Benoit Soler is a cinematographer based in Paris, France whose work is known for its empirical and emotional characteristics. Throughout his career, Benoit has shot for clients including Nike and Yves Saint Laurent.
What were your roots like growing up? Was cinematography always a part of your life?
Born and raised in Paris, I was introduced to cinematography through photography. As a child, I had the chance to meet many photographers of different backgrounds. They all had different styles, but they were all travellers, and their work was reflecting a certain naturalism and humanism that felt compelling. This was my first introduction to pictorial story telling. I did not realize that I wanted to become a cinematographer at first, simply because I did not know what it was, but I was interested in visual conception. The medium only appealed to me later, when I understood what it really meant, through the teaching of a French DP named Bruno Nuytten.
You’ve shot quite a lot of project thus far into your career. Is there any particular project that stands out as one of your favorite?
I started by shooting fiction, and later joined the music video and commercial industry.
I am proud of the three features I did so far, and I had quite a string of luck, as they all have been selected at the Cannes’ film festival in different sections (Director’s Fortnight, Critics’ Week, and Un Certain Regard). The last one ‘Mobile Homes’, directed by Vladimir de Fontenay, came out in France in April, and in October in the USA.
To name a few other projects, I would say ‘Territory’, the music video I did with The Blaze, and ‘Rebirth is Necessary’ directed by Jenn Nkiru. Those projects are the first that come to my mind in their respective style, for power of the messages and the personal vision of the director that they convey. But there are many more that I am proud of, so it is difficult to single any out. I try to keep as much balance as possible between fiction and commercials, as I believe both nourish each other, and help me evolve in my craft.
How important do you think locations are in correlation to cinematography? How often do you have a say in the places planned to shoot?
The location is one of the most important elements of cinematography, before any gear. It will set the tone of the story, as well as contribute a lot to it, by giving you the back-story of the characters, or the place. Just by placing a character in a particular situation, you are already telling something. A good location, the way you light it, and the way you shoot it can be stronger than a page long of dialogues when it comes to explaining a story.
I try to be involved as early as possible in the process with the director and set designer to discuss locations, story and what we are trying to say. Then comes the practicality of it, the orientation, the way the light comes through, and the accessibility of it. It sometimes could aesthetically look good, but those many factors can make it unpractical and not suitable. It’s all a question of balance. That is why it is important to be here early to discuss the vision, and the problems that we might encounter, because once the decisions are made, it is very difficult to come back on them.
The visual imagery in The Blaze “Territory” is great. How was the project conceptualized? Is there a message you want people to take away after watching it?
It was imagined as different scenes, almost like paintings, each caring a core idea or value. The main comedian was brought from France, but the family and background artists were all locals, whom were found through a big street casting. We also saw many locations, and each one had been carefully chosen. There was a hesitation between two houses; each had a completely different feeling and setting, it was a difficult decision to make until the end, but the right one I think.
Then, we did a lot of rehearsals and choreographed each shot with the actors and camera along side, with Loic Andrieu, the steadicam operator, to get the right tempo. Finally, we shot over three days, allowing us to shoot at a precise time of the day and create the right mood.
The idea was to make it beautiful, and to keep the veracity of The Blaze’s first music video ‘Virile’, but to bring it on a bigger scope. In ‘Virile’ they managed to bring many emotions within one single plane space; it was really impressive. With ‘Territory’, emotions were still the central theme, which we declined in different ways along the different scenes. It was visually important that we had the right approach in order to be “juste” as we say in French, with the right equilibrium of beauty and ugly. Because the video feels universal on a human level, it is not for me to say what people should take away after watching. Everyone is free to interpret it in his or her own way.
A lot of your work looks like it’s shot all over the world. Do you have a particular place you like to shoot most?
I am not sure that I have a favourite place. I love having the opportunity to shoot in a new location almost every time. I was quite struck by my time in Indian shooting ‘The Field’, a short film directed by Sandhya Suri last year; shooting ‘Territory’ in Algeria was a great human experience; my two first features were set in Singapore, and my last one ‘Mobile Homes’ was shot in Ontario, Canada.
In some countries, you have more means of production, and in some, you are more in a DIY kind of set up. Some countries are amazing for the natural light, and some are amazing for the human experience you are getting out of it. All of that is giving you experience and nourishes your creativity. But, it is also very pleasant to come back to countries where you have been shooting before, as working with the same teams creates trust and habits that will eventually make things easier and faster to concentrate on your craft.
How do you think your cinematography has evolved over the course of your career? Has your perception of lighting and composition changed?
Simplicity always has been a motto for me, but it is really hard to achieve it. I tend to go through many complicated versions of my ideas before bringing them down to a simple form. This is where I probably improved most, at being faster at analyzing and summarizing an idea. With the years, I think my eyes are also getting sharper. I am really sensitive to composition and movement, and I tend to prefer shooting with a single camera setting. That way the visual story telling is not compromised by two different angles that you need to accommodate, and you can concentrate on just one for lighting. My taste tends to be simple and naturalistic, and so is my lighting, because I feel more engaged if it feels closer to reality and more tangible. My perception and vision is not drastically changed but the practice gives me the opportunity to evolve towards my guts feeling.
Do you have a particular goal you want accomplished by the end of your career?
I want to continue on the same path, as today; do more narratives projects that are engaging and telling stories that are compelling to the people watching it. If you can get awards on the way, that is great, but it is not an ultimate goal.
There are many directors that I admire for their visions, actors for the subtleties of their performances. When you are behind the camera, you see everything developing in front of your eyes, there is a sense of magic, it’s very addictive... I just want to be surprised!
If you can give one piece of advice to a young DP, what would it be and why?
To be perseverant, and to follow your gut instinct. It is a big industry with a lot of talented people. When you start, it is great to try as many things as possible in order to find what you like and what you don’t. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to be careful of what you show to people: what counts the most is not quantity, but quality. What you show represents who you are, and how you want to be perceived.
Stay humble, as you never know who will become the director or producer in the following years that you would hope to work with. Finally, believe in exchanges and collaborations. Sometimes the time might just not be right, but it could be later... And Have Fun!