Michel Bonnat works with Seven Doc as director of photography (DP) and with film director Fabrice Maze on the themes Arts & Cameras. While Fabrice Maze puts the finishing touches to his movies about Surreal artist André Masson (Book+DVD set to be released in early 2012 in our Collection Phares) in recording room, Michel Bonnat has finished his work of director of photography: an opportunity for us to take a look back at his career and his collaborations with Visconti, Fellini, Hudson... and to shed a light on a behind-the-scenes profession that requires a great artistic sensitivity and a strong technical expertise.
* What is your training prior to becoming a DP?
Between 1964 and 66, I've studied at the Experimental Cinematography Centre in Italy (the CSC, Centro sperimentale di cinematografia), which is opposite of Cinecittà, where I could attend theoretical courses, but mostly practical courses as a trainee assistant on the movies shot at Cinecittà. At 20, this gave me the opportunity to work on exciting features all along the year.
* Was it then that you worked for Luchino Visconti?
I've been a trainee on the features of Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, John Huston, Franco Zeffirelli and Luigi Comencini with whom I've worked on Don Camillo en Russie... A fantastic start in the profession! After that, in order to find work, I had to come back in France, since the European Agreements did not exist at that time.
* On which part of a movie do you step in?
In pre-production, I work along the director to determine what the lighting technical characteristics of the feature will be (light sources, devices, placement and camera moves...). Then I use the script to seize the general ambiance of the movie (mood, contrasts, effects, tone...) Once it's done, I choose my equipment: cameras, lenses, film, spotlights, reflectors... During shooting, I'm in charge of the camera crew, I have to conceive the lighting and to make the required modifications. Mostly, you discover things on the spot, you act by instinct. In documentaries, the director is not very demanding when it comes to lighting. Most of the time, I make some adjustments on the spot depending on situations.
* Very often, works of art, paintings, sculptures and collages are done on set, how do you work with lighting?
You don't shoot a painting, a sculpture or something else the same way. Each work of art has its own lighting. For a very flat painting, with material on it or a knife-painting, the director may want to bring out or not its highlight. Each work possesses its own lighting and its own difficulty.
* Aside the technical aspect, the artistic sensitivity is capital in order to express a story visually, its atmosphere, as it was dictated by the director's imagination. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
When I look at a work of art, emotions drive me. When you like something, you're more likely to highlight it. So if you're in front of an object that you may like or not, in any event, you have to highlight it as best as you can. In front of a work of art, you feel something, an emotion, and inevitably, you can be influenced by it.
* Can you talk to us about the movie Corpus Lascaux?
Lascaux... we're talking about an exceptional work of art, a world heritage! We also did a lot of research on lighting for this one: on the rock, on the matter. When we focused on matter, very often, the colour of paintings was toned down. We had to balance between light and darkness. A tremendous and fascinating work, for art's sake! Working on matter, on engraving and on lighting moves was complex. Corpus Lascaux remains a wonderful professional adventure which lasted from 1981 to 1983.
* A three years shooting?
We weren't allowed to stay more than 2 weeks at a time in the cave in order to avoid a thermal overheating that would have damaged the paintings. That is why we went there in March, when the cave was the coldest.
* Any other highlights in your career?
You're catching me off guard, but I went on wonderful trips and met wonderful people. From bums to the Pope, including scientists, engineers, spies, politicians, writers and so on. The most amazing thing is the world of oil and espionage that I discovered while working on two documentaries for television: Les Dossiers Noirs (Black Dossiers.)
* You've been working with Fabrice Maze for a long time now, do you still have things to say to each other?
No, we don't have anything to say to each other anymore (laughs.) We work together since 1972! He knows what I can do and I know what he wants me to do, though we can still find new approaches sometimes. There's a lot of feedback between us on shootings. As for works of art, we discuss each new situation, and the rest comes naturally. Each author, each character, each writer is a different person, so you can tell different things about each work of art.
* What would you say to an aspiring DP?
Experience on the field is the most important thing, but another element is also capital: culture. When I was a student, the first thing our lighting teacher said was: "To begin with, let's see how other people are working". We went in a museum to see paintings from Caravaggio (an Italian painter from the Renaissance) and Georges de La Tour, who worked a lot on lighting lines. "According to you, where was the light when the artist did this painting?", our teacher asked us. We then had to decompose the painter's game of light. Culture is paramount: seeing paintings, watching movies, attending shootings, internships, seeing other people at work... As a matter of fact, very few people invent. Most of the time, we're paying tributes. Materials and techniques evolve, but the approach remains the same. You should never assume that you know, and you should stay aware and curious all the time. That's the main problem with young people nowadays. They learn with video and think they know. Video is a terrible decoy, because a camera can operate by itself, but this doesn't mean that you know how to make a movie!
* Does your profession allow you to discover worlds to which you were not particularly sensitive?
For instance, I've discovered the opera on a shooting for television, or the world of oil and espionage. I had heard about Surrealism, but my education was based on Classicism. Since I lived in Italy when I was a teenager, I wasn't especially interested by Surrealists. My profession allows me to enter into worlds that were not necessarily meant for me. This way, my curiosity is always roused, and I like it!
* What is the most beautiful lighting to you?
The one you don't see. On location, the sun is in charge. Whereas on set, the DP is in charge. And the best thing in a movie is when you don't notice the tricks, when the lighting seems natural and obvious.
Interview by AD
Photo : Michel Bonnat in New-York during the shooting of the documentary Duchamp, iconoclaste et inoxydable © Philippe Pion - Tous droits réservés.
Se former au métier de directeur de la photographie :
Grandes écoles :La FEMIS : www.femis.fr, ENS Louis-Lumière : www.ens-louis-lumiere.fr
Centres de formations continues :Université Paris III : www.univ-paris3.fr, INA : www.ina.fr