Christophe Collette is a cinematographer based in Montreal, Canada. Throughout his 15 year career, Christophe has worked with clients such as Arcade Fire, Gatorade, and London Grammar.
What were your roots like growing up, did you always have an interest in cinematography?
I grew up in a family of artists. My mom and dad ran an agency for over 40 years alongside their careers in the visual arts and the arts milieu. My mom is a painter and my dad has a photography practice. He was generally interested in photography for as long as I can remember, and he gave me my first camera, a Nikon FM2. That’s where it started for me. Initially, I was more interested in stills, with the certain control I get over it, and the fact that it is somehow immuable and less prone to aging as an art form than motion. But, the images that I was producing as a photographer were very cinematic and although they felt natural, they were very often staged. The series that I was putting together kinda worked like loose edits, so the turn of events just naturally brought me to cinematography, and I do not regret it.
Your work is beautiful. Have you always been freelance? If so, at what point in your career did you really see things start to take off. Was there a particular turning point or video?
I was really lucky I guess. I had a photography practice, both commercial and artistic, and I worked as a photographer’s assistant on fashion & commercial shoots in my early 20s. Eventually through photography, I met bands and music video directors. Montreal had a prime spot on the Indie music scene. The cinematic nature of my photography work appealed to some directors and they gave me a shot as a cinematographer. It fell into place quite naturally and within a few months, I quit assisting and just worked on my own. The Montreal film scene was and is small - it is a family in a sense and we all know each other. I don’t think one particular video made a difference on the local scene then, but the work I did with my friend Kristof Brandl sure helped me reach out of Canada.
How did you learn how to light? Did you have a mentor?
I believe that lighting is at the center of my work as a cinematographer; I always had a special interest for it. I respond better to films and photographs that are well thought lighting-wise, natural or artificial. I think I learned how to light through experience and through visual research. I haven’t studied film, and lighting for stills is substantially different from motion, so my Montreal gaffer and I ran series of lighting tests in our early steps. We tried all sort of lights and pulled out older tungsten fixtures such as molebeams and scoop lights and used them regularly on MVs. We experimented, trying not to always go for obvious. I became very technical through all that. Now though, I guess I am more about taking out than adding. One well positioned light does wonders.
What project was the most challenging for you to shoot and light? Why?
It’s hard to think about just one project really, but I shot this stop motion commercial ten years ago with Ben Steiger Levine from 1st Avenue Machine. He’s a technical genius, and he loves to push boundaries. We shot on stage on the Red One and used the Milo, the ancestor of the techno dolly. The brief was to go through a hundred years of household lighting evolution in a room that also evolved though time. All these changes, lighting & set while the camera was doing a complex frame by frame 60’s move, and no real previz so to speak. It was the first time I used concert lighting on a job because I needed everything to be motion control and operated from a board. I didn’t like the quality of light I got from the VL units, the motion control lights we used, so I decided to bounce most everything into these humongous custom made half spheres of soft silver polly boards outside our windows. The VL would pan and color shift in the bounce to mimic the light you’d get from indirect sun in a room, from sunrise to sunset, while one VL with a gobo pattern panned and tracked on some custom motorized device and replicated the direct sun sporadically hitting the curtains and shining in the room. While this complex choreography was going, the practical lights would move and transform through stop animation into their next generation versions and dimmer up and down. It was just plain madness. Way too many variables. We had one day to test and one day to shoot, so we shot for over 30 hours consecutively to get the spot because once you’d start with the Milo you did not want to pause, the thing was too unreliable to stop back then.
The worst thing about it all is that although it was an absolute technical achievement, the film just looked like a Pixar animation. You could never ever guess this had been done in camera.
If you had to pick a certain project that is your favorite or stood out to you the most over the years, what would it be and why?
Monogrenade Le Fantôme with Kristof Brandl. Initially, I got a 12K grant to direct a music video for a more commercial song on my brother’s band last album. I had written a treatment which involved a young couple making out in an old house and setting everything, including themselves, on fire. I was so busy then that I couldn’t find the time to make it happen and the challenges of the budget required proper rethinking of the script and just a lot more involvement than I could provide then, so I asked Kristof if he wanted to take over. He rewrote the script and made it his, while keeping some elements from the original script so that the grant would not vanish. He then convinced the label and the band to use a more cinematic song, Le Fantôme and got Shed, a post production house in Montreal to work on the project pro bono. He brought the project where I could never have brought it really. We shot this in two days in a beautiful location in Montreal with a super minimal crew, all handheld, just one light. Although we had worked together multiple times before, that video really marks the beginning of our collaboration I think.
We loved “The Kids” by Charlotte Cardin. How did the creative process for that project come about? How do you think shooting B&W affected the story?
The Kids, with Kristof again, is very much an evolution from the previous MV we did for Charlotte, “Like it Doesn’t Hurt.” We didn’t plan for black & white - originally the project was in color, with certain sequences in B&W. The visual aesthetic we set for was not dissimilar to “Like It Doesn’t Hurt” but Kristof wanted a certain Andrei Tarkovsky feel to parts of it, with some assumedly lit sequences and very composed images. In that regard, it parted from the more lifestyle approach of the previous one. But it was in post production that Kristof realized that the film would work betterwith a simpler and more unifying visual palette. Although some of the images were wonderful in color, I can only agree with him, it made the project way stronger.
We also loved “Non Believer” by London Grammar. It looked incredible, how was the VFX done? How much was done in-camera? How does your shooting adjust knowing that there will be VFX work done?
Jodeb is a wizard, he did all the post on London Grammar “Non Believer” in three weeks by himself. The plates he used for the backgrounds of the fall are manipulated images he took on a trip in Iceland some months before we worked on Non Believer. We shot Karelle, our actress, in studio on a green screen. She was suspended in a harness and played the fall. We captured the angles Jodeb needed for the wide shots and all these were comps of course, but the close ups of the Fall we did in camera with moving lights, haze and wind. I shaked the camera at time to generate the feeling of velocity. I didn’t have to adjust much for post, even that long tracking shot that reveals the surreal mine complex was done with no regards to post whatsoever. Jodeb tracked it and rebuilt the top level of the structure in post so that it would have a more graphic and surreal look. The original structure was less geometric. The neon fixtures were mostly were they are now though.
Do you have favorite camera or set of lenses you like to shoot on most? Why?
Still to this day my favorite cameras are the Arri 235, the Arri 435, and the Alexa Mini. I’m a Arri guy I guess, nothing else I tried I liked as much.
I cared less about lenses when I was shooting everything on film. I’ve always loved Primos but I could rarely shoot on them when I was working in Montreal, or shoot anamorphic for that matter. We rarely had the budgets so I often found myself shooting with Cooke S4s most the time. Now I can say, like most, that I see the virtues of older glass or older looking glass on digital sensors. I love Canon K35s, Panavision Ultraspeed, Primos B & C series & Hawks anamorphics… But, if I had to pick one lens to shoot everything with now, I’d pick a B series 50mm anamorphic.
If you had to give a piece of advice to a young DP, what would it be and why?
My advice would be to try to shoot mostly what you really want to shoot and display only what you love. It’s an advice for myself as well. I shot all sorts of jobs for many, many years… Lots I don’t like nor connect with at all now. Even though you can find positive points for every project, it’s important to try to keep a certain integrity I feel.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
I just finished a music video with Zhang & Knight in the jungle in Thailand, although it was a brutal shoot, I think it’ll be interesting!