Cinematography of “Spring Breakers” – interview with Benoît Debie

December 10th, 2014

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m honored to welcome the cinematographer Benoît Debie. In this interview Benoît talks about the evolving craft of cinematography as the technology is shifting the productions towards the purely digital end of the spectrum, what happens on a movie during pre-production, shooting and post-production phases, his work on the recently released “Spring Breakers” and how he approached the explosive neon colors that permeate the story, and the experience of shooting in 3D for his upcoming “Every Thing Will Be Fine”.

Benoît Debie.
Photography by Kris Dewitte.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Benoît: I started when I was quite young, around 23 years old. I went to a film school in Belgium, and after graduating I did two movies as AC (assistant camera), but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I wanted to be a DP (director of photography) for feature film, but it’s quite difficult to get there when you’re just starting. I went to the TV world for around eight years, learning a lot about TV shows, and then little by little I went back to the film industry. I did a few short movies and commercials, and my first feature was “Irreversible” from Gaspar Noé. From that moment I’ve been doing only feature films.

Kirill: How do you get approached to work on a production? Is it through the connections on your previous films, or a more formal auditioning process?

Benoît: It depends. Some directors would ask me to join them for my style or my approach. In that case they would come to me for something very specific. And sometimes I have auditions, but they are not as frequent these days. More often than not I would get called to discuss a project, or I’d get a script and then we’d discuss how to start approaching it.

Kirill: What happens during the pre-production?

Benoît: It depends on the movie and the director. I did two movies with Gaspar Noé, and with him I only join the production the day before we start shooting. That’s the way he likes it – for me to be a little bit unprepared. With other directors it may take 6-8 weeks to prep the movie, to see the locations, to do the storyboards and the shooting lists. It also depends on the complexity of the movie.

Top left – Passage, top right – The Runaways, bottom left – Enter The Void, bottom right – Lost River. Courtesy of Benoît Debie.

Kirill: As the shooting starts, do you also operate the camera? Is there a distinction between you as the director of photography and another person as the camera operator?

Benoît: You can certainly be a DP and not operate the camera. I always do both because I like to operate. It’s really important to me, especially when we shoot on film. I can see the exact frame through the eyepiece – the reflection, the darkness, the contrast. It’s important for me to see that, and I also like to operate the camera. It’s part of the look of the movie. I was the camera operator on all my movies, except for some union restrictions on movies that we shoot in the United States and some cases where we need a second camera.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the transition from shooting film to shooting digital? It used to be that only you would see the image through the camera, and it would take a few hours or maybe even a couple of days to process the dailies. And now if you connect a monitor to your digital camera, everybody who wants to see the take can see it immediately. Do you feel that you’re losing some of the magic of capturing the scene on film?

Benoît: This is a big change and a big difference between film and digital. As much as I can I keep on shooting film. It’s not only the quality that is much better. It’s also the difference between the way you shoot in film and the way you shoot in digital. For me, when we shoot in film, everybody’s focused on the action, on what have we to do – the actors, the director, the DP and everybody else. When we shoot in digital, it’s completely different. Everybody’s shooting for what seems like forever, with no cuts.

I think we’re losing things not only in terms of image, but also in terms of intensity on the set. And it’s a shame, because that’s a completely different approach to filming.

Kirill: Is that related to how much you can shoot on a single film magazine, something around 10 minutes?

Benoît: If you’re shooting 35mm, it’s between 4 and 10 minutes. Then you stop, and you have time to speak with the director and the actors, and decide to perhaps change or adjust the take or the focus of what you’re doing. And when you shoot in digital, that can be 30-40 minutes. It depends on the director, but we don’t cut anymore. You shoot the same takes during those 40 minutes. The director would speak to the actors and tell them to do something different, but I think that at the end everybody’s a bit lost, at least from what I can see on the set. You shoot forever but you don’t know exactly what you need to do [laughs]. You don’t have time anymore to adjust things – for the camera, for the sound, for the acting.

Kirill: But the time that you don’t spend on changing the magazine can now be spent on shooting another take of the same scene.

Benoît: If you work that way, for sure it can help. With digital you can save some time, and sometimes it’s easier to achieve certain things. I want to continue shooting feature films in film, but I’ve switched almost completely to digital for commercials. It’s such a strange world to shoot in digital.

Kirill: Whose decision is it to choose film or digital?

Benoît: Usually when I arrive on the project, it’s already been decided to shoot digital, and then I start asking why do they want to do it that way. It’s a conversation between the director, myself as the director of photography and the production. If the director agrees to shoot in film, it becomes a process of explaining why we want to do it that way to the producer. Usually it’s not the question of price, but rather the speed and ease of shooting in digital. You don’t need a lab or a scanner for digital.

Kirill: And those facilities are slowly disappearing and going out of business.

Benoît: Yes, and I think it’s going to be an issue. It’s not so much about Kodak itself making film, but rather about the labs. I remember shooting a movie in Detroit and there were no more labs in the city. We had to send everything to either LA or NY, and at that point it starts being complicated and more expensive.

Kirill: You mentioned that the quality of film is still better. Do you see the digital cameras closing this gap in terms of capturing the light in a wider range of stops, or providing a variety of in-camera effects to emulate the look of different film stock?

Benoît: I wouldn’t say that it’s bad or not as good as film. I think it’s a new generation of image. It’s hard to compare because it’s not the same at all in terms of color or sharpness. It’s a new way to see image. You have young people watching movies on computers, phones or tablets. At this point film is starting to look old for the new generation. For myself, I can still see the difference between the quality of film and digital. And it’s huge. I know that some people say it’s not true, but I know exactly what’s the difference between the same image in film and in digital. It’s a completely another world.

Kirill: There are two parts to film – shooting and projecting. Are you taking about the two interchangeably?

Benoît: It’s true that you have two things. You shoot in film, and you can project in film – although that last part is now almost finished. Most of the times when I shoot in film, all the post-production is in digital. We scan the film to digital, and the rest is in digital.

Kirill: Are you involved in post-production?

Benoît: When I shoot a feature film, I always work on the color grading afterwards. It’s really important and it’s a big part of my work. During the shooting you decide on the colors and the contrast, but you still want to adjust them later. With the latest technology you can change almost everything. You can change colors during the color timing from yellow to green to orange. And it’s important for the DP to be there and to take care of that part.

Kirill: Do you like that power to change the image long after it was shot?

Benoît: Sometimes when I shoot, I know what I can do later. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t do something on the set because I can do it later. But sometimes you don’t have a lot of time, or you need to focus on the actors instead of on the light, and you know that you’ll have time later to be alone and be focused. Sometimes I feel that it’s better to do things later. Some things are just easier to change and control later.

Kirill: How does it proceed in post-production? As the director sits with the editor and sound to work towards the final cut, do you do the color grading in parallel?

Benoît: Usually when I arrive for color timing, it’s closer to the end. By the time we start working on color timing and color grading, the editing has finished. You know exactly which shots you need to grade. The sound depends on the specific production, but they usually do it in parallel. I’d be working on the image, and the director would be working on the sound at the same time.

Kirill: How much do things change from the initial vision that you’ve discussed in the pre-production through the shooting and post-production?

Benoît: When you shoot you think in visual terms of light, contrast and color. And then as the editing is getting closer to the end, you see things getting better together. Sometimes you can change your mind about color or contrast. You might have a very sad or intense sequence, and after you see it, it may seem too bright. Then, as you see an almost-finished movie, you might decide to change the intensity of the light, or make the colors deeper. It might not be a big change, but I would sometimes change a sequence when I feel that it will make the movie better.

Kirill: How did “Spring Breakers” happen for you?

Benoît: Harmony Korine [the director] called me a year before we started shooting. In the end they didn’t get the budget, and a year later he called me again saying that they have the budget and asking whether I’d be interested in joining. Harmony is a big friend of Gaspar Noé and he knew my work.

Kirill: How was it?

Benoît: It was great. It started as a small indie production. We had to move very fast and shoot in five weeks. It was not an easy one, but a very fun shoot. It was pleasant, fresh and spontaneous. For me it’s one of my best memory of shooting, very different and unique. Almost a prototype.

Kirill: It was certainly very unique in its abundance of bright oversaturated, neon colors.

Benoît: I remember Harmony telling me at the beginning that he wanted the image be one of the stars of the movie. It was really important for him to have something strong and intense visually. He asked me to try flashy colors. I was excited about that because I usually don’t get to use too many colors on a regular movie. I was watching different layers of colors, and decided to be quite intense with color. It was something completely different from what I usually do. For a DP it’s quite fun to be able to do that on a movie.

Kirill: Did those colors interact in weird – or perhaps unexpected – ways with the skin tones of the actors?

Benoît: Sometimes yes [laughs]. You end up with yellow or grin skin. If you remember the last scene with the girls in bikinis and I told Harmony that it would be very cool to have a glowing fluorescence, almost phosphorescence. I decided to light the sequence with black light. For that it was important to have glowing colors on bikinis and masks. I did a lot of research on that. I remember that at the beginning the masks were not glowing at all. They were pink and with black light they didn’t look good. We had to change the texture of the masks to work with black light. Everything was worked out very precisely, down to the smallest details.

Kirill: And stepping back to your involvement in post-production, as you’re there to do the color grading on the edited cut, you don’t have much surprise, if you will, going into the theater and watching the final version. You’ve been with those changes from beginning to the end.

Benoît: Usually I’m there until almost the end. I’m not there for the editing, which can take up to a year. But there’s not much surprise for me since I’m there for color grading. And I’m always in touch with the director as we discuss different things.

Kirill: As you go into a movie theater to watch other movies, do you get to relax and enjoy a movie, or do you find yourself looking at the technical details and analyzing those?

Benoît: Usually when I go into the theater, I like to enjoy the movie and the story. I don’t start to analyze each frame. But if for any reason I love something very specific, if I think that something is impressive, I can go the second time to watch and analyze it. I remember watching “Children of Men” which is a beautiful movie shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. I saw the movie and I was amazed. I went the day after to see it again, mostly watching the techniques. It was really well done. But I don’t do that for every movie.

Kirill: Do you watch older European or American movies?

Benoît: Usually not so much for myself. But some directors would show me old movies as a reference when I start on a production. Sometimes they will show me a classical sequence, some stuff they like in black-and-white, just to give me some sense of what they like. But otherwise I don’t have so much time.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the resurgence of 3D productions in the last few years? It seems to be confined mostly to sci-fi / action and animated productions, with a very few exceptions such as “The Great Gatsby”. Is it relevant to the kind of films you’re working on?

Benoît: Actually my last feature film, “Every Thing Will Be Fine”, that I did with Wim Wenders is in 3D. I was quite excited, and it was really interesting. It’s a drama, and it’s about the actors, the story and the script. 3D was not there to work as a huge effect and to distract everybody. It’s there to help the story. We don’t want it to be a distraction. We don’t want it to call attention to itself. Usually when I go to see a 3D movie, it’s either for kids or a big budget action movie. I don’t think I ever saw a drama in 3D, and I don’t know why.

Kirill: How different was it for you? Was it post-conversion, or did you shoot in 3D?

Benoît: We shot in 3D with two cameras. It was quite different for me, because you need a different approach to framing. It’s another world and another language, and it was quite interesting to do. I love to play with the camera and move, and in 3D you need to be more subtle, more precise with the framing. Otherwise you’ll have a headache at the end of the movie if you move too much with your camera.

Kirill: Was that something that you checked in your dailies – that you’re not too deep, not too shallow, not too distracting?

Benoît: Yes. When you shoot in 3D, you have 3D monitors to see what you’re doing. It’s quite important to see if it’s working or not. You might have something distracting in the foreground of your frame, and you’d want to frame it differently. It’s important to have somebody to take care of that. Usually I frame it with one eye in 2D, so I cannot sometimes tell if it’s working well in 3D.

Kirill: What happens with such a production when it goes on BluRay or DVD and is seen on the regular 2D television sets?

Benoît: This is a tricky part. When you shoot in 3D, you focus on that. And then at the end you have a big part of your audience watching it in 2D, which is a bit strange.

Kirill: Would you want to continue exploring this extra dimension in your future work?

Benoît: It was my first one, and I enjoyed it. I was really surprised. It was an unusual choice for the drama genre, and I think it’s the first one of its kind for a European production. It also depends on the director and the production since it’s a bit more expensive to shoot it that way. And it’s also a bit longer. It won’t work for every movie, but it’s really interesting. During the shooting we would have a closeup on an actor, and it was quite beautiful. As the viewer, you are there with him. It’s very intense. It was interesting to see it working for a drama.

Kirill: But then as you mentioned, because the equipment is much bigger, you can’t just put the camera on your shoulder and run around the set.

Benoît: It’s true. It’s much bigger, and you have less freedom. You have to adjust the way you shoot for 3D. We’re at the very beginning of it, and people are experimenting with different ways of doing it in post-production as well. If the camera manufacturers keep on doing their research, maybe they’ll find a way to shoot it with one camera, something more compact. If the industry wants to go with 3D, for sure they will find something more practical.

Kirill: Are movies your life professionally and personally, or is there a hobby outside of that?

Benoît: I love my work. It’s a passion because otherwise you can’t do it. But I love many other things. And it’s very helpful. I need to escape that world and do other things.

And here I’d like to thank Benoît Debie for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had about his art and craft. Stay tuned for more interviews in 2015!