Cinematographer: 'Into the Wild'

D.p. Eric Gautier may be a Cannes mainstay thanks to his collaborations with Gallic helmers like Olivier Assayas, but it’s his work on Sean Penn’s very American “Into the Wild” that finds him on award season shortlists. Gautier, one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch, says “Wild’s” retro feel was borne directly out of his and Penn’s mutual love of ’70s American cinema.

Gautier rattles off a list of that era’s ace lensers — Haskell Wexler, Conrad Hall, Vilmos Zsigmond and Gordon Willis among them — whose landmark films were used as a prism through which he and Penn could “create a common language.” Says Gautier: “Words like contrast, warm look, texture, deep black, milky image, bright, etc., mean something different to everybody. It’s important to see and comment on images that inspire us.”

“Into the Wild,” like its ’70s brethren, embraces a rough-hewn aesthetic, one where “you feel the film stock, the grain, on the screen.” Penn eschewed rehearsals, which meant Gautier shot, quite literally, on the fly, often from uncommon vantages (such as the white-water rafting scene). Operating his own “A” camera allowed Gautier “to make the appropriate decision, mostly at the very last moment, by intuition.”

Contrast was also key, and the film was overexposed or underexposed depending on the needs of a scene. Gautier jokes that “Wild’s” style winds up being “something like the opposite of HD.”

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Awards pedigree: Spirit Award for “The Motorcycle Diaries”; Cannes tech prize for “Motorcycle” and “Clean”; Cesar win for “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.”

Inspiration: Sven Nykvist, Nestor Almendros and Gordon Willis

Visual aids: Gautier and Penn feasted on ’70s films with a few more recent pics like “Gerry” and “Never Cry Wolf” peppered in.

Favorite tool: Gautier’s indispensable Aaton 35mm camera: “Easy to carry in a backpack when hiking the mountains and trying to get to unreachable spots.”

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