The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Super 8
Presidents Desk
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ASC Close-Up
Bruno Delbonnel
Bruno Delbonnel

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Sven Nykvist, ASC showed me that light can be psychology. With Gianni di Venanzo, light can be architecture; with Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC, light is lyrical; with Vadim Yusov, light is spiritual; with Gordon Willis, ASC, light is a Greek tragedy; with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, light is emotional, and with Freddie Young, BSC, light is epic. I also admire Bob Richardson, ASC; Harris Savides, ASC; Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC; Janusz Kaminski; César Charlone, ABC, and Emmanuel Lubezski, ASC, AMC for exploring new ways of telling a story with light, just as Billy Bitzer, Eduard Tisse, Fritz Arno Wagner and Gregg Toland, ASC did.

What sparked your interest in photography?
Seeing that cinematography is definitely an art.

Where did you train and/or study?
I studied philosophy. Then I directed a short film and had Henri Alekan, AFC (Beauty and the Beast) as my director of photography. He was a master. Working with him for only a week made me understand that I wasn’t a director. I spent more time talking to him about light and composition than I did talking to the actors.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
I didn’t really have any. I guess I learned by looking at films. I was a camera assistant, and I don’t think an AC can learn from a director of photography. But when you watch films at home, you can freeze the frame and study how the cinematographer lit a shot. I did it then, and I still do it. (I still don’t understand how Roger Deakins and Bob Richardson do some light … they have to explain it to me!)
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Music, architecture and sculpture, because they are all based on a structure and harmony. We could imagine a script being a score and play with light as if it were a variation on a theme. Light can be like a symphony with different movements, or like a Frank Gehry building with a lot of curves instead of straight lines, or like a sculpture with empty spaces inside a plain, marble block. Those different fields in art are playing with opposition: slow vs. fast, melodic vs. atonal, black vs. white, empty vs. plain. Cinematographers play with light vs. shadow. I’m being a bit simplistic, but that’s the roots for me, I guess. My main influence is contemporary art. It’s amazing how far some artists go. We have a lot to learn from them.

How did you get your first break in the business?
When I was 22, there were a lot of American and British cinematographers coming to France to shoot, and very few camera assistants could speak English. I could because I’d just spent a year living in New York. I had no talent whatsoever, but I could at least communicate with the cinematographer!

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Prep is always the most satisfying moment, because that’s when you define the look of the film with all your dreams and desires. The shoot brings you back to the reality of what you can and cannot do. The shoot is disappointment with good surprises.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
You don’t want me to tell everyone how bad I am, do you? I’ve made them all.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
When I was an AC, a gaffer told me, ‘Don’t run on a set,’ because you show everyone that you probably forgot something. I still don’t run on set, and I try not to forget too many things.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art in London, David Nash’s sculptures at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s film The Five Obstructions, and photography by Thomas Ruff, Elger Esser, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I don’t think so.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?

A fireman. At least I would have the feeling of doing something useful for the community instead of being so selfish.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Michael Chapman, Guillermo Navarro and Woody Omens.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I met [ASC members] Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs, Conrad Hall and Bob Richardson the first time I was nominated for an ASC Award, and they told me they really liked what I did on Amélie. I thought, ‘What is happening? I’m in front of four legendary cinematographers, and they are talking to me as if I were one of their peers. I really have to show them something better the next time I meet them.’

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