Watts in the Wadding

Interview with cinematographer Gilles Porte, AFC, about his work on Safy Nebbou’s film "Who Do You Think I Am"

par Gilles Porte

[English] [français]

Gilles Porte, AFC is an operator who likes changing visual universes on each project. For example, in 2017, on The Royal Exchange [1], by Marc Dugain, a film set in the French royal court during the 18th century, or the following year on Budapest [2], by Xavier Gens, a much more festive contemporary comedy. For this 2019 edition of Camerimage, he is presenting Who Do You Think I Am ? [3], the latest film by Safy Nebbou, starring Juliette Binoche (released in Paris in February 2019). This is a film about the lies and the dangers of social networks which has been a hit abroad [4] since its release (ranked 3rd-highest French film by ticket sales abroad). (FR)

Plot Summary : In order to spy on her lover Ludo, Claire Millaud, 50, creates a fake social network profile and becomes Clara, a gorgeous young woman of 24. Alex, Ludo’s friend, is immediately taken with her. Claire, now a prisoner of her avatar, falls head-over-heels in love with him. Although everything takes place virtually, the characters’ feelings are all too real. A dizzying tale in which reality and lies bleed into one another.

How did you get ready for shooting ?

Gilles Porte : I was lucky that Safy Nebbou, the director, had contacted me about a year and a half before shooting began. We had already shot In the Forests of Siberia [5] together, which is as different as could be from Who Do You Think I Am. Safy’s desire to work together well before shooting began gave us time to consider all of the film’s visual aspects. Safy’s permanent set designer Cyril Gomez Mathieu and I very early on began to work on the sets, the lighting, the shots, as well as the costumes and the colours so that we would be able to visually render Claire’s transformation as she gets deeper into lies. I still remember what Safy said during preparation : “Something virtual, computer colours, blues. There should be a total blurring to the point that it should be ambiguous whether Claire is in Facebook or whether Facebook is in us…”
Claire’s character enters into total virtual immersion, the way some people might curl up under the wadding of a blanket. One of the references discussed was the series “Black Mirror” because of its relationship with digital living and because of its filming, as well as Andrei Zviaguintsev’s film Loveless, whose icy, anesthetized feeling really caught our attention…

What were your choices in terms of image ?

GP : It was essential to isolate Claire’s character, and to show her loneliness and entrapment from the very moment she creates this avatar who is 26 years her junior. That’s why we chose to shoot with shallow depth of field : the aperture was generally set between 2 and 2.8. Every day, I called on the precision of my focus puller, Steve De Rocco. Safy, Cyril, and I also opted for a 2.39:1 format so that we could make the most of the screens and telephones shown in the image. So, logically, I chose a full-image camera—namely the Sony Venice—with spherical lenses, Primo 70s, which I’d used prior on The Royal Exchange. The softness of those lenses helped create the cocoon and the net that Safy wanted to weave… Another important tool on this film, which I’ve since adopted, was the Pillow Lite [6], an extremely soft light, a sort of inflatable diffusion pillow filled with LEDs. I had two of them…

Tournage d’une séquence en travelling circulaire avec Juliette Binoche
Tournage d’une séquence en travelling circulaire avec Juliette Binoche

Gilles Porte : « La lumière du ballon - petite montgolfière - devait absolument être contrôlée afin de ne pas éclairer l’écran de projection sur lequel étaient projetées des images en direct tirées du film Les Liaisons dangereuses.
Le ballon faisait 4 mètres de longueur et 2,25 de diamètre. Sa puissance était de 8 kW (4 x 2 kW) étalés sur une tige interne afin de bien répartir la lumière… Gonflé à l’hélium, le ballon était équipé de nombreux Velcros afin de placer un tissu noir occultant exactement comme je le désirais et donc de contrôler parfaitement la lumière qui s’en dégageait...

Par ailleurs, sur le travelling circulaire qui tournait autour de Juliette Binoche, un Pillow de 80 x 50 cm était placé sous la caméra et était ainsi solidaire de la caméra. Ce Pillow était équipé de LEDs bicolore 90 W blanc chaud / 90 W blanc froid.
La face avant du Pillow était constituée d’une membrane polyuréthane très épaisse et offrait donc à mes prises de vues une diffusion d’une douceur absolue. » - Photo Gregory Bar.

The Pillow Lite is an inflatable light that is designed with a polyurethane membrane and LEDs inside. The shape of the Pillow, the object itself but also the extremely gentle light it gives off were perfectly suited to the story that Safy is telling, like a luminous stuffed animal.
And then, really, you have to agree that a pillow-lamp for surfing Facebook at 3 am is pretty much spot-on, isn’t it ?
The Pillow Lite is a French invention, created by Olivier Neveu, a man who is passionate about lighting. Olivier works closely with cinematographers and appears in person to manoeuvre his balloons when modules larger than the Pillow are required. Gaffer Gregory Bar and I also called on Olivier on Who Do You Think I Am when we had to shoot those long scenes inside of the large lecture hall in Jussieu [7] where Claire teaches her classes. Our Pillow was gigantic for that location because it was actually a small hot-air balloon filled with helium and with lights inside.
Another example of the problems I was anticipating, was the question of low-angle shots. Because Claire’s character is often looking at her phone, we were often going to find ourselves with angles low enough for shot reverse shot. In such cases, the light of the telephone takes on the role of keylight and the Pillow participates in the plan by softening the contrasts under the chin or on Claire’s face. I also used the Pillow for more classic shots, such as those in the therapist’s office, as a lateral source that creates a pleasant reflection on the faces and in the eyes of both patient (Juliette Binoche) and therapist (Nicole Garcia).

Gilles Porte et Juliette Binoche sur le tournage de "Celle que vous croyez"
Gilles Porte et Juliette Binoche sur le tournage de "Celle que vous croyez"
Photo Gregory Bar

In the indoor scenes, the city is very visible through the windows...

GP : The film was shot mostly at ISO 1250 on the Sony F65, and this was to take best advantage of the city by night in the picture. The choice of Claire’s apartment, for example, was based on Safy’s desire to open the image up to a modern city that has been invaded by screens. Reading the screenplay, it seemed like the film was naturally going to be shot in studio, but we didn’t have the budget for such a luxury. So, Safy chose an apartment overlooking the Beaugrenelle neighbourhood, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, a sort of anti-Amelie Paris... Safy wanted the viewer to be able to imagine the story taking place in any large city. That’s why I was instructed never to film the Eiffel Tower even though Claire’s apartment had an insane view of it. Every time the Eiffel tower started shimmering (we were in that apartment for three weeks !) I would look at Safy with puppy dog eyes, but he would answer with a wink of the eye that always reassured me that he was right.

And how did you light that apartment ?

GP : We only had 2.1 meters ceiling height and the apartment wasn’t on the top floor of the building, where I might have been able to take advantage of a terrace, but instead on the second-to-last floor ! So, I had LED strips installed and thanks to the work of Cyril and his crew beforehand, we were able to hide the LEDs. Thanks to a Wi-Fi setup, we could control everything on an iPad and modify the image literally in real time. For the windows, I ordered fake windows in which neutral density filters were installed. The windows could be attached by Velcro to the existing frames—they were much quicker to change than gelatines and didn’t take the wind—in ND6. To be safe, I ordered two extra fake windows, which I sometimes used to double up and create ND12 when I had too much light for indoor daytime shots. When it came time to “drop” the false windows, I can guarantee you that the best team of mechanics in charge of changing a tire on a Formula 1 pitstop had nothing on my crew of sparks and grips !
Claire’s apartment overlooked the Seine, with barges frequently passing by. The violent lighting of the barges illuminates the façades of the buildings, and we recreated that using a SkyPanel on a travelling dolly, especially during the love scene at the beginning of the film.

The film is also the story of a woman who doesn’t want to grow old… How did you address that theme with a star such as Juliette Binoche on set ?

GP : First of all, I’d like to acknowledge her incredible talent. Juliette is definitely one of the greatest actors I’ve ever had the chance of working with. Her face is like a lightbulb, glowing from the inside. Just by smiling she is capable of changing characters and becoming 30 years younger. On this film, with Safy’s approval, I wanted to work without a filter during shooting. This was because I wanted to respect the film’s subject, on one hand, but also, I wanted to trust the actress’ own metamorphosis.
I also knew that I could use tools later, if necessary, on the Baselight console during colour grading. In order to allow everyone to be involved in the image process, Safy and I organized tests beforehand with Céline, Juliette’s makeup artist, and the dressing, make-up, hair crew.

Tell me about those tests…

GP : Actually, during those tests, I used placebo filters. In other words, I would put filters and labels on the sunshade, but the labels didn’t match the filters. My series of filters was, in fact, a series of optical glazes of the sort used to protect the lens in action scenes. I’d named them 1, 2, and 3, like on the classic Soft FX diffusion series. The three takes were strictly identical. Later, during colour grading of the three tests, Mathilde Delacroix, the colourist, and I, adjusted the soft on Juliette’s skin using the tools that exist in Baselight. During screening, when we’d agreed on the ideal “level” of diffusion, I revealed my trick to Celine and Juliette, showing them that the three takes were taken with the same lens… After the screening, Safy and I added that Juliette and Céline would have access to the screening of the final edited version, in order to make sure they agreed with the diffusion chosen in the end. I added a perfectly-colour-timed monitor into the mix, and I asked Céline and Greg to share it so that they could always work together. The stills we received each day helped us to improve our work together. When Céline felt unsure about a take, we would organize screenings so that we could see the result of Mathilde’s intervention on the big screen.
This method helped ensure serenity on set… This serenity was necessary when working with Juliette because she is like a wild animal when you’re filming her… She feels everything… She has such empathy with the character she is playing that she would feel even the beating of the wings of a fly. That feeling on set and that trust really helped us, especially at the end of the film when it came to filming the therapy sessions. Nicole Garcia, another great actress, plays the part of the therapist. I didn’t want to change my working method when she came on set by adding filters. After all, there again in the story, it is a 70-year-old woman analysing a 50-year-old woman who is telling her that she has taken on the role of a 24-year-old woman.
There, too, we had to educate and offer Nicole and her makeup artist the chance to attend colour timing sessions to help them learn about tools that they had no idea existed.

Is that what happened ?

GP : Juliette Binoche did not attend, she delegated the task to her makeup artist and to Romain, her hairdresser, but she did personally insist to me that as little as possible be changed. Juliette had seen the film before the last colour timing session. She demanded that her hairdresser, Romain, and Celine, see the film in its entirety before stopping on particular shots or scenes. It was important that they never lose sight of the story the film was telling. Juliette totally approved what she had seen, even though she had seen them in less-than-ideal conditions.
Nicole Garcia, however, did attend, and I was able to provide her a long demonstration of the possibilities Baselight offers. She was fascinated. But because Nicole is also a director, she knew that in the end, Safy was going to decide and she knew what the story of the film was that she had agreed to act in.

Is there a scene that you are particularly fond of ?

GP : There are a lot of them. Strangely, one of the scenes I most remember is not one that I shot. It is the drone movement over the Centre Pompidou, when Claire realizes that Alex isn’t dead. It’s a pivotal moment in the film and for its main character. In order to create the shot, we spliced together a Steadicam movement, shot by the fantastic Mathieu Caudroy, with a drone shot as the camera lifts up into the air and leaves Claire alone in the middle of the frame, as though she were hanging in the middle of a chasm. It’s not always easy to splice images taken with two different cameras together, especially since there were really strong updraughts that day, but Brice, the drone pilot, and all of the Full Motion crew, did a remarkable job… Safy and I were so impressed and we decided to leave the few unstable parts of the shot, which were due to updraughts, in the final cut, since we felt they were part of the film’s dramaturgy.

[1] https://www.afcinema.com/L-Echange-...
[2] https://www.afcinema.com/Budapest-1...
[3] https://www.afcinema.com/Celle-que-...
[4] https://www.unifrance.org/actualite...
[5] https://www.afcinema.com/Two-Pictur...

(Interview conducted by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe)

Produced by Diaphana
Directed by Safy Nebbou
Cinematography by Gilles Porte, AFC
Production design and artistic direction by Cyril Gomez
Costumes by Alexandra Charles
Juliette Binoche’s makeup by Céline Planchenault

About the Pillow Lite
The Pillow Lite is a lightweight LED measuring 80 cm x 50 cm, composed of an inflatable outer layer made of light-diffusing white polyurethane, with bicolour LED bars inside (2200K and 5500K), controlled by a Master 2-way HF LED dimmer.
Since its creation by Olivier Neveu in 2015, the Nantes-based company Exalux has entered into a distribution agreement with its inventor and sells the product on its website, as well as LED strips by the meter, HF control solutions, and their own lights (originally non-inflatable), which are humorously named LEDZep.
Olivier Neveu explains that “my idea was to create a solution for operators that was extremely gentle in terms of lighting quality, without resorting to heavy or cumbersome equipment such as the Chimera light boxes or reflectors. The Pillow only weighs 2.2 kg, it can easily be hung almost anywhere, and it provides a highly even diffusion of light thanks to the texture of the balloon that composes it.”
Available for hire from its very beginnings from ACC&LED, it is also for sale on Exalux’s website with all of its accessories (storage bag, connections, and dimmer).