Bruno Degrave on “Les Rivières Pourpres”

After the two success full films based on his novels, Jean-Christophe Grangé launches his follow up of “The Crimson Rivers” “des Rivières Pourpres”, but this time in the form of a tv series. Bruno Degrave, SBC, tells us about his work on this French-German eight part series for France 2 and ZDF.

Synopsis: Following the case of Guernon in the mid-2000s, the iconic captain Pierre Niemans is transferred to head the Central Office against Blood Crimes (OCCS). This new unit deals with the most complex cases, where the clues are few, and where serial murders must be resolved as quickly as possible. It was during a particularly difficult mission that Niemans crosses paths with his once best pupil and spiritual daughter, Camille Delaunay.

Directors: Episodes 1, 2, 7 and 8: Ivan Fegyveres, Episodes 3 and 4 : Julius Berg, Episodes 5 and 6 : Olivier Barma.

Production: Europacorp, Umedia

Principal cast: Olivier Marchal and Erika Sainte

Could you introduce yourself in a few words: your studies, your career etc?

BD: I was born 50 years ago and grew up in the country site mainly with my dad. Upon graduating from school at age 15, I moved to Brussels to live with my mother (Danny Degrave) who had a production company with her new husband (Michel Huisman) named “Les Grandes Productions”. This led me to discover a new world, an environment that quickly seduced me. I started out as an assistant doing every possible job within the company at the age of 16. And I left the company as an independent cameraman in 1986 at the age of 19. I spent my time shooting interviews, music videos, moving into corporate movies and increasingly more serious work like lower budget commercials. Then later on in the early 2000s, I shot my first short film with my friend Lionel Jadot, giving me a taste for doing more drama. Being self-taught, I didn’t have a network on the drama side of the business , so it took some time to get my foot in the door. In recent years, I have been shooting more indie films, TV movies and series for Canal +, TF1 and France 2, for whom I shot my last two series: Zone Blanche where I continued the work set up Christophe Nuyens, doing episodes 5 to 8. And then most recently The Crimson Rivers ( des Rivières Pourpres), for which I shot all eight episodes of the first season.

What is the subject of the series according to you?

BD: The series is follows 4 police investigations spread over 2 episodes each. Commissioner Niemans (played by Olivier Marchal) is being transferred to head the Central Office against Blood Crimes (OCCS). With a colleague, Camille Delaunay (played by Erika Sainte), they are sent to the four corners of France, in regions where legends, landscapes and traditions mingle with complicated murders.

How did you land this project?

BD: It was the director Ivan Fegyveres, who was casting of his technical team at Umedia who called me. He had heard about me and wanted to meet me.

How was it to collaborate with the different directors?

BD: It went very well, considering that it was not easy to get ready to embark on an adventure of this magnitude only three weeks before the start of the shoot. And even more so knowing that the second and third director could not rely too much on me to do their prep, as the different blocs would follow each other without any break in between, due to the unavailability of Olivier Marchal who was due to perform in a play after the shoot had wrapped. I even had suggested to bring a second DOP on board to alternate with, but the producers wanted me shoot all eight episodes. It was therefore necessary to be very malleable and generous (laughs) to be able to shoot eighty eight days and do about twenty days of location scouting , often during the weekends. Working with all three of them was such a great experience. The hardest thing was to part with your director when one starts to have solid working relationship and way of doing things, in order to move on to the next one that you have to get to know again and who has his own expectations, often very different from his predecessor …

How did you prepare for the task at hand ?

BD: I had only three weeks of preparation, mainly spent on scouting locations. Despite this I still managed to do a series of tests on different lenses, mainly because Ivan wanted to shoot anamorphic, which I did not go for in the end for two reasons. Firstly, because the series was intended to be broadcast in a 2/1 format on France 2, and in 16/9 on the German channel ZDF, which meant that we had to crop on the sides losing some of our image. Also we would have lost those nice anamorphic aberrations that are usually more visible on the edge of the frame. In addition, the anamorphic series I tested at Hawk were great, but out of reach for the budget on this production. And the series that I had access to at our rental company, Next Shot, lacked character. On the other hand, and luckily, I had the option of renting a set of spherical high speed lenses, the Leica Summilux. And as I knew that there was a lot of night work planned and that I would not have a lot of equipment to light them, I opted for this series which allowed me to have quality optics opening at 1.3, which was very helpful at night.

What look were you after for the show ?

BD: The initial request by the lead director was to make the show darker than most series, but keeping in mind that France 2 did not want it to be too dark, or similar to what we did on Zone Blanche which was very dark. So I opted for a relatively classic approach in the end, with soft lighting and a LUT which lifted the low lights while desaturating colors. The Summilux lenses allowed me to use a shallow depth of field to trow the background out of focus when a location was less what we wanted it to be , but also to give a cinematic feel by shooting wide open.

Did you have to solve any particular problems?

BD: Yes, since we had a lot of nights, and not necessarily the time or the budget to light them, I requested to use smoke on the exteriors, in order to create silhouettes and atmosphere. But the producers quickly let me know that bringing in a special effects team every time we wanted smoke was going to cost them too much money, and that I should go without smoke when they were not there anyway to do other stuff. So I made the decision to buy my own smoke machines and rent them at friendly rate. Fortunately my partners in the lighting department, Jojo, Marcel, Denis & Co, kindly agreed to help me out by moving the machines around according to the wind direction. Thanks to them I was able to pull it off !

How long and where did you shoot?

BD: we shot eighty eight days in Belgium, from Saint Hubert to Dunkirk via Roeselaere, Brussels, Nivelles, Charleroi etc.

What camera equipment did you use ?

BD: We had two Arri Mini’s rented from Next Shot in collaboration with Eye Lite.

Could you explain your lighting approach ?

BD: Lighting wise, I worked with a lot of soft sources in combination with a contrasty LUT. The main units we used were Smartlights, they were very practical, quick to set up and powerful enough to illuminate 85% of the shots on this shoot. Jojo Bulterys and Marcel Bulterys shared the duty of being the gaffer. We shot half of the time indoors and the other outdoors. For the night work, we used only a few sources, but we used smoke to create silhouettes. We actually had quite a bit of nights sometimes with very wide shots and a limited amount of equipment to pull it off, even though we were able to get a helium balloons twice. We also used 6KW HMIs to provide backlight placed on a 18 to 23 meter cherry picker depending on the location.

For one of the night scenes which was to be shot on a wooded hill, there was no possibility to access it with a cherry picker. So I came up with the idea to mount very high up in five different trees FlexLite 30X30 lights. These light don’t produce a lot of output, but as I was able to shoot wide open I got away with it. My gaffer had to bring in a climber to install them at a hight of about 12 meters from the ground in the trees. As for the rest we often had to replace the existing neon tubes in some sets, or put our light bulbs in the practicals provided by the art department, in order to change the color temperature , something which is done on most shoots… Similar like the use of reflectors to bounce some fill and create an eyelight for the actors. My intent was to go for a natural look, not too bright as a one expects a drama to look like, but not too dark either, to respect the wishes of the customer (laughs).

Did you operate yourself ?

BD: Yes, I operated A camera, and five other operators came in to do dailies on B camera or steadicam : Manu Alberts, Benoit Theunissen, Nicolas Savary, Olivier Merckx and Didier Schokkaert. Depending on which director, we would shoot either more handheld or steadicam. On average I would say that 20% was handheld, 25% steadicam, 20% dolly and the rest tripod or slider.

How was it working with the cast ?

BD: A nice experience! A talented group of actors, with whom it was a pleasure to work, even if they suffered from doing those long nights but their endurance was quite remarkable given the length of the shoot.

How was it to collaborate with the other departments?

BD: We had too little time to properly share our intentions and we probably could have further optimized our team work, but each department was very professional and everything went without a hitch. The art department, led by Perrine Rulens and Luc Noël, faced, perhaps even more than the others, an extraordinary challenge, because they came on board just ten days before the shoot if I remember correctly! So scouting locations had to be done at the same time, travelling all over Belgium … in short not an easy task !

Do you know what was the budget  ?

BD: I think I heard they had 800,000 euros per episode, with some additional funding provided by ZDF, but I could not be certain …

Have you used any extremely expensive or rare equipment?

BD: Not really, apart from using two helium balloons, a 15-meter crane on one occasion and a vehicle with a stabilized head once or twice, the rest was pretty much the usual stuff.

Did you use a DIT to provide the LUT ?

BD: A LUT yes, but no DIT. It was Ada, the second assistant camera who took care of the back ups. With Frank Ravel, my colorist, we had two and a half days per 52-minute episode to do the grade at the Studio l’Equipe. We had relatively few VFX , apart from some clean ups, the integration of a deer, some green key work and stabilization on shots shot in the forest from a moving vehicle.

What do you think of the final result of the series?

BD: At the moment it is all too fresh for me so I mostly look at it from a technical point of view, of which I am satisfied for a large part. I do regret not having had enough prep time because I think we could have gone further if we were given the time. I hope in the future I can watch it and not think about the visuals to much but let myself be carried away by the story…


Camera: Arri Mini, Next Shot in collaboration with Eye Lite.

Lighting: Eye Lite

Grip: KGS


1st AC: Olivier Craeymeersch.

Gaffer: Jojo Bulterys and Marcel Bulterys

Key grip: Nicolas Lemoine

B camera operators: Manu Alberts, Benoit Theunissen, Nicolas Savary, Olivier Merckx and Didier Schokkaert

Colorist: Frank Ravel

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