Angénieux hosts the “Pierre Angénieux Tribute” every year at the Cannes Film Festival to celebrate an exceptional cinematographer’s career. Darius Khondji ASC, AFC receives the ninth Pierre Angénieux Cinematography Tribute this year at Cannes on May 27, 2022.
Previously, Darius appeared on the cover of the February 2012 edition and in an interview about Midnight in Paris; in a February 2013 article about Philippe Parreno’s Marilyn; an ALEXA 65 article in June 2017; and an article by Chris Silano and Olga Abramson about focusing for Darius on Uncut Gems in July 2020.
We spoke a few weeks ago.
Jon: Do you want to turn on your Zoom video? Don’t worry, this will appear as a text interview, no pictures.
Darius: I never like pictures or video of me on anything. I decline i.t all the time. I just don’t like pictures of myself.
Jon: The last time we spoke, you were doing a short film with your son Alexandre. At that time, you also said you didn’t want any pictures of yourself, but then you sent me a whole bunch of production stills and they were all great. What is Alexandre doing now?
Darius: Alexandre is an artist. He graduated from Bard College in New York, got a Masters at the Royal College of Art in London and completed a residency at the Fondation Luma, Arles, in the south of France. He did an art installation there and it’s really interesting. He’s a young artist and is doing really well.
Jon: Speaking of young artists, how did you get started in film?
Darius: I was born in Iran, of an Iranian father and a French mother. I was brought up in France. All my culture, everything I have, is from France. I’m more like a French person but I love the idea of having my Persian side. I love Iranian people and Persian art, culture, cinema—and the food is incredible.
I grew up in the suburb of Paris, near Versailles, in a little town called Vaucresson. We lived in a very interesting, big old house with a garden. I went to primary school and high school nearby.
I care very much about France. It is where I grew up and lived almost my entire life. I went to school there. I was really brought up by my mother and sister. It was my sister Christine who gave me my cultural education. She took me to art galleries and museums. I owe her a lot. We traveled to Northern Italy, England, and around France. I started watching films. I went to the Cinémathèque Française, the French Cinematheque, very early on and became a cinephile.
After I graduated from high school and one year of university in France, I went to NYU film school in New York and it became, in a way, my adopted second country. New York was an incredible influence artistically and emotionally. I’m very grateful to New York. I was 22 years old when I arrived and I discovered New York of the late 70s, from 1977 to 1980. It was an incredible moment to be there. This was a second period of my life. I think it influenced almost everything for me. I had a wonderful teacher, Haig Manoogian, when I arrived at NYU. He was a very important person for me.
Emotionally, I feel very close to America. I work a lot in the United States and it’s like my second country. It’s not only my work, it’s an emotional side of me. I should become a citizen because I feel so involved with the USA. But I’m citizen of France. I vote there.
Jon: How did you choose NYU?
Darius: I attended university in Paris to study history and languages for one year. I was accepted at NYU as a second-year student. It was very expensive but my father had just passed away and he left us some money, so I put that towards my film studies, my passion. I was not an especially good student but they accepted me nevertheless.
Jon: And after NYU?
Darius: When I returned to France from NYU, I started to work. I did an internship at a Panavision Company rental house called Samuelson Alga, on the outskirt of Paris in Vincennes. At the same time, I did an internship for a few months at the Laboratoires Eclair, learning all about film processing and printing.
Then I started as a second camera assistant, a clapper/loader. I learned all the crafts of the camera department. . France had a very technical way with that. You would shoot a lot of tests, have it processed and then examine the negative under a microscope. It was good but difficult for me because I was not a very technical person; but I had to adapt to this. Then, I was very lucky to meet one of the best first camera assistants, Pascal Marti, who became very talented cinematographer himself. He recently won a César Award, the national film award of France, for cinematography.
At the time, Pascal was first assistant to Bruno Nuytten, AFC (Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources). Bruno Nuytten is a legendary French cinematographer. We worked together on a big movie called Fort Saganne with Gerard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, Sophie Marceau. It was one of the most expensive films at the time. Bruno wanted to work with equipment from Technovision, a company located in Rome and England. I went with part of the camera team to Rome for three weeks to prepare three Arriflex 35BL cameras with anamorphic lenses. We had to test and select all the lenses: Cooke and ZEISS Technovision anamorphic conversions and Kowa anamorphics. We went through 30 to 50 lenses to select the best ones for each of the three cameras. That was in 1983. The basic thing for Bruno was to have as many Cooke lenses as he could because he liked the original spherical Cooke Panchro lenses and Technovision anamorphosed as many of those as they could.
We also had two Cooke 25-250 zooms which became 50-500 with the rear anamorphic adapter, and a 20-100 which became a 40-200. So, we had a lot of equipment to prepare.
Jon: Is that when you first met Henryk Chroscicki? I remember you were good friends.
Darius: Yes, that is when I met the owner of Technovision, Henryk Chroscicki. He was very nice to me, very generous. He helped me a lot and took me around. We became friends right away. We shared similar ideas and it was just a wonderful time of preparation in Italy.
Jon: How did you get your big first break as a cinematographer?
Darius: I did short films as a cinematographer. I got my first break by showing my short films to the director of a science fiction movie. It was an anamorphic, black and white film called Le trésor des îles chiennes (Treasure of the Bitch Islands). I was working on a commercial at the time and I went to see Henryk. I handed him the script and said, “Henryk, it’s a very low budget film but I would love to do it. I hope you can help us as much as you can with this movie that I really believe in.” He took me seriously, and he helped me, the producer and François-Jacques Ossang, the director. Henryk made it happen. He was amazing. In addition to running rental houses in Rome and London, Henryk was also a film producer. This film was partly produced by him because he gave us the equipment and all the support. We shot the film in 1989.
That was the second step of revelations for me as a very young cinematographer. I realized how much pleasure I had photographing a film for director, and telling a story with the camera, with lenses and lights. That was a very important thing that Henryk did for me. After that, I only wanted to work with him. We developed a working relationship because he was always interested in getting us what we needed and finding new ways of tweaking the lenses.
He was a real genius. I also remember Marcello, one of the main technicians, and Beppe who was the head of the camera department. Marcello was an amazing maestro with lenses. In Italy at the time, in the 80s and 90s, he was a bit like Dan Sasaki of Panavision today.
Jon: Would you say you’re pretty technical because of all of your training as an AC and involvement with Technovision?
Darius: No. I’m not technical.
Jon: After all these years, still not?
Darius: Well, it’s an ambiguous thing because I always consider myself non-technical, but at the same time, I am technical with the aspects of filming. If I get a new script, I read and study it; then I start shooting tests to learn things about the film. In that way, you could say I’m technical. But I’m not fascinated by the technique. I’m always fascinated and excited by what other cinematographers do technically, but it’s not the most important thing for me.
Jon: When you get a script or storyboard, how do you decide on the style of the film and choose the cameras, lenses, lights and other equipment?
Darius: From the idea, from what I tell myself about the story, from what the director tells me. It comes from the feeling of what would be right for the film, how I want to photograph it, followed by some references and ideas. Then the mood of the film starts to take shape after further discussions with the director. After that, the technical things happen. Maybe we need a big sensor camera, or a small sensor, or we need to shoot it on film negative. If we shoot on film, what do we want to do with it, push the negative, or pull it? If we shoot on digital, how do we handle it? What lenses should we choose—spherical, anamorphics, Cooke, Canon, Nikon, Panavision, or Angénieux?
Jon: Hopefully you choose Angénieux from time to time :) What lenses have you used on your recent movies, for example?
Darius: I used Panavision Sphero 65, Baltars, Blackwing7, Angénieux Optimo Anamorphic, and Angénieux Optimo Spherical zooms. On features, I mostly use prime lenses, augmented with zooms. On all the commercials and music videos, I always have the Angénieux Optimo zoom lenses: wide, medium and long. I use the three zooms a lot. On movies, even if I’m shooting Panavision, we have Angénieux zooms. I remember, in the beginning before Angénieux made dedicated anamorphic zooms, we added rear cylinders to their existing lenses. That was quite a few years ago when a lot of lens technicians said it was not possible, but we ended up doing it.
Jon: What is the reason for using zooms almost exclusively on commercials and not always on features?
Darius: I am my own camera operator on commercials and music videos. I like being able to change focal lengths easily. For the work I do on fashion and perfume commercials, I want to be able to freely move the camera along with tracking and zooming. I love this work. And the go-to lens is really the Angénieux Zoom lens, which I say regardless of the fact that they are kind enough to present me with the Angénieux Award.
It’s interesting. I recently used the Full Frame Angénieux Optimo Ultra 12x zoom on two of three commercials in Paris. But, one of the commercials required a very different look. And so, I used the 24-480mm T9 zoom lens similar to the one Stanley Kubrick had on Barry Lyndon (1975).
The result is quite beautiful. You remember in Barry Lyndon, how these zoom shots started tight and they go wider very slowly?
Jon: Elegant, slow and smooth. Where did you find this vintage Angénieux zoom?
Darius: It was from RVZ in Paris.
Jon: Of course, from the amazing Samuel Renollet who runs the camera department and loves lenses.
Darius: Samuel, exactly. He’s wonderful. Samuel is really a friend and he’s incredibly helpful. I see him a bit like Henryk Chroscicki. He found this zoom lens. I was testing lenses and spent an afternoon at RVZ with our camera assistants. He pulled out this 24-480 Angénieux and I did not know its history. In fact, the Angénieux 24-480 started as a 16mm format 12-240 F3.5-4.8. Ed DiGiulio of Cinema Products added a 2x extender to make it a 35mm format 24-480 for Kubrick.
The 24-480 was not very sharp compared to lenses today, but it was sharp enough and it was perfect for the commercial we were doing.
Jon: And probably in this digital era, the lens looks even better now than it did on film then?
Darius: Yes. When we using it, there was such a quality to the image: it was not perfectly sharp, but it had this wonderful patina and poetry in the glass that was exactly what the director wanted for this project.
Jon: Have you tried the new Angénieux Full Frame (Large Fromat) Optimo Ultra Compact Zooms and Primes?
Darius: I wonder if they can be expanded to use with the ALEXA 65. I prefer that camera and have been using it for recent movies including Okja. That was the first movie I photographed with the ALEXA 65. Then I used it for entire Apple TV series, Lisey’s Story. Next, I use it on Bardo, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu in Mexico. And then again on Armageddon Time for James Gray that we recently finished in New York and was presented at Cannes a few days ago.
Jon: What about the frenetically-paced Uncut Gems?
Darius: No, that was mostly Kodak 5219 500T 35mm film on Arricams and ALEXA Minis at night with long lenses and zooms: Panavision anamorphic C, E, G, T primes and ATZ and AWZs zooms.
Jon: Your setups on Uncut Gems are always moving and the lenses look wide open. A hero of that film was the focus puller.
Darius: We had the amazing Chris Silano. He is a fantastic focus puller. He came with this incredible range finder, the Light Ranger.
Jon: Preston Cinema’s Light Ranger 2. I noticed it is even given a credit at the end of the film. You seem to prefer Large Format and Larger Format these days?
Darius: I love large format. I’m in love with the ALEXA 65. I love the way it photographs actors. I’m not interested in the resolution or sharpness of the image on a portrait. I’m interested in sharpness for landscapes. But, on a closeup I usually break up the sharpness quite a bit. I’m interested in using softer glass and things for portraits of actors. So, the ALEXA 65 provides this incredible presence that I like. When you shoot a test, if you put an ALEXA 65 and an ALEXA LF side-by-side, you see the difference. The presence of the character and the perception in front of you at different distances is going to be completely different. And that’s what I like with this camera.
Jon: Is it the compression of background to foreground, the perspective, the fact that you are using longer focal lengths?
Darius: I don’t know what it is. It’s something very special.
Darius: It’s magic. It gives me a pleasure that’s close to film, and it gives me a pleasure I have with anamorphic lenses.
Jon: Do you like the shallow depth of field? Or do you usually stop down?
Darius: I like shallow depth of field, but not extremely shallow because I have already seen too much of that. But I also don’t like deep focus unless it’s really necessary to tell a story or a moment in a scene. It is great to see deep focus in Citizen Kane or a Wes Anderson’s film, when it’s a style, when it’s something that’s proper to the film director’s telling the story. But I prefer selective focus, the personalized feeling of having the background slightly softer.
Jon: Maybe we should call ALEXA 65 “Larger Format” rather than Large Format? Do you only use Larger Format lenses on Alexa 65, or if you find Large Format / Full Frame lenses that you like, would you put an expander on it?
Darius: Yes. That’s what I do all the time. That’s sometimes a painful process because I love old glass, old lenses. I have some of them expanded to be able to have a wider-angle lens on the ALEXA 65 without cropping the sensor. The moment you start cropping this beautiful large sensor, it’s not the same.
Jon: How did this French guy come to America and do such amazing work with Fincher on Se7en?
Darius: This French guy got very lucky to do this very exciting American movie with this great director. It was very early on in my career and he had probably seen some commercials and music videos that I had done. He was, at that time, very big in commercials and music videos. He came to do a Nike commercial in Paris and asked me to do it with him. Then he sent me the Se7en script to read and I was lucky to do it.
Jon: You did a lot of great big budget commercials. Do you prefer commercials or features?
Darius: I really love movies the most. I always did commercials, from the beginning. I did commercials in between movies so as not to do just any movie, because I had to live, to earn my living. Very soon, I had a wife and children and I also had to think about the practicalities. I didn’t want to compromise myself, and my wife agreed, not to compromise by doing movies that I didn’t really fully care for. When I started my career, I was doing commercials and short films. I worked with a new commercial production company and I was always testing and experimenting. In the mid 80s, we did cross processing, pushing the negative, pulling, shooting with Ilford, Agfa, Fujifilm and Kodak. Some young people started a film lab called Les Trois Lumières, the Three Lights. They were just out of film school. I used their lab for lots of experimentation, for example a black and white film that we printed on black and white sound stock.
When I started shooting features, I figured, well, let’s continue doing commercials in between movies. Sometimes I found myself getting carried away shooting too many commercial because they were paying great money. I found that I was not doing enough movies. Much later, I corrected this, and now I’m doing mostly movies and very few commercials. I just happened to do three movies in a row, without a single commercial in between.
I rarely do commercials now. I do movies. I’ve been lucky to do movies that I really want to do because I only do the movies that I really want to do. I’m very specific about that. I wouldn’t do a feature film if it’s not something that extremely important and I care about it. So I just don’t do just any movie just for a living. As we talked about earlier, I came back to Paris to a series of three commercials.
Jon: Do you continue to experiment with commercials, pushing the limits because they are almost all about the image and style. Isn’t that fun?
Darius: Yes, it’s fun. But you can develop bad habits doing commercials. You really have to have armor for protection when you do commercials. It’s a different race. On a commercial, you sprint. Every frame, every shot counts. A commercial goes from 15 seconds to 2 minutes in Europe. On a movie, you can’t work like that. You can’t do 10 scenes in a row with such incredible visuals that you lose sight of the story.
You can’t work like that. Emotionally, it’s not right. When you read a script, there are some moments where it comes down to moments where the light can be soft and flat. It can be front lit. It’s a different creature. Commercials and movies are completely different. Maybe I’m too rigorous about the distinction. But, I need that discipline to do movies. Otherwise, I would end up shooting only commercials. This is my philososphy. It’s very personal.
Jon: What did you mean by having to protect yourself, having armor?
Darius: I meant that if you’re not careful, you start photographing movies in a different way. You start caring only about the look, the visuals, not realizing the arc of the story, what you should be doing to advance the script. You lose the generosity that you need to give a director and the means to tell the story.
I really believe this. It is personal. I may not ever have said this before, actually in these words. But I think it’s really important to separate the way you work emotionally. When I do commercials, I have great emotions. I meet young film directors on commercials and I’m still very excited by doing commercials. It’s a different thing.
I don’t want you give the impression that I’m doing commercials just for the money. No, I’m experimenting, I’m learning. When I went to the rental company RVZ that I was telling you about, I had to prepare for those three different commercials. I wanted to look at all the different, crazy, interesting lenses that Samuel had. I spent the entire day experimenting with different looks with Nikkor, Olympus, Moviecam, Angénieux and many other different lenses.
Jon: Would you say that you are really pushing the visual boundaries in your experiments with commercials, trying new things? As you said, artistically they are two disciplines. It’s almost like comparing still photography with movies. Are commercials somewhere halfway in between?
Darius: Yes, exactly. Commercials for me are closer to still photography, except they are like stills in motion.
Jon: Does the story in a movie inform your style and influence the lighting as well?
Darius: I don’t talk so much about my style because I let the other people judge the style.
Jon: But it’s subconscious.
Darius: I do not like to talk about my work because I would be over-critical. So I try not to do it. I don’t think about style so much.
Jon: Taking a technical tack then, how do you approach lighting? You show up in a room like this, there are windows, but it’s on the 14th story and you have to shoot a scene in this room. How do you approach it?
Darius: It depends if it’s a film or a commercial.
Jon: Okay. Let’s do one of each.
Darius: If it’s a film, I listen to the director. We talk about the scene, we bring in the actors, the director describes the situation, we see how they work in the scene. They rehearse. Then we decide how we’re going to shoot the scene. Maybe I don’t light it, or I light it, or I black out half the windows, or I shoot against all the windows, or sideways against a wall in a different direction and I try to give it shape to help the idea of telling the story. Everything is related to the story and the emotions of the characters. We design the concept of light and sharpness or how it’s photographed. Movies involve what angle looks best, but what the actors do comes first. What is the scene telling us? What is the actor doing? What is the point of view? Is it the point of view from inside the room, from outside the room, from many other possibilities?
In a commercial, it’s all about the look, the design, the light. So the lighting is decided from what angle looks the best.
Jon: When you’re discussing a scene with the gaffer, do you use specifics? Do you say, “Put a 10K over there,” or just “Give us a source from this direction.” What’s the language?
Darius: I’m more or less specific but I love sharing with the gaffer. I like when the people working around me provide their input. This is very important for me in the process. One of my favorite things is when the director feels the emotions of the lighting. It’s very important.
Jon: What films of yours did you enjoy the most?
Darius: Of the movies that have been released so far, I love Okja, Uncut Gems, The Immigrants, Se7en (of course), Amour, Evita, Delicatessen and Treasure of the Bitch Islands. I had a lot of pleasure expressing myself with the camera on these movies.
Jon: You were saying you mostly use zooms on commercials and primes on features. Why is that?
Darius: I use zooms on features too. It’s very specific sometimes, not all the time. I don’t put the zoom on the camera and spend all day with it.
Jon: Is because the primes give you more discipline and you’re not operating the camera on features?
Darius: Yes, absolutely, that is one of the reasons. On movies, primes provide discipline. On commercials, zooms provide flexibility.