Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC was born in Nancy, France and graduated in 1978 from ESEC film school in Paris. A distinguished cinematographer, he has worked with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Tim Burton, the Coen brothers, Joe Wright and many others. Bruno Delbonnel has been nominated five times for Best Cinematography Oscar: Amélie (2001), A Very Long Engagement (2004), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), and Darkest Hour (2017).
On May 24, 2019, Bruno receives the Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens Award in cinematography at the Cannes Film Festival.
JON FAUER: Where did you go to film school?
BRUNO DELBONNEL: I went to a film school that was brand new at the time and not very good. The school was only two years old at the time, so I didn’t learn much compared to my colleagues who attended Louis Lumiere or l’Idhec. So, my career began at ESEC: École supérieure d’études cinématographiques. It is in Paris and it is still there, and a much better school now.
Did you grow up in Paris?
I was born in Nancy and then we moved to Paris when I was five or six years old.
Were you interested in film as a kid?
No. I wanted to be a painter. My father disapproved. I drew, and in fact, cinema was my second choice. I was fortunate for two reasons. The first one was living in Paris. In the 70s there were more than 400 movie theaters. In the Latin Quarter (the university quarter) you could see any movie from any country, almost anything, for a decent price. The second reason was that there were two TV shows on Friday and Sunday night that showed movie classics. Basically, I grew up watching movies. That was my education.
How did you get started in films?
The starting point was doing a short film with a great French cinematographer, Henri Alekan. Right after film school, I received a government grant to direct a short film. I didn’t know anyone. I met an animation film producer who couldn’t produce my short but , since I was really broke, offered me a job in his animation studio where Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro were working. I didn’t know anything about practical filmmaking. That’s how it started. I decided to call a DP whose work I really liked, Henri Alekan, who shot Beauty and the Beast. He actually agreed to work with me and Jean Pierre Jeunet became my AD. It was just before Wim Wenders called Alekan for The State of Things.
But, when we began and I saw Henri working, there was such magic and emotion when he turned the lights on that I realized being a cinematographer was much closer to my feelings, to what I reacted the most when watching movies: a story being translated in images through light and framing.
I guess your father was equally horrified that you wanted to become a cinematographer instead of an artist.
My dad was 13 years old when WWII started. He belongs to this generation whose childhood and education was destroyed. He fought in Paris when he was 17, joined the army in 1947, fought in the French Indochina war, resigned from the army and started again from scratch. He didn’t have any money. He worked a lot and saved a lot because he wanted us to be lawyers or doctors, having real jobs where you can make a living. Making movies or being an artist were not proper jobs for him, at least in regards to money. He didn’t want me to go to art school, also because these art schools were totally left wing, especially in the years following May 1968. My father was for General de Gaulle. All this was hell for him. He totally disagreed.
He probably kept asking when are you going to get a real job?
Oh yes. In fact, he didn’t talk to me after I decided to get into film. I didn’t see my father for a couple of years. And then one day, we met. I had been the 2nd AC on a movie called Betty Blue, a Jean-Jacques Beineix movie and it was a huge success. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. We shot it in 1985. Then, my father asked, “So you worked in this movie?” I said, “Yes, I did.” Then he asked me if I made a good living while I was working on this movie. So, eventually he realized that I was engaged in something that was not such a lousy job after all. Actually, when I was 30 years old, I was making a decent wage. That’s when he realized that maybe I had made the right choice.
How did you get your first jobs?
I worked as a camera assistant for a number of years on feature films. Then I got the opportunity to work with a commercial DP who was very good. I stayed with him for four or five years. Then I grew tired of being an AC. I knew a lot of people in the commercials business and that’s how I started as a DP for a few years. My first feature film DP job came about because I had worked often with a friend who was hired as the technical advisor for a first time director. They didn’t have the money to hire a famous DP. So he asked me if I would be interested in shooting and I said yes. That was my big break. That film was not a big success. The big break for me was Amélie which was my third feature. I got it because I knew Jeunet and also because Darius Khondji had turned it down.
So Jean-Pierre Jeunet called and asked, “Do you want to do this movie?” And you probably said yes?
In fact, when Jeunet and Darius were shooting Delicatessen, I was supposed to be the camera operator. We started prepping and suddenly one of the financial partners dropped out. They didn’t have enough money in the budget for a camera operator, so Darius had to do both jobs as DP and operator, which is kind of the French way anyway. I was a bit sad, but that’s production. Then they did City of Lost Children. But when Jeunet offered him Amélie, Darius turned it down. By then, I was shooting a lot of commercials, so that’s how it happened.
How did you arrive at the unique look of Amélie?
A lot came from Jeunet himself in terms of look. It’s a combination of both of us. He wanted very hazy, saturated colors. I introduced some more blue and green and yellow at the very beginning. Then we moved to work with the full range of the color palette instead of having just a kind of yellow wash. That’s when we became very interested in having the whole color spectrum and heavy saturation. In terms of our discussions it was basically around the idea of not using the desaturated colors he was used to.
You had a lot of wide angle closeups?
I always liked wide angles. If I could shoot an entire movie with a 27mm lens only, I would. I’d be happy to do it. But it’s not really wide angle. In some ways, Amélie was a bit wider than that. We use the 25mm and the 18mm a lot, which I don’t use much anymore. The wide angle has always been interesting for me.
I don’t like long lenses because of the lack of depth of field. The background is usually soft. The character on screen is suddenly in a soft void were there is no connection with any environment. This lack of environment seems wrong to me; it’s just talking heads. There is only one movie I remember when the use of a long lens has a beautiful purpose: Klute by Alan J. Pakula, shot by Gordon Willis. There is a moment in the movie when Jane Fonda’s character, Bree Daniels falls in love with John Klute (Donald Sutherland). Both of them are buying groceries in a street market and the background is totally soft because of the very long lens. This is the only happy scene of the movie and I have the feeling that both Gordon Willis and Pakula decided to use a long lens to separate this scene from the rest of the movie and focus on the Jane Fonda character’s happiness or state of mind.
Would you like to talk some more about lenses? What did you use on Amélie?
I love to talk about lenses. We shot Amélie with ZEISS Ultra Primes. The reason was that Amélie involved one of the first DIs (Digital Intermediate) in France. Therefore, we were very concerned about losing image quality in the process of scanning the film negative to digital files. That’s why I picked Ultra Primes. There were very sharp, but this was very advantageous for us because there was this entire chain of mechanical events where the film went: from camera to negative to scanner. It is, of course, much easier to soften the image than to sharpen it.
Twenty years ago there were differences between lenses that are not so obvious today. There were incredibly soft lenses. They were not out of focus, they just lacked contrast. It was the nature of these lenses. The Ultra Primes were probably the sharpest lenses available in 2000. They were perfect for the project.”
It’s ironic: some of the very soft lenses that sometimes may have been avoided in the analog film days now look better on digital than they ever looked back then.
Yes. But that’s just the nature of the digital world as well. In analog, it’s not only the negative, it’s also the fact that you’re exposing the image on something that is moving. You have the grain that is moving, the film is bouncing around in the gate (despite registration pins) —it’s barely steady. So there is a natural softness to the film image as opposed to a digital image, which is absolutely sharp because nothing is moving. It’s just one and zeros. Nothing more. So that’s why people have been struggling to get this analog feeling back on digital.
However, I think this approach is wrong. It’s nonsense. We are just trying to get a “feeling” back. The feeling of a film negative and its softness, its moving grain, etc. If you want the real thing, the film look, then just shoot with real film because trying to replicate it is silly. If you “use” digital, just admit it’s a different medium with its own qualities which have to be explored. But you are right, those old, analog-era lenses now look just great on digital cameras. There was a time when nobody wanted these lenses anymore. And then, there was an absolutely ridiculous moment at the very beginning of the digital era, about 15 years ago, where people were going to crazy lengths to degrade the lenses because the high contrast of the digital sensors didn’t provide a “filmic image.” They were removing the coating from perfectly good lenses, destroying optics to make it look like a film negative. It was absurd.”
Maybe the pendulum is swinging back?
Maybe. The digital era descended upon us too suddenly and too fast. This digital technology was far from being good. Some people were shooting with HD cameras that were awful. Some manufacturers presented cameras that were 10 times cheaper than film cameras and their marketing campaigns claimed we didn’t have to do anything, we didn’t have to light. Ultimately, people thought digital was cheaper than film. In fact it’s not. A memory card can be cheaper than a can of film but shooting RAW is not cheap. It was some kind of crazy, lazy game. I think that’s why there was this wave of “nostalgia” for film. We were being sold and “imposed” a product that was far from being as good as film. Things are much better now.
What lenses are you using now?
Still the same. I like the Cooke S4 primes. And obviously Angénieux Optimo zooms. I think they have been absolutely perfect for me. In fact, it all began when I did Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009). Because of the massive size of the sets, and because I used this grainless Kodak film stock before, I thought the Vision 500 ASA 5219 was ideal. After seeing some tests the visual effect supervisor, who requested 100 ASA, acknowledged that he could work with the 5219. That’s when I discovered the Cooke S4 primes, ARRICAM cameras and Kodak Vision 500 film. That was my package for 10 years. It was a perfect package for me. I knew really how the Cooke lenses would react to what I was doing. I liked the kind of “roundness” they have and I use a lot of soft light as well. And the 500 ASA film stock was perfect for that. That was a time when my eye seemed calibrated to 500 ASA Kodak. I’m still doing the same. I still work at 500 ASA and I try to work as much as I can with the Cooke S4 lenses. Sometimes I change. On The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the last Coen Brothers film, I used Master Primes. I was shooting Open Gate with the ARRI Alexa and that is why I needed primes that would cover the format with a wide lens.
Buster Scruggs looked painterly. Did you soften the image?
No I did not. Buster Scruggs was a combination of Master Primes, Fujinon Aluras and Angénieux Optimo zooms. These days, when working with a DI, you can adjust the image and shape it in interesting ways. Now, it’s really easy to soften an image. The “painterly look” as you call it was following the idea we developed with the Coen Brothers that all the short films were coming from an illustration book. The DI offered tools that can go further than the chemical process. In order to achieve such an idea doing the D.I., Peter Doyle (our grader) and I mixed together softness (or diffusion), a very restricted color palette for each story, a very specific gamma, a very specific contrast ratio, etc.
On the other hand, I’m fighting against the idea of “look”. We, with the Coen Brothers, were looking for a feeling more than a look. Buster Scruggs is an interpretation of a story. The images are interpretations of the iconic “Western” stories. A “look” is what we see now. I don’t know if you would agree with me, but today there are a lot of movies that look alike. They go through this big machine, which is the DI process, and people push the contrast or adjust the sharpness and eventually every scene in every movie looks alike. I’m not saying that I’m doing better than my colleagues. I’m just aware of the danger of being “seduced” by a “look” coming from the many possibilities the DI is giving us. You can easily loose yourself in the process and forget about the story.
What about zoom lenses? When do you use them?
I always have a zoom lens in my package. Usually it’s an Angénieux Optimo like the 17-80 and if we need to go long, then the Angénieux Optimo 24-290. The 24-290 is important when we are working long lens, telephoto. I use a zoom lens as a variable prime. And the Angénieux zooms are very good for that.
I did a couple of zoom shots with Joel and Ethan Coen on Buster Scruggs where the zoom move was intentional—it was on purpose. We used the zoom lens to zoom in instead of using a track.
I also use the Angénieux zoom when I need to get in very tight, into an almost macro view. We did a couple of those shots on The Woman in the Window, the last Joe Wright movie that I shot. He wanted to go very tight on Amy Adams’s eyes. That’s when I use the zoom lens because it’s much easier to adjust the frame than just using a Macro prime lens. Basically, when the actor moves, we can adjust, so the frame is more fluid and less stiff. The zoom lens is very practical for that purpose: to adjust frame sizes slightly to accommodate the actor’s movements.
You mentioned using the zoom lens as a variable prime to adjust the frame size slightly. A leading question: why not use just the zoom lens continuously to avoid having to change prime lenses and save time?
Because the zoom lenses are usually T2.8 and the primes are T2.0, among other reasons. The horizontal and vertical fields are slightly different. You asked, why not use a zoom lens instead of a prime. I can reverse the question. I always asked myself why a 27mm is much nicer than a 25mm which is very close? I don’t have the answer but it is a nicer lens. And in fact, choosing to use a 27mm instead of a 25mm is a decision you make. When you are looking for the frame with a 27mm prime lens you have to move physically: left or right, up or down. There is a certain discipline coming from the lens. You are not tempted to zoom in or out to find the frame. It’s just like Cartier-Bresson, the photographer. All his life, he was using a 50mm prime lens only. I like this discipline in some ways.
The second idea behind this is the language of the movie in terms of lens. Buster Scruggs and Inside Llewyn Davis were almost entirely shot with a 27mm. It became the language of these films. And if you always shoot with the same stop, as I try to do, the depth of field is more or less the same in every frame and becomes part of the language. It’s like a piece of music written in a specific key. It allows you to suddenly change the “key” as Gordon Willis did in Klute in the example I mentioned earlier.
On a more practical level, a zoom lens is often cumbersome and front-heavy on the camera. You need to protect the lens from the flares. Angenieux lenses are incredibly well designed, yet you still might require a large mattebox around it just to avoid the flares. So it’s extra work for the AC in some ways.
Earlier, you mentioned the Angénieux Optimo 17-80 zoom. When would you use it, for example?
When I need to do a little push in or out, not to establish camera position as we just discussed, but to adjust as part of the shot. There is a beauty to a gentle adjustment when you combine an unnoticeable zoom move with a camera move. It’s different than a dolly move in or out. It has a different feel, a different perspective. It becomes very interesting to do a tracking move left to right and combine that with a delicate zoom in from 27mm to 40mm, for example. Because there is a change in the field of the frame, the impression is sometimes more interesting than just dollying in. It’s part of the language in some ways. The perspective changes when you zoom in and that can be really interesting when it is imperceptible to the audience. They feel the movement but they don’t know what it is. As I said, if you are tracking left or right, a slight zoom move can change the energy of the move in an interesting way. It breaks the rhythm. On the other hand, if we were to dolly in on a diagonal, instead of tracking left to right on the dolly while zooming in, there’s a very strong energy to that, which could be counter-productive to what the director is looking for. So that’s why the small zoom can be part of the language.
I had some of these moves on Buster Scruggs. We did some zooms inside the stagecoach. It was quite interesting: even though the perspective changed a little, it was not noticeable because the actors were at such close quarters inside. We also did interesting zoom moves on the covered wagon segments.
How would you describe the style of Inside Llewyn Davis? I remember you once said that you were thinking of shooting it in Super 16, but then you decided on 35mm.
Early on, Joel and Ethan discussed a documentary style with me: handheld and Super16. I shot some tests. I was not really convinced this was the right way to go for the movie. Something did not feel quite right. We had a lot of discussions. I’m not a big fan of the handheld camera, especially now. It was interesting years ago, but now it seems that it’s done mostly to give a kind of organic feeling everybody mentions. I don’t even know what this word “organic” means. I guess when they say organic, it means that it looks real, which I think is kind of ill-advised. So when we discussed it with Joel and Ethan, I don’t think they were sure as well. And eventually we didn’t proceed down this path at all. The film has a lot of locked-off shots. We went to the opposite extreme of handheld. The dynamic of the character was in juxtaposition to the dynamic of the camera. It was more interesting to see the character moving. He’s always on the move, going from one place to another. He’s taking a train, riding a car, going on the subway, walking. It was our mutual decision. There was a lot of discussion about the film itself. It was not me convincing them.
Also, I did some tests early on in prep comparing Super16 with 35mm. We looked at the results at Technicolor, and the Super16 was so grainy. For me, it was almost unwatchable. I thought I had made some mistake and they would fire me. The 35mm test was fine; it was great. Then I did the Super 16mm test again a week later and saw exactly the same thing.
Our discovery was that we are not used to watching Super16 on a big screen anymore. We are not used to seeing dots of moving grain. There are many reasons. First of all, 35mm has always been cleaner than Super16. Second, despite the great advances made by Kodak and Fujifilm, the grain in Super 16 remained more noticeable because of the greater magnification in projection. Furthermore, we are not used to seeing grain anymore because of DVDs, Blu-ray and color television, which are so saturated, so clean and so sharp. The image is so clean these days that if you see a single dot of grain moving, you wonder what is going on. Our brain, for the last decade, has been accustomed to seeing a progressively sharper image. Now we’re reaching a point where the sharpness becomes stupid. We see the TV manufacturers suggesting contrast ratios of 50,000:1 or more, which is absolutely ridiculous. Because sharpness is contrast. This amount of contrast doesn’t make sense. In many ways it’s a catch-22 situation that influences the way we see images. Contrast saturates the colors; there is less nuance in the color palette. And suddenly a Super 16mm image seems “wrong.”
That was a very long answer to your question, but eventually, yes, we shot Llewyn Davis in 35mm format.
What was your first digital movie or commercial?
It was Big Eyes with Tim Burton. In fact, we were almost forced to shoot in digital. The reason was that one month before we arrived in Vancouver to start prepping, the Technicolor lab there shut down. Tim Burton wanted to see dailies first thing every morning with the editor, so we had no other option. Otherwise, we would have had to ship the negative to Toronto or LA. That basically meant dailies would take two days for processing, printing and sending it back. Tim was not happy with that idea. Eventually, even if he didn’t like the idea, he said,why not shoot it digitally. We also knew that we were also prepping Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. That film had so many visual effects that Tim decided Big Eyes would be good practice for us to try using a digital camera. And I don’t think I went back to film after that.
Do you usually still operate?
It depends on the job. I love to operate. I always operate on Coen Brothers movies. I didn’t operate for Tim because Des Whelan was there as his camera operator. I like to work with an operator because it is very interesting to share ideas about blocking a scene and suggesting things together. But I still love to operate.
What is your philosophy about the role of the camera as an observer or participant?
It’s not really so much about the camera, it’s more about the light. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I see light as a tool for the director because I can, for instance, suggest keeping somebody in silhouette. It’s not an esthetical idea. It’s a directorial idea.
Do you remember the fantastic scene in Citizen Kane when Orson Wells as Kane is writing statements of intent on the wall, things that he promises to do with the newspaper he has just purchased. It’s almost like a Bill of Rights. He’s near a gas light. And then he turns around and goes between Joseph Cotton and the other character. Welles is totally lit by gaslight. When he moves between the other two characters, he is totally in silhouette. The audience instantly knows that even though he wrote the plans for his newspaper, he will never follow through with those promises. You can see it as a moment when he becomes a dark character. And it’s this lighting concept of Greg Toland, who is a magnificent cinematographer, using light as a story point. I always think like that in some ways, but I hardly push the limit to what Greg Toland did. Or Gordon Willis or any of other great cinematographers.
Light is very interesting when you can suggest to your director a way in which the actors can move between darkness and light. You’re building an architecture where the actors are free to move and, for example, to say a couple of lines in total darkness and then reappear. In fact, that’s what we did on Inside Llewyn Davis, when he’s beaten up in the back alleyway at the very beginning.
That is how I perceive my job in some ways: to build the architecture of light where the actors decide whether to be seen or not be seen. It’s another element that is part of the acting or the directing, which goes with production design as well. It’s a combination of all those things. I don’t consider myself as the leader of the gang.
I like the architectural analogy. On Darkest Hour, the scenes in Parliament had a lot of silhouettes, shafts of light, elegant camera moves, and it was very architectural.
The entire movie was based on this interplay of light. There are times when the foreground is lit and the background is not, or it is the opposite. There was always this duality at work throughout the whole movie. When Churchill is walking towards the King, in a shaft of light, we have both elements together. In some ways, this walk through light and shadows was showing Churchill’s duality. At the beginning of Darkest Hour, it’s lit on one side. And then at the end, when Churchill gave his speech, it’s the other side that is lit. The theme was to follow the light or not.
Are these decisions made in advance or in the moment?
It’s in advance. I always try to find an idea that is based on ideas more than just the set itself. It is the conceptual idea, “What is this story about?” For example, Inside Llewyn Davis for me was about sadness, about mourning, about grief. It’s not about a guy who is not successful. Nobody cares about that. It’s just about a guy who is sad because he’s lost his friend and nobody took care of him. So the question was how can I translate sadness into an idea about light? And that’s when I thought that the fall-off of light was interesting.
It’s a winter light. The light in winter doesn’t reach the far end on the room. New York can be a very dark city in some ways. Only if you can afford to live in a penthouse is there lots of light. But on the second floor of most buildings, it’s really dark and the windows are small. I suddenly thought that the fall-off of the light was a good idea to translate all those ideas of sadness in New York into a unified concept.
In fact, I think about light as a musical score. Light can be a piece of music. I hope it doesn’t seem too arrogant, but I’m trying to find the music of the light. Can light have a fast pace or a slow one? What would be an “atonal” light? What would be a “single note” light? Is there a way to divide the light of a movie into three or four different movements like a classical symphony?
I tried to do something like this on every movie. It’s finding and defining a “musical score” and then technically achieving it. Inside Llewyn Davis has a much softer light than Darkest Hour which is much more contrasty. On Darkest Hour, I used Fresnel lights: clean, with no diffusion, which is really unusual for me. But I thought it was good with the idea of light and shadow and talking about the character with total ambivalence. Churchill was a bully but he had a lot of doubts as well. It was interesting for me to play with this idea.
Was Harry Potter a similar lighting concept?
For me, Potter was about the school itself. All the action happens there, basically. I thought, what if the school were one of the characters? It’s not so much about magical things like the spinning staircase. It’s more about a haunted place with lots of dark corners and secrets. It is a very menacing place, very dangerous, not cozy, as opposed to the first Harry Potter film in which the school is a place where the kids are learning something in a happy, although strange, place.
Congratulations on your Pierre Angénieux Excellens Award at Cannes on May 24.
I don’t know why they chose me. It feels strange. I think there are people who have done more and better films. When they reached me, I thought they had called the wrong number. I’m totally scared. It reminds me of being at the Academy Awards. [Bruno has been nominated 5 times for best Cinematography Oscar.] The idea that you are one person in a group of colleagues who might actually win the Oscar and then have to go up on stage in front of so many people is the scariest place.
It’s not as scary a place as Hogwarts. You will be in a theater with many colleagues: directors, DPs, actors, friends, people you’ve worked with. Best of all, you already know that you’ve won the award. And it is so well deserved. Congratulations again.