Simon Chaudoir is a Director of Photography based out of London, England. He has been shooting for over 30 years and most recognized for his commercial cinematography.
What were you roots like growing up? Were you always drawn towards camera and lighting?
During my childhood there were educational programs for school pupils, and University students broadcast during the day. Once when I was off sick and spent the day at home, I watched a program that featured the eye-ball scene from Un Chien Andalou and the Odessa Steps sequence from Battle Ship Potemkin. Listening to my older brother’s copy of Devo’s ‘Are We Not Men’ I learned how things could be taken apart and put back together in new ways. At the same time the BBC was showing repeats of Monty Python’s Flying Circus - it seemed there was the conventional ways of doing things, and more interesting approaches beyond that.
I studied Fine Art Film & Video at St. Martins in the late 80’s. As you’d guess from the title of the degree, it wasn’t a course for people who’d end up shooting adverts to attend. My tutors would be horrified to hear how I earn a living, but I wouldn’t be talking to you know if I hadn’t studied there. When I left art school I had little or no paid work and spent a lot of time reading novels, going to exhibitions and watching films. London had so much to offer, I was looking at things that interested me and provided the aesthetic foundations for my later career.
Your commercial work is fantastic. How did you end up shooting commercials for such high end clients?
When I left St. Martins I shot bits of Super 8 for people. This led to an offer to direct a music video. London’s Super 8 labs started closing down and my mum gave me the money to buy a clockwork 16mm Bolex - made the year I was born. Directors asked me to shoot bits of their music videos as a one person 2nd unit. I bought a light-meter and after a while the directors would ask me to shoot the whole thing. One of the promos caught the eye of a big commercial director and in ’97, I was asked to shoot 5 adverts for Virgin Atlantic fronted by Helen Mirren. That was the start of my commercials career in London.
As for the clients now, I guess I am on some sort of list for them. They have seen work I have done before and they want some of it. I am very lucky that I do a lot of work generated in Paris - the French seem to have a higher regard for the look of things and a few production companies there like working with me.
How is it being represented by Artistry? What was your process like getting work before signing with the agency?
My main agent is Andrew Naylor at United Agents in London, think of him like Heimdallr guarding the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard, like Batman fighting production crime, like Shakespeare, but writing deal-memos. Some see him as Mr. Burns and refer to him as ’The Dark Side,' but they tend to be production-managers. Gregg Dallesandro at Artistry looks after work from America, I spent October in LA and he organized meetings for me so I can get a bit more Californian sunshine in my life.
Was there a specific turning point in your career that has propelled you to where you are at now?
I was busy during the Brit Pop years, then I saw a video that Chris Cunningham had made for The Auteurs, and I knew I wanted to work with him. We shot 9 things together, the last two were for The Aphex Twin (’97) and Portishead (’98). I am now working with young directors who were inspired as teenagers by ‘Come To Daddy.'
I shot a really good short film for Miguel Sapochnik called ’The Dreamer’ (’05). It got me my first proper agent. Johan Renck asked me to shoot Valentino ‘Valentina’ in 2011, and this was my first big French commercial and my first big perfume ad. It was a substantial logistical undertaking with multiple locations inside and outside, all of which needed lighting. The advert was a great success for us all. This year I was lucky to be asked Francois Rousselet to work with him on ‘Go With The Flaw’ for Diesel.
Out of all the shoots you have done, do any stand out as your favourite or that you are most proud of?
All the above plus Skrillex ‘Doompy Poomp’ for Fleur & Manu.
Do you prefer digital or film? Are you finding it harder to shoot on film as we further progress in digital?
Sometimes my preferences count for little against the budget and post-production schedule. When I used to shoot on film, the director, advertising agency and client had to trust the DoP. They only had a shoddy image taken from the camera’s video tap to judge things by. The lab would process the negative overnight and the following day a courier would bring a tape of the rushes to the set. It was an optical, chemical and mechanical process. Now we have HD monitors on set, everyone can see what the camera is capturing. The DoP is not an alchemist anymore, the magic wand has been taken away.
A friend remarked that kids don’t want to be directors anymore, they want to be DoPs. You pick up a digital camera, press the 'on' button and fiddle with the menu and aperture till you get something you like. How many adverts for trainers have you seen that are shot at night with an under-exposed Red camera, flare-prone anamorphics and lit by the local council? How many times do you see a silhouette by a window? I’m so bored by it. The likes of Gordon Willis, Haris Savides, Darius Khondji and Emmanuel Lubezkii took genuine risks based on hard won knowledge and a pioneering attitude, not by studying a wave-form monitor on set. Rant over, I must sit down somewhere quiet for a while.
How did you learn to light so beautifully? Did you have a mentor, or just learn from years of set work?
When I did my 2nd unit work I was hired by the directors not the DoPs - who almost to a man did not want me there. I was very lucky that a DoP called Steve Chivers would sometimes come over and explain the reasoning behind his lighting and exposure choices. I started my own career working with a Bolex and a Sun-Gun - a temperamental battery powered hand-held lamp - shooting no budget music videos. As the budgets slowly increased I’d add more lights and a friendly gaffer and lighting company would tell me the names of the lamps I wanted so I could fax over a list. A man called Chris Lowden who worked at the agency BBH asked me to shoot some documentaries for Levis with him. We shot on reversal colour and black and white stocks. When you got it right it was beautiful, when you got it wrong you’d sit in the telecine almost vomiting with horror. Those stocks had no latitude.
I have never been a clapper loader or a focus-puller. I let others sort out the camera, but I like to operate myself. I’m really interested in lighting. I sit in the cinema and wonder where the lamps on set were placed. I know it sounds wanky, but I like it when the light tells a story. I am very fortunate to have worked with some very talented people. I find I am still learning things but I now have a couple of decades shooting adverts, years of experience being on set and years more paying attention to art, photography, film and the random effects of light during the day and night. The people who hire me want the benefit of that experience.
Remember when that plane went down in the Hudson river? The pilot Chesley Sullenberger was 57. He had years of experience and training. When I get on an airplane, I want someone like him flying it. I don’t want some clown with a beard and tattoos who the airline thought was ‘Cool.' Most of the people I work with have the same attitude towards HOD’s and crew.
Whilst I am banging on about the value of experience, I like to work with new people and younger people from different backgrounds from than myself. There is literally nothing duller than turning up at work and seeing a room full people like yourself.
Most of your work is in the commercial space, is that the space you feel most comfortable shooting? Do you like the others areas as well (music video, narrative)?
Shooting adverts is having a series of girlfriends. The relationship is always new and exciting, and if it isn’t, neither of you need to worry because it won’t last long. I have shot one TV drama which went OK. I got nominated for a BAFTA, but I lost weight because the catering was so bad. I shot two films that I wished I hadn’t, they were both bad marriages, I made the same mistake twice.
It’s my good fortune to be shooting things where ’The Look’ is very important, but I love shooting things that are funny and things that have stories too. I love music videos, but I don’t get to shoot many of them. I like turning around and seeing the director by the monitor without an agency standing behind him or her. I used to light fashion shows and parties for a while. Sometimes they would be appalling experiences, sometimes magical ones, but there are no retakes on the catwalk. I also once lit an exhibition at the Louvre, it’s all lighting.
What was the most creatively challenging shoot you’ve done?
The challenges mainly are about the gap between the promises made by the director’s treatment and the reality of the budget and schedule. Often there is a ball of anxiety and fear that has been passed from the client to the agency to the director and now they think it's my turn to catch it. It can also be because the crew is angry, indifferent or demoralized. It can take a lot of energy to get people to do a great job for you when you are working with strangers. That’s often why the Instagram pictures get taken and why I play military marches on set, it perks people up.