''What you get is exactly what you see'': Denis Lenoir, Director of Photography

By Jean-Michel Frodon


DoP Denis Lenoir has worked with a long list of French auteurs in the last 20 years, notably Olivier Assayas, and right now he’s shooting François Ozon’s new film in Europe; but he’s done most of his work in the US, where he now lives. As a result he has a point of view informed by very different approaches to cinema.

“For DoPs, digital has brought new capabilities rather than transformed existing ones. The traditional film cameras we used previously aren’t obsolete, we still use them most of the time; it’s just that there are other tools, DV or HD cameras, that are sometimes better suited to particular aesthetic or economic needs. As for digital post-production, that’s more to do with money than anything else: it gives you more flexibility and capability, but it’s more expensive. The important thing is to know in advance if it’s going to be used or not. I don’t work the same way during a shoot – that goes for the scale of the film as a whole and the detail of individual scenes – when I know I’ll have the use of digital grading, and when I know I won’t.

“So, for instance, I’ll soon be shooting a film for François Ozon, who asked me to draw inspiration from a number of Technicolor films. Since I know I’ll have the luxury of digital grading, I won’t be doing any ‘photochemical cookery’ with filters during the shoot or with special processing of the film stock in the lab- whose results, judging from the tests, only half satisfy me (though I would have had to resort to all that otherwise). And on a smaller scale, I know I can digitally correct certain things- soften the features of a face and nothing else, darken one part of a shot the better to emphasise another- that are impossible to correct in chemical processing without altering the whole frame. That’s why I prefer not to spend too much time on set finessing certain details when I can fix them faster, better and more easily at the grading stage. Of course, the danger then is that the producers decide to do without the digital post-production you were counting on, or you don’t have the use of it long enough for such fine aesthetic and cosmetic adjustments.

“Digital isn’t a great threat to the status or role of the DoP; the job’s been steadily devalued for far longer than there have been HD or DV cameras. Devaluation has happened in two main stages. First came the increase in film sensitivity and lens speeds, which means that since the end of the ’70s you get on a chemical image roughly what you see on the set. Previously, to an inexperienced eye, everything looked as though it was drenched in light, and only the DoP knew which shadows and areas of gloom were deliberate and would appear on the print.

“I’ve worked as assistant to Ricardo Aronovitch, and he used a lot of light, even for shadows, working with an f-stop of 4 or more. He was the only person who knew exactly what the result would be, the rest of the crew only discovered his lights and darks next day in the rushes. In this area, HD is no improvement: what the camera records is exactly what you see on the monitor, if it’s correctly calibrated. The second stage has been the proliferation of video monitors: once you have the director seeing on the monitor what the DoP sees in the viewfinder, the latter’s view is no longer unique.

“If digital has had any detrimental impact on a particular status, it’s in post-production more than anything. Today, three people go up on stage to collect the Oscar for best sound, though only one- the sound engineer – was present during the shoot. In Hollywood the ‘sound designer’ and the mixer now have the same status he does, and I imagine the same thing will happen one day with DoPs: they’ll go up to get their awards accompanied by the ‘colourist’, in other words, the digital grader. The artistic director may go with them.

“That said, the DoP role won’t disappear; he’s still- at least in theory- one of the director’s key confederates. DoPs have a relationship with the cinematic project in its entirety, and that doesn’t apply- yet- to the colourist. And fortunately we still have a collaborative role to play with film-makers who carry distinctive directorial projects, because it’s on those, not on run-of-the-mill shoots, that we get the opportunity to stretch ourselves, take risks, invent”

Jean-Michel Frodon is Editor of Cahiers du Cinéma.

Reprinted with kind permission from Cahiers du Cinéma, March 2006. Translated by Simon Cropper.