Camerimage 2021

Xavier Dolléans, AFC, discusses the shoot of six episodes of David Hourrègue’s "Germinal"

Sooty blacks

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Cinematographer Xavier Dolléans, AFC, partnership with director David Hourrègue is long-standing, and the two have worked together on several series, such as "Cut" (France Ô) and "Skam" (France TV Slash). The duo has built a certain reputation on the back of the success of these programmes, and they attacked their first big-budget project with the same production crew. This project is a new, six-episode adaptation of Zola’s novel Germinal, shot with a 12-million-Euro budget. This series will be broadcast on public television by France Télévisions and is expected to be one of the public service broadcaster’s main attractions of October 2021. This is also a major event for Xavier, who has been selected in competition at Toruń for Best Television Series Image. (FR)

Etienne Lantier’s fight in the miners’ huts. The instigator of a labour strike against the Compagnie des Mines, which recently decided to reduce wages paid to the miners, who are already facing difficult working conditions.

Isn’t it rare for a public broadcaster to entrust a flagship series to such a young team ?

Xavier Dolléans : It’s true, we quite felt we were dreaming when we realized we’d finally be able to work on an ambitious fiction where we’d be able to bring together the knowledge we’d been able to acquire during our past work on shorter-length projects. Of course, working on a music video or an advertisement allows one to test out new ideas and put them into practice with the means one is provided, but that kind of work is sporadic. As concerns the question of trust, I can say that we already had the trust of our producers (Alban Etienne and Carole Della Valle). That’s what most likely influenced the channel’s decision. Whatever the case may have been, this is also an adaptation that features a lot of young talent on screen. In Claude Berri’s Germinal, most of the actors are in their forties or fifties. In our version, our Etienne Lantier (Louis Peres) is really 25 years old. I feel that is much more in keeping with the novel itself, and that’s also why the tone of our version is new and different.

Louis Peres est Etienne Lantier - Photogramme
Louis Peres est Etienne Lantier

What were the main challenges you faced ?

XD : There were many. First, it was recreating the location. There are no longer any active coal mines in France. We had to rebuild everything, and of course, we had to rely on VFX (created by Digital District) to flesh out the backgrounds. This required a great deal of preproduction work, as did the technical preparation for the mine flood. We knew beforehand that we’d have to shoot partially underwater, and, along with Isabelle Quillard’s set design crew, we decided to build a mine shaft set with an entirely transportable, waterproof elevator cabin so that we would be able to place it into a swimming pool when we shot Episode 6. We also did a lot of lens tests, to be able to coherently determine what we’d use. Anamorphic format was evidently our choice because of the texture it imparts to the image, which I feel is especially important for a television broadcast. We didn’t feel that classical spherical lenses, especially not in the modern full-frame series, provided enough character.

Precisely which lenses did you choose ?

XD : David is a director who often likes to film at 50 fps, even if we don’t end up using the takes in slow motion later on. Therefore, I’ve become accustomed to permanently outfitting the camera with a DN3, so that we can shoot slow-motion takes whenever he wants without changing the aperture. This parameter, along with my preference for shooting at between F2.8 and F4 to make the sets more present and make it easier to focus, led me towards the Sony Venice because of its excellent colour management, even in shadows. Although my initial idea was to shoot in anamorphic with full frame lenses in order to obtain the sharpest effect possible, I was soon given a reality check because of the limited availability and high price of such lenses. After comparing about twenty different series, I finally chose the Atlas Orions, which checked all of the boxes for this project. They have a bit of a vintage rendering, similar to Panavision C series, with horizontal blue flares, aberrations at the edges at around F2.8 while remaining sharp in the centre. They have a standard, modern housing and are more readily available for a 5-month-long shoot, because their purchase price is reasonable.

La Sony Venice et le 65 mm Orion
La Sony Venice et le 65 mm Orion

Yet they are new and relatively unknown lenses.

XD : Yes, I know that they might suffer somewhat from their reputation of low-end lenses. But I was sincerely very pleased with them on this project. They are old-style lenses with imperfect corrections, which gives character. At the same time, their glass and housing are modern. Next Shot, who worked with us on “Germinal”, even ended up buying a series for the occasion, and I know that they’ve been regularly renting them out ever since.

Did you put together a precise workflow for image rendering ?

Yes, with the help of my colourist, Karim El Katari, I performed very in-depth tests. I started out with a LUT that I liked a lot and that we’d previously used on a documentary about the Opera Garnier. It was a modified Arri Look Library LUT with green in the blacks and golden highlights.


We began with this LUT as our visual starting point, and we remodelled it within the ACES colour space. On Karim’s advice, I brought Florine Bel, Color Scientist, onto our team, so that she could supervise the creation of the looks. My initial idea was to obtain the almost metallic black-and-white look one finds in Sebastião Salgado’s prints, but in colour. Researching his technique, I learnt that he used to use only TriX 320 film stock produced by Kodak before 2007. Current production of TriX has reduced the amount of silver salts, which reduces the depth of black. In order to perfect my look, I was able to find a few expired rolls of vintage TriX that weren’t too heavily veiled. I took a series of photos with them alongside the takes with the Venice. After I had them developed and scanned by Dupon, the files were sent to Florine, who analysed them and integrated their unique contrast ratio into my original LUT. Therefore, I didn’t have a DIT on set, and used the two perfected looks on my Venice, one for daytime, which was extremely faithful to Salgado’s contrast style, and one for nights, where the bottom of the curve was somewhat softened.

What codec did you use to shoot ?

XD : We shot in XOCN ST whenever we didn’t go over 3,200 ISO. Beyond that, we went into XT to obtain the best quality. In order to optimise 4K resolution in function of the lenses, we shot at 6/5, and the 50 fps shots were shot in 4K 4/3 without objective loss of quality.

Where did you shoot ?

XD : We mainly shot between Lille and Valenciennes on three main locations : the mining museum in Lewarde, the "9-9bis" cultural centre in Oignies, and in the town of Wallers-Arenberg, which is located just on the border with Belgium. The last location was one of the most interesting to us because it is now home to an audio-visual establishment with two 500-square-metre film studios, and a research facility where we were able to work with the students and to benefit from their photogrammetry work on the historical buildings around the mine. Shooting took place between October 2020 and February 2021, with a 3-week-long interruption in the middle because of Covid.


Were you affected by the virus ?

XD : We were extremely respectful of the public health measures and we had an excellent protocol in place, but with a crew of nearly 150 people and sometimes just as many extras, the virus did end up coming on set. Many people in the crew were infected, including myself and David, the director. I was very ill, and I lost 20% of my lung capacity during the infection. Because of this, for a 3-week period in December, I had to hand over the camera to Nicolas Bâtisse, who came on set to operate the camera in my stead, while Guillaume Quilichini, our Steadicam operator, continued to operate the 2d camera. I took back control of the camera for the remaining two months of the shoot.

Let’s discuss some of the scenes. In the first episode, there is a scene where there is a group of young people in the frame. The lighting is very original, something between storm and sun, with a very pastel colour palette. The scene and its ambience are rather unique within the series.


XD : That was an important sequence, as it situated the characters. We set up that long fence at the edge of a field specifically for that scene. On paper, there was nothing complicated about it : it was a simple exterior day with an end-of-summer ambience shot with a light crew that would be followed in the shooting script by a second night set that was going to be much more involved, and for which a prelight had been done. But that was without counting on the horrid weather which caused us to lose a few hours of work before the rain finally came to an end. Taking advantage of a gap in the rain, we shot the scene as best we could in the mud. I only had a single 18K HMI on hand, and a few prolongs, because the rest of our equipment was already deployed for the following scene. We played with the rare moments of sunlight and worked with the light meter to obtain the best possible exposure, despite the false tints, and we wrapped the shot as best we could. Later on, in the editing room, we realized how huge the damages had been. Especially because that shot was surrounded by others that had actually been shot in sunlight. To try and save the lighting, I had the idea of changing the sky. This was a subject that we’d discussed in preprod with the VFX team. However, it’s well known that it’s almost impossible to know in advance on which shot the sky is going to be different… Because these particular shots were already so negatively affected by the lighting, I found an image correction software called Luminar on my own, which has an automatic sky replacement function that relies on AI. After doing a few tests on wide still images from the shot, we all realized that it might work. The original grey skies suddenly took on golden aspects that were able to be matched with what we’d been able to obtain in the foreground with our single spotlight. In the end, it was Nicolas Duval, a freelance graphic designer, who took over the work of finalizing the image with the skies that came from Luminar. At the end, as strange as it might seem, several people have mentioned to me that that scene has a bit of a Flemish painting feel to it !

A café called "L’Avantage" is a recurrent location in the series.

XD : In the café location, as on other locations, the main question for me is anticipation : how to be able to quickly offer several prelights with a portion managed on the console and another part based on tools that change very quickly. For example, on the sequence in episode 1, I used the Dedolight Parallel Beam System, which is a version of the system invented by Christian Berger with a single very-high-output HMI source focused at infinity. By placing a series of reflectors, from mirror finish to diffusing white, we were able to direct the light in a tight space by giving the impression that the lights were located much further away from the camera. We didn’t need a cherry-picker. It was light and quick to set up.

Café "l'Avantage"
Café "l’Avantage"

That’s what provides the light coming in from outside. The interior of the café was outfitted with a technical grid with Par 64s, which I love, and SL1s, all controlled from a desk. For the faces, I only use battery-powered cordless lights, such as Chinese lanterns outfitted with flexible Aladdin 30x30 LED panels. My other favourite source is Aladdin’s Fabric Lite 90x90 and Litegear’s LiteMat, which I often use to light the actors.

Naturally, we must also mention the lighting in the mine.

XD : Of course, the mine was a whole other can of worms in terms of lighting. The problem was how to give depth when we’re supposed to be in full darkness, exept for the miners’ lamps ? We did have to take a bit of liberty with the historical realities, by using a few lamps here and there to light the backgrounds. In reality, at that time, each man had a single lamp assigned to him.


Concretely, once again, it was a question of working hand-in-hand with the set design team and the director. On that scene, for example, David and I set ourselves up at the intersection of several galleries, which allowed us to have passages behind the extras in the background, and which also left me room to set up a Fabric Lite. A combination of Astera or Helios tubes were also hidden in the background to provide more shine.

Another scene between Louis Peres and Stefano Quassetti really made me think of Titanic, with liberal use of a crane.

XD : One of the main influences we discussed in preproduction was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Also, the more recent series “Peaky Blinders”, whose cinematography I really like. In any case, the red bricks, the 1880s costumes, and the coldness in the shadows immediately create a genealogical relationship with British Gothic. But, it’s true, in retrospect, you’re not wrong to mention a relationship with Titanic, too. There’s also a love story, class struggle… And, of course, the final flood. For this light sequence, we shot in a former military fort near Lille. The crane shots on that scene, as on many others, were taken with a Ronin installed on an OctoJib arm.

Octojib et Ronin
Octojib et Ronin

My key grip, Thomas Gros, and I, perfected this configuration, which advantageously replaced a remote crane. I moved the camera with the Ronin’s cranks, and it was a pleasure to work this way. Only a few scenes needed a Supertechno telescopic crane, such as the flood scene.

Let’s end with a discussion of the mine flood in episode 6...

XD : In preproduction, I immediately thought of working with Studios Lites in Brussels on this scene. I knew them by reputation, and I was signed up for their newsletter. I think they’re the only ones in Europe able to offer this type of service. What’s great about them is that they have a grid system and hoists that the dry set is attached to during construction, and then it is progressively immersed in the water. There is no need to fill the set, and its level in the water is controlled immediately by raising or lowering the set. As I mentioned in the beginning, our set designer designed the set entirely in metal, with a few parts made of resin so that it could be used inside of the swimming pool. “Dry” bridging shots were shot on the same set beforehand in the shooting schedule, and then the set was entirely broken down in France and then set up again in Brussels at the end of our shoot for the three underwater days. We also had to work on the lighting beforehand, and I intentionally used the same sources for “dry” filming as I did later on in the underwater studio. Only a few keylights had to be made waterproof by my crew, such as a Chinese lantern with LEDs and a sort of waterproof Fabric Lite, reconstructed using eight Astera tubes in Hydroflex shells, placed inside of the diffusing structure of a Fabric Lite.

Le plateau sous-marin chez Lite
Le plateau sous-marin chez Lite

Le décor de la mine avant l'immersion
Le décor de la mine avant l’immersion

Création des softbox Astera hydroflex étanches
Création des softbox Astera hydroflex étanches

In terms of cameras, we shot those scenes with four Sony Venice cameras, two of which were placed inside of Scubacam covers to shoot the surface, and two were inside of underwater boxes, operated by diver-cameramen, one of whom was Wim, the owner of the facility. Rain bars were also set up above the set to create the water movement visible on those shots, as well as electronically controlled large tubes that could unleash large quantities of water upon demand. All water was heated to 30°C, which kept us comfortable during these difficult shots.


Dans le puits avec l'eau qui monte
Dans le puits avec l’eau qui monte

(Interview by François Reumont, for the AFC – Translated from French)

Producers : Alban Etienne, Carole Della Valle
Director : David Hourrègue
Cinematographer : Xavier Dolléans, AFC
Script : Julien Lilti
Music : Audrey Ismael
Continuity : Délina Pierre
Set Design : Isabelle Quillard
Costumes : Thierry Delettre
Sound : Joseph de Laâge
Editing : Jérémy Pitard and Raphaël Peaud