Mel Noonan, StylusMC - Interview with French DOP Jean-Louis Vialard, March 2021

Mel Noonan interviews Jean-Louis Vialard about his ongoing career

Bank commercial, shooting in Turkey 2007, with director Eric Will, shot on 35mm film with an ARRI 435 camera
Bank commercial, shooting in Turkey 2007, with director Eric Will, shot on 35mm film with an ARRI 435 camera

Q: Jean-Louis, was there anything in your early life that may have contributed to your career choice?
Jean-Louis: I was born in the Auvergne in the centre of France, a remote and very rural area in the mountains. In the town where I lived there was just one cinema, and it closed when I was seven years old, so no career stimulation from there.

Q: Was there no stimulation from your parents or your siblings?
Jean-Louis: My father was the only chiropractor within 50km, so he was really busy; my mother too, as science teacher and mother of four children. I grew up in nature with a lot of freedom.

Q: You said it was rural. Were you on a farm or something similar?
Jean-Louis: It was really like in the Coen brothers movie 'Fargo' in a large wilderness, with long and cold winters. My grandfather had a huge farm with cattle, but more like you have in Argentina, where the cattle go freely. Where I lived was around 1000 metres up. It could be very cold and snowing a lot there.
I went on to start studying civil engineering but actually I had a passion for ethnology. I stopped when I was 20 years old and started to travel, doing small jobs to pay for my travelling around the world. I did this for around three years. All kinds of jobs, like farm work, camping manager or factory worker. To me travel was always going to be a driving force within me, perhaps because growing up in such a remote area gave a strong desire for discovery.

Shooting Money Boys in Taiwan; director C.B. Yi; French - Austrian -Taiwanese co-production; Arri Alexa Mini and StarliteHD
Shooting Money Boys in Taiwan; director C.B. Yi; French - Austrian -Taiwanese co-production; Arri Alexa Mini and StarliteHD

Q: Where did your travels take you?
Jean-Louis: I started with a long period of travel in Asia because my sister was living in India and some friends were in Sri Lanka, so I ended up staying around nine months. When I came back I bought my first still camera, and I began to shoot photos, travelling through several countries in South America, Asia and Africa, shooting stills, and people were becoming interested in my photography.
Some time after that, because a friend of mine was on his way to do an entrance exam for a film school, I asked him to put my name down too, and when I came back from travel that September, I passed the entrance exam, to my surprise, and entered the IAD Film School in Belgium. Then after one year I passed the very selective competition of the Lumiere School in Paris at age 24, which was the best school for Cinematography in France. At that time most French DOPs were graduates from the Lumiere Film School.

Q: Then you're starting to really enjoy what you're studying?
Jean-Louis: Yes. It was very enjoyable. I discovered a universe that really suited me. And living in Paris gave the opportunity to continue travelling though the movies. We were all given a special card that allowed us to enter every cinema in Paris free of charge. I thus discovered films from all over the world. And every year I enjoyed watching all the films screened at the Ethnological Film Festival in the Cinémathèque.
I also discovered contemporary art and spent most of my free time in museums and galleries.

Promo commercial, French West Indies Islands, director Michel Meyer, 2012
Promo commercial, French West Indies Islands, director Michel Meyer, 2012

Q: The school in Paris -did it have equipment in-house that you could use?
Jean-Louis: Sure. There were some 16 mm cameras ready to go, film stocks in the fridge and it was very easy to pick up a camera and move out to film something. At this time I directed a school documentary titled "Flamenco in Paris". It was a school project and was selected for the Kaolovy Vari film festival in Czechoslovakia.

Q: So you graduated from there at age 26, then what comes next?
Jean-Louis: It was difficult to find a job as a camera assistant because then in France there was a lockdown in the film industry due to privatisation of TV channels and the general transformation of the industry. Because of this, I started first to work on TV shows, sports events such as the Tour de France and Rolland Garros as cameraman, and I started doing some DOP work too.

At that time, when I was using the hand-held Sony Betacam video camera, I began to flip open the eyepiece so that I could use the small electronic screen inside at a distance, taking the camera away from my eye and using my arms as a kind of human Steadicam. Also I had started to shoot my first small commercials and music videos, mainly on film. The film cameras back then included a video monitoring output but had no onboard monitor. I needed to find a small monitor to be able to use the film camera in the same way as I‘d used the Betacam camera. I bought a very small Sony display, the size of a small mobile phone screen. It was a small TV receiver, not a monitor; just something I could use to roughly check the framing, but it was really fragile and unreliable.

So when Transvideo’s monitor first arrived on the French market, I was very happy and delighted. This was a big step forward. My camera assistant bought one and we used it for all our shooting, and we also pushed the different rental companies in Paris to buy Transvideo monitors because it was the portable professional monitor we had all been waiting for.

I was really happy because it suited so well the way I was shooting at the time. Later I bought Transvideo’s Starlite monitor-recorder when it was launched.

Clapper for Wi Ding Ho movie Cities of Last Things, 2017
Clapper for Wi Ding Ho movie Cities of Last Things, 2017

Q: What’s next?
Jean-Louis: Then I was lucky to begin shooting wildlife and ethnological documentaries, mainly in Super16. For five years I shot all around the world, diverse films including gorillas in the mountains of Uganda and reindeer herders in Mongolia as examples.

At the same time, together with a friend from film school, we created two small studios in a closed factory not far from Paris. We bought an old 16mm camera and lenses, a dolly and some lights, all inexpensive and second hand, but it was all we needed to start shooting music videos, short features or experimental films.

Q: Where were these jobs coming from? Did you have an agent?
Jean-Louis: No, it was kind of like being a musician, you got jobs through contacts and through word of mouth, and also if you do a good job people will book you again, and they talk to their contacts. Because it was our studio if we wanted to take all day for one shot we could do it.

Q: Was this all 16mm film?
Jean-Louis: Yes, mostly Super16 and occasionally 35mm.
Thanks to the good reception of my small music videos with this studio I started to shoot bigger ones, and then I met a director making his first commercials and joined up with him. We spent eight days shooting for Peugeot. It turned out to be a huge project covering all the various cars they made and was a great success. As a result I spent the next 15 years shooting a large number of commercials in more than forty countries for French and international production companies.

Promo commercial, French West Indies Islands, director Michel Meyer, 2012
Promo commercial, French West Indies Islands, director Michel Meyer, 2012

Q: You mentioned earlier that the desire to travel was a driving force in what you did - is that a part of where your career has taken you?
Jean-Louis: Yes, travel was something I really couldn't live without. It was like a drug for me. My career was giving me the opportunity to discover so many countries in depth. Understanding the culture, signs and aesthetic codes is fundamental to complete storytelling with images; moreover, with the camera you are in the centre of the action.

Q: What comes next?
Jean-Louis: Jean-Louis: Early on, when I was doing all those commercials I also shot a movie. I was hired by a French company shooting a French movie in Mongolia. In exchange for permissions and facilities they were promoting Mongolian movies in colour, because up to then they had all been black and white. I would have no screening of rushes - there were no colour labs in Mongolia so the film had to be sent to France for processing. So I shot my first movie in Mongolia in 35mm with an old ARRI BL1, without any video assist.
On the first day of shooting I asked the director how we would work - what was the agreement? He told me, "Well, I am the director and I direct the actors; You have the camera and direct the camera, so you choose what you want to do." It was up to me.

Checking exposure, Dune Dreams ; Samuel Doux movie shot in Dubaï, Paris and Liege ; Arri Alexa Mini, 2019
Checking exposure, Dune Dreams ; Samuel Doux movie shot in Dubaï, Paris and Liege ; Arri Alexa Mini, 2019

Q: Were you doing the lighting too?
Jean-Louis: Yes. But most often using natural light or props in frame. The lighting equipment was very limited with a 5KV generator only.

Q: So was the Mongolian movie successful for you?
Jean-Louis : Kind of, because it was shown and noticed at international festivals.

Q: Did it lead to anything?
Jean-Louis : Not really, but you know, when you shoot your first movie and everybody says "Well it's really fine" it gave me the confidence that I was doing OK. Considering I was out of film school for just six years and now I’d shot a real movie; it was unusual at that time.

Q: What’s next?
Jean-Louis: So I begin to film more fiction, short films and also feature films, up to Tropical Malady, released in 2004, which was a real turning point in my career. It was a very low budget Thai movie, but with a well known Thai artist as director. We shot in many locations and a big part was shot in the jungle at night. This was a fantastic movie, first screened in the Cannes Film Festival main official selection, and awarded the Jury Prize.
As a result I was invited by AFC to be become one of their members. I am really proud to be part of this great association. I am currently a member of the board.

Q. Congratulations! It’s clearly been quite a journey with shooting and experiences in many countries.
Jean-Louis: It's interesting that for many years I shot only foreign movies; where I was the only foreigner on the set in Mongolia, Iceland, Turkey or Thailand.

Samuel Doux movie Dune Dreams; Arri Alexa Mini and StarliteHD working steadily in the heat and sandy wind of Dubai, 2019
Samuel Doux movie Dune Dreams; Arri Alexa Mini and StarliteHD working steadily in the heat and sandy wind of Dubai, 2019

Q: Have you established a team that you tend to work with now?
Jean-Louis: Of course I have good teams in France, but mostly, because I work in so many countries, I usually work with good established crews in each particular place. There are very good teams in Ukraine, Turkey and Thailand. In every country I know which people I want to work with. Many of my DOP friends are in the same situation and within AFC, and we are always able to advise on the best team in each country. Sometimes you can bring your gaffer, or your first AC. The two last movies I shot my focus puller joined me. He's a good friend of mine and helps me a lot with the camera set up, which gives more time for the lighting process.

Q: You've worked through a time where shooting has been changing from film towards digital. Are you perfectly comfortable with digital working?
Jean-Louis: I'm OK because I usually work in digital the same way I work in film. I'm not stuck on the director's monitor all day long. I use my same tools -light and spot meter, except for the thermo-colorimeter which is not appropriate in digital. I also set up a lot of LUTs ( look up tables ) which I use to show the director what the final look is going to be.

Q: So, back to your career…
Jean-Louis: I haven't spoken yet about a significant part of my work, the creation of art films in collaboration with artists. I've worked with these people for more than 25 years. These are famous French artists : Philippe Pareno, Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzales Foerster, and more recently Laurent Grasso, with whom I have completed numerous projects premiered in museums or galleries worldwide.

Q: Are these films like documentaries?
Jean-Louis: Absolutely not. These are well-funded, long shoot films with a lot of post production, mainly shot on film, using drones, cranes, sometimes two 35mm cameras, and high production values.

Commercial shoot in Saint Petersburg, Russia; director Gleb Orlov, 2018
Commercial shoot in Saint Petersburg, Russia; director Gleb Orlov, 2018

Q: You said that you had somebody to translate for you in Mongolia. Was it the same thing in these other countries?
Jean-Louis: In Mongolia it was a young student who spoke barely English, and without any knowledge of the movie business but the set-up was close form documentary and, so it was fine. On my last film in Taiwan, I had no translator, most of the team were fluent in English and technical terms are the same internationally.

Q: Where can we see these films?
Jean-Louis: Only at museums and galleries, they are made as works of art . If you look up French artists like Laurent Grasso, you will see excerpts from some of these films on line.

Q. What has been the driving force for you in this part of your career ?
Jean-Louis: I push strongly for artistry. I don't mind whether I shoot Super 8, 16 mm, 35mm, Alexa or iPhone, or whatever. For me it’s about art. I'm not afraid of anything except not to be artistic. Because of this I choose very carefully the film I'm shooting, and the director I'm working with.

Q: You mentioned that most of your films have featured at Film Festivals. Are films sometimes made with festivals in mind?
Jean-Louis: Most of the films I've shot have been selected for showing at one of these main film festivals: Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, or Sundance, but these films are not made for festivals- they are made to be commercially successful at the core and pull large audiences, because after all, it's an industry. But festivals can change a film's career.
For example, Tropical Malady was a Thai film shot in Thailand in Thai language so it would not originally get many showings outside Thailand, where in the end, it only came out in a few theatres for only two weeks. Now it’s widely regarded as one of the most important films of the last 20 years, and it’s being screened and rescreened worldwide.

Q: Do you go to many of these festivals?
Jean-Louis: Mainly the Cannes festival which is unique. And unfortunately festivals rarely invite DOPs; except Camerimage which honours our profession.

Scouting in Failaka Island, Kuwait
Scouting in Failaka Island, Kuwait

Q: Were you in the middle of shooting a film when Covid came? Have you had to stop?
Jean-Louis: Not in the middle of shooting a film, but I was on my way to grade my last picture in Paris, Moneyboys, from Austrian-Chinese director Bo Chen. My next projects were a film by the visual artist Laurent Grasso which was to be shot on the Svalbard islands in the Arctic Ocean; followed by a short film in Corsica. I also had to complete a documentary in Peru and finish this very full year with the new film Terrorizers, shot in Taiwan by Wi Ding Ho, with whom I have already completed Cities of Last Things ( awarded in Toronto ). All these projects are postponed or cancelled, except Terrorrizers which I am due to start in November.

Q: I've come across people in the industry like you who are very enthusiastic about different lenses. Are you like that or do you just use what you are supplied with?
Jean-Louis: I think lenses are one of the most critical considerations, whether you're shooting film or digital. Sometimes I'm shooting with very old lenses like Cooke S2, Zeiss Super Speed or Panavision Z series which I like the rendering in digital shooting. But I'm using the very latest lenses too as the Zeiss Supreme mounted with an Arri Alexa Mini LF on my next film. It all depends on art direction.
If I was wealthy enough I would buy all my own sets of lenses; and if you are shooting any film there is one thing I would say you should buy, a Transvideo monitor. Sometimes you want to create a particular look and style and the lenses you choose can contribute greatly to recreate these different looks and styles, and the Transvideo monitor will allow you to see exactly the look that you are creating.

Testing the Zeiss Supreme Prime with the new Alexa Mini LF
Testing the Zeiss Supreme Prime with the new Alexa Mini LF

Q: Have you met Jacques Delacoux yet, president of both companies Transvideo and Aaton-Digital?
Jean-Louis: I first met Jacques at a workshop in Romania, and this workshop was to introduce the new digital camera from Arri, the Arriflexflex D21. The company had been wise to prepare this camera well before showing it and I was one of the first I think to shoot a full movie with it. Because of this I was invited to the workshop. I met Jacques at this event and we've become very good friends over time. Of course earlier in my career I had used one of his first Transvideo monitors on my film camera. Later on I was to buy a Transvideo Starlite monitor which has now become my reference monitor. When you are working on a movie set going around you will see many different looking pictures on the various monitors being used, so for me as DOP I need to have my own critical reference monitor and that is my Starlite.

The robustness of Transvideo monitors is incredible. I have had a Transvideo monitor with me now for 7 years and it has experienced, along with me, being drenched with water, experiencing extreme heat and cold, harsh winds and snow, yet absolutely no problems. But I do know if I should have even a small problem I will have a great support from the team. They listen to feedback from users and make changes or add features by software and firmware upgrades that we can install even on location.

What I really like with the Starlite, when I use it on my digital camera, which is Arri most of the time, every time I start recording, the Starlite records what we are shooting and because of that at the end of the day I can take out the flash card from the monitor and have all the rushes with me. So I can look at what we've done and check for continuity, lighting, framing; I can look at everything.It's also a good way to chat with my team without having to run up to the director's area and check the monitor there. The waveform allows you to see exactly your exposure setting. One tap on the screen and you activate the zoom facility to check focus. I like the way that you have a quick menu choice in each corner to set up and quickly get what you need.

Q : Jean-Louis, we’ve come to the end of the interview, so thank you for your time and for reliving your career and providing information and inspiration for others. Do you have a final comment ?
Jean-Louis: You know, I'm living this. I started in the film industry because of a love of travel, and I go on in this business because along the way I became an artist.