Filming the France Télévisions show “Germinal” – which plays in the TV Series Competition of this week’s EnergaCamerimage Film Festival – felt a lot like leading a band of rebels in an uprising against the old guard, says cinematographer Xavier Dolléans.
“It was a challenge,” he says of the six-part adaptation of the classic Émile Zola novel. The in-depth, nuanced portrait of the lives of French coal miners and their courage in standing together to demand reforms needed epic scale to work, Dolléans says.
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The only trouble was that France Télévisions until now hasn’t really been known for such ambitious projects – in fact, to shoot a sequence depicting miners trapped in a flooded chamber, the crew had to head to Belgium to find a water tank in which a set can be easily submerged.
“Germinal,” adapted from the 13th novel in Zola’s 20-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart, is the 1884 tale of a life-or-death miners’ strike with its realistic depictions of hardscrabble lives. The work has been published and translated in more than a 100 countries and has inspired five film adaptations and at least two other TV productions.
This production, co-produced by Banijay Studios France and Pictanovo, was directed by David Hourrègue, building on his success with a French adaptation of youth-skewing drama “Skam.” Julien Lilti is the “Germinal” creator and writer.
Dolléans and the director knew they wanted authentic locations so moved the production, complete with a crew of some 150, to northern France to shoot over the winter of 2020-2021, working at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dolléans, who was hospitalized with the infection, managed to bounce back and the cast and crew maintained thorough health protocols, shooting without any threatening outbreaks.
Capturing the look and the mood of the miners was important to the DP, he says. “They are very happy and very proud,” he explains, despite a life of incredible hardship. “That’s a bit strange, actually. But you can still feel it in northern France – that was a huge area of mining.”
In visualizing the theme of workers doing dangerous jobs, exploited by the rich to the point of going to war, he says, “the idea was the opposition – I mean visually, also. We wanted black and dark things and color emerging from the darkness, showing revolution.”
To put the audience into the point of view of the workers, Dolléans adds, “I wanted the light to hurt the miners’ eyes when they came out. So the miners’ houses, their bar, everything was kind of painful with shocks of light.”
The owners and profiteers of the mines live in a different world, of course. “For the bourgeoisie I did a very soft, more static, warm look,” generally shot on a locked-off tripod. When in the mines, the camera is handheld on a crane or a Steadicam, suggesting a world of menace and the unknown lurking just out of frame.
Dolléans, filming on a Sony Venice camera, opted for an extension unit that allowed him to hold only the lens and sensor, not the complete camera, with images transmitted over a cable to a camera crewmember following behind him.
The Venice excels at rendering rich images in low light without noise, even at high ISO levels, says Dolléans – ideal for filming the dark confines of a mine.
The third world the production captured was the most challenging – that of the miners trapped in an underground flood. “For three days we had only underwater shooting,” Dolléans recalls. “This is really difficult.”
Unlike U.S. productions, which often employ underwater shooting, he says, “When you don’t do it in your own country, not so many people know how to do it properly. It’s kind of new. You are asking yourself a lot of questions – about safety, about the crew. How are we going to light this?”
Improvising, the “Germinal” crew had to build their own lighting, using small China balls, and they waterproofed the lamps and camera lenses.
And in scenes depicting the standoff between the rich and powerful and the miners, he says, “We shot it like a Western.”
Dolléans used anamorphic lenses – again something French TV was not accustomed to – inspired by studies of Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic “Heaven’s Gate” and “Open Range,” the 2003 Kevin Costner film and used a Leica 50mm lens for all his wide shots.
Dolléans’ background shooting TV series, short films and music videos, along with studies in Los Angeles, gave him a breadth of experience before taking on “Germinal,” he says, but the scale of this historic, literary project represented new challenges.
Also, he says, to succeed on the small screen meant putting all his past lessons to work in a compressed time frame. “How can I do something of quality but shooting way faster? And it took me a good four years, five years to do it. It’s not natural – it’s not the thing you want to do first as a DP.”
But working in the broadcast space has its benefits, clearly – the results in “Germinal” bring a cinematic look to viewers at home and have generated buzz in France.
“This is proof that the French national network want to have the same level of quality as Netflix.”
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