Interview of Lou Berghmans about “Den Elfde van den Elfde”

This post is also available in: Français (French)

Lou Berghmans is a SBC cinematographer. Indeed, he has shot some full-length such as Film 1 (2003) by Willem Wallijn, Marina by Stijn Coninx (2013), Ben X by Nic Balthazar (2007), and W. (2014), Groeten uit Balen (2011), Hel Van Tanger (2005), De Indringer (2004) by Frank Van Mechelen. He also participated to a lot of television series : Albert II (2014) and Salamander (2012) by Frank Van Mechelen, Aspe (2003-2006) for the VTM, or Stille Waters, De Parelvissers, het Eiland, Van Vlees en Bloed and de Ronde for the VRT. Recently, he did the lighting of Den Elfde van den Elfde directed by Tom Van Dyck and Alice Reys, which encountered quite a success in Flanders.

Can you present yourself in a few words: your studies, your work experience ?

LB : I attended the RITS, a long time ago. At that time, it was not a great school. It was mostly VRT oriented. Today, it has changed : the teachers are true professionals and those who finish school today are ready to work.

I was lucky because I was surrounded by film enthusiasts that came from the same village as I did : Leopoldsburg in the Limburg. I attended the same classes as Dominique Deruddere (Oscar nominated for Iedereen Beroemd) and Marcel Vanthilt (TV presenter and musical artist). Once in Brussel, it was thanks to them that I was able to contact people from the film world. I remember being lucky enough to do an internship on full-length with Walther Van den Ende (one of the founders of the SBC), Willy Stassen (current president of the SBC) and Michel Van Laar (current vice-president of the SBC). So I learnt a lot apart from school.

But there were few jobs at that time. The cinema was quite a closed circle. Maybe two films were produced each year so it was rather difficult to live on it. My other passion was music, in particular rock and punk. So I worked for a free radio station (FM Brussel) for two years. Then I started managing a band (The Scabs), which I have been managing for thirty years besides my cinematographic activities.

The arrival of the VTM commercial channel in Flandres changed the situation. Many more jobs were open in broadcasting. I started directly as an independent. I first did news and reports, which was a good way of learning. But I soon tried my hand at working on 35mm and 16mm movies as a camera assistant, because that was what I wanted to do. During that time, I was lucky enough to assist famous DOP such as Willy Stassen, Marc Koninckx, Paul Decock, Ralf Boumans, Michel Van Laar and young Raymond Fromont. My first steps in fiction were taken in 1990 on a television series entitled Lava and produced by the VRT.

What is the subject of the television series Den Elfde van den Elfde ?

LB : The story takes place in the Carnival circle in a small town not precisely located in Belgium. Every year, it’s the same character that is elected to be prince of the Carnival. This year, he can’t compete due to a heart disease, but he engages his children to compete in order to maintain the crown within the family. It’s rather difficult to summarize actually. But in all its aspects, it’s a typical Flemish series, about major and minor occurrences showing what happens behind closed doors, in everyday life, and mostly it reflects people’s flaws. In any case, the series describes characters. The tone is light at first, close to comedy, but as the episodes unfold, and particularly in the last two ones, the series gets darker and major unpleasant secrets are revealed.

How did you come to work on this project ?

LB : It was a co-directing between Tom Van Dyck and his wife Alice Reys. I have known Tom for years, he is a famous Flemish actor and I was witness to his beginnings. And then, later, he started directing. In 2009 I did the framing and the lighting of his Van Vlees en Bloed series .

How did the prep go ? For how long ?

LB : We did a lot of meetings, we talked a lot about the subject matter, about what they wanted, about how we were going to do it. Tom wanted mostly a team of people that knew each other well and that had affinities working together.

At first, I didn’t really know how willing his wife was to commit herself to this project. I knew that she had co-written it, but as meetings and discussions went on, I realised that she was also ready to co-direct the series. It took the three of us quite some time to learn how to communicate about the way to do the shots, the frames and the lighting of a scene. This being said, the fact that Alice had no experience regarding the set, particularly concerning the decoupage and cutting techniques, induced that she was able to suggest non-conformist ideas for the picture that helped the story-telling. It was a win-win situation.

What were your intentions for the image ? Did you have any difficulties ?

LB : Above all the image should be realistic in accordance to the script. The directors didn’t want the image to be dark or contrasted. The photography should not be remarked, but should only enhance the story and the actors’ performances. Tom and Alice wanted the viewer to feel that he was watching reality somehow: how the inhabitants lived in that village, including inside their houses. The sets were minimal, classic and uncluttered. So I tried to reproduce the real light found in the real sets : natural light coming through the windows – by very diffuse HMI placed behind every glass-, combined with some authentic wall lamps placed in the sets in accordance with the framing.

It was not that simple, because there was a lot of comedy in the dialogues. It was necessary to see the actors’ faces and mimics very clearly. I had to find a compromise between an interesting -not too dull- contrast and in the meantime not end up with a High Key exposure.

Another problem was the location of the village. We shot in the typical Flemish Polders, near Doel, not far from one of the Belgian nuclear power stations. It was not at all a comfortable environment : the flat horizon, the cold wind blowing from all around and the dampness… We wanted to keep that atmosphere and to show it through the image.

Finally, another difficulty was due to the fact that we shot the seven episodes completely out of order : one morning we would shoot a scene for the seventh episode, in the afternoon, one for the second one, and end with one for the fourth… Because the lighting was mostly natural, especially for the outside scenes, I really had trouble linking. In the same scene, I even had snow, sun and hail, which was not easy to deal with. I was very lucky that my colourists Peter Bernaers and his wife Verrle Zeelmaekers helped me to harmonise it all. They did a great job.

Besides the general realistic intentions, some scenes were completely out of the reality. Indeed, in every episode, there is a time when actors start singing and convey their thoughts through songs. For these clips, I could do different lightings. The idea was to convey the difference between the two so I increased the contrasts. I used several types of show lights (PAR, SCAN, Fairy-lights, etc…) highly coloured and other sources in order to find a clip-like style. The singing scene would always start with a realistic picture that quickly turned into a clip that looked like musical video. The sets however were real and natural and were not adapted to the clip look. It was also the opportunity to make a completely different framing. Although the realistic scenes were made using a dolly (the Classic Panther), for the carnival singing and dancing scenes I introduced a stabiliser (the Ronin). I even used a different kind of camera: at that time the mini-Arri was still unavailable so I used the lighter Red Epic for these stabilised scenes. The rest however was entirely shot with an Arri Alexa Plus. It was not a problem because the idea was to work contrasts between the reality and these partly dreamed scenes. For the clips, we often used short lenses, low-angles etc, whereas we were closer to the actors for the realistic scenes.

How long did you shoot ?

LB : We shot between eighty-five and ninety days, for seven episodes of fifty minutes each.

You told me that you used the RED and the Alexa. With what set of lenses ?

LB : I got my own lenses, some Cooke S4i (18-25-32-50-75-100-135 mm) and a zoom lens Arri/Alura 45-250mm. I prefer the Cooke set, because they are smoother for the focus, unlike the Primes or Utra Primes. And for the scenes with the stabiliser, we used a set of old Zeiss Superspeed MKL, because our equipment had to be light.

Did you own all the equipment, or did you have to rent part of it ? If so, from whom ?

LB : Mostly, I work with my own lenses, my accessories, my head, and my monitors, because I think that’s personal stuff. But I don’t buy my own body for the camera. Simply because it depends on the director and the producers you work with. Some prefer the Red, others the Arri… I rented the camera body from Studio Facilities, at Haasrode.

Who was your first assistant ?

LB : Bart van Otterdijk. For long features, I always choose between four or five assistants that I know very well, and Bart is a one of them. But for a six-seven month shooting, as was the case here, I always divide the shooting between several assistants, because I think otherwise the period is too long and too intense. Especially as we often have to work for 14 or 15 hours. I think it’s more interesting, for the spirit of the filming crew, to alternate between several assistants. Plus, it gives them the opportunity to work on other projects during the filming. Olivier Van Tendeloo, Jelle Hectors and Wouter Dewilde also worked as first assistants. The data manager and second assistant was Carolien De Jonckeere. Anyway, there are so many good technicians in Belgium today that finding a good assistant is no trouble !

How about the lighting ? Where did you rent it ? And who was your gaffer ?

LB : My gaffer was Tommy van den Bempt. He was one of the owners of Spots Unlimited, that rents lighting equipment. It was his last filming, because unfortunately he left for Australia. We had been working together for over 20 years, since we had finished school. He was very good, organized, and I could trust him. As a gaffer, but also to organize the schedule for extras, see to the equipment, etc. And I must admit that if I had any trouble with a difficult lighting, he was always there with suggestions to comfort me. It was delightful to work with him and I will miss him !

As primary lighting in Daylight, we used a mix of HMI and BERRE, from the outside to the inside. The BERRE were made by the gaffer Bert Reyskens. It’s a spotlight based on a Kinoflo, but controlled by DMX, which is easier to regulate for density. It works very well, it’s handy, everything is faster and it makes a great light, in quality and quantity !

For the music videos, we used a lot of different spots, mostly in the Showbizz range (Scans, PARs, etc.)

Did you frame yourself ?

LB : Yes, I always do the framing myself. Except for the shots with the Ronin stabiliser. I had no experience, so they were framed by Teun Poppe.

Who was your key grip ?

LB : They were several of them. I worked with Miguel Rinckhout ,Yves Crabbe and Kris Hernalsteen.

Where did you rent the grip ?

LB : From Grikaros.

How did it go with the actors ?

LB : Well. For me, on any feature or series, the most important thing is the story ! If the story is good, you will have a good feature or a good show. The worst compliment I could get would be « the light was great, but I didn’t like the story ! ». First, there is the story, then the director and his actors and finally the light. We are here to improve things. As a cameraman, I take special care of actors. I try to have a good vibe with them and to make them comfortable. If I have any trouble with the frame, it’s easier to ask them to adapt themselves, without, of course, interfering with their acting. The vibe on a set and the collaboration with the various crews are very important to me. The better we get along, the better I work. I’m not someone who seeks stress or conflict to obtain better things or just to be right. I prefer to engage dialogue and show mutual respect among co-workers.

By the way, what was your collaboration with the others divisions – make up, sets, costumes, etc.-  like ?

LB : Very good. Ten years ago, in Flanders, there was a real problem of communication during the preparation between image, costumes, sets and make-up. Everybody worked apart. Art director did not exist as a profession yet, because obviously it was considered expensive. Now, we try to work together, but sadly, it’s still confused sometimes. It is not one hundred per cent organized, and the budget for a real Art director is not available yet. We can still improve, but the will to communicate better between the different crews is stronger than before.

As to budgeting do you know how much of the movie budget went to image? Did you use some really rare or expensive installations?

LB: No, I don’t know at all. I know we depended a lot on the VAF, and that we obtained subventions during the filming. We had the luxury to have twelve days of shooting for each episode, which is rare for a Flemish TV show. The video musical scenes could be really expensive, because of the extra renting – their lights were not included in the basic kit-. For example, we shot two video musical scenes in big warehouses, that we had to light. And we had two or three really expensive days. Especially the last day, when we shot the Carnival, with at least 250 extras. But except that, we did not spend a lot of money. I think the bigger part of the budget was for the actors. The cast was really the best of the best from Flanders, and they worked exclusively for our production for seven months, which was fortunate because the show had been written for them.

How was the post-production handled ? How long was it ?Where did you do it ?

LB: The post-production was made at ACE and lasted twelve days.

I always work with Peter Bernaerts and his wife Veerle Zeelmaeker. I like working with them, because a TV show is really long and it’s not easy to have a free color grader all that time. I have known them for years and I know what to expect. I like both their gradings. On this one, we had to slightly change our way of working, because the directors did not want a contrasted picture, which is kind of my style with Peter. We had to work differently, and it was a challenge.

Besides, we had a problem which is still unsolved. The first episode broadcast on TV did not match the color grading we had seen on the post-production monitor. The contrast was not exactly the same. This being said, no one noticed it. But I found it frustrating that the shades that we had put in that grading were not broadcast. Furthermore after some research by the post-production studio, the VRT and the distributors (Telenet), we still did not figure out the problem. That scares me a bit for future colorings.

Besides this problem, what do you think of the final results of the show ?

LB: I’m pretty glad. I think we made the picture they wanted, while respecting the story and the performance of the actors. At first, people were surprised when the actors began to sing. But with a total of 1.3 million spectators and a 49% ratio of the audience, I think we have succeeded to make a good show. It was broadcast seven weeks in a row, to a large audience who enjoyed Den Elfe van den Elfde.