I managed to grab some time with today’s interviewee as he was making preparations for this year’s Canner Film Festival. It’s time to hear from (film) film director Morgann Gicquel.
Over to you, Morgann.
Hi Morgann, what’s this picture, then?
GM: This sums up what photography is for me. The perfect balance between story and frame. I could go on for hours on the look the guy in the jeep is giving, it’s soft and yet severe, it’s innocent and concerned, but most of all he is looking right at us.
Despite all the other things that are happening in the photo I find myself drawn to look in his eyes. Then comes the seemingly never-ending jeep as a frame but also as a barrier between the whole world behind it, life if you will.
It’s colorful, overexposed, blurry as if he, in the shadows, was standing between you and reality. Finally, the picture was taken with a 50mm lens, what is called « normal » focal length as it mimics the perspective of the human eye. This was on one of the first roll I ever shot and yet this photo still haunts me.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
I am a film director before being anything else. I studied Science and Philosophy but I’ve been directing films for myself or for an audience since I was 9 and I never stopped.
I should probably mention that I am 26 and French, with all the right vaccines, or so I’ve been told (it’s a French joke, never mind).
I have directed more than 200 videos on digital format and a handful of films on super8 and 16mm film stock.
When did you start shooting film and what about now, why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
MG: One day I was preparing a shoot with my cinematographer and I couldn’t remember which lens number I wanted (I know now we were talking about focal length). He told me to get a still camera and to practice with different lens: walking with it, setting them in weird places…so I could see the difference between the optics and such.
After doing that for a week, and realizing how dolly movements were exaggerated with 24mm wide lenses where my tele 100mm wouldn’t do much, I decided putting film in it might not be such a bad idea. The camera in question was my father’s, a Nikon F2 he gave me. It’s a beautiful mechanical jewel, a reflex with a build-in spot-meter to measure the light hitting the film plain.
Then I went to study cinematography at Brooklyn College in New York where they still use 16mm. Since then I’ve been shooting stills on film only and nearly all of my movies are shot on super 8mm, 16mm and super 16mm film.
Between my first experience with film and Brooklyn College, I got to meet the infamous Canon 5D Mark-something on a shoot for a music video. I approached it with respect and…nothing.
This wasn’t any mechanical jewel, this was a fancy computer. When I pressed the button it was calculating the frame and the light and the focus before even taking the picture. And even if it was in the blink of an eye, that wasn’t as precise and fast as my F2. With it I lost control.
Even ‘manual’ settings felt like the whole thing was running on it’s own. And the worst thing: I could see the resulting pictures right away. Goodbye the magic and the preparation of cinematography.
People often tell me that’s a big leap forward but I found that because of it lots of digital savvy persons don’t really check what’s in their frames, they just assume they’re good as long as there are no red flags popping up on the giant screen.
I’ve always used the build-in spot-meter in my Nikon to check for the areas that will be burned or severely over exposed and the one that will get underexposed, I never used it to achieve normal exposure as people do with all the gizmos that goes with digital, a computer can’t know what is beautiful and what isn’t.
What they create is a flat image with no contrast, the logic behind it is obviously so you can tweak everything on photoshop or whatnot afterwards, but this is not control, this is damage control. When you shoot on film, both for stills and moving pictures, you take the time to be sure everything is right, to be sure your light ratios are done correctly, and you choose what will be over and under exposed and I assure you 99% of the time film will reward you and the remaining 1% it will give you something else you didn’t think about.
Now why do I keep shooting film for my movies? There are a lot of perks that are often listed by film aficionados. First, on a big budget, film is not as expensive as digital. Renting cameras that nobody wants to use anymore, not reshooting to death, having the benefits of a color balanced film doing all the expensive color corrections for you; those are part of a long list why it might be cheaper to choose the medium than to rush for an Arri ALEXA or a RED.
But in my opinion, film has an effect on an audience and makes them lean forward more so than digital (like blurry pictures will make you squint your eyes).
When you go see a movie you know it’s not real: it’s a flat screen that tries to reproduce reality, and I’m not even mentioning dinosaurs, aliens and superheros. You need the infamous ‘suspension of disbelief’ so people will enter your movie despite it being unreal. The way I see it, the more you go towards something that is clearly not reality, the more people will be drawn in because their imagination will be activated.
Animated movies are the best example of this and the fantastic Aardman studios (responsible for Wallace & Gromit) show well how this is true: it’s play-doh but it still makes people laugh and weep, maybe even more than half the ‘real life actors’ comedies we see everyday. B-movies had terrible scripts, but papier-mâché sets and string attached flying saucer made a connection with people. So what happens when you need realistic settings but still want your audience invested?
Use film! Why would it be better than digital? Because when confronted with a clean sharp image that tries so hard to reassemble reality, even going 3D, you shut down the need for imagination, people get more skeptical and you get a passive audience.
There some mediums (like sitcoms) that can benefit from a passive audience, a lot of others that can’t.
Any favourite subject matter?
MG: When I was studying Philosophy someone had tagged the words « Dream for them » at my home university. I loved that sentence, sounded like a good motto to live your life by.
So I began to capture images that would fall into three categories. ‘Dreamers’ (my favorite kind), ‘Dreams’ (which are usually long exposure shots – gosh I love how dark a black sky can get with this process) and ‘Them’ (whom would we be dreaming for then?). I love details and framing a little bit too much.
What’s the next challenge…your next step? How do you see improving your technique, or what aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
MG: Each roll of film brings a new challenge, each lens too. Remember I said that I am hoping to direct my first feature documentary on film? You read it right, a whole documentary, shot on 16mm film stock, in the next 12 months.
It’s not really an aesthetic challenge, I’m not trying to master double exposures or whatnots, and lots of more clever people did it before me, but shooting a whole documentary on film is a gigantic challenge.
Saving the rolls, exposing right in an uncontrolled environment, getting the overhaul look to stay similar between different places, different time zones, through feet and feet of film. I don’t dare being able to master it, but I sure want to be able to say: I did it, and it looked the same way it did in my head.
And because I like to tease, here’s the official teaser for the documentary that was, you guessed it, shot on film.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
MG: I can’t answer on still cameras, I’ve been using very regular easy to access Kodak and Fuji stocks. But for a movie it would be the Super 8mm Ektachrome 100D I used a lot. The golden haze of Kodak in its glory.
But has this stock doesn’t exist anymore (though I still have four cartridges in my fridge waiting to be used) I’d say 16mm Fujifilm Vivid Eterna 160T. I don’t like Fuji stocks usually but this one is gorgeous. The saturation of it, the contrast.
This is truly a film you can use without any color correction and it still looks incredible. Remember when I said film rewards you? This one brings the whole party when screened.
I am shooting a documentary with it at the moment, and Fuji has stopped producing it two years ago. So I may probably be using the last rolls of that stock (if anyone’s reading this, please don’t buy out all the 160T, I need a lot of them). Hopefully I’d still be using film after this project.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What do you take with you and why?
MG: I’d pick stuff randomly. I’ve always thought boundaries were freedom when it comes to art. The more boundaries you have the more you can play with them, the frame exists so you can escape it.
Give me a polaroid and I’ll build a reflector with paper sheets to boost up the built-in flash, give me a disposable cameras and I’ll make the best of the limited aperture and lens.
But if you insist on me choosing my own gear I, would love to grab my Nikon F2, a 50mm lens and two 400ASA rolls of any kind of color film. For the past four years I have done a lot of experimentation, taking one lens and one type of film and spending the whole day or night out, walking and trying to find something that would fit my « Dream for Them » project.
I can really see the limitations and possibility of one film and one lens and it feels great. All the control I lost with digital is back and I love on testing it.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
GM: Paris. I loved shooting in NYC, or London, or any other places I’ve been too that had a soul. But Paris will always surprise me.
Though I do want to go to an Ikea for a day and shoot people arguing or resting on beds and couches as if they were at home. An Ikea in Paris would be grand.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
MG: I think people have a lot of misconceptions about film because they are afraid they can’t control it. Money wise, technically, etc.
I got a whole processing kit from my cinematographer last christmas (remember him? He’s a swell fellow), and I took some friends who had never shot on film out for a day in Paris. After shooting some B&W Agfa rolls on the good ol’ F2, we went on and developed the negatives. First they realized how simple it was (it really is) and then it became clear that every shot, even the underexposed or the miss-framed ones, were special.
It wasn’t digital work where you delete everything that doesn’t please you on the spot and where you look at a photo just once before archiving it in your computer. All those photos were special. Why? Because they weren’t made by a computer you can’t control. It was made by you, from start to finish.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
MG: I think film was, is and will always be a tool. It’s like someone asking, what do you think is the future of watercolors in paintings? Well there are phases when everybody uses them, other times not so much. That doesn’t mean it will die, it doesn’t mean either it will be the next big thing.
Film is not an end in itself, it’s a tool, or better yet, it’s an help. In my opinion film is an help everyone should get to better master digital, and whatever will be the next thing in a century or two.
And we have to remember photography is a very recent art. If we take the history of representation, charcoal caves drawings were done nearly 30,000 years ago. The art store near my place sells a box of charcoal for 5,70€, I’m gonna take a wild guess and say we’re still using them in drawings.
Wow, so much to take away here. When we initially spoke, I hoped Morgan would try and expand on how his film making experience had informed his still photography and vice Versace. He delivered in buckets.
Whilst it’s rather shocking for me to hear that someone would willingly take out a film camera with no film in it, it’s Morgann’s statement, “…when confronted with a clean sharp image that tries so hard to reassemble reality, even going 3D, you shut down the need for imagination, people get more skeptical and you get a passive audience.” that really does it for me.
Each of the interviewees features on these pages always find ways of expressing feelings I’ve had in very eloquent ways, and this statement is no exception.
Sorry to all the digital Leica fans out there but to me, they’re a great example of over engineered lenses sitting on fly by wire electronics. I stand to be corrected but they hold no appeal to me for photography as a creative process. Sure, the images they can produce are often stunning but they don’t offer anything different in terms of output than slapping the same lens on a Sony A7.
I don’t “have it in” for digital by any stretch of the imagination and I’ll say that Leica is not the only example of this kind of over-engineering…they’re just the first name that popped into my mind.
Damage. Limitation in place, I want to say that I fully agree with Morgann here and will often find myself nitpicking newer Hollywood productions that rely on a thick lather of CG to deliver scope of their “reality”. Give me subtle, well done effects that enhance the storyline (if needed), rather than entire swathes of the film which never saw a real camera and were created completely in a computer. Go see the new Captain America, then grab some time with District 9 if you want to know what I mean.
As a slight aside, it’s incredibly encouraging to see and hear young film makers like Morgann using film as their medium of choice. Regardless of the rolls and sheets us mere mortals shoot day in day out, it’s the work of people like Morgann that supplies volume sales to the film industry and without him and his like minded peers, we’ll be left hunting around on eBay and in other people’s freezers for expired film stock.
See you in a few days for a look into the mind, process and work of another film photographer. In the meantime, keep shooting, folks.
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