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Guillaume Schiffman, AFC Takes Audiences Back to the Silent Era with The Artist

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John Goodman as Al Zimmer in Michel Hazanavicius's film THE ARTIST. Photo by: The Weinstein Company

The Artist has reminded audience all over the world of the forgotten pleasures of silent-era melodrama. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, AFC says that he and director Michel Hazanavicius thought of the project as a small souvenir of a bygone cinematic age. They did not foresee a box-office phenomenon that would earn 10 Academy Award® nominations, including best picture, best director and best cinematography.

“We didn’t set out to make a duplication of a silent-era movie,” says Schiffman. “We looked at films from that time period for three months, and then we forgot everything and made our own movie. Our goal was to give audiences an idea of the flavor of those older movies, but we used modern tools and techniques. If you compare The Artist to movies from the 1920s, they don’t really look all that similar. But The Artist hopefully allows audiences to rediscover some of the pleasures of the great silent films.”

In the story, the career of a silent-movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), is threatened by the advent of sound. Meanwhile, a young starlet’s career is on the rise. Eventually Valentin despairs and Peppy Martin (Bérénice Bejo) arrives just in time to save the day. It’s a delightful and clever homage told with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, but the story and performances evoke real emotions in the audience. The film is almost entirely silent, with the exception of a handful of words and sounds in two scenes.

Schiffman says the most important contribution to the overall look and feel of The Artist was the decision to shoot film. “I made some tests, and it was immediately obvious that we needed the texture of film stock,” he says. “I wanted soft whites and deep blacks, but not so much contrast that the image begins to look like HD. I experimented with some digitally shot images, and they were too sharp. I was fighting against the sharpness.”

To create black-and-white images, Schiffman chose to shoot the film on color stock – KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 – and to drain the color out during digital intermediate timing at DuboiColor in France. “The producers left the decision of format to us,” he says. “They told us that we had limited means and 35 days to make the film, and took our advice about the right medium.”

To further echo the visual traits of the silent era, Schiffman enlisted Panavision lens expert Dan Sasaki. Sasaki helped the cinematographer identify older, uncoated lenses from the 1950s and 60s that delivered the right look. He also put together tools and techniques that gave the images the vignette that is characteristic of 1920s moving pictures. The edges were then fine-tuned in digital timing. For the movie-within-the-movie images that play on theater screens in the story, Schiffman added flicker and grain, and made the vignette look less subtle. The 1.37 aspect ratio is also reminiscent of the more-square Academy aperture that was standard in the early years of motion pictures.

Schiffman also shot at 22 frames per second to subtly speed up the images. Before sound made 24 frames per second the standard, handcranking cinematographers aimed for 16 fps, and sometimes slowed their cranking for action scenes to add speed and dynamism to images played back at normal rates. That’s why modern audiences usually think of silent films as slightly sped up and herky-jerky.

Camera movement was accomplished using current tools including dollies and Technocranes, but sometimes a subtle authenticity was added with a little shake of the crane during a move. Similarly, modern lighting tools were used to light the scenes, but after steeping himself in older film during prep, Schiffman knew instinctually when a scene’s illumination looked period-accurate. Well-known industry gaffer and lighting expert Jim Plannette refurnished ancient lamp housings and rebuilt them with modern interior elements. These lamps appear in the film, lighting up movie sets in the story.

Schiffman used diffusion filters to further soften the images. “I prefer to do as much as possible in camera, on the set,” he says. “I created a soft image, and if I needed additional contrast, I added it digitally later. You can do so much in the digital intermediate, but you have to light correctly on the set. If you don’t light things right, you’ll never get it back in post.”

Schiffman says the huge success of The Artist is a welcome surprise. “We thought we were making a small film that would be appreciated by a select French audience,” he says. “Now it’s being seen all over the world. That’s amazing.”