Filming Seven Years in Tibet:An interview with cinematographer Robert Fraisse.

The cinema of Jean-Jacques Annaud is one obsessed with exploring cultural clashes; the director has mined this theme in films like Black and White In Color, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1978, Quest For Fire, The Name of Rose, The Lover, and, most recently, Wings of Courage, the first Imax 3-D dramatic feature ever made. (See AC August 1995.) Seven Years in Tibet, Annaud's latest work, is no exception. It's based on the true story of Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt), the legendary Austrian mountain climber who set out to scale Nanga Parbat in 1939, ended up interned at a British prisoner-of-war camp in India, and later escaped with companion Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) into Tibet. There, Harrer became a friend and tutor to the then 15-year-old Dalai Lama. Seven Years in Tibet was shot on location in Argentina and British Columbia, Canada and features stunning climbing sequences, breathtaking landscapes, and spectacular sets. But at the film's heart lies a tale of a Western man spiritually transformed by his contact with the Eastern culture of Tibetan Buddhism.

To help capture the spirit of Tibet, Annaud called upon his good friend, Parisian-based director of photography Robert Fraisse. The two attended the same film school in Paris — the Ecole Louis Lumiere — and shot French commercials together in the early days of their careers. Years later, they were re-united on The Lover, which earned Fraisse an Oscar nomination, and went on to shoot Wings of Courage.

Both men thrive creatively when filming in remote locales under extreme conditions: The Lover was shot in the torrid heat of Southeast Asia; and Wings of Courage in the frigid Canadian Rockies, while lugging around a 300-pound Imax 3-D camera by helicopter during snowstorms. "When you are shooting in the middle of nowhere, you want your director of photography to be extremely good-natured, especially when you are working 12-hour days, and sharing the same shower," Annaud says with a laugh. "And Robert is."

"Robert is also incredibly cultured about painting," Annaud adds. "Very often, we just give each other a painterly reference. For instance, in the battle scenes, I said, 'I want the light of Goya.' And of course Robert well knows the paintings in the Prado of French soldiers killing Spaniards with its very dramatic light: there is a bright, bright light [in the center] and a lot of darkness all around it."

In envisioning any clash of cultures, Annaud immerses himself in a world — be it prehistoric times, French Indochina, or early 20th century Tibet — and rebuilds it from the ground up, with an anthropological attention to detail. The sets fashioned in Argentina last fall for Seven Years in Tibet had an astonishing ability to evoke a lost Tibetan world — one now virtually destroyed by the Chinese insurgents who have occupied the area since 1950.

The Seven Years production team built some 40 sets that included a 220-yard long recreation of a Lhasa street, a 9,000 square foot replica of the "Hall of Good Deeds," the coronation room in the Potala and the ancient 1,000 room palace of the Dalai Lamas located in Lhasa. Enhancing these stunning sets were such detailed production design as the dozens of hand-painted Buddhas decorating the walls of the "Hall of Good Deeds," elaborate costuming — with everyone from yak herders to Tibetan nobles authentically dressed, and the approximately 150 Tibetans — including 75 Buddhist monks -- flown in from around the world to be in the cast. "Our purpose here is two-fold," Annaud says. "One, of course, is to make a very entertaining movie. Secondly, we are trying to be one of the very few movies to show the culture of Tibet as it was."

The following interview with cinematographer Fraisse commenced on location in Argentina last fall in San Martin, just outside the set of the "Hall of Good Deeds" and continued after shooting wrapped last spring by phone and fax between Los Angeles, Paris, and New York.

Tell me a little bit about how you got into film.

Robert Fraisse: As a teenager, I recall there always being a short feature film before the movie — most of the time it was an ethnological documentary about people living in Africa, the Amazon, or another faraway country, and [after viewing them] I felt like going to see those people. I later read a book about the movie business and became seduced by the idea of working in a crew, traveling a lot, and working outside most of the time: these were the reasons I decided to go to Louis Lumiere [film school].

How did you become a director of photography?

I started out as a loader, and then became a focus puller for famous French cinematographers Michel Kelly and Claude Renoir, and such English ones as David Watkins and Chris Challis. In the Seventies, however, we didn't use camera operators very much in France: since budgets were very low, producers took advantage of beginning cinematographers and forced them to operate camera and light a scene at the same time. I couldn't become a camera operator, so the only way to quit focus-pulling was to become a cinematographer.

While starting out, I saw a lot of old movies at the Cinematheque [in Paris] in order to understand and study how to light a scene. I began to appreciate the work of many American cinematographers like [ASC members] Robert Surtees, Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler and Laszlo Kovacs. I was also fond of the work of Pasquale de Santis in Italy, and Jean Penges in France. Since that time, I have seen almost all the movies lit by Pierre L'Homme, who in my opinion is the best French cinematographer.

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