Although I cannot do justice to the depth and range of the French text, I have freely translated some excerpts to share a few of the book’s insights.
The bold emphasis is mine, and is not in the original text.
Philippe Rousselot is a leading cinematographer whose credits include:
Diva, The Emerald Forest, Thérèse, Hope and Glory, The Bear,
Dangerous Liaisons, Too Beautiful for You, Henry and June,
A River Runs Through It, Interview with the Vampire, Queen Margot, Mary Reilly, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and
Philippe’s work has earned him many awards, including an Oscar, a BAFTA, and 3 Cesars
Philippe’s thin elegant book is part of an ongoing series about “the wisdom of a métier”, and is therefore entitled The Wisdom of the Cinematographer.
The book offers an interesting breakdown of the key themes of cinematography.
table of contents
5. Order & disorder
9. Night, day
10. Faces, landscapes
deciding what not to do
Sometimes for lack of being able to agree on what the film will look like, we work negatively, and decide to restrict the means and tools at our disposal, and forbid certain processes or certain colors.
Preparing a film is often about deciding unwritten rules, and partly defined taboos. The collaboration with a director often consists in establishing an ensemble of these rules, which enables unspoken agreements, and avoids misunderstandings.
The real discussions are thus deferred, and put off to the first days of shooting, when we will have to face the chaos of the world, of a set where everything and everyone is jumbled together, and where we will have to install some order.
the director’s idea
The director comes with his ideas, which are most often expressed in words, but also sometimes in the form of a photograph, a postcard, the reproduction of a painting: “this is the kind of thing I would like…”. In those cases, it would be wrong to take the indications literally, to take him “at his word”.
You have to look elsewhere, in a place where nothing can be said, but where the idea resonates. An idea (it would be better to say a “thought”) must be examined in every one of its angles, turned over, contradicted, before making its way to a form that can be filmed.
In the director’s expression you have to understand not the form, but the intention. A director does not desire such and such a color, detail, or light direction, as much as he desires an intensity that will better serve his text.
Any location (a house, a road) possesses its own logical structures (the house’s windows, the horizontal road opposed to the vertical telephone poles or trees). These operate as constraints, defining the paths to follow, the operations to accomplish, and dictate the light sources & the positions of the camera as much as the indications of the mise en scène and the purely narrative elements.
To compose an image is to subtract, to do housecleaning, to eliminate unnecessary or prejudicial elements as much as possible, to limit the number of signifiers to a strict minimum. It is necessary to impoverish the image to make it more immediately readable.
The late director Patrice Chéreau said he sought collaborators who would resist him. Any film in the making is a theater of conflicts, whose apparent resolutions are made of multiple arrangements. Cinema is not war, but a constant campaign to keep the peace. The conflicts are as hidden as the rules which are supposed to avoid them; conflicts are rarely out in the open, and very rarely marked by hostility.
Any project of mise en scène, which has to achieve a formal production (image, sound), always presents itself as incomplete. This incompleteness necessitates the intervention of collaborators, with multiple viewpoints coming from very different crafts, which are often at odds. Like a different camera position, a difference in viewpoint deeply changes the nature of what is filmed.
Compromises are never acceptable as solutions, instead a conflict is born that leaves its trace somewhere in the negative, an offset, a slight displacement which will lead to another way of looking, a style. These conflicts are like several rivers which meet and end up as a single river, but not without making waves.
In any conflict it is important that the director have the last word, even if this resolution leads to a dead end, because he must follow his ideas to their conclusion, and must experience failures along with successes, because solutions also come from failures. The cinematographer must always give in, because he knows that his viewpoint, even if it seems right, will go nowhere if it is not adopted by the director.
An absence of conflicts would resemble a dictatorship, and the film would be like a flat line on an oscilloscope.
night & day
Cinema has never ceased to invent night, from nights where you see everything to those where you see nothing, between the requirements of realism and those of the producer who pays actors to be seen, from romantic nights with moonlight to menacing nights full of shadows and fog.
Night is the moment when the cinematographer has the most choice in lighting. He gives light to each section of wall, each piece of concrete, and plunges what he refuses to see into darkness. But above all, he makes the choice of a style, an atmosphere, a genre…
To reproduce exactly what our eyes see in moonlight in a movie theater would mean showing images that are cold, soft, desaturated, without detail or contrast — that is, ugly images.
Cinematography has used all sorts of exercises to arrive at an acceptable expression of this moonlight impression, often with no regard to verisimilitude… The resulting images are always a form of fiction, whose success depends more on how they differ from the daytime images, than on a true representation of a moonlight effect.
Daytime is the moment when you see too much. If you see everything too well, your gaze gets lost, and you no longer see anything. Filming daytime is forcing yourself to seek the shadow, to darken everything you don’t want to show, so as to direct the viewer’s gaze to what he should see.
If filming at night is about fighting darkness, filming during the day is about defending yourself from light.
Lighting does not make a face beautiful, but reveals it. Lighting does not make a face ugly, however it can do worse: it can miss the face. You can sharpen a face or soften it, make it younger or older, but if you are too much of a sorcerer’s apprentice, you can lose it.
There are two ways to look at a face that you will light. One way is very pragmatic, and consists in detailing the face’s architecture, and imagining tones and shadows which a given lighting would bring.
The other way, on the contrary, consists in watching the face move in the existing lights, until the moment when it reveals itself in a kind of purity, without any shadow to distract from its presence, or what could be called its charm.
It’s in the moment when the face is rid of all distractions, of any useless light, that you find what you were searching for, the truth of the face. These two approaches complement and articulate each other.
Looking at the face of an actor is to look at someone who isn’t looking at you, who cannot see you. This gives you power, but also an obligation.
Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC
Philippe Rousselot’s credits on Wikipedia
La Sagesse du Chef Opérateur by Philippe Rousselot
éditions Jean-Claude Béhar 2013
— You can order the book here
All quotes are freely translated from the French by Benjamin B,
numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the book.