Interview of Frédéric Noirhomme
For his appointment as a new SBC member, we have invited Frédéric Noirhomme for a coffee and have asked him a few questions..
Préjudice by Antoine Cuypers
FN : There are some members of the SBC with whom I get along really well such as Renaat Lambeets who worked as steady-cam operator on Préjudice, but also Manu Dacosse who is a friend and has been my sponsor at the SBC with Alain Marcoen. It gives me the opportunity to talk to peers, to exchange with people I know well or not so well. As far as I can gather, we meet around a drink so it’s not too strict. Information is plentiful and varied, so it gives me an opportunity to know what is going on in our circle, to see what the other DOP are doing…
What led you to become director of photography ?
FN: It’s a long tale. I came to it quite late. I was born in Namur, but I grew up in a remote country village in the province of Luxembourg. The only cinema that there was, was precisely in Namur or also small countryside cinemas like the one in Rochefort that had a very restricted programming of major action movies and blockbusters, because the programmers of these provincial cinemas did not invest in art-house films. It is starting to change today thanks to, among other, some associations, but as a child, I remained quite ignorant of what cinema was about. For me, the cinema was Bruce Willis. And it is also Bruce Willis of course, but not just that. I had a formal scientific secondary training. And I was also interested in the plastic arts. After secondary education, I spent one year in the United States on an exchange program. I had a television set in my room and I often spent the night zapping from one programme to another. One night I was stunned by a silent scene from The Dreamlife of Angels by Erick Zonka. I was amazed at being so surprised by this film. I wondered if it was not also because the film was a Belgian coproduction and that I was missing my native culture. At the end of the year, we had to write a report and I – naively – thought that it would be great to work on the influence of local peculiarities on any given cinema. I tried to compare the Belgian and the American cinemas, to oppose these two completely different modes of production. Besides I did an internship on a set in the United States and for me the cinema was shooting a film in Imax with 500 technicians, helicopters, stunts etc.
You must have been quite disappointed when you came home!
FN: Laughter. Indeed a little! When I returned from the United States, it was too late for me to join most schools. I was able to register at the last moment at the IAD, but I missed the entrance examination for directing. They offered me their new multi-media section, but in my post-teenager frustration, I refused. Then I enrolled at Inraci with a view to being a director but the image eventually appealed to me more because it mixed scientific and plastic concepts.
And after school ?
FN : I quickly agreed to work on documentaries as camera operator. The films were low budget so I worked for free, but thanks to my parents, I could afford it. I immediately did cameraman, I was never electrician, grip or assistant, which was a disadvantage at the beginning of my career. It is still one of my peculiarities today. When I work with my gaffers and key grips, we often laugh when I ask them to do very unusual things. Sometimes, they suggest an alternative which I sometimes turn down, but in either case it turns out well.
How about today ?
FN : Today, I have realised that I like the cinema rather than the image: I enjoy the language and helping a director build his narrative through the image.
Hedi by Mohamed Ben Attia
You mentioned earlier your essay about the identity of cinemas. Do you think there is an identity of Belgian lighting or image ?
FN : I don’t think so. I think we first build the pictorial identity of a film from the script and the director’s intentions even if we may imagine a romantic theory that must be partly true : we often shoot in Belgium and the lighting atmosphere varies according to the climate, the latitude, or the place where we are. The outsides are immediately singular and permeate our creative mind. But I am sure that a Belgian cinematographer when shooting in Holland will have a totally different light because he is in Holland near an inland sea and it is very nice and inspiring. If one shoots a film in Portugal, one will also have a very specific light. The identity of the Belgian image may also come from the fact that we have a long history of documentary cinema, it is also more home made, it has fewer financial means than other more productive countries.
I beg to differ with what you said about the climate, I find that there is a major difference between the image in Flemish Belgian films and that in Walloon ones. But maybe it is because they don’t have the same means…
FN: I don’t know if they have different means, the co-productions are complex and frequent between our two communities. Flanders is a linguistic minority which is culturally more open and closer to the Anglo-Saxon due to its Germanic nature. For instance, in their theatres, the movies are always in the original soundtracks and subtitled, whereas they are all dubbed in Wallonia. In French-speaking Belgium, we are perhaps more open to the French cinema, and a little less curious. It must be reflected in our respective productions. But it is true that the image in the Flemish cinema is often very beautiful. There are very important cinematographers such as Karakatsanis, Ruben Impens, etc.
Préjudice by Antoine Cuypers
There are also very beautiful things in the French-speaking Belgian cinema. For example your work, let’s talk about it. Which films have been landmarks in your career? Did any directors launch your career?
FN: Two people really helped me, Olias Barco, the director go Kill me please and Vincent Tavier, his producer. They both trusted me to do the lighting of Kill me please since I started as a cinematographer. The film had a rather consequent casting but quite a low budget and we had to use small cameras, which I think is why he offered me the job. We had to use cheap HD cameras and try to get a black-and-white film look. I owned one of those cameras and I had done a good job on other films. The film was received coolly in Belgium, maybe because it referred too much to the monument of Belgian cinema: It Happened in Your Neighborhood, but it did well aboard. It was awarded several prizes in famous festivals, because it was a rather original film just like Olias Barco who is a bit crazy and very nice. After that Vincent offered me Standard-drukker which was Riton Liebman’s first film.
You have made a lot of first films.
FN : Only first films. Directors run away after working with me. Laughter.
Didn’t you make a second film with Olias?
FN: Yes, but I was not the only cinematographer on the set. The Ukrainian production imposed Thierry Arbogast. At first, it was rather complex, but finally Thierry relied on me, he entrusted me with the second set and I also did the framing with him when there was only one set. But that was not a film that I signed as DOP. It was a fantasy film for children with incredible settings. It was super fun to do. It enabled me to demystify the work of the big majors and to feel comfortable with it.
Another film has marked my course: Shattering Shadow directed by two art directors: Patrick Dechesne and Alain Pascal Housiaux. We shot it in Ethiopia and in Liege. I enjoyed working with them very much, because they were really trying to find their own original language. Their linguistic approach was carried to the end of the post-production and the film was very well edited by Marie-Hélène Dozo.
More recently I worked on Préjudice by Antoine Cuypers and Hedi by Mohamed Ben Attia, which won the silver bear for best actor and best first film at the latest Berlin Film Festival. Both of them were beautiful encounters, researching with the directors was very rewarding, even though sometimes our opinions differed, especially on Hedi, because of our different cultural backgrounds. Hedi was very instructive as I was often faced with my own certainties. Sometimes Mohamed would lead me away, sometimes he would follow me. It was really cinema as I like it, because there is a coherence in the director’s point of view, in the way in which he approaches the overall construction of his film, in the language that he uses. We used a handle camera near his character. There is such a truth that springs from his character, that it does not matter if the style has already been seen, in this case it was justified. The emotions were very precise. I am proud to have contributed to the outcome and the success of this film.
Hedi by Mohamed Ben Attia
How did you handle the lighting of Hedi ?
FN: It was rather difficult. It had a small budget, about twenty sets, seven weeks of shooting, twelve hours per day, six days per week, and we finished it during Ramadan. I worked with René Haan, a Belgian gaffer. We were the only two Belgians among technicians. The rest of the team was Tunisian, and René was assisted by a wonderful Tunisian gaffer, but with ideas and methods specific to the cinema and the material that he was used to. And then there was loss in the translations. For instance, I would ask them to make a pre-light, and when I arrived, it was not what I had asked for. The continuity was also rather difficult. The lighting was not simple, the sets were gigantic, particularly a 5 star luxury hotel that was very difficult to light. We went to hell to make a beautiful film. I am glad because we had a hard time but it paid off.
How about Préjudice ?
FN : It was also complicated on various points. The actress, Nathalie Baye, was far more famous, so we had to make her feel good. She gave so much of herself in the film that expectations were high. Also there were a lot of dinner scenes shot with two cameras that had to be correctly lit so as to avoid the television film look and so as to keep soft shadows on the actresses’ faces (Natalie’s, but also Cathy’s and Ariane’s) by a light from above. But the most complicated part was the beginning of the film. We were shooting outside but the sunlight was supposed to decrease gradually during the scene. We had to keep a continuous decreasing light over several days of shooting outside with varying weather conditions. It was hell to shoot. Maybe I should have insisted on the difficulties of such a choice in preparation, because I already knew it was going to be hard, but at the same time, I wanted to meet the director’s expectations as far as possible. Even if you know that you are shooting yourself in the foot, you still want to try, which is rather fun. We had a great team and Benoît Roland the producer really supported the project to the full. They helped us make wise decisions and they supported our choice of priorities.
Earlier, you said that fantasy films for children and action ones, were not really your style. Can you describe your style ?
FN : I don’t have any. But I know that this kind of films is not the type of films that I spontaneously feel attracted to. I like it when a director plays on the content, on the narrative codes, when he considers the language and experiments new things. The closer we stick to the modern vein the more I like it.. That was what I enjoyed with Patrick Dechesne and Alain Pascal Housiaux. They didn’t try to depart from classicism, they were in their own world, which eventually was very modern. They chose radical viewpoints, remarkable ellipses, temporal games… I like it when directors keep a distance in their films, like Bresson at a time.
I have the feeling that most of the films you did were dramas, and characters’ films rather than script films based on climactic developments.
FN : In fact what I find amazing is when we manage to make the viewer feel emotion though through the time cut and editing of scenes that we have shot. Not an emotion that will make the viewer cry, but a specific feeling, a discomfort or a micro-feeling that we can experiment in daily life. That’s what Hedi is. There are magnificent gushes of emotion caused by a series of particular and at the same time quite common emotional moments. And inevitably genre cinema is less likely to explore that kind of expression. Even though I like to watch it, and I enjoy doing it, and maybe later I will do only that kind of films, right now it is not what attracts me most.
Préjudice by Antoine Cuypers
I have the feeling that you are intensely interested in the language so that you are more into framing than lighting…
FN : I always frame myself but in fact it is not what I enjoy most. Sitting behind the camera kind of bores me.
Yet that was how you started.
FN : On documentaries yes, it’s true. But it was different. When shooting a documentary, you always have to consider the light. For instance : inside where are the windows ? You always try to position yourself so that the light will be nice. And it’s something I still do for fiction films. It’s very basic. Besides light is the very first thing I check when I consider a set : where are the possible narrative sources ? Where are the most interesting axes regarding the lighting ? But I agree with you that I don’t want to make a film where you can feel that it has been lit, I don’t want to make photography that is too conspicuous. I want to create inconspicuous lighting. I don’t want anyone leaving the theatre to think: “beautiful photography”, but “beautiful film”. As a result, I am always reluctant to work purely for effect, even if I could do better sometimes. I may be a bit too naturalistic. As a consequence I may be remembered more for my framing, because it’s more obvious, but I don’t mind because it’s part of the language, the point of view, and the directing. I have the feeling that on Préjudice and on Hedi, the directing prevails over the photography, the latter being unobtrusive rather than marked, but nevertheless stylised, and maybe a bit more so in Préjudice.
How did you work the clipping with Mohamed on Hedi ?
FN : It was very interesting. He came with clipping ideas that didn’t take into account the light or the size of the camera. He had in mind framings that were difficult and even impossible to realise. However, what was really beautiful in his clipping was that it conveyed his desire to direct and the essence of what he intended to convey. It took us time to reach an agreement, but at the end of the prep I was able to suggest approaches that were in accordance with his director’s desires. He is a guy that doesn’t seem to care for the image, but it is not true. We would trust each other and that gave us a lot of freedom. He also had an asset: he acknowledged his doubts whenever he had any, which might seem quite uncomfortable at times but which enabled me to make various suggestions. I prefer that than people pretending they know everything. It was a painstaking but nice collaboration, and it paid off.
Hedi by Mohamed Ben Attia
Do you regularly work with the same team ?
FN : Not really. On Hedi, as I said, I only knew the Belgian gaffer. On Préjudice the gaffer and the key grip were from Luxembourg for production reasons. Whenever I can choose, I call some friends, the ones that attended the INRACI with me. However when having to work with strangers I sometimes leads to beautiful encounters.
I have worked regularly with Benjamin Hauteneuve as focus puller, it is easier to negotiate his Belgian position when the film is coproduced. I am very lucky, he is a friend and he is excellent at his job.
Do you use the same camera and lenses on the different projects that you do ?
FN : It is never the same. That is the good thing about our job : supports multiply, optics evolve without falling out of fashion. Regarding the script that you read and that you discuss with the director, very soon you have to make a choice. Whenever you have the chance and the money you keep testing, if not you choose what you think is best for the project. I like to try new things. We have to remain curious.
I only ask because a lot of the cinematographers that I have interviewed told me that they only worked with one camera, because according to them it was the only one that could render the colours properly. What is interesting is that some prefer the F65, others the Alexa and others still the RED…
FN : I still have misgivings about the RED. Benjamin Hautenauve insists that I must try it, but I will not do so on a full-length film, I will try it on a short one. I did Préjudice with the F65 and if Sony offers a new camera I will be glad to try it, because it’s a very interesting constructor in terms of image. But what I find the best today is an Alexa shooting in RAW. The latest film that I have shot Un conte Indien d’Héctor Cabello Reyes, was with an Alexa in RAW and an Alpha 7 for the night scenes, with Master Anamorphic lenses. But really it depends on the demands and possibilities of a project.
Do you use LUT or do you work with a DIT ?
FN : Not really. In my opinion, working with a DIT could be nice to visualise what you can or cannot do with the lighting, but most of the time I don’t use one. I apply a REC709 preview LUT or a similar pre-set depending on the camera and I work on the light so that it looks good in that range. I know that if it is good in REC709, it will be ok for the grading.
Do you have a colourist with whom you work regularly ?
FN : Not yet. But I would like to work with the colourist on Hedi Raphaëlle Dufosset again. Alain Marcoen had recommended her. He is one of the most rigorous and interesting DOP that I know. His photography blends into the directing and is beautiful. For instance I find the lighting on the Dardenne brother’s films both right and nice. So when Alain commended her, I did not hesitate. And I was not disappointed : she did a wonderful job in only seven days. We have some little regrets, because we did not have time to spend over minor details, but she is a true image technician, a true artist, because she gets exactly what the film is supposed to convey through the image. So if I can, I will work with her again.
How do you picture the continuation of your career ? Would you prefer to keep working with directors that you already know or would you prefer to keep doing first films ?
FN : I would gladly work on other films with all those directors : Antoine, Mohamed, Olias, Alain-Pascal and Patrick, all of them actually… But I would understand if colleagues were to do their next film due to production, availability or artistic requirements… the goal being that the films be well done. If I can work with them again I will, but at the same time I find that first meetings are often very rich. I will always do first films because having to face a new cinema is always very interesting. But I would also appreciate getting into the caricature of an old couple… Doing all my career with the same director could also be a wonderful experiment. I don’t know if it will happen, or with whom, but it could be great. Maybe the greatest of all would be to experience both.
Préjudice by Antoine Cuypers