he classifies them into different categories :
“First of all, there are involuntary errors that you make out of carelessness, you forget to change the sensitivity of the film on your cell and everything is overexposed or underexposed… We can move on quickly from those, because everyone has done something like that before.
Then, there are the failures related to ambition. For example, you design an extremely clever and sophisticated way of filming a night scene with editing, special effects, etc. And then in the end, nothing happens as you’d planned, and the result is a disaster. That can also be a result of your own individual understanding of the film, which causes you to come up with ideas that go far beyond the subject or what the project is trying to tell. Your ego creates something that is foreign and out-of-place that, deep down, is only justified by your pursuit of your own pleasure as a cinematographer.
Lastly, we come to errors in the reading of the screenplay, where you don’t pay enough attention to the details. On that subject, I remember, as an example, a night-time indoors scene that took place in an office where I had proudly lit the set in such a way as to create a very low level of light, and the result was great. The problem was that the actress, in that scene, was supposed to come across a piece of paper that was important for the plot…but there wasn’t even enough light for her to be able to read it !”

Concerning technique, and especially on his mastery of low lights, Philippe Rousselot denied resorting to special methods for treating the image. “In truth, I try to keep things simple. For example, when I shoot a dark scene, I don’t light a lot ! Whether in La Reine Margot, that a lot of people have cited in my career, or in other films, I have never flashed the negative or used procedures such as bleach-bypass. I consider those things to be gimmicks or tricks… In reality, working in darkness is first and foremost a question of spatially managing contrasts. Leaving an entire portion of the image in the dark is not a problem provided that the viewer’s gaze can settle on a point of light somewhere that the eye can focus on. It is truly that balance that is hard to find and I must admit that even though I love La Reine Margot, perhaps I went a bit too far with the darkness in that film. Or perhaps it’s that I’m getting old, and like all old people, I need more and more light to see clearly !”

As for the choice of lenses, Philippe Rousselot revealed that he has trouble with screentests. “I always find it hard to fairly compare lenses. At a certain point, I begin to shoot scenes that I like, and it always ends up in a highly arbitrary choice that it would be entirely impossible to justify if I were suddenly ordered to stand trial before a film judge.”

As to his favourite focal lengths, the cinematographer revealed that he prefers medium or long focal lengths, and he prefers to shoot with a prime lens series than a zoom lens. “The rendering in perspective that I prefer is between 75mm and 150mm. That can change everything from one film to the next, depending on the director. On Constantine, for example, which is a film by Francis Lawrence starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz, the director convinced me to do closeups on the actress with a 35mm lens. I’ll admit that those plans are magic. Anyway, Rachel Weisz herself is magic on the screen. That’s to say that you can begin a film with your own ideas and then come up against reality and even change your opinion in the end. As for zoom lenses, even though their quality is objectively better than that of prime lenses, I remain attached to the coherency and discipline that shooting with prime lenses imposes on you. As for questions of aperture, I prefer a defined image, with a sufficient amount of depth of field. When I shoot with a camera such as the Alexa 65, on Fantastic Beasts 2, for example, I have a hard time going below f8 with the Thalia lenses because the size of the sensor requires that amount of aperture. It’s more my use of long focal lengths that allows me, later on, to play with the impression of depth in the image.”

(Thumbnail photo above by Jean-Noël Ferragut - Translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe for the AFC)