Interview in Cannes of Bruno Delbonnel, AFC* ASC**, the seventh recipient of the Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography award
Just two days before receiving the 2019 ExcelLens award at Cannes, Bruno Delbonnel talked exclusively to Angénieux about a wide range of topics, including the various professions that make up a film crew, the role of directors of photography and the recognition they receive, the digital transition, equipment choices, and his advice for young people.
Are you a frequent visitor to the Cannes Film Festival?
I’ve visited the Festival twice in my thirty-year career. When Inside Llewyn Davis was selected in 2013 – and in fact went on to win the Grand Prix – the Coen brothers invited me to attend the film’s première. I had previously been to Cannes to take part in a meeting with various directors I had worked with, including Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Aleksandr Sokurov, the Coen brothers, Tim Burton and Joe Wright, all of whom inhabit very different worlds.
Why are directors of photography rarely seen on the red carpet?
Directors rightfully take their place alongside actors on the red carpet. Directing a film is a real battle. When they are breathing life into a screenplay, directors are bombarded with questions from producers, and they really have to “spill their guts”. I have enormous admiration for directors. In fact, every single person in the film crew could legitimately claim that they, too, deserve to walk up the steps at Cannes. I have a profound respect for everybody working in film-making – location managers, hair and makeup artists, costume designers, set designers, actors, directors, everyone. When you are shooting a film, every opinion counts, and has to be listened to, because everyone has knowledge and experience that they can contribute. There are no areas that are any less important than others.
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis – Photo credit : Alison Cohen Rosa
What do you think about the Angénieux prize?
I think it’s great that the Angénieux prize exists, and it’s great to award it at the Cannes Film Festival. The various competitions at Cannes – the Official Selection, Directors’ Fortnight, the Best First Film – provide a wide-ranging insight into what movie-making is all about. Maybe the only thing that’s missing is experimental cinema.
It’s a wonderful idea for a manufacturer to pay homage to a technician. I’m all in favour of directors of photography having their moment in the spotlight, but it makes just as much sense to focus on a manufacturer like Angénieux. You really have to love cinema to design such high-quality lenses. Angénieux’s products are genuine luxury items that take film-making to places that it otherwise couldn’t reach.
How do you feel about receiving the 2019 Angénieux ExcelLens award in two days’ time?
I’m very proud to win the Angénieux award at Cannes. It’s an incredible honour to follow in the footsteps of Philippe Rousselot, Vilmos Zsigmond, Peter Suschitzky, Roger Deakins, Christopher Doyle and Ed Lachman – all people that I look up to.
I’ve actually made comparatively few films over my thirty-year career – only about 17 or 18. So I’m pretty proud to have been nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar five times. I’m an Academy member, and even though I was in contention for an Oscar last year, I had no hesitation in making Roger Deakins my first choice. His work on Blade Runner shows exceptional maturity and technical expertise.
What’s your take on the role of director of photography?
I don’t really consider myself an artist, but I’m not really a technician either. Obviously, cinema is an art form in its own right, and can hold its own alongside painting or music. It’s a modern art form, too, because it’s only a century old, so there are still many avenues to explore.
I believe that the beauty of cinema lies in the collaborative endeavour that it involves. I couldn’t do my job without a collaborative approach by all the different heads of department. Everyone has their own vision, which complements the director’s. A good director is not a dictator. The best directors are those who work most collaboratively with others: Ingmar Bergman made his best films when he met Sven Nykvist. Although I have to admit I’m a bit doubtful when an actor steps behind the camera…
As director of photography, my point of view is just another contribution to the discussion. Lighting and framing are clearly very important when making a film, but they only have value if they contribute to a broader understanding of the overall vision expressed in the screenplay, as well as in the movie’s editing, musicality and time structure.
I would have liked to have been a painter. My father didn’t agree with that choice, however, so I chose to work with film. That’s my métier now, and I don’t paint any more. I have too much respect for painters. Painters draw on the two-thousand-year history of painting to help feed their creativity. I do the same thing with the history of film. The knowledge that I have built up helps give my point of view a solid grounding.
Directing a movie also involves a huge amount of reflection. I’ve said it before, but I have enormous admiration for directors. And they are often excellent technicians, too.
As a director of photography, I try to be very respectful of everyone’s work. I light scenes so that actors have space to move, I allow sound engineers the time and space they need to get the best possible sound recording as close to the actors as possible. It’s up to me to make sure there are no shadows. A film is made up of images and sound, after all. I learn something from my key grip and my first assistant every single day. On Darkest Hour, I would never have been able to light the film in that way that I wanted without the fabulous work done by the hair and makeup artists. And location managers are always the first to arrive on set and the last to leave.
All of these human relationships, and all this attention to detail, are key to making a movie, and this is what I find so fascinating about cinema. First and foremost, it’s a human adventure that brings out the humanity in each of us. Every film is a new challenge, and brings renewed pleasure.
What’s your relationship with technology?
What interests me most is understanding the film I’m going to be making, and this requires long discussions with the director. I obviously keep up with the latest developments in cameras, optics and lighting, but I don’t test all of the latest technologies proposed by manufacturers. In terms of optics, for example, I still have an Optimo17-80 zoom with me on almost every shoot. I love that lens. On the film I have just finished, The Woman in the Window by Joe Wright, a kind of remake of Rear Window, for which I needed long focal lengths as well as the ability to zoom, I also made extensive use of a more recent zoom, the Optimo 28-340. With a doubler, I was able to achieve focal lengths of 600 mm with no distortion, ramping or other aberrations. When it comes to cameras, I still use the Alexa Studio. Its optical viewfinder suits me just fine. I always prefer to frame a shot through the lens rather than on a monitor.
I’m really impressed by what it takes to design a modern lens, like one of Angénieux’s zoom lenses. The design engineers achieve simply amazing things. It’s not just about a single radical technical breakthrough. Optical design involves creating a lens view that is specific to each manufacturer. Each lens has to deliver sufficient contrast, and a good level of definition. Hyper-contrast can cause problems. In these days of large-format sensors, lenses have to meet increasingly demanding design specifications. It’s now entirely possible to shoot a film using only a zoom lens. The use of a fixed focal length may be driven by criteria such as minimum focus, weight, or the need for the right aperture for certain very specific lighting conditions, but certainly not by image quality. What’s more, I defy anyone to pick out an image shot with an Optimo zoom in one of my films. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, my most recent film with Ethan and Joel Coen, the whole movie was shot out of doors, so the aperture problem goes away, particularly given the sensitivity of the new digital cameras.
Bruno Delbonnel, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Photo credit : Alison Cohen Rosa
What’s your experience of the digital transition?
The first film I shot digitally was Big Eyes, in 2014, with Tim Burton. I was really hesitant when digital first came on the scene. The image quality wasn’t good, and a whole swathe of technical knowledge, as well as an entire segment of the economy, were under threat.
Today, everything has changed. Digital images are good. And it’s still possible to shoot on film, even though it’s becoming a little complicated. We still have the choice between two ways of composing images: an image on film doesn’t tell the same story as a digital image. In all sincerity, though, I can’t see a future for film. It will continue to exist while we don’t have the ability to preserve files digitally. But we currently have this crazy contradiction where we are choosing something that we don’t know how to preserve.
Cinema will continue to develop as an industry and an economy. Some of these developments go way over our heads, and we aren’t consulted about them. Companies devote enormous effort to unearthing gems of technology that can become obsolete overnight in the name of progress. What does our future hold in a 4K Ultra-HD world, for example?
What would you say to young people aiming to work in film?
I would advise any young person who wants to work in film to watch as many films as they can, and to make every mistake they can. That’s what I did! I would tell them to build a network in order to talk to people, to communicate, to share their vision. There are always many ways of looking at things. I would also tell them to look critically at their own work. It’s always possible to do better. In his latest film, The Image Book (Le Livre d’image), Jean-Luc Godard teaches us more about this than 99% of films, because he asks questions, and, at the age of 85, he is still more modern than many film-makers.
If you want to do all this, studying at film school saves a lot of time. It’s still a comfortable place, where there’s no pressure, and you can practise, and learn about thinking things through together. I would also tell young people, of course, that being a director of photography is a great job, and taking part in shooting a film can bring you a lot of happiness!
Can you tell us about your next project?
I will start the grading of The Woman in the Window by Joe Wright very soon. For my next film, I will be working in the United States with Joel Coen, on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
*AFC: Association Française des directeurs de la photographie Cinématographique
**ASC: American Society of Cinematographers