“The Maltese Sun Was My First Lighting Tool”: DP Léo Lefèvre on Luzzu
Alex Camilleri’s Luzzu touts itself as one of the first 100% Maltese films. Starring fisherman Camilleri met during his time in Malta, the movie features non-actors in what could be mistaken for a documentary on Malta’s fishing industry and the ecological concerns therein. DP Léo Lefèvre tells us about his approach to filming inexperienced actors and what it was like filming on the water.
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?
Lefèvre: First, I was approached by the Maltese producers of the movie. They saw Papicha (directed by Mounia Meddour) at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 and thought that my cinematographic approach could match with Luzzu. I started to discuss with Alex Camilleri by Skype and he explained the project from the beginning. I loved the idea that it started from a documentary approach. We shared references, visions and we started to imagine how to tell the story the right way, based on real thing that we can find in Malta. I learned a lot from shooting documentaries and also working as camera assistant with Ken Loach.
As cinematographer my approach working with non-actors is always very respectful. I am curious about people I am filming, and I care a lot finding the good distance and film them the good way. Trying to catch the soul of the people, and to feel the texture of the objects that I am filming.
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?
Lefèvre: Malta is a big studio for worldwide super-production. Luzzu was one of the first Maltese films with Maltese actors and non-actors, 100% Maltese locations, Maltese speaking people and 95% Maltese crew. Alex wanted to show a realistic vision of Malta through the beauty of the culture here and with all the paradoxes that we can find on this small island.
I spent three weeks on locations before the shoot. Alex brought me to the places that inspired the movie, and we spent time with the fishermen to understand the best way to film them on boats and on the land. We wanted to feel everything real with the camera and we did tests to find the camera and the lenses we wanted to use. Also, I created a LUT with my Belgian colorist Kene Illegems that reveal the quality of the light in Malta, and giving the right colors of the skin in the contrast with all the shades of blues from the Mediterranean Sea.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Lefèvre: I remember that we talked about different “way of shooting” like Ramin Bahrani (plan sequence) or Ken Loach (chronological order). We also questioned the texture of the image, thinking about S16mm (Japon directed by Carlos Reygadas), or some high grain photography from Bernard Plossu (Fresson print process). Au Hasard Balthazar was also a strong reference for filming the boat like a living object.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Lefèvre: As any production working with a cinema crew on boats, the weather conditions were one of the biggest challenge of the shoot. We started the shoot by the first scene of the movie when Jesmark is on luzzu at the sea. Jesmark was picking the nets with real fishes and I was with the assistant director on the boat trying to not fall in the water with the camera! The rest of the crew was on another boat few meters from us. That was my first time filming on a boat and I was very excited to do it. We managed to get all the scenes without any incident.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Lefèvre: We shot Luzzu with an Arri ALEXA Mini in S16mm Sensor Crop Mode combined with a Zeiss MKI S16mm set of lenses. I also used a Canon S16mm Zoom Lens for some boat scenes. The ALEXA Mini is my workhorse camera for this kind of project. I love the versatility of the body, and even by using a small part of the sensor (Sensor Crop), I really love the texture of the ALEXA and the way I can get an enhanced naturalistic look.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Lefèvre: The Maltese sun was my first lighting tool for the shoot. I really love to work with natural light, and I choose carefully the time of shooting to get the good direction of the sun depending of the shot list. I don’t like to use bounces when I am working outside. I like to get a strong contrast on set that I can soften if necessary with color grading. For the interiors day, I mainly used bounced HMI through the windows. I also love to use Litemats in the interiors. For the nights, I really work with practicals inside and Sodium/Mercure outside. I work a lot with the production designer to be able create the environment that I like with the eyes, then I work with the gaffer to balance the scene and get the color/contrast that works with the scene.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Lefèvre: After the first scene of fishing on the luzzu, the most difficult scene to realize was the auctions scene. Because we wanted to be as realistic as possible, we decided to shoot a part of the scene (wide shots and side angles) during the real auctions. To make it happen we had to be ready to shoot at 3 a.m. in the middle of the night with our actors and a small group of extras to be sure that we will not miss anything from this exciting moment where people buy kilos of fishes in a short timing of 30/45 minutes. After this climax, people disappeared with boxes of fishes and we were able to continue the scenes from other angles without the hundreds of buyers and the thousands of fishes in the background.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Lefèvre: The grading of Luzzu was a real worldwide coronavirus case! The producer was in Malta, the director was in New York City and me and my colorist Kene Illegems were in Belgium at Charbon Studio. Because we worked on prep to get a look as close as possible from our expectation, we were able to grade very fast and didn’t change direction from what we had on set.
Film Title: LUZZU
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini S16mm Sensor Crop Mode
Lenses: Zeiss Super Speed MKI triangle Bokeh
Lighting: Arri HMI / Arri Skypanels / Litemats / Practicals
Processing: Apple Pro Res 4444
Color Grading: Da Vinci Resolve @ Charbon Studio (Brussels)