Among the many felicities of comedy-musical The Artist, French director Michel Hazanavicius’ captivating silent-film tribute to American filmmaking as the silent era transitioned to the talkies at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s, is the spot-on black-and-white cinematography of Guillaume Schiffman. It’s therefore surprising to learn that the film was shot in color and later converted to the sensuous black and white that moviegoers see on the screen.
“We looked at available black-and-white film stock and it turned out to create images that were too sharp and not grainy enough,” says the director of photography. The solution decided upon with the director was to shoot the film in color, and then convert it to black and white. “We did a lot of advance tests and were lucky to have a long prep,” says the DP.
The Artist, a Weinstein Company release, is about a silent screen star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) whose career is challenged by the advent of the talkies. He meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bujo), whose fortunes are on the rise. The film taps themes from Hollywood classics such as Singing in the Rain and A Star is Born.
Hazanavicius storyboarded the entire screenplay and he and Schiffman spent a lot of time discussing their options during pre-production. Lighting and color scale became a key part of the story-telling. “Because there’s no dialogue, light has to tell you something, the shadows have to tell you something,” he says. “Michel told me how he envisaged the story, how he was going to play with the blacks and whites, shadow and light, and a lot of grays.”
Close coordination with production designer Laurence Bennett was also crucial. “If something on the set was blue, we had to determine how it would look against the background when it appeared in black and white,” he notes.
Schiffman used a Pan-Arri 435 ES camera and found some older lenses to soften the look. He also used special filters to diffuse the whites and mute the blacks a bit. The film was shot on Kodak 35mm VISION3 500T 5219 and converted to black and white at Laboratories LTC, Paris, France. A lot of fine-turning was done during the digital intermediate phase.
The Artist was shot entirely in Los Angeles over the span of only 25 days. Schiffman assembled his camera team locally, and has high praise for the professionalism of the Hollywood crew. “By American standards this was a very small film,” observes Schiffman. “But only once in a lifetime do you do a black-and-white silent movie that takes place in the 1920s, so everyone was very caught up in the special spirit of making the film.” The camerawork was also shot in the traditional style, using dollies and tripods.
As part of the lead-up to starting the film, the director had the DP watch many movies from the 1920s and 1930s. These included films by Franz Murnau, early King Vidor, Charlie Chaplin comedies and also some Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies. “I spent lots of time going to the Cinematheque [in Paris] when I was growing up so I was already familiar with some of these films,” says Schiffman. His father, an American, “liked to take me to musicals, while my mother would take me to the latest cinema,” he recalls. His mother, Suzanne Schiffman, worked on numerous films with French New Wave filmmakers including Jean-Luc Goddard and, in particular, Francois Truffaut. She was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay for Truffaut’s Day for Night.
Schiffman and Hazanavicius are close friends, and live near each other in Paris. The Artist is their third collaboration. They previously worked together on two French James Bond spoofs, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio. Schiffman was also DP on a French film released in 2011, Gainsbourg: A Life, a biopic about the acclaimed singer. The DP has received nominations for best cinematography from the Independent Spirit Awards, the European Film Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.