On Friday, July 16, 2021, Agnès Godard, AFC, was honored with this year’s Pierre Angénieux Tribute for achievement in Cinematography at Cannes. Director Claire Denis gave a beautiful introduction, replete with references to lenses (“they are both companions and safety barriers”) and memories of a viewfinder they both received from Wim Wenders (“le viewfinder”).
Agnes accepted the award (a personalized S35 Optimo Zoom, I think it was a 28-76) with a moving speech and gracious thanks to Angenieux “for being the great spirit of cinema, for providing these precious objects, lenses, mysterious alchemy that transform ideas into images.”
As an official partner of the Cannes Festival, Angénieux has celebrated a prominent Cinematographer every year since 2013 with the Pierre Angénieux Tribute. The ceremony today opened with an introduction by Cannes Film Festival’s chief Thierry Fremaux and the presentation was hosted by Pierre Zéni, editor-in-chief at Cine+ Canal+.
Agnès Godard has won 11 awards and 13 nominations for her Cinematography. She won a César in 2001 for Beau travail, directed by Claire Denis, with whom she has worked on 16 films.
We had this discussion several weeks ago.
Jon Fauer: Are you very busy at the moment?
Agnès Godard: Yes. I finished a film in Switzerland and now I’m preparing another in the UK. In between, I will go scouting in Portugal for a film later on.
What cameras do you plan to use for these films?
I will probably use an analog motion picture camera shooting negative in Portugal. I’m testing Sony digital cameras for the UK production.
Did you own equipment over your career?
Yes, and I still have an original Super16 Aaton XTR with prime and zoom lenses. I would have loved to have a 35mm Aaton Penelope, because I must say I was in love with that camera. It was like putting on a pair of gloves. I had the feeling that you could do anything you wanted with this camera—you could look at things without any hindrance. This was very exciting. You were freed to discover things. I really believe that there is something special about the first time you look at something or somebody through a camera and lens.
Even if it’s simple, the effect belongs to emotion, to spontaneity. I have the feeling sometimes that if you are able to catch such kinds of images for the audience, it’s as if these images become your own point of view. And so it’s very attractive, very convincing.
Did you always have this feeling?
I was aware of these visual experiences when I was First AC with Robby Müller, NSC, BVK on Paris, Texas (1984). Robby was very impressive when he was lighting, but his relation with the camera was just as fascinating. I loved, and still love, his work. His images left me speechless.
Is that specific to the camera he was using?
Actually, Robby was working with an Arriflex 35BL camera. I have also done many films with the 35BL. The ergonomics of this line of camera is quite close to Aaton. With the Aaton being so lightweight, you could do what you wanted. You could run, you could shoot low angles. Technical or physical difficulties were forgotten behind the great pleasure of being able to improvise. It was like a jam session in music.
Do you agree that the technology that we use influences the style and the way we work? Cameras do not seem to get much credit for that. It’s usually all about lenses, and we’ll get to lenses in a minute. A lot of people think the camera is just a box onto which you put a lens, but is it not much more?
It’s much more than that. Choosing the tools for a film is very, very important not only for the Cinematographer, but also for the Director because the tools have to be able to answer what they are looking for. There must be really a good marriage. And so there should be a good marriage between camera and lenses.
That’s why I test each time I prep for a movie. In the analog days, I tested with camera negative to choose the emulsion and to choose the lenses. I still do it with digital. Of course, you always have some favorites. You think you want to have certain lenses, and you build everything around them.
In a way, it’s the same process while scouting locations. For me, it’s extremely important to visit every one. For example, we want to shoot in an apartment that is going to be the main location. We go and see maybe ten alternatives. At each place, you try to figure out the central theme and then see how you can develop the scene around that space.
It is similar with a camera and lenses. Whether the image is formed on a sensor or a negative, it’s a kind of layer—one on top of the other—to define the texture, the design, the “skin” of the visuals. As I mentioned, with the Aaton camera, you were unencumbered. You could go easily from handheld, on your feet, to sitting on a crane and then moving on a dolly.
It was a bit complicated at the beginning of digital because the camera was like a square box, and once you had all the accessories you needed, it was like a Christmas tree.
The comfort and the way to embrace the camera is very important because your whole being, your whole body, is involved in the movement. You are entirely devoted through the camera to what you are filming.
You once compared a Camera Operator to a dancer.
Sometimes, yes. It’s also because I had many opportunities to do that, especially with Claire Denis, the Director. I enjoy the experience of experimentation where you do not know the path ahead. When you’re dancing with someone, you may not know exactly where you’re going. It’s the same in film; it is risky but very exciting. The rhythm of a shot is conducted by the actors. You follow them in a kind of magnetic effect, and while finding the harmony, if you can add that on top the camera’s rhythm, a rhythm inside a rhythm, catching a detail, it becomes more alive.
Is your cinematography improvised or carefully planned?
Personally, I like to jump into things and react to things as they come. But this has to be the taste of the Director. Some of them like to prepare everything in advance, le mise en image et le decoupage (planning the shots and the cutting prior to shooting). Claire wants to have the feeling that she’s reacting to something she has not already seen. So, sometimes she makes small and quite abstract drawings, but it is never really previewed.
Her way of working is to put together all that’s needed—actors, wardrobe, makeup, lighting, camera crew—and see what will happen. It’s like cooking: seeing how the ingredients will develop, turning into an alchemical transformation while also watching how we, collaborators, react, to see if we look at things in same way, and if we do enjoy the process as much as she does. She knows what she’s looking for; her process is to get intense moments concisely.
Other Directors may ask for storyboards to follow precisely or as a common base on which we can exchange ideas and then move on as we work through the scenes. It’s good to always stay open to what happens on the set because the actors are there. They may bring something special, unplanned. Often, they do something that nobody thought about before, and you have to be free and ready for that.
To summarize about actors, camera, and improvising, it relates to the kind of production you are shooting. Nevertheless, I think there is always something happening on the set that nobody thought about and if you pay attention enough, you see it and you can use it. That is why I don’t like to talk too much on the set.
If the Camera Operator can be like a dancer and the Cinematographer might be like the chef, how do you, as the chef, choose the ingredients—which lenses to select?
I always test by filming the actors’ faces. The choice will be based on the rendering of the skin tones and texture of the women and men in the image. My tendency is to choose lenses that are not too harsh. I prefer something smoother with gentle fall-off behind defined edges. It’s more impressionistic.
Lately, I have been very excited to investigate the new digital cameras further. Some of them are very good now and I continue to search and discover their interesting possibilities. Also, their Full Frame sensors are quite appealing because they provide a lot of presence, richness and volume to the image and to the actors’ faces.
I assume that you like to work as both the DP and the Camera Operator?
Yes. That is very important for me. I really miss not operating the camera. After all, the real starting point, the seed of a film, is an image. It’s a frame from which everything else grows, even the lighting.
What camera and lenses did you use on your recently-wrapped film La Ligne directed by Ursula Meyer in Switzerland?
I had the Sony VENICE and the Angénieux EZ Zooms. We were filming in Full Frame. I really enjoyed the EZ Zoom. It felt as if you could touch the actors’ faces. As a matter of fact, it reminded me of the first time I looked through a camera in film school, shooting with a 16mm format Angénieux 12-120 zoom.
That Angénieux 12-120 zoom was my first lens as well—on a Beaulieu R16.
For me, the camera was an Eclair Coutant [also called Eclair NPR] with the Angénieux 12-120.
Where did you go to film school?
The school was named Institut des hautes études cinématographiques [IDHEC], which became La Fémis, in Paris.
Did you grow up in Paris?
No, I was born in the country, right in the middle of France. My father was a veterinarian in the very small town of Dun-sur-Auron. He used to make a lot of family pictures and films and organize screening sessions. I went to Paris to become a student just after high school to study journalism because my family was not so keen about me working on movies. My brothers are all doctors, so my desire was quite a bit frightening. I started to work in an agency. Then I met some students from l’IDHEC and they said, “Come and see.” I went there and was so amazed. I decided to try to take the entrance exam. I did. I passed.
Did you have experience in cinema at that time?
Not at all. But because I had already spent a few years in Paris, I often went to the Cinémathèque Française, watching a lot of films. There were many different steps to pass the entrance exam for l’IDHEC. I think there were 750 students applying for 18 places. I did not have much hope of success.
Good work getting in. How did you find your first job after school? That’s usually the hardest.
In the final year of my studies, I was shooting the short films of other students. A classmate had a small project that he wanted “monitored” by a real professional. He asked Cinematographer Henri Alekan to visit. I worked with him for two days. A few months later, I got a phone call from Henri. He said, “Listen, I just met a young German director named Wim Wenders who is going to shoot a film in Portugal and I would like you to be my assistant.” So that’s how I started right away, on State of Things, on my first day out of school. It was like a fairy tale.
[NYTimes film critic Vincent Canby wrote: “State of Things was named the best film at the 1982 Venice Film Festival, a movie with a very romantic, very European sensibility, not about life, but about films and the people who make them…Sam Fuller plays the crochety, hard-drinking cameraman…”]
It must have been scary, pulling focus for the first time.
Exactly. I say to Henri, “You know, it’s a bit strange because I haven’t done this before.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m the only one who knows that.” He was a very nice man who greatly enjoyed teaching young people. Always busy, always inventing things. I remember when he was 90 years old, he told me, “You know my problem is that the days are too short. I can’t do everything I would like to do.”
How long did you work as an assistant?
Not long. I was offered work as a Camera Operator quite soon after by Sacha Vierny on Peter Greenaway’s Belly of an Architect”and later by Henri Alekan on Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.
How did you get your first job as a Cinematographer?
On a documentary with Claire Denis Jacques Rivette le veilleur and Wim Wenders Chambre 666 in Cannes, then on Agnès Varda’s feature Jacquot de Nantes.
Is there a certain style that goes through all your films?
It’s difficult to think about your own style. I never consciously worked on developing a personal style, but for sure the impulse or the attraction is related to my personality. I have worked on many different kinds of films. I always try to do something different, something new. Maybe there is something in common, I don’t know. But I really tried to find the image of a film, not to work on my style.
How is the look of your films influenced? By the story or references?
It’s a mix. First of all, it is the conversation with the Director. Trying to understand, to find, to discover what the Director is looking for. There are various ways to discover that. It can be watching films, stills, paintings, walking in locations, talking, or reading powerful Faulkner novels. Even speaking about something else, getting to know each other a little bit, to feel close to the story.
It can become a guessing-game to understand because sometimes it can drive you to think in different ways. In French, we say l’interprète, interpretation. The Cinematographer is an interpreter, translator, companion. The image is the result of interpretation and visual translation with the Director. Sometimes, it might be an unspoken thought. You would think about this or that, you would suggest, but it has to fit entirely with the Director.
As for me, in the camera department, I also have a lot of conversations with the Gaffer, who is an essential collaborator. The Key Grip is also essential, and of course the Camera Assistants. What we have in the image belongs to everyone in all departments.
How do you decide if you’re going to use a zoom or a prime lens on a show, or do you use both?
I shot many films with only primes. Then I shot with a mix of primes and zooms—Optimo Zooms—let’s say in the 2000s. And it was just recently that I experienced, for the first time, using only zooms—the Angénieux EZ Zooms. It depends on the style of the storytelling, the movement, the music of the shots and the découpage. Once more it is a shared choice with the Director.
Have you seen the new Angénieux Optimo Prime lenses?
I have seen a demonstration but I have not tested yet. I hope I will soon. I heard that, long ago, the very first lenses built by Angénieux were primes. So these are like the return. It’s fantastic. I must say that I was influenced by Wim Wenders and Robby Müller working for quite a long time with prime lenses.
Which ones mostly?
I started as a focus puller working with very old Cooke S2 Panchros. That was difficult [because they were not rehoused and the focus marks were very close together]. Nevertheless, I choose to work with Cooke S2, then Cooke S3, S4, ZEISS T2.1 and Panavision primes—depending on the result desired and the marriage of camera and lenses.
It seems that the role of the lens has changed. In the analog film days, the lens tried to overcome the grain and the bouncing of the film in the lab processing machines and then the projector. But now with the sensor being static, you don’t have all those artifacts. These days, do you rely on the lens not to be perfect, but to give more character? Is that a fair way to describe the difference between lenses in the analog and the digital world?
My observation is that when the digital cameras first arrived, the lenses at that time were extremely sharp, designed a bit, I would say, opposite of an impressionist feeling. Suddenly it seemed that everybody was looking for vintage lenses that were softer, to somehow escape the precision of the sensor. I must say that for a while, I was among those who would work with old, softer lenses to avoid having an image that was too flat, too straight.
Recently, shooting Full Frame, I found the Angénieux EZ Zooms. They had such a beautiful feeling of depth of field and bokeh. Suddenly I was in love with the EZ Zoom’s bokeh because I recognized something. It was elegant. The out-of-focus areas, the bokeh, had a nice way of slightly disappearing, vanishing out of focus. It reinforces this idea of volume, of course. On La Ligne, I was shooting 6K Full Frame on the VENICE and the EZ Zoom aperture was wide open a lot of the time.
All I am saying does not mean that I research the similarities between digital and negative. I think that is a lost cause. It is different option, better to cultivate each singularity.
If you shot Sony VENICE in Full Frame, wide open on the EZ Zoom, and with minimal depth of field, I guess your focus puller may not have been too happy?
Yes, it is difficult, but it went okay. You need those new accessory devices to help with focus. I must confess, I discovered on this film how shallow the depth of field was. I made some tests comparing 4K and then 6K on the VENICE. Ultimately, I decided to record in 6K because it showed the fine details so much better and gave a feeling of more volume. It was almost a similar sensation to using an anamorphic lens—maybe not a 2x squeeze but more like a 1.5x. For the audience, it’s also another kind of relation between the character and the image.
Did you have both the EZ1 (45-135mm T3) and the EZ 2 (22-60mm T3) zoom lenses?
Yes. And if I wanted to go even tighter, I had a 270mm (almost a 300mm) with a doubler, a 2x extender.
When you operate in digital, do you look through the eyepiece or off the monitor?
I prefer to operate through an eyepiece. Sometimes you have to use a small monitor for certain shots. The image quality is better with a monitor at night for example, but you still feel as if you are outside the camera.
Another thing—I am happy to experience new and different cameras. Sometimes it is very nice not to think only of luxurious equipment. It’s nice to test everything, for example less expensive cameras like the Sony FX9 as a second camera or simply for a question of budget or because it is more accurate to the mise en scène. It is interesting to investigate a way to personalize the use of all cameras, to test low and high base ISOs, color temperature, and to research and remap the gamma curves.
Do you spend a lot of time in pre-production with the lab and then also in post-production during the grading?
Yes, in pre-production as much as possible. I would always like the privilege to do as much as possible on the set, to establish what I’m looking for. And then we can eventually push forward the previous direction in the grading room. But for me, it’s important to already establish the light and the direction that I’m looking for on the set.
Have new LED fixtures changed the way you’re lighting?
The change is mostly a question of time on the set. It is a great help also for small locations, or low ceilings, for example. I still think sometimes a gel on the old lights can offer a different quality than an LED. But frankly it is also related to your production budget and other things. LEDs can be really helpful. But perhaps an old open-face Red Head fixture with a fantastic color gel remains more “precious.” Definitely it’s not only the color, it’s something else. The light goes through something and there is a transparency, a purity of color. Flowers, which are not transparent, offer these powerful colors.
That is an interesting comment about how light goes through something, either a gel or a diffusion. In another way, the image goes through something: it goes through a lens and perhaps a filter or net.
Yes. There is this distance going through something along the way: photons, light!
So, congratulations to you on going the distance, creating beautiful images along the way, and being honored at Cannes for your amazing career in Cinematography.
Low rez frames from the Livestream, to be replaced by great photos later: