When Sylvain Chomet, the wildly inventive director of the animated feature films The Illusionist and The Triplets of Belleville, set out to direct his first live-action feature, Attila Marcel, he chose to work with acclaimed cinematographer Antoine Roch, AFC. Roch, a veteran of more than 30 feature films, was introduced to Chomet by producer Claudie Ossard. Director and cinematographer were immediately simpatico. “I was drawn to Attila Marcel by Sylvain,” the DP relates. “He is so creative, and has such a feeling for odd, wonderful characters – the too big, the too small. He has a very strong ‘secret garden.’”
And then there was the script. “It was beautiful,” Roch adds. “It was all about the power of memory to transform. Right from the start I saw ways in which I could help Sylvain achieve the power of these memories in Paul’s (the main character’s) life.”
In Attila Marcel, Guillaume Gouix plays Paul, an emotionally stunted man living with his two aunts (Helene Vincent and Bernadette Lafont) in a dim Parisian apartment. He has the emotional age of a 2 year old, which is when his parents were killed in an accident. He has no girlfriend, and no life other than the one planned for him by his aunts, who are pushing him to be a concert pianist. One day, he is given a magical brew by a neighbor that allows him to revisit his memories of his parents to find out what really happened to them.
Roch has his own memories of what drove him to filmmaking. “I think for me it was Harold and Maude,” he says. “Hal Ashby was such a great director. I thought this is what I want to do.” So Roch made his first Super 8 movie at the age of 12. It was a comedy, with special effects. “You know, when you’re a boy, it’s all about the tricks, the effects. We were so proud – we made a dolly by screwing wheels on a three-legged table.”
Ingmar Bergman came later as an influence, while Roch was a student at the famed Belgian film school Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des Techniques de Diffusion. Though he shot his first film at 26, the road wasn’t always easy. “I grew up in western France,” he explains. “My parents were doctors. They didn’t really understand you could make a life in film. Now, I think they’re okay with it.”
Finding your way in life is one of the themes of Attila Marcel. Paul is a character who has essentially lost 25 years of his life and has to break from the path his aunts have set for him and discover his own way. It is this psychology that Roch found fascinating because it lent itself to very specific lighting. “Because Attila is such a whimsical movie, I could take chances, be bold. I could really use the psychology of the characters to light them.”
For instance, the aunt’s apartment has very high ceilings that swallow up the light. It’s dim, almost suffocating. This is Paul’s world. In the piano room, there is a single natural light source – the window. But when he opens the lid of the piano, it blocks out the light, a visual metaphor for the life Paul doesn’t want. Since Paul’s memories of his parents span the ages of about 6 months to 2 years, revisiting them demands a purely objective camera – when his parents talk to him, they look directly into the camera. POVs are low, with the camera always moving, mimicking a child’s curious eye. Hands reach right at the camera, just as a toddler would see them as they reached for him in a crib.
For Roch, film was the perfect and obvious choice for image capture. “Attila Marcel is a very emotional movie, very human. To me, film aids emotion in a way that digital can’t quite match. I wanted textures and nuances. I wanted to feel what Paul was feeling.”
In musical terms, Roch was looking “not just for major notes, but the minor ones – the ones that add depth. This is where film stands alone in conveying the sweetness and heartbreak of memory.”
Convincing the producers to shoot on film was not difficult – they trusted Roch and knew that the cost was essentially the same. Roch utilized KODAK VISON3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, KODAK VISON3 200T Color Negative Film 5213 and KODAK VISON3 50D Color Negative Film 5203, relying mainly on 5213 Film for the grain and nuance it gave him. He shot with the ARRI ST and ARRI LT cameras in 3-perf format, using COOKE S4 Prime and ANGENIEUX Optimo Zoom lenses.
Roch also values the color range film gives him. While the present-day scenes in Paris are classically lit, with a “real-life” color palette, Paul’s memories are an entirely different story. They are full of light. The colors are rich, deep, and in some cases almost garish. For instance, in one scene, Paul re-experiences a musical band composed of life-size cartoon characters – including a fish and a frog – just like he remembered them. And over all of these memories is a particulate haze, with edges slightly dimmed, to give the viewer a truer feeling of being inside Paul’s mind. To Roch’s eye, the value of film is simple: “It’s more beautiful, so it gives more emotion.”
Attila Marcel is a movie about the liberating possibility of memory. It’s part musical, very Parisian, and – no surprise coming from the mind of Chomet – touchingly offbeat. Roch’s eyes twinkle when he comments, “I think you’ll remember it!”