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DP and Colourist Paint the Painter's World for 'Gauguin' with Baselight

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Director Edouard Deluc read Noa Noa, a travel diary that Paul Gauguin wrote about his first stay in Tahiti in 1893, and was inspired to make a film about the artist. Edouard hired Pierre Cottereau as Director of Photography, with whom he has worked for 15 years. 'Gauguin' is the second feature they have worked on together, and they have produced shorts, commercials and music videos in the past as well.

'Gauguin' was also a collaboration between the production company Move Movie and Mikros, the post facility that colourist Sébastien Mingam works for. “These two companies have maintained a special relationship for several years,” he said. “This is the second feature I've worked on for them, after 'Fanny’s Journey' by Lola Doillon, released in 2016. Pierre and I also worked together on a short by Toma Leroux, entitled 'Lily in the Clouds', which is touring at the moment across different festivals.”  

Following Intuition

Because Pierre and Sebastien were going to become, in effect, painters of the world of another painter, they kept the traditional filmmaker's reference point for the look – the director's vision. Pierre favoured the simplicity of Edouard Deluc's artistic direction for this project, and said, “The real difficulty in defining the look of this movie was to avoid scribbling over Gauguin’s shoulder. We didn’t want to imitate his paintings. Primarily, I wanted to follow the mood of the character in order to guide the audience.”

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Seeing the artist's Tahitian landscapes as a magical combination of the Garden of Eden and the forest of the dancing spirits, he wanted the look of the image to preserve and translate both elements. “I usually begin with different constraints - technical, artistic and production - to define the aesthetic framework I want to work in. I always try not to speculate on the final result. I only hope that my first intuition, and the progress on the film, will create the style and look,” he said.

“For economic and artistic reasons, I was willing to work on this movie without much extra lighting. In this sense, the grade - especially the preparatory work that we did with Sébastien to decide on the principle look of the film - was decisive. From the first rushes I could tell that we had found the right treatment, and that allowed me great freedom in terms of contrast and exposure.

Choices and Challenges

The candlelit scenes, which he wanted to shoot with the candles as the main light source - were a good example. “I was initially quite worried about the way our camera, the ARRI Alexa Mini, would react to this configuration. Until this movie, I had always been extremely constrained with the colours and contrast on this type of lighting configuration - the camera would fail to capture some of the colour range and impose a colour and a contrast on me. However, for the first time, thanks again to the initial work with Sébastien, I had a rich enough finish to carry on working with our original choices through to the grading session.”

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As he mentioned, this is the second feature Sebastien has graded with Pierre and also the second on the Filmlight Baselight grading system. He said, “Since Baselight and its philosophy – sharing and linking looks across and throughout a project - appeal to us as a tool, the way we approached the grading for 'Gauguin' takes some elements from the previous work we did together on 'Fanny’s Journey'.

“But there is also something new since both Pierre and I like technical challenges! Actually we both have a mathematical background, which I think contributes to our good relationship and allows us to approach grading more playfully, I would say.”

Mixing Two LUTs

Pierre's initial intuition on this movie, all the way through, was to mix two LUTs with different colour ranges. The goal was that, depending on the moment of the film, one would more or less take over from the other one and subtly change the mood of the images and the perception that viewers have of it. To do that, they used a number of layers to produce the base image and had to rely on many of Baselight's functions.

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Not surprisingly, Sebastian needed to be on hand during the production as well as afterwards. “We created our LUTs with Pierre on Baselight ahead of the shoot,” he said. “These achieved both technical and aesthetic criteria from the start but, of course, the whole time we were working, we kept trying to improve and refine the LUTs at the same time. During the shoot, I stayed in Paris so DIT, Audrey Samson, had to manage the rushes, applying the LUTs to the grading if necessary.

“On the production side, we were wondering how the green colours at the Tahiti location would react with the effect of the LUTs. The camera tests had been completed at Le Parc de Vincennes in Paris, but the tropical vegetation at the shoot was obviously different, giving us some unknown elements - which happened to be good.”

Originality

The biggest challenge was to create images for a movie about painting. While Pierre recognised the production as an opportunity for growth as a DP, he also found it intimidating because the aesthetic was always going to be an integral part of the story. “We knew immediately that our work would be analysed in a certain way - that is, some viewers will come to see the movie hoping to find Gauguin’s colours. Others, on the contrary, will criticise that we haven’t moved away from it enough.

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“Expectations aside, as filmmakers we need to make sincere and assured aesthetic choices for viewers in order to make them feel we are offering their eyes something original. Above all, we hope that what we propose, and the way we do it, is not a complete contradiction of Gauguin's artistic gesture.”

Pierre also recognises that a professional DP is always at the service of the director and the movie. When it comes to actors, for example, a DP contributes to performances when he successfully builds a coherent technical environment for the director with his actors. He also values a chance to be present in the colour grading suite, although the experience sometimes exposes the shortcomings in his work a bit too clearly!

“Nevertheless, it's a place where I always feel like I'm learning something, and where desires and ideas come to me for the next movie. Oddly, the more confident I am with a colourist, as is the case with Sébastien, the more I want to be there. In those cases, the responsibility I have as DP to make a success of the project feels less burdensome. I'm there not so much to finish the job but to exchange opinions, question myself and find new inspiration.”

LUTs in Post

At the time of the final grade, which lasted two and a half weeks, Sebastien worked with the LUTs they had created with layer structures in Baselight. He said, “I first reapplied, for each sequence, the layer structure corresponding to the chosen LUT – in other words, re-establishing the link with the working copy. Then I refined or corrected some elements and looks that I did not like. The second time, we could take care of the secondary grades as well. Baselight allowed us to have a clear work organisation, and is especially reliable under pressure, which is essential when time is running out.”

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Pierre remarked on his own preoccupation with the way colour and contrast interact in the video. “Until we get the contrast right, it's hard for me to understand the image I am creating. Fortunately, Sébastien is also aware of this interaction, and doesn't hesitate to check the contrast when he can’t find the centre of gravity in an image," he said.

“He does it in an extremely precise way, refining the work with each new pass. He also uses curves a lot, and from what he tells me, the precision of Baselight means he can take this kind of investigation as far as necessary. I also like the care he takes to organise his different layers - it gives him a solid base that he can re-examine at any time. For this too, Baselight is a valuable tool."

Artists and Artisans

Pierre considers that in the production line of a film, each contributor is simultaneously an artisan at the service of someone else's creative desires, and an artist within his own sphere of influence. The cinematographer, for example, is the artisan producing images according to the director's desires.

In my opinion a colourist, when he agrees to sincerely apply his sensitivity to the project because he is more interested in the creativity than the result, he is just as much an artist as a DoP. I think Sébastien has that, because he doesn’t hesitate to question his knowledge, and because he uses his grading system as an instrument, allowing him to search and evolve in his work.

What I especially enjoyed about the two features we made together, was that each time Sébastien seized the images and made them the raw material of his own creativity. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your work being fruitful and carrying ideas that someone else can use.  www.filmlight.ltd.uk