Beauty in the Defects: An Interview with Fabrice Aragno

When the opportunity arose at the Locarno Film Festival to interview Fabrice Aragno, one of the cinematographers of Jean-Luc Godard's Film socialisme as well as his forthcoming 3D film Adieu au langage, I jumped at it. It was a chance to uncover some of what went on in the making of what is one of the most exciting films in recent years, a great work that ennobles the potential of digital form(s). It was also a chance to get a different perspective on Godard himself, without having to read into his own coded words. Aragno is a filmmaker in his own right, and recently completed a documentary with Godard that was commissioned by Swiss Television (and actually features some footage from Adieu au langage). What our conversation revealed to me was a new, simpler image of Godard, of a curious, creatively generous man with a collaborative spirit. Not all of what we spoke about has made the final cut: we were both eager to start our discussion, and began speaking before we had even sat down to record, and continued once it was shut off and we walked with each other part of the way to our respective destinations at the festival. I had a meeting with Pierre Rissient, but were it not for my prior engagement, I had the impression that we could have spent the whole day talking about cinema and I hope we may have the chance to do so in the future. Among the details not in the transcribed interview, Aragno was the one who cut those incredible trailers for Film socialisme. Our first exchange was memorable. He explained the origin of his name, and the different ways to pronounce it. Impressed, I in turn insisted that my name was boring in comparison. He continued to convince me otherwise, referencing a book he was reading, and explaining the origins of my name. He too, like his collaborator Godard, is a referential, curious and generous artist, and as some of our exchange reveals, a key part of one of the masterpieces of 21st century cinema.


ADAM COOK: Could you perhaps start by describing what it is like to work with Jean-Luc Godard? 

FABRICE ARAGNO: Jean-Luc is free of all rules. If someone says this is the correct way, the professional way to do something, he doesn’t directly say no, but if the professional way does not offer what we want, he simply bypasses it, and easily. With Film socialisme, we realized that using the most sophisticated equipment in post-production did not give us the most interesting images, it was better to use an old machine. After spending time and money on a huge Broadcast Post Production Color Corrector Computer Machine with a lot of young and very professional technicians, we received a sad and pale image. So we decide to bypass all professional things and just put all the images from my little old computer onto 35mm. The laboratory 35mm colorist Charly Huser, who has done the chemical color correction of numerous Swiss films since the 80s, didn't use any computers. He has the eye. I hope the distribution companies did not do a second negative, I worked on the first negative in Bern and it was nice. 

COOK: How did your professional relationship begin? Did he see your work as a filmmaker? 

ARAGNO: No, actually. I didn't want him to think I was looking for a mentor. It was about the work we would do together.

The reason why I work in cinema is because of the opening sequence of Antonioni’s L'eclisse. When I saw it the first time, I thought that if cinema can express this, then it could be a place for me. A place for silences, a place to express things that could not been said in words, like in music, or painting. 

I am a filmmaker but I like to do everything and I was involved with a film as a production manager. The producers asked me after I was done the shoot if I wanted to work with Jean-Luc Godard. I got a message on my answering machine from Jean-Luc, asking me if I was interested in working with him. I had seen his primary works, like À bout de souffle, Le mépris, but not all, not his most recent work. I thought it was important to watch two or three of his recent films before the Sunday we first met. With tense nerves I went to Rolle and in place of seeing some giant or god watching me from above with a heavy voice, I saw a man, a nice man. He simply asked me to work on Notre musique. This was in 2002. He had me look for actors for the final third of the film, the “Paradise” segment and I was the location manager for that sequence. I worked with the extras as well and actually I appear in the film as a US Soldier: I say “no” to another soldier, when he asks for a lighter. 

COOK: And from there it grew? 

ARAGNO: Yes. What I found incredible, I think he has the gift of seeing and feeling the essence of things. A tree as a tree, an actress as a women, a dog as a dog. What is filmed is the truth of things. For example, at the end for shooting the "Paradise" sequence, we were waiting for the sun for filming, but there was a torrential downpour and he suggested why should there not be rain in Paradise, so we shot some footage like that. And I feel that there is an incredible truth in these shots. A truth that goes beyond fiction and therefore of all paradise. 

In 2007 and 2008, Jean-Luc was buying small HD cameras, a JVC Everio for instance. He asked me if I knew how to use it, so I started learning how. We took our time trying things. The camera’s quality did not impress us but in its defects, we found something interesting. It was not capturing light properly, so I would slow the frame rate and push up the gain to try and paint with it and try interesting things. I showed Jean-Luc this and I think he really liked this idea of defect over quality. We bought a Sony EX-1 and tested it too, its defects, its qualities. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to do the film in HD or 35mm, and switched back and forth. I did the tests and he was very relieved when he saw them and asked me to shoot the film. Also because of the easy way of shooting with a small camera (and cameraman) that HD offers. 

COOK: So you had considerable artistic input on Film socialisme? 

ARAGNO: We shot the second part of the film with the family and the garage. I had a lot of time and freedom and was able to do a lot of work. I wanted to test the Ex-1 in the garage location because the light was very interesting. I said to him that the most interesting for me was doing these tests in the location, with the actress, the dark-skinned and light-skinned girl. He said OK. So I simply did my test with her, and finally one of these tests ended up in the film. A girl with a blue and white shirt and the black girl with the camera, it was a contrast test of all the shadows, colours and the white light. 

In 2009, I heard about a still-photo camera with the capability to film. I love photography, it’s how I started out actually. It became really well known soon after, it’s the Canon 5D mk2. I bought this camera to test it myself. It offered more customization than other digital cameras, and I thought it was suitable for filming.  I love the look of Leica cameras, I always dreamed of using one, (a Leica M6) so I used some Leica-R Lenses—it was easy to put them on the 5D. So I was really happy to buy a Summicron 35mm, a Summilux 50, an 80. I did small tests, and Jean-Luc asked me what camera I wanted to take on the boat. Using the Sony camera was like working with aquarelle, very smooth, whereas the 5D is like charcoal, which I preferred and so did he. So we went on the boat with the 5D and always tested everything. Jean-Luc is always reading about new things and the new ways to film. We used a Samsung Nv24HD and a Panasonic Snap Shot. I also bought a sub aquatic box for filming underwater.  I brought a Samsung Nv24HD and a Panasonic Snap Shot. We chose a cruise where we would be able to do two identical voyages to see how it would work. There were three of us filming, four with Jean-Luc. All of us shooting something else. It was January when we set out on our first voyage to make tests, we came up with a lot of the compositions. Two days before we left Jean-Luc changed his mind and told us to go without him. He said we wouldn’t do as well if he was there. He said “if I say you have do something like this and like this, you will try to do it and not do as well, so do as you feel”. 

COOK: That's a lot of freedom!

ARAGNO:  It’s not that he gave us the freedom, it’s that he never took any freedom away from us to begin with. It was great! 12 days on a cruise, making sounds, images— 

COOK: —Dancing? [laughs]

ARAGNO:  [Laughs] I filmed dancing, but I didn’t dance. Oh, actually once on the second voyage… [laughs]. It was very interesting. Jean-Paul [Battaggia] said we have to be careful and try everything to be prepared for the next voyage. We did some things all together, a lot of tests, with the 35, the 80. Some shots without actors ended up in the film, some images of the water I did, the sun… 

On the second cruise, we had Patti Smith. She was quiet, but very happy to be on the cruise. No one on the boat realized we were making this film. Everyone on the boat is filming everything [laughs] so no one noticed us making the movie, no one recognized Jean-Luc or Patti Smith.

COOK: How about working with the sound on the film? 

ARAGNO: Jean-Luc wanted it to be a really small crew on the boat, so we worked without the sound engineers. I experimented with the sounds of the wind. 

COOK: Back to the beauty in the defects: the distorted sound, it doesn’t even sound like wind, it’s noise, but it’s very interesting. 

ARAGNO: Yes, we did tests with different sounds and noise. I made a composition of distorted sounds of the wind I made myself, it was something symphonic, very expressive, in surround and all, but finally I never presented it to Jean-Luc, it was better to just use the direct sound in the end. Again the truth.  

COOK: You’ve made a documentary on Godard, could you tell me about it?

ARAGNO: Not “on.” The Swiss television station asked me to make a film “on” him, but I was embarrassed. I’m with Jean-Luc, we work together, so I didn’t want to make an objective film about him, something that looks from above. Everything is always “on,” documentaries “on” Godard, books “on” Godard, etc, but I’m not “on” I’m simply “with.” So I went to him and told him and asked him and he suggested we do something together. 

COOK: He technically wrote the film, correct?

ARAGNO: Yes, he got an idea, A mathematical approach. The TV station asked for 26 minutes and Jean-Luc said "OK, we do should make 26 1 minute sequences, and have 4 shots in each sequence" and we used images from his films. We didn’t shoot anything new. Initially we had an idea for a dialogue between a man and a woman but we decided against it. It’s a promenade. He did the script, I did the journey. 

COOK: What can you tell me about Adieu au language? You’ve been working on it for some time? 

ARAGNO: Yes, we started in 2010, right after Film socialisme. We wanted to research 3D, to try new things, it was a mission with Paul [Grivas] and Jean-Paul. We built our own camera, using wood, with our own hands. We wanted to find out what could only exist with 3D. If it can exist without 3D, what’s the point?

COOK: Are there any films that have been made in 3D so far that you think uphold that idea? I think there’s at least one… 

ARAGNO: Scorsese’s Hugo, I suppose, but it’s still a story.

COOK: That’s what I was thinking, yes. I think there are things that Scorsese does that don’t have the same effect without 3D.

ARAGNO: I appreciate it, but the way one appreciates a cake: “un bon gâteau.” 3D is our pretext for exploring. Maybe at the end of the film there will be nothing in 3D, I don’t know, but it’s what motivated us. It’s like an equation with unknown variables. 3D is value “n,” and the man, the woman, how will they affect it?

COOK: It’s been said that it is to be Godard’s final film. Do you think this is true?

ARAGNO: No. I don’t think so. Not the final, or the last film, but the new film (when it will be done). After Film socialisme, he said goodbye and wanted to just spend time with Anne-Marie [Miéville] and their dog, but I think he cannot live without making films. Our relationship exists because of film, we interact because of film, it’s a way to live, to express, to think, to see. Same with 3D. It’s a way to see and think about the world, about society and humanity of today, it’s not because of 3D itself, it’s because it's a place of thinking, it's an empty space. There is as little depth in 3D as in any painting. 3D is the reverse way of the perspective of the Italian renaissance. Maybe it’s the world of today, without perspective. 3D is a place we go through to see. Just like the cruise. You’re not on the cruise because of the cruise but because of what you see.

COOK: Another cruise of images. 

ARAGNO: 3D is like the Concordia [the cruise ship from Film socialisme]. You know the story?

COOK: Yes, it ran aground, right?

ARAGNO: Yes, like the boat, maybe 3D will face disaster. 

Responses

5 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Ted Fendt

    So he’s saying the video was transferred to 35mm and color timed optically and then scanned back to video? The movie certainly doesn’t look like it went through such a process…

  • Otie Wheeler

    Well, plenty of films shot on 35mm go through a DI without coming back looking like they were shot digitally, so why not vice versa? Photochemical color timing shouldn’t change the qualities that we think of as inherently digital (tight shutter angle and lack of dynamic range on cheap cams like the JVC, low-light sensitivity, lack of grain, etc).

    Lovely interview! This part, especially: “The reason why I work in cinema is because of the opening sequence of Antonioni’s L’eclisse. […] I thought that if cinema can express this, then it could be a place for me. A place for silences, a place to express things that could not been said in words…”

  • Thomas Prieto

    Great interview! Thanks for this!

  • Ted Fendt

    “Well, plenty of films shot on 35mm go through a DI without coming back looking like they were shot digitally, so why not vice versa? Photochemical color timing shouldn’t change the qualities that we think of as inherently digital (tight shutter angle and lack of dynamic range on cheap cams like the JVC, low-light sensitivity, lack of grain, etc).”

    Lots of films shot on 35mm that go through a DI go back to film looking softer and having poorer contrast.

    I think that something shot on video that was recorded onto an intermediate stock and color timed traditionally (making an interpositive in the process?) that was then scanned for a digital release would be noticeably softer and have some grain that wouldn’t have been in the original.

    If that’s what they did, that’s cool, but I think it would look quite different than it does in that case.

  • hugo alexandre

    It’s not that he gave us the freedom, it’s that he never took any freedom away from us to begin with!

    That’s the collaborative spirit!

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