During a seminar at EnergaCamerimage Film Festival on Friday, described as “the best event of the festival” by one of the participants, Oscar-winning French cinematographer Philippe Rousselot shared his thoughts on working alongside a camera operator.
“Philosophically, I hate the idea of power, command, obedience. It’s not in my DNA. But when I think of my attitude on set, I have to remind myself that I have been very dictatorial, almost tyrannical. This contradiction is the origin of this conversation,” he said.
Rousselot, who also celebrated a retrospective at the Polish event, shot seven films with operator-turned-cinematographer Anastas N. Michos, including “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Interview With the Vampire.”
“I remember being in a confessional with Brad Pitt, and every time they would say ‘cut,’ Philippe kept on asking: ‘Can you see anything?’ ‘Hmm, maybe his right eye.’ What that speaks to is the level of trust we have with the people we collaborate with,” said Michos, also recalling one of their first interactions.
“He was fixing the light and asked if it was going to be in the frame. I said: ‘Let me go back to the camera and check.’ He stopped me: ‘Use your knowledge of optics and tell me if my light will be in your frame.’ It made me understand the level of professional expertise I was expected to bring and that a part of this collaboration is about having a support system.”
Noting that camera operators, unlike most DPs, hold an instrument in their hands, Michos underlined the importance of technical skills, as well as “creative camaraderie” on set.
“We had many occasions to giggle, mostly at the expense of other people,” agreed Rousselot. Admitting that as technical tools get more complicated, it’s up to the operator to know what they can do.
“What I look for in an operator is basically a clone of myself. An idealized clone. Somebody who will be able to do exactly what I want, but better.”
As a camera operator you don’t have the luxury of prep with the director, but you have the spontaneity of the moment, added Michos.
“All you have to worry about is that one particular shot. You don’t think about whether the sun is going down or the director has changed his or her mind.” However, a good operator has to focus on what’s best for the film, not for the shot.
“At the first screening of ‘Interview With the Vampire,’ I was mortified. One of Philippe’s Chinese lanterns was in the shot. I called the editor, and he went: ‘Oh yes, it’s there. But it’s staying, so get over it.’ You have to be able to take criticism, because a shot doesn’t have ownership, it’s either working or not,” he said, with Rousselot opening up about a particularly unsuccessful partnership in the past.
“He wasn’t listening, he was contradicting me, he wasn’t good with his assistants. But I refused to replace him because I hate firing people. John Boorman had that problem with an actor once. He said to him: ‘Don’t be sorry. I should be sorry; I made the mistake of hiring you!’”
Admitting he used to talk to the talent more as an operator than as a DP, Michos praised Rousselot for helping him make the transition.
“I asked him once if he was going to do Miloš Forman’s next movie. ‘No, I am going back to France. Tell him you will shoot it.’ I have always acknowledged his mentorship. That’s when I got rid of my Steadicam. From then on, I had to define myself as a DP,” he said, admitting there is no “perfect path.”
“We want to support ourselves using our craft, so shoot anything you can. That’s the key. One of the things I feel lucky about is that as an operator I worked with some of the most amazing DPs. I learnt problem-solving by watching them, because that’s what we do as DPs: we solve problems.”