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The newly Oscar awarded ‘The Artist’ is Michel Hazanavicius’s third film with director of photography Guillaume Schiffman, who shot both of Hazanavicius OSS comedies. “With Guillaume, it’s more than just collaboration,” Hazanavicius remarks. “We’ve done films together, we’ve done ads together, and we know each other very well.
As soon as I had the idea of ‘The Artist’, I talked to him about it. I gave him tons of films to watch and he did a lot of professional research about the techniques, cameras and lenses of the time. The idea was the same for all us, on both sides of the camera: do some research; nourish ourselves; understand the rules thoroughly in order to be able to forget them at the end.”
Hazanavicius had storyboarded the entire screenplay for ‘The Artist’, and during preproduction he and Schiffman spent countless hours looking at these blueprints and discussing their options. In a black and white silent movie, lighting and color scale become critical tools of the storytelling, Schiffman points out.
“Because there’s no dialogue, light has to tell you something, the shadows have to tell you something. Michel told me how he envisaged the story, how he was going to play with the blacks and whites, shadow and light, and a lot of grays. What is fascinating about Michel is that he never loses sight of the story he wants to tell. You can’t produce only beautiful images and lose the audience in the process. The goal isn’t to make the audience go ‘Wow!’ at each shot but to captivate them and, in this case, to move them.”
Schiffman describes the film as a rare creative opportunity. “A black and white movie; 1.33 format; 20s and 30s style: it’s a dream come true for a cinematographer. What a pleasure to revisit this moment of cinema history, particularly today, when we are moving towards digital supremacy.”
As pre-production got underway in Los Angeles, news of ‘The Artist’ spread quickly in the film community. The black and white style and period setting offered interesting and unusual work for all the industry’s trades: set design, costume design, hair and makeup, camera, electric, etc. Hazanavicius was delighted to find himself surrounded by some of best and most experienced professionals in Los Angeles, all of them eager to contribute.
“Everyone got very excited,” the filmmaker smiles. “I think people appreciated the fact that this was a movie about their profession. People from the camera department offered to make special lenses, old projectors were pulled out of closets … it was very special.”
One of the earliest hires was production designer Laurence Bennett, who has worked extensively with writer/director Paul Haggis on films including the Oscar-winning ‘Crash’. Hazanavicius notes that he had very specific elements he wanted to incorporate into the film’s design, responsibilities that Bennett took on.
“The Artist’ is about the fall of an actor, so I was always looking for locations with stairs. I wanted the actors to go down, and down, and down, sequence after sequence,” says Hazanavicius. “It’s the same with mirrors; it’s the idea of representation because George is an actor. There are always many George Valentins in the frame. Larry brought his own sensibility to the production design, while achieving all the very precise effects I asked him to create. He did a great job.”
Image Courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/TheArtist.TWC