Yves Cape, AFC, and his collaboration with director Michel Franco - Part 2

By Caroline Champetier, AFC

Contre-Champ AFC n°355

[ English ] [ français ]

In this second part of the long dialogue between Yves Cape, AFC, and Caroline Champetier, AFC, about Michel Franco’s Sundown, we discuss color grading, skins, neutrality, prison, the accuracy of sets, light direction... all the questions that are not just a matter of technical or aesthetic choices.


Caroline Champetier : How did you create this look ? Did you work out a curve in advance of the film with Richard Deusy ? Because I felt that there was something softened at the beginning, perhaps because it’s a false lead. We don’t even understand whether it’s a couple or not, whether it’s their children or not, and the dialogues are chiseled so that we don’t understand it either. Then something happens and it maybe is the second film you are talking about, more contrasty.

YC : In Mexico, I was lucky enough to meet a DIT, Diego Sanchez, who now has a film post-production company, Pixel. In Mexico, there are no films without a DIT, even small films, because they replace the lab with a DIT, that’s their habit. So when we did Chronic for Michel, it was normal, I had a very good DIT from Los Angeles, Ryland Jones. In Mexico, on the first film we made there, I met Diego Sanchez who was the DIT. Diego is not only a good technician, but I quickly discovered that I could talk to him about the image I wanted to make, so I immediately put him and Richard in touch with each other, because in a way there was the guy who was with me during the shoot and the guy who would be with me after the shoot, and I needed them to talk to each other so that all this information communicated in all directions could come together. When the script was finalized, I sent it to Richard and we talked about it. There was something very important for me in the script, and that was the second part on the beach, where I really wanted to create a harshness in the light, in fact the frontal light of someone exposing themselves on a beach.


CC : So what I felt was right ?

YC : Yes, I wanted to be on the verge of overexposure, I wanted the sun to feel harsh. At the same time, I don’t like hard images at all, so it wasn’t in the hardness that it had to be found, but in something else, in the contrast, you’re right, and in the chromatism, that was done with Paco Galván, DIT from Pixel, who was on the set with the editor. The advantage of a DIT is that he’s there when the image is being created, and he had received advice from Richard and Diego on where he could intervene, so we quickly found a direction. I shot the images with the RED because, as we shot chronologically, we started with the first hotel, which was a bit different, where there are already scenes where Tim exposes himself to the sun. We said to ourselves, “Let’s go over the weekend and shoot a picture on this beach to see how we can differentiate the first hotel from the second hotel, the beginning of the film from the suite.”

CC : Which RED did you use ?

YC : The RED Monstro. We shot a few images there and one thing stood out for us : the colors. On this beach there are all the colors, or almost all the colors, so we said to ourselves that we shouldn’t go against them, that it would be artificial, and as we like to be rather normal, we said to ourselves that this beach, overall, would be neutral warm, on the other hand, that the hotel before, we could try to make it neutral cold, more chic... This family universe that we don’t understand very well and also the fact that we don’t want to give too many hints. For example, when we shot the scene in the swimming pool, where the two of them are standing next to each other, Michel said to me, “In fact, if you want, it could be a couple, so we played it that way”.


CC : Except that there’s something very right in their acting which means that there’s no eroticization at all, particularly on her part, and on re-watching the film you only understand it the first time the business manager says “Your sister” when addressing Tim Roth’s character.

YC : I’ve seen him do this with actors, i.e. he doesn’t want to clarify his thoughts with an actor, and if there’s any questioning on his part, it’s because there’s a question in the scene, and afterwards it obviously has to be decided. But when we discover these ambiguities during the shooting or when we see the scenes on set, we sometimes decide to accentuate them or not, and we make them disappear by moving on if necessary.
In Acapulco, we invited people who knew nothing about the film, such as the daughter of the film commission, people on vacation, and a friend of Michel’s, a psychiatrist, who also came, and there were comments about this, with people suddenly saying : “But I hadn’t understood that they were brother and sister”. We wondered whether it was right or wrong, and whether we should add a scene to make people understand, but we left it as it was, because that’s how Michel works.

CC : It’s very subtlety crafted, so I can understand why it’s not too decided and pined into the script, because it’s fine and because it can also come through details, It’s like the story of the passport when he opens his suitcase at the airport and we’re supposed to see the passport on the first viewing of the film we believe it, but on the second we see that he’s barely looked at it and that it’s a decision.

YC : It would have been very simple for him to open his suitcase and make the passport more visible, which is what we did at one point, we thought it would look like a TV movie, i.e. we were indicating that the passport was in the suitcase, and that’s not what we wanted to do, so we came up with the idea of putting it in this pocket on the side, where you can see it if you want to, and if you don’t see it, that’s okay.


What’s funny, in a way, is the way Michel works the frame, what we’ll see in the image, what the actors will have as doubt and hesitation, etc., It is exactly the way I work with light ; not with the frame, because the frame gives us the directions, but the light has this doubt part, it can be like that but it can also be otherwise. A classic case for an operator : it’s easier to have a light on, and once Michel has validated the idea, I start wandering around, saying to myself, “Let’s turn this one on”... Then I look at it in the camera and say to myself, “This is really an operator’s image”. In fact, I turned on all the lights because it suited me at the time, and I turned back to Michel and asked him, “How would you position yourself in this room ? He replied, “No, they wouldn’t turn the lights on”, and I said, “But are you sure they wouldn’t turn the lights on ? He says, “He’d just sit there by himself”, yes, I think so, and then he suggests I ask Tim, so I go to Tim, “Tim, if you were in this room, would you turn on the lights or not ?” He says, “No, in this scene, I wouldn’t turn on the lights”, so I stick to that.

CC : What you’re saying is right and interesting, that light shouldn’t come from the operator’s desire for ease or monstrosity, it should come from the heart of the film, from the character.

YC : Yes, it has to come from a place that’s not the operator’s place, that’s a more incandescent place in the film, a place between the direction, the actor’s performance, the script and the overall aesthetic you want to give the film, but actors like Tim Roth are precise when you ask him this question. On the films Memory and Dreams, when I asked Jessica Chastaing this kind of question, she had a totally logical answer in line with the logic of her character. She would never say I don’t care !

CC : There’s a kind of active neutrality in the frame, which is also a neutrality in the mise-en-scène anyway, as you so eloquently put it. So far, we’ve talked a lot about this neutrality, but do you have something in mind or requirements ?

YC : I think it’s largely because we don’t know how to do anything else ! For example, in just about all of Michel’s scripts, there are scenes of dreams or imagination, and these are the scenes we have the most difficulty doing, because all of a sudden we’re breaking out of a naturalistic logic, and in Sundown, it’s obviously what concerns the pigs.

CC : I have to say that the scene that takes place in prison is magnificent, and the next one, when we see them returning to Berenice’s house, is about the only moment in the film where you feel you’re not with the characters.

YC : This shot was difficult to block. We had the idea that Berenice wouldn’t see this dead pig when she entered the apartment, but that Tim would. They were coming back from the beach, and the male character had to fall. A lot of things to stage at once. It was while we were setting up the body that Michel and I said to ourselves that if Berenice managed to get in without touching the pig, it would be as if she didn’t see it. In the end, we placed the pig in such a way as to leave a space between the wall leading to the kitchen and the pig, so that Berenice could enter, and the excess blood had to be erased in VFX. So Michel and I looked for this shot on the set, we had ideas, we had doubts, we said to ourselves that we should stay at the door to see Berenice’s entrance, it’s the first shot and then we’re inside, Berenice passes, he follows her but he sees the pig, we hear him fall behind because of this vision, We’re a little too far away from the characters at this point because we want to see this first shot and the characters behind it, whereas in prison, it’s perfect because the distance is just right.

Yves Cape et Iazua Larios (Bérénice) - DR
Yves Cape et Iazua Larios (Bérénice)



CC : Many of my questions were addressed in our discussion, but I would have liked to talk a little about the skins. When I first saw the film, I had the illusion that you had established a progression of Tim Roth’s complexion, which was very pale at the beginning and then less so afterwards, because he was effectively roasting in the sun, as you say, and on second viewing I understood that this was not the case, and even that you accepted colorimetric variations according to the sequences. So I’d like you to describe your attention to skin.

YC : Tim Roth has very white red skin with a few freckles. In fact, I think that if you choose this actor, you also choose him for that, for that particular skin, that face in the first place and his facial expressions or non-expressions in Tim Roth’s case, but I really think that this skin that marks, that’s what interests us too... For example, his arms reminded me of my father’s arms, who also had red hair. He has very white arms with his red hair ; you might think they’re blond, but in fact they’re Venetian red with freckles and real redness, There was also this idea that he was peeling because of the sun, at one point we see him scratching his skin because he’s peeling, and in any case, under this sun, over there in Acapulco, everyone has to protect themselves because even those who like the sun immediately burn.

Michel Franco
Michel Franco

Michel, like Tim Roth, can’t stand the sun, so he’s dressed from head to toe all day long with a hat, an umbrella and sunscreen. That’s what I like to capture, this lively skin. Of course, when you’re in prison, you’re in a cold atmosphere, a neutral cold atmosphere, and his skin turns slightly reddish-green because the blue of the walls brings green into his skin, and I accept that because I tell myself that it’s the environment that gives him this tint.


This is a set that I completely pre-lighted with the gaffer, because in fact I can’t help the director with his staging if I don’t see the finished set, I can’t tell him what the best axes are, for example, if I don’t have any ideas about where the spotlights should be. When the lawyer comes to see him, is there a neon light on the lawyer’s side or on Tim Roth’s side, I don’t know yet, I’ll prelight with my gaffer for that, because then I can say to myself “No, it’s better when the neon is on the lawyer’s side, not Tim’s, for example the table where the meetings take place, is there a shower light or not, or is it again sinister because they see each other in a sinister place, At the same time, we don’t want a lamp on the table, so we have to make a clear choice, so that the light always comes from above. Also to facilitate the blocking that’s obvious, and as a general rule with Michel, I try as far as possible to have very few standing things.


CC : But you could have them on the ground, I lit the last film quite a bit from below, it’s interesting, this prison is very beautiful, were the walls like this ?

YC : The prison is actually in Mexico City, a place where we’ve already shot three times with Michel. They have a huge old industrial building where they shoot all their prison sequences for very different films. There are gigantic spaces, and the shower is an old shower in this industrial building that we’ve made work again.


There were production offices here, so with the set designer on Sundown, same we worked on New Order and Memory, Claudio Castelli, we chose the corners we were interested in according to the scenes, there were all the possibilities, so we picked the space for the staging and in relation to the number of extras we could have to fill a prison. The set designer repainted and aged all the walls in a sort of color code we agreed on.


When Tim Roth is in the prison courtyard under the fence, this shot was filmed in Acapulco because this kind of setting with mountains behind it doesn’t exist in Mexico City, so we chromatically matched the prison to this setting.

CC : Speaking of which, the sets are extremely accurate. They’re not in the foreground or in the background, but they really play a part in the narrative. Are you involved in finding them, or have you turned them down, which is always unpleasant ?

YC : For the first hotel, there were several possibilities, but at a certain point Michel and I chose this one. We were interested in the fact that they had their own house, because you can’t see that they’re in a hotel, at first you understand that there’s a semblance of service, but you don’t really know where they are, and when they leave you think : Ah yes, okay ! They’re in a hotel and we understand. We really choose the settings according to what they tell us about the characters socially. In this case, we thought we needed a very chic hotel in comparison with the second one, which is popular. So we looked at a number of hotels, and those were the ones that appealed to us. The second hotel on the beach, we wanted everything together because Michel doesn’t like to cheat with this kind of configuration, plus it’s the main setting, it’s the hotel, the route, the boutique and the beach all in one.
For the boutique, for example, we had a choice of several stores along this beach. The choice was odd : Bérénice, it’s not her store, she just works there, there’s another girl with her. One day, as Michel and I were cruising along, we bumped into this girl, whose store was more of a handicrafts boutique, and chatted to her. She asked us what we were doing here. Michel said, “I’m from Mexico City, I’m a director”, and she immediately offered her store, so we turned her store into a drinks depot, and we see her as an extra. That’s the way we work with sets, we see a lot of things in preparation, some things come directly to us, but we also eliminate a lot of sets.


With Michel, the final scouting follows the 15-day reading, and I always arrive a month before shooting. For Chronic, we read for 15 days with a weekend, now we read for seven days when I arrive, or sometimes a little later, but we’re very aware that we have to do it. There’s also a whole series of sets that come to me in photos, and I talk to Michel about these photos and we talk. For example, on the latest film I’ve just graded, Memory, there was a set that I’ve always refused to shoot because it was all white, and very high up, so it couldn’t be lit from the outside with our equipment, plus it was an art gallery where people refused to let us move anything.
I told Michel : “It’s not possible, it’s too white, I can’t do anything with those big bay windows on the fourth floor. When I arrived, there were other possible choices that Michel and I had validated on the basis of photos. We went to see them, but we didn’t like them, so I asked to see the decor again, which I refused. I had several problems with it : Jessica Chastaing had to play in front of these white walls, even though she already has reddish-white skin ; her costumes were supposed to be very white ; the fourth floor ; and the fact that I couldn’t hang or move anything !

I was shooting myself in the foot by accepting that ! But when I saw the set again, I said to myself, “This is the character, this place, socially and aesthetically, so it’s not okay to refuse what’s right, I have to find a solution to my problems.”

CC : The curve can help you in this case. You have to understand the importance of scenery for the narrative. Initially it’s a reaction of fear, and you think these are reactions we shouldn’t have any more ?

YC : Exactly, that’s why I said to Michel : “Really, Jessica Chastaing, her character lives in this place, it’s obvious, it’s cold exactly like her character”. Michel, like Bruno Dumont, believes that sets should be altered as little as possible, and that’s also how he chooses them. There are always things to remove or add, a wall you can repaint, but they still believe in the reality of a place.

So, the hotel room in Sundown, it was made there because it corresponded exactly to what we were looking for with very few modifications. We were interested in the terrace, the staircase coming from the reception area, we had a lot of arrivals and departures from this room, all of which worked well. The only problem was the bathroom, because there was a shower scene and the bathroom was at the back and tiny, but as you never see them come in, you can do it somewhere else, so it’s done like that... We kept all the furniture because we thought it was perfect, and so did the head decorator ; then there was the question of the color of the walls and the floor. We decided on this with the head decorator by experimenting with colors on the different walls.
We don’t involve Michel much in this kind of detail ; he trusts us, so we work out the decor with the constant concern that it should be normal, not too pretty.

What interested me as a cinematographer in this location, as you said earlier, were the light inlets, because if there were too many light inlets in all directions, I’d have no direction. If there’s only one light inlet, you’ve got one axis that’s right, the other facing the light, so the ideal is to have two and be able to control them more or less ; Here, there was a small window above the bed, an elongated window that you don’t see much in the image, but you can feel that there’s a curtain and you can sometimes feel the light on the bed, which suited me well and could help me at times, I wasn’t necessarily obliged to play with the light coming in through the main window. Finally, there’s something fantastic in these countries, and also in the United States, and that’s these famous mosquito nets. They have mosquito nets everywhere, which create a basic neutral 6 on the windows, even on the terrace door.

CC : Did you lower the highlights during color grading ?

YC : With this camera, as soon as I get into situations where I’m afraid I won’t be able to save the highlights, I use HDR, which we don’t always manage to use and which sometimes doesn’t work, you don’t really know why, but even so I always save the highlights, i.e. I set the shutter speed according to the highlights and compensate if necessary. I never burn out exteriors through windows, because that’s not what my eye sees, so I don’t do it.


CC : You can tell because there aren’t that many grading masks, but there’s one in this room at one point, where you can see the city, etc., and you can see that it’s a calibration window.

YC : Yes, It is always difficult, I sometimes use two stops nets or more. I prefer it to NDs I think it is easier to setup. NDs on windows is always complicated and you can’t open the windows. But the nets can introduce a sort of diffusion that I really don’t like.
The good thing with these shots is that they are quiet statics and I have room for bounce boards as fill light or even add lamps behind it. That’s why I have 3 rows of 12 feet Boas so I can switch them on progressively to light what is closer to the window more than the other side of the room.
We didn’t had enough space to use a diffusion bellow to soften the shadows as the ceiling was too low, but usually I do diffuse it so it’s more of a glow without the top light feeling.
What’s great in Mexico is that I’ve been working with the same gaffer, Natcho, for three films now, so it’s pretty straightforward even though he doesn’t speak any French or English and I don’t speak any Spanish, we understand each other very well, things move very quickly, he’s understanding the system, he knows the equipment I use and why I use it, so things move pretty quickly and we can respond to things quickly with a prelight. Ideally, I’d like to make decisions only once the frame is set, but that’s not always possible and you have to be able to anticipate, which is another reason why I try to be simple and methodical.

CC : Yes, exactly, your lights pushing thru, each time you say strong light entry or weaker light entry.

YC : Exactly, but in fact it’s a disadvantage and an advantage of my personality, that I’m so Cartesian, it’s a flaw for the dream sequences that Michel and I have problems with, we’re Cartesian people and we can’t find intellectual justifications, without it being a reproach. In fact, we always need to tie ourselves to things we know and understand, so dreams pose a problem for us, because in dreams we’re supposed to go towards something other than what we know, so we find things, but that poses a problem for us, and we often end up solving our problems by mixing them up with reality as much as possible. What we tried to do with these pig scenes was to mix them with scenes from everyday life.

CC : You’ve made me realize something, if the shot with the pig is so right in the prison, it’s because the pig is alive, and so it’s one more living being, whereas in the apartment it’s dead, and its bloodstain would be better off without it, that’s easy to say, I don’t know if I’d have had the nerve to say it. There’s someone who’s come up a lot in conversation with whom you’ve made four films, and that’s Bruno Dumont. I’d like to ask you whether with Michel Franco you’ve created a complicity that you hadn’t achieved before with another director, or whether Dumont remains that director.

YC : I think there are similarities between Michel Franco’s films and those of Bruno Dumont, but they are very different directors and personalities. Strangely enough, they’re both directors who edit their own films. It’s unusual for a director to edit his own film because, despite everything, it means he has no perspective on what he’s doing.
I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but it’s special.
Michel contacted me because he’d seen Dumont’s films, he’s also a producer of films by other directors, and a director he was producing said to him : “I want to work with a foreign operator because he’d made a film that’s close to what I’m looking for”. So Michel thought he’d like to change cameramen too, and so he called the cameraman who worked with Bruno Dumont, who was close to his style of cinema, and that’s why he called me.
On the last film I made with Bruno Dumont, we were very close, and Bruno really shared his work on Hadewijch. There was a real complicity and real talk, but Bruno is someone who has a cut that’s there right from the script, even if we checked it together. As for the script, I don’t know if at the time I had the guts to discuss it with him, or at least I never did.
Clearly, I’ve reached a level of complicity with Michel that I never expected to find with a director. Every film, every collaboration is different, but with Michel it’s special, six films, that counts. That’s a lot of time together over the last few years ! Are we still as creative as ever ? Do we still challenge each other enough ? Do I still bring him what he needs ? I hope so, but shouldn’t Michel be confronting someone else ? All the examples exist, those who always work with the same people, those who change every time, those who come back, it’s a painful subject, but it exists and I’m aware of it.

- Link to the first part of the dialogue between Caroline Champetier, AFC and Yves Cape, AFC

Yves Cape (en chemise blanche) et Michel Franco (en tee-shirt blanc) encadrent Alejandro Sánchez de la Peña, le producteur ; avec, à l'extrême droite, les deux assistants caméra, Chris Muñoz et Raúl Emmanuel Gutiérrez Castro ; et Francisco Galván, DIT, le quatrième à partir de la droite - DR
Yves Cape (en chemise blanche) et Michel Franco (en tee-shirt blanc) encadrent Alejandro Sánchez de la Peña, le producteur ; avec, à l’extrême droite, les deux assistants caméra, Chris Muñoz et Raúl Emmanuel Gutiérrez Castro ; et Francisco Galván, DIT, le quatrième à partir de la droite