Claire Mathon AFC • Petite Maman
By Oliver Webb
As eight-year-old Nelly copes with the loss of her grandmother, she befriends a girl her own age building a tree house, who looks astonishingly like her. There’s an immediate spark between the two of them that runs deeper than their remarkable physical resemblance. Nelly’s new-found friend shares the same name has her mother, Marion, and could even be her living embodiment.
Beautifully-shot in colourful, autumnal hues and framed with emotional poignancy by Claire Mathon AFC, in her second collaboration with writer/director Céline Sciamma, Petite Maman is a magical, heartwarming tale of bereavement and childhood. The critically-acclaimed feature had its world premiere at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, and screens at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2021.
Where did you train as a cinematographer?
I graduated from the French cinema school, the ENS Louis Lumière in Paris, and I did my first longform feature film 15 years ago, Pardonnez-Moi (2006, dir. Maïwen). I am a member of the AFC, the French Cinematographic Society.
Tel us about your DP heroes?
Firstly, Nestor Almendros. The diversity of his collaborations and his work with natural light is a huge inspiration and an inexhaustible model. When I began to work as a young DP, I had a great admiration for the DPs closest to me: Agnès Godard AFC, Harris Savides ASC, Eric Gautier AFC. Their gaze, their way of framing, of moving the camera, their sensibility to serve the story of the film touched me, inspired me, and still does.
How did you get involved with Céline Sciamma?
We first met before the shooting of her film Tomboy (2011, DP Crystel Fournier AFC), but it did not work out. Later Céline offered me the chance to work on Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019). It was obvious that we had a very strong common desire to collaborate, and Petite Maman is our second production together.
What were your initial conversations with Céline about the look of Petite Maman? What did she want to achieve?
First of all, Céline talked to me a lot about sensations, about the colours of autumn, about the forest of her childhood. She wanted to film an intimated, suggested “journey through time”. Céline was talking about this being a simple and magical film. From the beginning, she had the desire to shoot all of the interiors on stage, to create one custom-made house in order to invent an intimate space for this meeting, for this time shared, between Nelly and her little mother.
She also wanted not to mark the time, to erase the epoch. The idea was to capture what the two characters share more than what separates them. Céline wanted a child from 2021 to be as if they were a child born in 50, 70 or 80 years ago… that can be projected into the spaces of the film. It was important for Céline to create this common epoch.
Céline wanted to create a film that was as much for children as for adults, at the level of the child spectator as well as the adult spectator who once was a child.
What creative references did you look at?
The Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Hosoda were amongst our references. Of course, it wasn’t literal as they create animated feature films. But we were inspired especially by the visual way of telling the story through a mixture of magic and simplicity through ‘La Ligne Claire’, the cartoonish appearance of solid, uniform colours, realistic backgrounds, with minimal shading and blending.
Other important references were the intimate places in Céline’s own life, such as the apartments of her grandmothers and especially for their textures and colours of things like wallpapers and carpets. For my part, I was also very inspired by the play of light in different houses surrounded by nature. When collaborating on the image of a film it is also a story of shared taste.
What did these creative references inspire aesthetically?
For sure it was the expressiveness of light, plus the importance and the richness of colour in the image. The rigour of creating the frames and also the simplicity in reading them. I tried not to be not too naturalistic.
For example, we sought to bring a little more décor to the exterior shots in the forest of Céline’s childhood. We wanted a flamboyant autumn which required many interventions, such as removing the leaves which were too green, and covering the ground with autumnal leaves. This is where we became a little cartoonish in the use of colour, playful, joyful and expressive. There’s a light blue to the night. We immediately read it as night, but everything is clear and we can especially see the faces without shadows.
Throughout the film the camera is at Nelly’s eye-level, which helps the audience to understand and see the world from her perspective. Other characters are often obscured in the framing due to this. What were your choices behind the framing, and how important were these in conveying Nelly’s story?
Working at child height was important, but so to was the height of Nelly’s imagination. We tried to make our scenery – the cabin, the forest and the house – playgrounds for Nelly’s imagination. And, we also wanted to keep pace with her rhythm, with her way of discovering the places. From the beginning to the end, the camera movements follow with a distance that seeks to be more mental than physical. In many scenes, adults must sit or kneel to be in Nelly’s frame.
What cameras, lenses and aspect ratio did you choose?
I chose the Red Monstro and Leitz Thalia lenses to capture the natural richness of the autumn colours in our outdoor scenes, and the Alexa LF with the Leitz Thalias for the interiors, where I favoured the softness of low lighting and the intervention of colour provided by decoration of the stage sets. The Leitz Thalia lenses bring a certain softness, but retain precision over all elements in the image, especially in the textures and on the skins. We chose large format cameras for same the depth-of-field that we liked when we shot Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, feeling the environment but always focussing on the characters. The simplicity of 1.85:1 aspect ratio was perfect for that. It was a single camera shoot and I operated on all of the shots.
Did you work with a colourist on-set?
No, I didn’t. But I collaborated with Jérôme Bigueur, the colourist of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, during production and post production. Notably, he enabled me to visualise ACES (Academy Color Encoding Specification) on-set, which helped me to push my work on the colour as far as possible, especially various scenes that had a mix of colour temperatures. Our colour palette for the film was like a herbarium. It has the warm colours that you find in nature – autumnal, flamboyant, but not too saturated.
What was your approach to lighting the film?
It was important to feel the different moments of the day, to mark them with different states of light. And to play with the passage of time, such as going from one house at the end of the day to another at night, all in the same shot.
We talked about bringing the autumnal colours inside. The link between the exterior and interior was very important, especially as we had windows looking out over the forest backdrops from our stage sets. During preparation, we discovered that it was not just the backgrounds but also interiors spaces that needed to fit into the overall lighting plans. I worked with, amongst others, a landscaper to assist with that, and there were many layers of intervention with the artificial film lighting in order to find the right, natural feeling both outside and on stage.
I worked with the light as if was writing as a musical score, with very precise conductorship sequence-by-sequence. Every moment had to be unique and particular. I tried to recreate the real richness of natural light whenever the story became more intense and magical than usual.
Petite Maman was shot during the height of the Covid pandemic. How did this impact prep and shooting?
Céline and the producers created a shooting environment that was perfectly feasible and perfectly safe to shoot in during the Covid pandemic – a small crew, very few sets, no extras and very few characters. Except for the facemasks, which was a pity as sometimes they got in the way of connecting and communicating simply with children.
What were your working hours like during production?
We had long period of preparation every day, fixing everything, adjusting the lights and the lighting effects in different places, before we shot a short day with the girls.
What were the biggest challenges on this production?
Building a custom-made house on-stage, shooting with a small crew, and then having to be very quick with the children, whilst keeping the camera moving and having fragility in the light. Every light had to be unique and alive. Fine-tuning and focussing on all these details always takes a lot of time, and required a great amount of preparation, testing, pre-lighting before the actual shoot, so that we could be precise as possible with the palette and the mix of the colours.
My biggest challenge was to create movement in the light, feeling the wind in the leaves and so on, without making any noise. It was indeed very important for Céline to take advantage of the studio to make direct sound recordings.
What’s your mantra? Or best advice you ever had?
When I finished film school, they told me: “Make images and make them right away. Go towards your own tastes, and let yourself be guided by your intuition. Make yourself known for what you do.” I have never forgotten that.
“Céline wanted to create a film that was as much for children as for adults.”
“I worked with the light as if was writing as a musical score.”