Cinematography takes on new meaning when viewed through the lens of Caroline Champetier. Under her masterful eye, colors become characters, and human flesh acquires a heavenly corporeality. Her credits include Gang of Four (Jacques Rivette), La Sentinelle (Arnaud Desplechin), Toute Une Nuit (Chantal Akerman), Holy Motors (Léos Carax), Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta), Grandeur et Decadence d’un Petit Commerce de Cinema (Jean-Luc Godard). Her cinematography is brilliant because the way she sees is different from the way we see. Champetier’s work was recently honored by the CinéSalon series Caroline Champetier: Shaping the Light, at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center. •Thanks to Natascha Bodemann for arranging this interview.•
DT: Many of your films seem to have a color theme, like reds or greens or browns. Do you work those out with the director beforehand, or is that the job of the set designer?
CC: To find good ones for the movie, I choose. It can change. But the most important for me is definitely to have a good reflection for skin. The skin of the actress or actor is very important, so I go to that.
DT: Is shooting faces different from shooting objects?
CC: Definitely it’s very different, because skin is alive. Objects are not always alive. Light gives light to an object, but skin, a face, even without light, is alive. What you have to do is understand the light of the face, of the skin, and go with. The work is to understand, to go with, not just flash something but to see it. The question of the cinematographer is not just to see. It’s to understand, and it’s to go with.
DT: When you shoot the same location over and over again for scenes that have similar action, do you reconfigure the lighting every time?
CC: Yes. It’s different depending on the light of the day. If the set is indoors, I can organize something that’s OK for all day, because you know the sun is not going in. When it’s not this situation, I have to protect from the sun or go with the sun. It’s a question of what we have already spoken about, and definitely what is important for me is to spend time on the different sets of a movie.
DT: Before you shoot?
CC: Before I shoot. It can be days, it can be weeks. For The Innocents I worked weeks before the shooting. I spent a good time in the convent to see how the light was going on and to understand my possibilities for lighting.
DT: There are two shots in particular I’d like to discuss. In Gang of Four, you shoot inside the metro at a train going in the opposite direction, but you also have reflections on the window of the train you’re in.
CC: I like reflections. I think it’s very interesting to see reflections when you are in a car, when you are in a train. This is to give a different level of reality. And in this train you are outside the night, the town, of what is happening, what is in the train, with the light and the people going on. A different level of reality.
DT: The other shot was in Holy Motors. It’s very subtle. It’s the shot of a little girl in a red-and-white sweater. You start with a closeup on the girl and you pull out through the widow.
CC: Yes. It’s Leos Carax’s daughter. She was behind this window. It’s a zoom. There is a bit of reflection of the sky in the window, and this little girl is real and not real. Like an apparition.
DT: Let’s talk about how you make exterior shots. In Band of Four, there’s a really high-contrast shot, where two people are wearing dark jackets as they stand on a balcony overlooking the city. The sky seems really washed out, but you get this incredible detail in the city below.
CC: That was a time I made more contrast photography. There is a lot of detail because there was very good film stock at that time.
DT: What did you use?
CC: Kodak. I think it’s 5247. It was very, very good stock. I was really in love with Kodak color. It was a very stable stock for chromatic questions like that.
DT: Let’s go back to Holy Motors.
CC: Holy Motors was shot on digital. It’s the first time the American camera Red went to France.
DT: You used a Red!
CC: It was really smart shooting with the Red in France. I introduced this new captor. It was a very interesting thing to shoot with this captor. This camera was like a little box. I could be very, very little in the limo with this little box and my lenses, and it could also be a big, big camera when I wanted to put it on a train or on a dolly. It was like a construction beam. To wield your tool.
DT: The smokestacks and the golden statues on the bridge really popped against the gray sky. Now I understand why.
CC: Yes. For me it’s not perfect. I understand you, because it’s Paris, so it’s a poetic view of Paris, but for me it was not exactly what I wanted it to be. There is just a bit too much contrast.
DT: Did you shoot the entire film with the Red?
CC: Absolutely. But each time it was a different Red, because this little box, when I adjust the lenses with it, it can be like a Panasonic 100—a very, very, little one, and then when I put on a zoom… I can make my own tool. I think Red was very clever to introduce this camera because now all the masters wanted to have a little camera like that.
DT: Your whites are always spectacular. It’s almost as if they’re tinged with blue.
CC: Yes, white is really important. To have a real white, when we were shooting on stock, the time you spent with the colorist was important. But now you have infinite possibilities. The FRW is more large than what you see in reality, so you have to work before the movie to make the curve where you want it to be and to have the exact color you want. This is the great, great work now. You can see that in The Innocents, and you will be able to see that in Les Gardiennes, because I made a great deal of work on the color, and you see the color in comparison with the white.
DT: Is that an artifact of working digitally?
CC: Yes, yes.
DT: But when you were shooting film stock, how did you handle white?
CC: It was the way to light it. It’s the way to see it in comparison to the other colors. The time I spend with the lab to grade it. The grading time for me is very important time, when you grade the movie, while you are adjusting the color after the editing. I am very, very sharp on that. I am very demanding. You see I have a little eye deformation. I see four colors. Everybody sees chrome, and I see quadrichrome.
DT: It seems like there are certain things that you love to shoot, like smoke, and cigarettes, and glowing lights. Do you ask the director to put those things in the film, and if so, what do you like about them?
CC: Yes, it’s important to have things like that, because it gives reality to the light. It gives speech to the light. Many American movies are very good with smoke, with fog. I think fog is a beautiful way to see light.
DT: It also works with reflection, since you only see the light because it’s reflected off the water droplets in the fog.
DT: What shoot did you enjoy the most? You’ve done so many, but which was your favorite?
CC: I think Holy Motors. It was incredible to shoot, because we prepared a lot. There was four months’ preparation, and when we started the shooting, we were really ready to achieve the movie. Of Gods and Men was a beautiful movie to shoot because of all these men, because of Morocco, because of the Atlas Mountains and this landscape. I also remember The Innocents, we were so close with all these women in the convent. It’s difficult to choose, because now I remember also shooting with Godard. It was such a deep time, such a learning time for me. It’s definitely difficult to choose.
DT: Speaking about Of Gods and Men, I get a lump in my throat whenever I think of the scene where they’re singing. Do you ever get emotional when you’re shooting?
CC: Yes. Definitely. Yes. Sometimes I even cry. Of course. I am the first audience. So if you’re moved, I am moved too. Yes of course.
DT: That’s a great image—you with the camera crying. That’s beautiful. When did you know you wanted to be a cinematographer?
CC: It’s a strange story. I was a young woman, and when I understood there was no woman in this business, I wanted to do it. It was like a provocation.
DT: Did you have an interest in still photography before that?
CC: Yes. My father was an architect, and I was really trained to look, to see. My pleasure was with the eye. Definitely. I didn’t sing…for me, looking at is a real philosophy. A real position in life. And to be careful of what I see.
DT: God bless you for choosing that profession, because you are really extraordinary. Thank you.
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