Interview of Christophe Nuyens

Christophe Nuyens is a SBC DOP who recently worked on television series like The Tunnel season 2 by Tim Mielants (2016), Cordon season 1 also directed by Tim Mielants, for which he won the best photography award at Sao Paulo International TV Festival in 2014, Cordon season 2 by Eshref Reybrouck (2015) and Coppers by Maarten Moerkerke (2015).

In the past, he has been working on television series like Super 8 directed by Tim Mielants and Jonas Govaerts (2009), Deadline 14/10 by Maarten Moerkerke (2012), Code 37 season 2 and 3 by Jakob Verbruggen and Tim Mielants (2011-2012), Zingaburia season 2 by Tim Mielants (2012-2013), and Wat Als by Tim Vanaelst (2011).

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Could you present yourself and your work in a few worlds ?

CN : I attended the RITS in Brussels. I started as a camera assistant and I did a lot of reports for television. About seven years ago, I started shooting television series, and I have never stopped since.

You shoot mostly television series, why is that ?

CN : I like it more than shooting reports and commercials, because on TV-series you have time to tell a story, to explore the characters. You can really see to details and get ready, you can think about it, you can discuss it with the director.

Also, I think the past few years the focus on television series has changed, mainly because of big players like Netflix and HBO. Television series are greater value, and that is an interesting evolution. If you compare the way TV-series were made ten years ago with what is happening right now, we do things quite differently. The gap between TV series and cinema is getting smaller every day.

I have seen that most of your work deals with tragic, dramatic and intense subjects like the spreading of a virus on Cordon, or the tensions around crimes on Coppers and Tunnel. Is that a choice or or is it coincidence ?

CN : I think maybe it started as a coincidence, but in fact I really like to tell that specific kind of stories. I think it’s suits me more than, let’s say, a comedy for example. Comedy has to be bright and happy. I rather like to work with darkness and tension.

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How did you came to work on these particular projects : Cordon, Coppers and Tunnel ?

CN : It was mainly because I knew the directors on these projects. I first started working with Tim Mielants back in 2009, and did Code 37 with Jakob Verbruggen. And ever since, they called me every time they were about to do a new project. Tim even brought me to the UK.

Can you tell me about your technical and artistic approach of each one ?

CN : For Cordon I prepare the first season with Tim. We were looking for an artistic approach and we decided to shoot handheld. We obliged ourselves to use longer lenses outside of the cordon (40mm an above), and short lenses (25-29mm) for the inside, what gets the viewer more involved with the characters. The viewer doesn’t notice that has been shot on short or long lenses, but I’m sure he can feel it.

Tim showed me a lot of pictures to get the look and feel. Everything was grey, a bit like communist Berlin. Then he showed me one picture of a girl and a boy lying on a concrete floor, wearing red and green tee-shirts. So we decided our locations would have little colour (grey or black) and that we would give all our main characters primary colours. I think we manage to keep this up during both seasons.

For the make-up we decided to use a lot of sweats. In the grading I tried to exaggerate this by getting more contrast in the faces so that you can really feel every drop of sweat. We sure didn’t try to hide the fact that the characters don’t look good.

And for The Tunnel ?

CN : For The Tunnel it was something different : Since I was shooting the fifth and sixth episode, the look of the series was already set.

It was a nice experience to work like this. Even though the main look couldn’t be changed, we still had the freedom to play around and try things.

Tim always watch a lot of movies, so on Sundays we would meet and he would say to me :“I have seen this Tarkovski or Béla Tarr movie, you should see this scene and we should try this and that! ” And then it’s my job to put those crazy and great ideas into something that fits into the fixed look of the series. Quite a challenge sometimes, especially with Tim’s crazy mind!

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How does the prep of a television series go ? For how long ? Is it sufficient?

CN : For example on Cordon I had thirty days of prep watching movies and photos with Tim, scouting locations, attending meetings, like everybody does on a prep. But for a series of a hundred shooting-days, it was really not enough. When we were actually shooting, we still had meetings and locations scoutings. We had to meet every sunday to do the blocking of the next week.

In England however, for The Tunnel, we had three weeks of prep for two episodes, and every head of department was present and working in the same office. The communication between the different departments is much more efficient. As a result, on set, everybody knew exactly what he was to do for each scene, and there were no surprises. It was really nice to work like this.

How long did you shoot ?

CN : For Cordon, the first season had ninety shooting-days for ten episodes, so 9 days per episode. For the second season we got ten days per episode. That sounded a little bit better at first, but there were a lot more action scenes to be covered, so the workload was about the same in the end.

For The Tunnel, we had eleven days per episode and twelve hours a day. It was more comfortable.

What’s the main difference between working here and working in the UK?

CN: Here you are always making compromises, because there’s always the time-pressure. In the UK the time-pressure is not that high. You can do a rehearsal for forty-five minutes and during that time I can sit in a corner and see how things are, but also take pictures with a viewfinder and show the shots I have foreseen to the director.

Strangely enough I think because we never have time here, we learned to work faster and to be more creative in the end.

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Do you try to keep the same team : focus puller, key grip, gaffer or do you have to manage with the locations and the production’s desires ?

CN : In the UK it wasn’t possible, but otherwise I try to keep the same team. We all are friends and we’ve been working together for a long time now.

It’s so comforting, we speak with few words. They know what I want and what I like. With this team I am able to work faster, with less compromises.

My gaffer Kristof Collier, works with SPOTS. They make their own fluorescent lights who are controllable with wireless dmx. We save a lot of time by using them. When I was shooting in the UK, I was missing those lights, and the knowhow of my team. If I asked to loose 1 stop on five HMI’s, in the UK that would mean a fifteen minutes coffee break, in which they would bring down the lamps, put a scrim in it, hang them up again. Over here, it’s just a slider to lower.

And who were your focus puller and your key grip ?

CN : My focus puller is Olivier van Tendeloo. Whenever I am doing a handheld shot, he feels what I am about to do, almost at once. Spot on, every time. He’s also really creative in building custom-made goodies for special shots we would come up with.

My key grip is Miguel Rinckhout and it’s the same about him. If we have to do something special he’s able to build something quickly that works really well. We all became pretty good in finding quick and effective solutions within the budget.

How was the framing handled ? Did you shoot with several cameras ? Did you frame yourself ?

CN : In Belgium I always frame myself. In the UK it was the first time I worked with a camera-operator. If there was a second camera, I would handle it. It was a nice experience. Like that there is more attention for details, since you are closely monitoring the image. I would sit next to Tim behind the monitor and we would discuss things more, compared to when I would frame myself. It was a little quicker, but at the same time I felt that I was too far away from the actors. If you frame yourself you feel part of the story, in the set. Both techniques have pros and cons, but I think I prefer to do the framing myself.

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What camera did you use for shooting these three tv series ?

CN : Most of the time I used an Alexa. For the first Cordon it was an Alexa plus, on the second an Alexa mini with Leica Summilux lenses. I love those lenses. It’s a small set, but they are my favourites. They have a very good look and I prefer them over the Master Primes.

Coppers was shot on the Red Epic with Leica Summicron-C lenses. At that time, there were no Alexa-mini. I chose this setup because we used a Môvi and we needed a compact camera and small lenses.

What about the lighting ? Do you have favourite sources ?

CN : Most of the time I use the lights I told you about because they are really soft and light so you can hang them anywhere. Tim is a director that wants to be able to shoot almost 360° and to let freedom to his actors. That’s sometimes really difficult for the lighting. So what I do is : pre-light everything – most of the time from outside and from the ceiling – and I try to use the minimum of lights and flags on set, because they are restrictive. I think it’s really important to choose your location so the natural light looks good already, like this you only have to enhance it.

I have seen you like top-shots ? Can you tell me a little bit on your use of grip equipment ?

CN : Yes, on Cordon, there are a lot of top-shots, and even more on the second season. I like the mix between shoulder shots and graphic top-shots. Like that you have a good balance between documentary style and graphic frames without getting the viewer out of the story. That’s really important. I think our main goal is not only to make beautiful images, but to tell a story as good as possible. If the viewer thinks : “that’s a beautiful shot”, maybe we did something wrong, because his attention is not on the story. He must feel it, but not be conscious of it.

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How did the work with the actors go ?

CN : I like to frame myself, especially when it’s handheld, because I am closer to the actors. That way, I can really feel what they are doing. I don’t use a lot of marks. I want them to have the less restraints as possible.

I suppose the connection is more important because you work together for a hundred days.

CN : Yes, sure. I think maybe 50% of our job is framing, putting lights and all the technical and artistic stuff. But the other 50% is about dealing with people and keeping everybody happy. As a DOP it’s really important to bond with the actors because you will get more from them if you do. And for the rest of the crew, it’s the same. If you have a happy crew, everyone works better and harder. It’s really important to communicate, especially on a long series.

How about your collaboration with the other departments : make-up, costume design, art direction, etc. ?

CN : Before the prep starts, it’s really important to have meetings with the departments. For Cordon, we decided that decors will have subdued colours, and that for clothing we would use only primary colours. If you communicate properly and if you take good decision together, it makes it easier on set.

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How do you handle the post production ? Do you always work with the same colourist ?

CN : Yes I do. It’s Olivier Ogneux. I really like him because, like everybody else in my crew, he has a really strong opinion. We discuss a lot together and he often proposes to try out new stuff, so I always end up with something better than I imagined.

Do you make LUTs before the shootings ?

CN : I started doing it with the first season of Cordon I have kept doing it since.. It gets easier every time. Now you can put 3D LUT in the Alexa. For instance, for the second season of Cordon, I used a LUT based on the grading of the first season. I really like it because it allows you to adjust the lighting considering the final results. For Cordon it kept us from ending up with too much contrast for the grading. The other good thing about it is for the editing : the director and the editor can see an image that is more or less how it will come out in the end. Before that, I had seen directors come to the grading and panicking because they didn’t recognise their images. I always ask to do tests before we start shooting, then I go with Olivier, to the grading and we make some LUTs that I use on the set.

How long did the grading last ?

CN : A day and a half for episode.

It’s very short.

CN : Yeah. Most of the time, we spent three days on the first pass of the first episode. Then I take it home and watch it on two different televisions. Then I wait for four days before watching it again. I think it’s really important to have time between the first pass and the second one. The following episodes are done quicker because you just have to adjust from what you have done on the first one.

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How are the results of these projects for you?

CN : With Cordon it was so crazy on set sometimes that I was a bit uncertain of the results. I was concerned about it being realistic enough . It was a really thin line, but it worked out very well.

And with Coppers I sometimes had the feeling that we could have done better for one shot or another. For example, it was the first time I worked with the Môvi, and we used it a lot to do steady-cam-like shots. Yes, it’s cheaper and it’s a really good tool to do beautiful top-shots or shots in cars or to play around with, but now I am sure it cannot replace a real steady-cam.

What I realise is that we have to do a lot of compromises every day, on each project, but at the end, we always learn a lot from it. And as long as it doesn’t get in the way of telling the story, I am pretty happy.