The American Society of Cinematographers

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ASC Close-Up

Director of photography Yves Bélanger, CSC and director Jean-Marc Vallée bring their minimalist approach to Demolition, a drama about a man who tears down his life in order to move forward.

Unit photography by Anne Marie Fox, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

In the offbeat comedy-drama Demolition, Wall Street banker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) deals with tragedy in unconventional ways. After his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), is killed in a car accident — and a hospital candy machine takes his money without distributing the reciprocal packet of Peanut M&M’s — he channels his grief into a series of complaint letters to the Champion Vending Co. Despite her own issues, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the customer rep on the receiving end of Davis’ candid notes, is moved and makes tentative efforts to reach out. Davis slowly forms an almost childlike bond with both Karen and her troubled son, Chris (Judah Lewis).

Meanwhile, Davis’ boss and father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper), pushes Davis to help launch a scholarship in Julia’s honor, but the widower instead wanders about numbly. Phil advises, “Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart, just examine everything, and then you can put it all back together.” Davis takes this notion to extremes, disassembling a series of appliances, rooms and more in escalating fashion.

Demolition marks the third feature that cinematographer Yves Bélanger, CSC has shot with director and fellow Montrealer Jean-Marc Vallée, following the Academy Award-winning Dallas Buyers Club and Oscar-nominated Wild (AC Jan. ’15). Their collaborative approach involves working quickly to shoot a lot of footage, predominantly with a handheld camera and available lighting supplemented with practicals.

This isn’t the cinematographer’s sole M.O., however. Prior to Demolition, Bélanger wrapped on the Irish-Canadian romantic drama Brooklyn, which shot largely in his hometown. Acknowledging that it was his fast-and-loose work on Dallas Buyers Club that brought him to the attention of Brooklyn director John Crowley, the cinematographer explains that the productions were similar in some ways but also notably different. “[On Brooklyn,] we did not have a lot of shooting days and John wanted to be sure he’d have time with the actors,” Bélanger recalls from Los Angeles, where he and Vallée are shooting the HBO limited series Big Little Lies. “He didn’t want to wait three hours for lighting, but at the same time he was not asking me to shoot with available light and entirely handheld.

“So I thought of a method where we could shoot 360 degrees,” he continues. “I had lights, but they were coming through windows and from practicals, so there were no flags or silks on the set that would be in shot if I panned. And because I wanted [lead actress] Saoirse Ronan to be a kind of angel, I always had a Chinese lantern on a boom pole following her so she would glow. This allowed the same kind of freedom Jean-Marc has, but with something more theatrical.”

Demolition’s 35 shooting days got underway in September 2014 on location in and around New York City. Each day could yield four to five hours of rushes. “We always shot rehearsals,” Vallée recalls during an earlier interview he and Bélanger did with AC at the Toronto International Film Festival, one day after Demolition’s world premiere in the prestigious opening-night gala slot.

“It’s a strong script,” the director continues, referring to the work of screenwriter Bryan Sipe. “We shot the script, but then we’d decide, ‘We’re eliminating this,’ or we’d add a scene with Naomi or Heather, or with Jake dancing around the city.”

“I’ve never seen Jean-Marc try so many versions of each line and situation,” Bélanger says. “A lot of decisions were made on the editing table. Sometimes he was very precise about what he wanted, and sometimes he would shoot a scene three different ways. There are a lot of shots in the movie about 30 frames long that took a lot of work to get.” The finished film, edited by Jay M. Glen, has a musical rhythm, flowing — often in snippets — between present and past. 

The production utilized an Arri Alexa XT camera, recording ArriRaw files to 512GB Codex XR Capture Drives. Bélanger explains that this system provided the freedom to shoot easily in various lighting conditions and for long stretches at a time. “We like how the Alexa reacts to available light, to latitude, and to over- and underexposing,” he elaborates. “Daylight is nice and contrasty, and [the camera] works well with candlelight. I find that with the Alexa, the less you do, the better it will look. Nowadays it’s very much about turning off lights.”

On occasion, the crew shot continuously until the Capture Drive’s full 45 minutes had been used. Operating the handheld camera himself, Bélanger would go from take to retake to new angles to inserts, altering the exposure on the fly. “Everything happened very fast,” he explains. “Discussions about lighting sometimes took only 40 seconds. The actors love it. They’re not disturbed by hearing ‘cut’ and having everybody start to talk. They’re still in character, which is more fun for them.”

The cinematographer acknowledges that this kind of shooting marathon takes a physical toll, but adds, “I couldn’t give up operating because, although we light sometimes, framing is really the only way to make my mark.” To lessen the load, Vallée often took over camera duties toward the end of the day while Bélanger remotely controlled the iris. This also allowed him to evaluate the footage with a Rec 709 viewing LUT on a 17" or 40" monitor. (The film does have its breaks from the handheld approach, such as when operator Brant Fagan performed a Steadicam move in which Davis outruns a group of boys on a rain-slicked Coney Island boardwalk.)

“Yves is amazing technically with the Alexa,” Vallée offers. “We shot mostly with available light, but he’s controlling the camera. He always knows what filters to use. And he communicates with John Paino, the production designer. He tells him, ‘Practicals, practicals! Replace this with another practical.’ Yves has a way of seeing locations — he’ll tell me, ‘Bring the action over here because I need this light.’”

Bélanger primarily shot with old T1.3 Zeiss Super Speed primes, adjusting their front-of-the-lens aperture rings with his finger while operating. He estimates 70 percent of the movie was shot on a 35mm, which Vallée prefers for its emotional connection with actors in close-ups, and which allowed the filmmakers to shoot in the movie’s many tight spaces. The 25mm was the next most-popular choice, followed by the 50mm and the 85mm, along with a 135mm Zeiss Standard Speed — the latter of which was used on an improvised long shot in which Davis and Karen chase seagulls on the beach at Coney Island.

For occasional point-of-view shots through the windshield of Davis’ SUV, Bélanger switched to the compact Alexa XT M camera — which he could conveniently rest on the dashboard — and 27mm and 32mm Arri/Zeiss Master Primes, as he found the 25mm and 35mm Super Speeds too wide and too tight, respectively.


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