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“It Was As if We Shot With Ektachrome”: DP Balthazar Lab on Olla

Romanna Lobach appears in Olla by Ariane Labed (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

After answering an ad for an Eastern European dating service, Olla moves in with a Frenchman named Pierre and his aging mother—and nothing goes as expected. Olla is the short film of first time writer/director Ariane Labed, and DP Balthazar Lab talks about the importance of a strong relationship between DPs and directors, finding solutions with a small budget, and shooting on super16. 

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Lab: A strong relationship with your director is key for a DP. Knowing Ariane for years and having the same background and taste in cinema allowed us to know that we were sharing the same vision from the start. It’s an amazing starting point to have the same cinema background when you work with a director as it gives you clear and quick references to express some ideas.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Lab: I was really trying to forge a distinctive language for this movie. Ariane’s vision really relies on both space and performance. We had to find a way to make a shoot list, where we could really dive into the character’s environment. So we had to find a way to shoot mainly with wide shots, when most movies today focus on the faces of the actors. At the same time, we were trying to find a way to show our characters’ point of view. So we found this idea of doing subtle camera moves within our wide shots while always focusing on our characters.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?

Lab: Oh yes, we really had Barbara Loden’s Wanda and Chantal Akerman’s movies in mind. I was also fond of Ed Lachman’s work on Super16.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Lab: We had a really small budget for this movie, so we had to find solutions everywhere to spend the money only when needed. A close working relationship with the line producer was key. 

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Lab: Ariane was really clear about shooting in film for a unique look. You can’t delete or shoot again and again, it’s almost like shooting live or like a theatre performance. Especially when you’re on a very tight budget! It also gave her a distance with reality, which was interesting to her. In a dream world, I would have offered to shoot on 35mm, but with our budget, we had to shoot super16. We had to deal with availability at the rental house. So we shot with an Aaton XTR, and we built a set of short lenses made around the most “modern” lenses available: Zeiss 8R, Cooke Mk4 and UltraPrime 35. A pretty strange set of glasses, but I was really looking for modern lenses, with a straight lines, no aberration, detailed look, and UltraPrime 16 lenses were not available.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Lab: I was trying to avoid a “vintage feel” for this movie. I wanted the film to have its own look. So I was really prone to using a low speed stock and to expose it well in order to avoid something too grainy. Ariane had this idea to use as little artificial light as possible to be as free as possible and to give the film a sense of reality too. So we used very few things: a few bulbs, some diffusions and cardboard!

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Lab: The night scenes in the bedroom were really technical with the low speed stock and no fast lenses. Even at night, actors should be able to switch off lights and still be somehow visible in order to get a sense of what is going on! So I chose to shoot this night interior in broad daylight in order to have a really good fill light so I could expose deep shadows right where they had to be in a perfect photochemical world. I did some tests in prep and in the end, it worked! 

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Lab: As it is often the case with film, you have the feeling that it’s more baked in than with digital. It’s really part of the magic of this medium. I feel that film works better for me. I like shooting film better than having to deal with the crude “digitalness” of a digital camera. However, we were lucky to work with Florian Martini, our great colorist. We pushed the color a bit to get this kind of “off feeling” that you can get when you watch the movie. It was as if we shot with Ektachrome, a type of film stock that delivers vibrant and pure colors, so much so that they look unreal.

Film Title: Olla
Camera: Aaton XTERA
Lenses: Zeiss 8R, Cooke Mk4 and UltraPrime 35
Color Grading: Da Vinci Resolve

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