Xavier Dolleans creates a dark and epic look for ‘Germinal’
Filming France Télévisions’ show “Germinal” – which stars in this week’s EnergaCamerimage Festival TV Series Competition – was a lot like leading a band of rebels in an uprising against the old guard, says cinematographer Xavier Dolleans.
“It was a challenge,” he says of the six-part adaptation of Émile Zola’s classic novel. The detailed and nuanced portrayal of the lives of French coal miners and their courage to come together to demand reforms required an epic scale to function, Dolleans says.
Only problem, France Télévisions was until now not really known for such ambitious projects. the whole can be easily submerged.
“Germinal”, adapted from the 13th novel in the 20-volume series by Zola The Rougon Macquart, is the 1884 story of a life or death miners’ strike with its realistic depictions of difficult lives. The work has been published and translated in over 100 countries and has inspired five film adaptations and at least two other television productions.
This production, co-produced by Banijay Studios France and Pictanovo, was directed by David Hourrègue, building on its success with a French adaptation of the youth drama “Skam”. Julien Lilti is the creator and writer of “Germinal”.
Dolleans and the director knew they wanted authentic locations and therefore moved the production, with a team of around 150 people, to the north of France to shoot during the winter of 2020-2021, working hard. of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dolleans, who was hospitalized with the infection, managed to bounce back and the cast and crew maintained rigorous health protocols, firing without any threatening outbreaks.
Capturing the look and mood of the miners was important to the DP, he says. “They are very happy and very proud,” he explains, despite a life of incredible hardship. “It’s a bit strange, actually. But you can still feel it in the north of France – it was a huge mining area. “
Visualizing the theme of workers doing hazardous work, exploited by the rich to the point of going to war, he says, “the idea was the opposition – I mean visually too. We wanted black and dark things and colors emerging from the darkness, showing the revolution. “
To put the public in the workers’ point of view, Dolleans adds: “I wanted the light to hurt the eyes of the miners when they left. So the miners’ houses, their bar, everything was a bit painful with shocks of light.
The owners and profiteers of the mines of course live in another world. “For the bourgeoisie, I made a very soft, more static, warm look”, generally shot on a locked tripod. In the mines, the camera is hand-held on a crane or Steadicam, suggesting a world of menace and the unknown lurking just out of the frame.
Dolleans, filming with a Sony Venice camera, opted for an expansion unit that allowed her to hold only the lens and sensor, not the full camera, with the images being transmitted by cable to a member of the team at shoot that followed him.
The Venice excels at rendering rich, low-light images without noise, even at high ISO levels, says Dolleans – ideal for filming the dark confines of a mine.
The third world captured by production was the most difficult – that of the miners trapped in an underground flood. “For three days, we only had underwater shots, remembers Dolleans. “It’s really difficult.”
Unlike American productions, which often use underwater filming, he says, “When you don’t do it in your own country, few people know how to do it right. It’s a bit new. You ask yourself a lot of questions – about safety, about the crew. How are we going to light this?
While improvising, the “Germinal” team had to build their own lighting, using small porcelain balls, and waterproofed the lamps and camera lenses.
And in scenes illustrating the stalemate between the rich and the powerful and the miners, he says, “We shot it like a western.
Dolleans used anamorphic lenses – again something French television was not used to – inspired by studies of the epic “Heaven’s Gate” and “Open Range” by Michael Cimino in the 1980 film by Kevin Costner from 2003 and used a Leica 50mm lens for all of its wide shots.
Shooting TV series, shorts and music videos for Dolleans, as well as his studies in Los Angeles, gave him a lot of experience before embarking on “Germinal,” he says, but the scale of this historic literary project presented new challenges.
Plus, he said, being successful on the small screen meant putting all of his past lessons to work in a compressed amount of time. “How can I do something good but shoot much faster?” And it took me a good four years, five years to do it. It’s not natural – it’s not the first thing you want to do as a DP.
But working in the broadcast space clearly has its advantages – the results of “Germinal” bring a cinematic look to viewers at home and have generated buzz in France.
“This is proof that the French national network wants to have the same level of quality as Netflix.”