“This Camera Thinks Exactly Like Me:” Cinematographer Yves Bélanger at the Peak of His Career

Yves Bélanger belongs to a coterie of French-Canadian filmmakers who’ve caught Hollywood’s attention in recent years.

Joined by directors Jean-Marc Vallée and Denis Villeneuve, the Montreal-based cinematographer has found mainstream and critical success with films like 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club and 2014’s Wild, both shot in collaboration with Vallée. Pivoting from the plainspoken naturalism of those titles, the 1950s-set immigrant romance Brooklyn (directed by John Crowley) is imbued with a refined, classical-Hollywood sheen. Yet Bélanger’s confident lens observes every period detail with understated warmth.

The man behind these visions professes a love for uncovering humanity through cinematography. With his animated presence—gesticulating hands and outsized expressions—one could easily mistake Bélanger for an actor. MM spoke to the cinematographer at the 2015 Camerimage Festival.

Yves Belanger, Courtesy of fotografowie

Yves Bélanger at Camerimage 2015. Courtesy of fotografowie

John Albrecht, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In some of your most recent work, there is a naturalistic, “found” quality to your images. I heard you didn’t storyboard for Brooklyn. How much do you plan before you shoot? Do you want to plan ahead or remaining open to spontaneity?

Yves Bélanger (YB): I have a very weird relationship with that. I want to plan things just for the other departments. It’s nice for my gaffer or my key grip to know that in a certain scene they are going to have lights on the roof. But at the same time I like to be spontaneous. It’s the director who decides if we do storyboards and it’s very rare, except for action scenes that are a bit complicated. Usually, I work with directors who like to create on the set. We’ve done preparation. We know if we’re going to use Steadicam or a crane or a lot of the windows. So the electrician knows that he has to have lights.

I try to be prepared, but no so much that if something magical happens, I’m not ready to change. And with Jean-Marc Vallée, it’s more than that. We use only real light, so the preparation is choosing good locations in terms of texture, color, natural light. After that, we just go by instinct. So when we shoot, all of the thinking is gone–it’s only instinct and reaction to the actors.

I think I’ve always been attracted to realistic lighting. But because I’m such a movie lover and I study movies, I have so many old movies to reference that sometimes I can’t help it. In Brooklyn, in New York, there are two times at night where the characters go in this park with trees with no leaves. All of my night scenes are lit like a black-and-white movie: There are some street lights, but if you look at it, it’s styled like an old comedy. Once in awhile I can’t help myself from doing something. Because I know so many films from the past and because Brooklyn was a movie taking place in the past, I thought I had to do something more classical.

The last scene of Brooklyn, when Eilis [Saoirse Ronan] is on the wall looking at Tony [Emory Cohen] and she has this bright sun on her, I brought a light with a big crane. I don’t know why; maybe because I knew that the voiceover would use the words “the sun came out”—and I’m not even sure it was in the script like that—but anyway, I wanted this warm sun in her face coming from outside.

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in BROOKLYN. Photo by Kerry Brown. Š 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn. Photograph by Kerry Brown

MM: In films like Dallas Buyers Club, Wild and Laurence Anyways, it’s striking how intimately, as a viewer, you are aligned with the protagonist of the story. How does the point of view of a script affect the way you approach shooting it, in terms of shot design and coverage?

YB: Right away, when I read the script, I know I have to shoot it in a certain way. After that, it’s the director who decides. Sometimes he or she is very precise; we usually have the same ideas. But, as I said I’m a storyteller, and I really believe that the camera, each shot, has to have a reason. With Jean-Marc and all the good directors, sometimes what is in the background is important. So everything starts with the script. It’s only recently that I’ve had the chance to shoot good scripts with good directors.

MM: Could you describe your relationship with the actors on the set? Is it important to develop a certain rapport with the actors?

YB: Very good question. I am the first thing they see when they finish a scene, and sometimes when they finish a shot they are in a very bad state of mind. So it’s very important that what they see first is someone nice—a friend. So I try to be a friend, and be nice, and smell good, and everything. I was always like that, even when I started. Most of the actors and I are very friendly. They can say anything. I can say anything. We eat together. I think it’s very important, but I know for some DPs it’s not important. They don’t talk to the actors, they are very shy. The actors are used to it, too. My friends who are actors have great movies where they didn’t make friends with the DP, but the movie was great and they were great. But I still believe that we make a difference by being nice, friendly and intimate. Because when an actor’s not OK, and I know when she needs another take, and I know that she’s too shy to ask for another take, right away I’m going to ask for another take for a technical reason because I know she wants another one. I really believe in that.

MM: It sounds like there’s a huge level of trust between you and the performer.

YB: It’s more than trust. It’s human love. I’m very blessed. I receive a lot of love from my actors.

Suzanne Clément and Melvil Poupaud in Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways.

Suzanne Clément and Melvil Poupaud in Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (2012). Courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures

MM: Do you usually operate all of your shots?

YB: In all of the films that you’ve mentioned, yes, except when there’s Steadicam or something like that. For TV series, no. I didn’t operate for maybe one or two features, and maybe three or so mini-series.

I like to do it. I think it makes a difference, but I’m open. In Montreal, I have a good camera operator, who thinks like me, who feels like me, but he’s taller, so sometimes it’s nice. But he’s very shy and not very good with people. So he’s the opposite of me in that way. Personality-wise we’re very different but visually, sometimes I see a series and I’m sure that I framed the shot because it looks so good, but no—it was him.

MM: What do you think about when you decide what project to take on?

YB: For ages, nearly my first 20 years working as a DP, I’d choose to work with the first person who called. I just had to like the person. Because of that, I was having fun but I did very minor things and had to refuse classic movies. But since I turned 50 I don’t have any more time to lose, and I’m really lucky that good filmmakers call me. It’s really simple—there’s three things you have to like in order to do a movie: the director, the screenplay, and how much they pay you. And if you have two of three, you take it. Now, I have to have all three. And actors—sometimes I choose a movie because of the actors.

MM: What does a director have to do to facilitate a good working relationship with a DP?

YB: A director just has to be prepared and know what he or she is doing so that we have time to enjoy making films. If a guy is unsure, he’s afraid, scared, stressed, a movie set can become very stressful. But if the person is prepared—Jean-Marc is so prepared—then we have time to be clear, to have fun, to even joke about what we’re doing. But you don’t fuck around with these guys. If they’re not happy, you’re going to know. Because they are so serious about their jobs, and they want everybody else to be the same. If you are on time, and on the ball, like we say, they’re going to love you. But if you’re not prepared, if you’re lazy, they’ll going to go right for the killing. All of the great directors are like that, and I love that. Except Denis Villeneuve. Denis Villeneuve is always nice. He manages to have everything he wants and he’s always nice. Always.

MM: When you’re on set, how close do you want the image that you’re looking at resemble the final look of the film? Do you use lookup tables [LUTs] on set or camera profiles when working with the Alexa, for instance?

YB: I’ve been in the digital world for three or four years. So far all of the movies that I’ve done, I do everything in camera, so I don’t have a DI on set and I don’t use a special LUT. I play with the ASA, with the color temperature, some filters, and that’s it. It works for me. If I were doing something like these Fast and Furious movies with very special looks, we’d have to do something different. Because, you know, when we were shooting 35mm, we didn’t even have a nice video tap. It was only for the framing; we couldn’t judge the image, so I’m used to that.

MM: Do you enjoy the increased flexibility digital brings?

YB: Yeah, I never thought I would, but I’m very happy with the new world. Alexa, for me, is like, “This camera thinks exactly like me.” I don’t miss 35 anymore, and the labs were so bad at the end, you couldn’t trust them.

Dallas Buyers Club was shot with the Alexa: no lighting and a lot of times underexposed. The format was not ArriRAW but ProRes. It had kind of a grain. It was noise, but our guy found a way to make it look like grain, like hidden grain. But I discovered that with the Alexa, when you don’t light, when you don’t use any artificial light, it looks like film. The curves and the way it overexposes and the color, the skin tones… But it’s allergic to HMIs. The only time I use HMIs with Alexa is through fabrics, through windows. I have to change the colors of the sets to something else, otherwise it looks “ew.”

MM: Since you use natural light on these movies, do you use a lot of filtration on set or do you prefer to do that in post?

YB: If I need something, it’s always on the lens. So with the Alexa I always have a polarizing filter—even for interiors, even at night, I use a polarizer. You can change the color. I can change my contrast and everything. It’s very important for clothing. I use it diffusion very rarely, but like in Brooklyn I use it: the moment Eilis came to New York, we used diffusion on the lens. When we were shooting 35, the way we were conjuring the look of a movie was through the choice of film stocks, the way you process it, things like that—lenses, and filtration. Now in the digital world, I don’t test a camera when I have a new project. I have my Alexa but I try like five or six different lenses, a lot of times older, or varied with something new. I see how the camera reacts to a lens. That’s how we create different looks now—it’s with the lenses. A little bit with the cameras, but I’m sure if I shoot something with a 5D it’s going to have a very certain look. I don’t shoot with RED, but I know some people do great things with the RED camera. But I don’t like it. Physically, I don’t like the camera. I find it ugly.

MM: Are there certain lenses that you like to pair with a digital sensor?

YB: Three out of four times, it’s the Zeiss High Speed [Zeiss Super Speeds in the U.S.]. The old ones from the 1980s. Aperture 1.3. The iris is at the front of the lens; yeah, I love that.

MM: Was Wild shot on master primes as well?

YB: Yeah, so was Dallas and a little bit of Brooklyn. But I shot the last Jean-Marc film, Demolition, with these lenses. It’s a secret, but I like them because the aperture is at the beginning of the lens. I’m shooting handheld, so I always have my finger at the aperture [to “ride” the aperture or change it during a take].

Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition. Photograph by Anne Marie Fox

Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition. Photograph by Anne Marie Fox

MM: For someone whose body of work is very accomplished, what is challenging to you at this point? Are your curiosities more technical or conceptual? Or both?

YB: I was never very technical. But now the cameras are so good and the monitors are so good—like, even like the sandwich guy can tell you if the lighting is good or not—that I think the DPs are going to become the first collaborator. Almost like a nanny to the director. It’s going to be more conceptual. A lot of my directors are very good camera operators. Jean-Marc can operate anything. Not exactly, because he’s small, not very strong. But yes, I think it’s going to be less technical.

The people of post-production are very important. We don’t talk about that enough. All DPs should thank their color grader when they win [an award]. Especially the big ones with a lot of CGI. A lot of the movies at the Academy Awards, the guys who have won in the last few years are big CGI films like Life of Pi. You have to thank your boys there. I saw the set—they shot in Montreal—and it was fucking green-screen. You kind of light flat so they can recreate the contrast. You basically drink coffee with the director and make jokes: “Go ahead, make my day.” MM

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