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Simon Beaufils • Anatomy Of A Fall

Dec 22, 2023

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 017 September/October 2023)

PSYCHO DRAMA

By Oliver Webb 

Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning film, Anatomy Of A Fall, explores the dynamic between Sandra (Sandra Hüller), a German writer and her blind, 11-year-old, son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), when she is accused of murdering her French husband who is found dead in the snow below their chalet in a remote town in the French Alps. The haunting and critically-acclaimed production marks Triet’s third collaboration with DP Simon Beaufils, the duo having previously collaborated on In Bed With Victoria (2016) and Sibyl (2019).

After graduating from La Fémis filmschool in Paris, Beaufils worked on numerous short films and features before being introduced to Triet in Paris shortly after she had completed her first film. Triet is a graduate from the Paris National School Of Fine Arts.

“Justine called me for a meeting and I wasn’t sure why, because her film was very different from what I’d done previously – there was lots of shaky, handheld camerawork,” recalls Beaufils. “We talked for a while and she told me that she wanted to do everything differently from her first movie. She said that she was not able to watch it anymore and wanted to change and to find a new way to work.

“With each film we have made together it was the same kind of idea,” he continues. “Justine doesn’t want to do the same style of film again – she likes to change and try new things. She wants to go where it is not so natural to go for her, and likes to go where she is frightened to go. 

“For example, for her previous movie, Sibyl she was really frightened to shoot outside. The film takes place on the Italian island of Stromboli, so we were outside for a large part of the shoot, and that was a hard change. 

“But she wants to grow, to become fierce. So, for each movie, we begin from zero and construct everything from scratch, which is a really nice way to work. Justine is very vocal and most of the time she knows precisely what she doesn’t want. So we have to find what she wants at the beginning of the discussion. This means we work and talk together a lot during pre-production.”

The prep for Anatomy Of A Fall lasted for around six weeks before technical prep commenced, with discussions revolving around how they planned to shoot the film, especially the dialogue scenes and the cinematic portrayal of each actor in the film.

“On Justine’s previous movie she wanted more classical cinematography and mise-en-scène,” observes Beaufils. “But on this production, she wanted to be freer on-set and to put real life into the imagery. She wanted to allow for freedom of movement, and to shoot long sequences without cutting, but for the audience to be really close to the actors. 

“We wanted things to be a little messy and inventive so as to give the actors liberty”

“So we spoke about moving the camera around without any cutting – and without lighting or sound in the frame too. We did some tests with a little crane and the camera handheld, and moved around the house and the courtyard, staying close to the actors. With this method, we could move quickly, shoot from all angles, break the rules and capture accidents, and Justine found this worked well for her. We wanted things to be a little messy and inventive so as to give the actors liberty, to let them go where they wanted to go and with the camera following them. We also needed the continuity in the mess. It was a mixture of many things,” Beaufils details. 

In terms of visual references, Triet and Beaufils aimed to emulate the colours of American films from the 1970s, and looked at the works of John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet amongst others.

“Lumet was an important reference, especially The Offence (1973, DP Gerry Fisher BSC), for its harshness of tone, mise-en-scène, cinematography and the way Lumet influenced the ambience.” notes Beaufils. “Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence (1974, DPs Mitch Breit/Al Ruban) was also really important for the liberty of filmmaking – a mix between very precise, staged shots and others that seem to be improvised. We saw many films together and Justine sent me frames of films and series that she has seen, which even included Colombo with Peter Falk.”

Beaufils opted to shoot the film with an ARRI Alexa Mini LF, using a combination of Hawk V-Lite series Anamorphic lenses and an Angénieux Optimo 24-290mm zoom, provided by TSF. Agathe Dercourt was 1st AC on the film, with Rémi Quilichini working as Steadicam operator.

“Initially, we thought it would be good to shoot Anatomy Of A Fall on celluloid film,” says Beaufils. “Our first tests were with 35mm in 2-perf and that worked for the production: the colours were perfect, the grainy image of the 2-perf suited our needs. On 35mm faces seem real and alive in front of the viewer. But there was a long discussion with production, which lasted weeks, before they decided it would be impossible to shoot on 35mm. So, we had to do a second set of tests and find a way to approach the look of 35mm film with digital cameras.”

“Anamorphic lenses were best at helping to break-up the definition of the digital sensor”

“We found the combination of the Alexa Mini LF and Hawk V-Lite Anamorphic lenses to be the closest to 35mm film,” Beaufils observes. “We wanted to shoot in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but I felt that Anamorphic lenses were best at helping to break-up the definition of the digital sensor, as if they were making a mess of the square pixels. As the V-Lites are not made for large format cameras, I decided to crop in a lot on the Alexa LF sensor, in order to create the grainy feeling of 35mm 2-perf.”

The colour grade was done at M141, with colourist Magali Léonard at the helm, where Beaufils explains that, “As we had done tests on 35mm we had a good reference as to how far we needed to go in adjusting contrast, grain and saturation, trying further to approach the look of film with the digital camera.”

Principal photography began at the end of February 2022 and wrapped 44 shooting days later in mid-May. Shooting took place mostly in the mountainous regions of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Isère, as well as in Charente-Maritime and in Paris.

With regard to lighting the production, Beaufils says, “We decided to light interior scenes from the outside in order to give the actors as much freedom as possible. We didn’t want spotlights on the set. But as soon as we started scouting, we realised that the cottages had large picture windows, and we obviously wanted to see the landscape. The sun on the snow outside was really hard, and with no spotlights inside, we needed big sources to balance the light.”

Beaufils, along with his gaffer Sophie Lelou, selected Arrimax 18KW HMIs, plus ARRI M90, M40, M18s mixed together from outside with ARRI Ruby 7 Tungsten, from a lighting package provided by TSF Grip Et Lumière.

“We were shooting at 2,000m altitude and that makes everything complicated logistically,” Beaufils remarks. “But the production, control and decoration teams did a great job of helping us out. We had a big crane outside with 18K lights to balance with the huge snow reflections. And, with the Tungsten lights, the direct sun and the reflection of blue sky, we had mixed colour temperatures. The trick was then to maintain continuity, especially the direction of the sun, which changed throughout the day,” he says. 

When it came to accumulating the TV, news and journalist footage depicted throughout the film, Beaufils and his team decided not to fake these using post production techniques, and tested different cameras to shoot the footage.

“We did lots of tests with different cameras and even bought some on Ebay,” he notes. “We also went to non-professional video rental companies. We chose six or seven types of cameras/camcorders, which was difficult because you have to treat all sorts of different video formats, that were not so common for the digital lab, plus the sound is difficult and not good quality either.

“But, I think it was a good way to create these sequences because, although you can create the effect afterwards in post, it’s nice to do it yourself and you end-up with happy accidents. Also, it leads to a different way of shooting with a very light, handheld camera and you can experiment with different movements. I’ve shot with many old and non-professional video cameras before. Even VHS cameras. When you shoot with them now, it looks like a 20-year-old movie, and it’s nice to work this way.”

Discussing his approach to the centrepiece flashback sequence involving a secret recording that reveals an important character trait in Sandra, Beaufils explains that it was a scene that was spoken about at great length during prep.

“Justine wanted to shoot this scene in two days and to have it shot in real time,” he says. “We decided to film it with two cameras and so we could be free to move during the shoot. One camera was on a dolly and the other camera was on a tripod but mobile too. We had a zoom for one and the other one was a Hawk V-Lite Anamorphic

“Justine didn’t want to do any rehearsals, and wanted to give the actors the same freedom of movement as they had in the rest of the film. Which meant we had to react and follow them. There were many takes and each take was different to the previous one, but always moving, building towards something else. For this scene we spoke at-length with the actors to get a really good feel about what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go, which really helped is figure-out where we needed to move the camera.”

There was nothing routine – we were always searching for the right place, timing, lens or light to capture the emotion our incredible actors gave”

Beaufils concludes, “Shooting this film was a real pleasure. Everyday we needed to invent, to create new solutions and find good ways to tell the story. There was nothing routine at all. We were always searching for the right place, the right timing, the right lens or the right light to capture the emotion that our incredible actors gave.

“Behind the camera, you’re the first viewer of the film, and the emotions were strong. When Sandra Hüller unleashes her fury, I took it all in: it was upsetting, hard, moving and beautiful, all at once. To be overwhelmed by what you’re filming, to feel all these contradictory feelings and succeed in capturing them, was truly a unique feeling.”

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