“There Is an Appropriate Numbness and Bareness to It”: DP Lauren Guiteras on Ma Belle, My Beauty
Marion Hill tackles uncharted territory with their polyamorous drama Ma Belle, My Beauty. After moving to rural France, Bertie (Idella Johnson) runs into her ex Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham) who she was previously in a three person relationship with alongside Bertie’s husband Fred (Lucien Guignard). DP Lauren Guiteras walks us through how she captured naturalistic sensuality, the beauty of imperfect lighting, and how she grounded Ma Belle, My Beauty in the tangible world.
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?
Guiteras: I had the great good fortune of meeting director Marion Hill at Northwestern University in the early 2010s. They pulled focus on one of the first projects I ever shot and we were both active in the school’s production community. When I saw their senior thesis Bird of Prey I was blown away by the clear identity of their voice and I knew they were someone I wanted to collaborate with. So when they approached me about Ma Belle in late 2018, I didn’t have a second thought about it.
I think Marion and I share similar values as filmmakers (not just regarding representation, but also equity), and we went through some of the same struggles navigating the boys’ club of undergraduate film school, so I think this sense of camaraderie helped to build trust between a lot of the women in our program and naturally led us to reach out to each other for collaboration and support, even years later, because of this common foundation.
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?
Guiteras: The first time I read the script, I felt this was the kind of film that required the camera, first and foremost, to support performances and locations. I didn’t feel that overly elaborate or flashy setups were appropriate for the tone Marion wanted to strike. So camera movement was almost exclusively motivated by blocking and I wanted to keep the lighting more on the naturalistic side of the spectrum. We made deliberate decisions about lighting scenarios from scene to scene, but the conditions we created were always rooted in reality (like choosing to stage one sex scene in a tungsten practical environment and another motivated only by moonlight, which we kept to a neutral tone rather than, say, a deep blue). If there ever was unusually saturated color, it came from the environment itself, like the deep amber stained glass of the music room doors. My primary goal was to use my tools to express “this is happening in the real world” and not to draw attention to the camera itself. And when we started shooting and I saw how expertly Idella Johnson (Bertie) and Hannah Pepper-Cunningham (Lane) could conjure authentic emotion, it just further cemented the ideas we had in preproduction about quiet camerawork that could hold space for those moments.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Guiteras: Early on Marion created a playlist of music and sent some samples of composer Mahmoud Chouki’s work, which I listened to while reading the script. It was “a mixture of gypsy jazz, traditional jazz, and classical guitar,” in her words. It evoked a specific mood to me: sensuous, meandering, musing, and warm. I think this really influenced the sequences that showcase the natural beauty of Anduze, the village where the film is set. We wanted to lean into golden hour for specific spaces, especially the fields surrounding Lane and Bertie as they bike back from the market and the open roads that Lane and Noa drive down later in the film. The tones and textures this approach yielded felt like they matched that kind of music.
Marion and I also touched on a range of film and TV references including La Piscine and Call Me By Your Name (for setting), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (for mood and for pacing/blocking of of single-shot scenes), and I Love Dick (for handheld camerawork in the 2:1 aspect ratio). In retrospect, I see what I think were unconscious references: there’s a little bit of the spirit of In The Mood For Love in the lush music guiding slow motion sequences, a little bit of Scenes From a Marriage in compositions of Fred and Bertie, a little bit of Before Midnight in the structure of the table scenes.
Finally, my experience working in Hillary Spera’s camera department on the indie feature Band-Aid in 2016 was foundational to my approach to MBMB. Band-Aid shot in just 12 days on two Amiras, almost entirely handheld, small crew, tight budget and tighter schedule. We were single camera on MBMB, but there was a lot of overlap in the logistical and visual approach that I could apply to my own work. Watching Hillary problem-solve, prioritize under pressure, and most importantly, maintain trust with the director, created a blueprint for how I wanted to shoot and how I wanted to conduct myself.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Guiteras: We only had a 13 day shoot and I was working with a very small team. I think this was less of a challenge for the stripped-down approach specifically and more of a challenge for making a movie in general.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Guiteras: We shot on the ARRI Amira with Panavision Ultra Speeds from Panavision Marseille. I chose the Amira because in my opinion, its ergonomics for handheld can’t be beat, and its specs could meet our delivery requirements. And my First AC Terence Yoon couldn’t have done a better job with the build.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Guiteras: With the goal of naturalism and the constraints of a small team and modest budget in mind, I felt working with the sun as much as possible would be important to expediting setups and making quick decisions. I’m a big believer in knowing locations like the back of your hand, so a huge portion of my preproduction time was devoted to meticulous sun scouting, studying and documenting each major space at four or five different times of day. I also broke down the script according to which scenes had to be shot at a precise time, which ones were more flexible, and which ones could be cheated entirely, depending on whether we were seeing lots of windows or needed a certain directionality or a big punch that our units couldn’t give.
I also tried to supplement available light for interiors only when necessary to balance out exposures between outside and inside, or to create separation if someone was really melting into a wall or something else in the background. My gaffer, Brian Tarney, and key grip, Nina Ham, were great about working quickly with the tools we had available and creating flexible setups I could easily adjust myself when we had a closed set.
From a rigging standpoint, the preexisting features of our major location were a game changer. Beams were readily available in most spaces and there was a third story to light from when we needed to motivate moonlight in a second story bedroom. My team armed units out of the windows of the third story room directly above where we were shooting and achieved a look that never would have been possible from the ground with the resources and manpower available to us.
One of my favorite, simple tricks we used on MBMB was what my key grip and I called the “sky-ground bounce,” a frame with a blue bedsheet stretched across the top half and a tan bedsheet stretched across the bottom. It was perfect as a large bounce source that didn’t feel so out of place as bleached mus or ultrabounce. Even unbleached mus doesn’t always do the trick since it’s totally uniform, and more often than not the subjects we photograph in movies aren’t standing next to single, uniform, white sources of light. They’re surrounded by some combination of sky, earth, buildings, foliage, etc.
Finally, from a creative standpoint, it was important to me not to try to make everything classically “beautiful.” Especially since we were leaning into romantic imagery for significant chunks of the film, there needed to be some points of contrast. There’s a dinner scene toward the end of the film that I’m proud of for the simple fact that we stuck to naked tungsten practical toplights and let the windows wash the rest of the space out. I think there is an appropriate numbness and bareness to it that would have been lost had we tried to smooth out the toplight with a JEM ball or carve too much contrast into the room.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Guiteras: The set of scenes depicting Lane, Bertie, Fred, and Noa at the river were logistically challenging and physically taxing. We had a couple of company moves that day, very remote access to power, and several flights of winding cobblestone stairs to traverse in transporting our gear. I definitely felt the stress of time in my body on that day. We were also chasing a quickly moving sun behind a very tall rock wall to the south of the riverbank where we were shooting, so in order to keep consistent, direct sunlight on the scene, we kept having to cheat coverage to different parts of the riverbed every 10 minutes or so.
On top of that, about halfway through, a shepherd approached our set to let us know that that several hundred sheep would shortly come running through our shooting location. And not long after that, it started raining. But what started as the ingredients to a stress dream were alchemized into a scene that ended up having quite a lot of production value and magic in it, with all the animals and the genuine delight of the actors in response to them on screen.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Guiteras: We definitely departed from our monitoring LUT in the DI. The blessing of the on-set LUT I used was that it had me using my light meter conservatively; I was almost always overexposing everything by about half a stop, which helped preserve detail at the toe of the curve. And one scene was significantly overexposed by design, with the intention to pull it down in post. But after I had some time away from the film, when I came back to it I felt that the monitoring LUT felt too slick, contrasty, just overall too commercial. So I turned to Agnès Varda’s Vagabond at the beginning of my discussions with Marion about a different direction to take things in. Vagabond is quite a bit cooler than what we were going for, but it was a good starting point for looking at very similar environments in rural France and talking about the tonality of foliage, skin, and sky. I was lucky to work with colorist Bradley Greer on reimagining the look of the film from there.
Film Title: Ma Belle, My Beauty
Camera: ARRI Amira
Lenses: Panavision Ultra Speeds
Lighting: TSF Montpellier
Color Grading: Done in Da Vinci Resolve by Bradley Greer at Kyotocolor