Q&A with DP Caroline Champetier AFC about shooting Leos Carax’s acclaimed debut English-language feature Annette

Sep 2, 2021

By Oliver Webb 

Leos Carax’s debut English-language feature, Annette, tells the story of Henry, a stand-up comedian (Adam Driver), and his wife Ann (Marion Cotillard), an internationally-renowned soprano, whose life takes an unexpected turn after the birth of their daughter, Annette, who has a mysterious gift.

Remarkably shot by Carax’s go-to DP Caroline Champetier AFC, Annette features songs from the American pop and rock duo Sparks (who also co-wrote the script), and opened 2021 Cannes Film Festival in-competition for the prestigious Palme d’Or.

Champetier has contributed to more than one hundred films since starting her career in 1979. She won the César Award for Best Cinematography for her work on Of Gods And Men in 2011, directed by Xavier Beauvois, a film that also earned the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010. Her other collaborations with Carax include the low-budget odyssey​ Holy Motors (2012), for which Champetier won the Silver Frog at Camerimage in 2012. She was president of the AFC between 2009 and 2012.

Who are your DP inspirations?

My heroes include many of the DPs I have worked with over the years, such as Nestor Almendros and Bruno Nuytten. I directed a documentary about Bruno, Nuytten/Film (2016). Then come the American DPs, such as Vilmos Zsigmond ASC HSC, for example. I remember the first time I saw McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973), both directed by Robert Altman. I was amazed by the atmosphere and the texture of the photography by Vilmos in those films.

How did you get involved with/first meet Leos Carax?

Fourteen years ago Leos asked me to come to Japan to shoot Tokyo (2008), a triptych made by three directors – Leos directed the Merde segment, Michel Gondry did the Interior Design segment, and Bong Joon Ho directed the Shaking Tokyo segment. I went there with a beautiful little camera, the Panasonic DVX 100. It’s the same camera that the great Wang Bing used for West Of The Tracks (2002). I was using it like a violin and I think Leos fell in love with this camera. Some years after Tokyo, he wrote the script for Holy Motors (2012) and asked me to shoot it. We shot Holy Motors together, and then he asked me to work with him on Annette.

What were your initial conversations with Leos about the look of Annette? What did he want to achieve?

I didn’t speak with Leos a great deal about the look. He sent pictures and references that were so sharp, so moving, that I understood the emotion he wanted. After I started working with Leos, it was never really a conversation, it was always simply to achieve a challenge. Each direction is a very technical question and a problem which you have to resolve. With Leos you don’t speak of general ideas, you only focus on your craft. 

What creative references did you look at?

I know that Leos saw Phantom Of The Paradise (1974, dir. Brian De Palma, DP Larry Pizer) when he was very young and was absolutely amazed by it. He always wanted to do a musical. We also looked at stand-up comedy for Adam Driver’s character Henry and some opera for Marion Cotillard’s Ann. The references and influences are not only one style, we took from everywhere. 

KRIS DEWITTE

What did these creative references inspire aesthetically? 

In one of the stand-up shows we saw that the audience were lit with some colour spots falling on the audience. We kept that idea for all of Henry’s shows and to have the same colour spots on the audience. Each character is represented by a colour. For example, Henry is green and Ann is yellow. Almost all the movie takes place during night so there is a lot of black. I put colour here and there to awaken those blacks.

What was the most challenging sequence to shoot? 

There is a storm scene in the movie. We made a lot of tests, using reflections, for this scene. We had the boat on a gimbal and then, as in Holy Motors (2012) we added a screen with projected waves on the screen. We had real water around the actors on the boat. It’s difficult if you haven’t seen the sequence, but all of these decisions took three or four months. The actors also have to dance, so it was all about finding how much room they needed to dance. What is more interesting is to have this situation of danger. I was very clear that this situation of danger was more important when we are not necessarily on the boat, but outside of the boat, observing with the camera. Each sequence in the movie needed this kind of reflection and it took a lot of time to do the prepping. 

Did you encounter challenges with the different locations? 

Absolutely. It’s a clever question, because there was never one kind of location, it was always different type of locations. We had lots of spaces – a theatre, a real hotel, a studio, everything. The challenge was to keep an artistic line in all these different locations though the photography and the rhythms of framing. This line was mostly achieved by the colour and movement. There were lots of movements with the actors and most of the time the camera is in movement too. It sometimes could be very large movements, or very small movements. There could be long, travelling movements, or Steadicam, and sometimes, but rarely, handheld camera. I always had a little dolly with me and we used lots of dolly shots. 

Was it mainly a single camera shoot? Did you operate?

I operated, but we also had several Steadicam operators during production. We shot with Sony Venice and Sony a7 Mark III cameras. We used two Sony Venice cameras shooting at 4K in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, using spherical Zeiss Supreme and Angénieux Optimo zoom lenses. I also used an old zoom, not a modern one at all, the Angénieux 25-250mm that gives heavy blacks. I loved using that lens, and in the final grading I went closer to the texture I got from that lens with the shots that were done using the modern lenses.

Did you work with a DIT or a colourist on-set? 

I don’t work on-set with a DIT because I think it’s not the right time to do colour work. That really needs to be done with a colourist in post production. However, we did send the rushes every day to the lab and got back stills from a very smart dailies colourist working there. If I was not sure of the result on the dailies, or if I could not see the emotion I put into the cinematography, I asked them to process the footage again.

In France we don’t really work yet with colour scientists – that’s really missing from the process, and some colourists are more able than others to work on the curves. For Annette I asked for only one curve, because my concern was the blacks and darker areas of the picture – as you know all the movie is set in a theatre and or at night. I worked with a freelance colourist, Peter Bernaers, for the final grade.

What were your working hours like during production? 

We worked between 11- and 14-hour days. We shot in Belgium and the prep was really a technical challenge. There were almost two hours of briefing and work every day before shooting. I think that without the prep we would not have been able to shoot the movie, as we shot with only €16m euros. With the amount of time of prep and all the reflections, we saved almost €5m.

What’s your mantra? Or best advice you ever had?

Always take risks.

Where do you get your visual / creative inspirations?

Everywhere: paintings, photos, and movies. 

What challenges do women face in France pursuing a career as a cinematographer?

There are more and more women in the business, but not many of them work on large budget productions. The CNC (Centre National Du Cinéma et de l’image Animée/National Centre For Cinema And The Moving Image) is an agency of the French Ministry Of Culture, and is responsible for the production and promotion of cinematic and audiovisual arts in France. CNC is working for parity and gives bonuses to movies where parity is respected. There is an organisation called 50/50 working for parity too. On Annette there were lot of women in the production crew, hard workers and smart, and I am very proud of that.

What was it like being AFC president?

It was a strange time because I was the first woman to have this responsibility. Managing men is not easy all the time! I did some good work with my colleagues and made more contacts out of France and helped create more solidarity. 

Photos: ©2019 TOM TRAMBOW

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