On the Filming of Albert Serra’s Pacifiction
Shot in Tahiti, Albert Serra’s film Pacifiction, which premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, stars Benoît Magimel in the role of a high commissioner representing the French government. While conversing with residents and passers-by on the island, the rumour of renewed nuclear testing in French Polynesia surfaces more and more persistently. For Pacifiction – after Liberté (2019), Singularity (2015) and The Three Little Pigs (2012), among others – Serra once again collaborated with cameraman and editor Artur Tort. Tahiti is staged in bright colours, as an elusive, magical place. The camera moves at high speed on a speedboat, travels in a small plane and bobbles up and down on the waves among surfers. The images are at the same time wild and uncluttered, giving the film a rare energy. Sabzian spoke to Tort about his collaboration with Serra and the process behind Pacifiction.
Ruben Desiere: Pacifiction is your fifth collaboration with Albert Serra. How did you get involved in his work?
Artur Tort: I started working with Albert ten years ago when I was still studying. I was doing a degree in audiovisual communication that touched on a lot of subjects. We got a bit of social communication, radio, television, cinema, a bit of film history. It was so diverse that you couldn’t really dive deep into anything. For me, it was a bit frustrating. In the second year a friend was interviewing Albert. Knowing that I liked Albert’s work, he asked me to come with him. I went and we talked with Albert. We spoke about cinema, about the films we liked. In the end, I gave him my email address and told him that I was a fed up with university and would like to work for him. A few months later he contacted me to join his production company. That’s how I started, still very young, working on the production of his films.
What did the work consist of?
I helped out with mailings and practicalities. They were preparing Història de la meva mort which already had funding. The idea was to shoot with two cameras but at the very beginning of the shoot the decision was made to change to very small digital cameras. Albert made the choice when he realised he could have three cameras for the price of those two other cameras. He gave the third camera to me and told me to have fun. I filmed the whole shoot and he liked the rushes. We decided to work together on the next project which happened to be The Three Little Pigs and became a hundred-hour-long film, sort of soap opera. We shot for a hundred days during documenta in Kassel. Nonstop, like crazy. We started two or three days before the opening and worked until the last day. We shot, the rushes went to the two editors, they cut the film in the first day, in the second day the postproduction was done, and in the third it was screened. So, every day a new two-hour film was shown.
Therefore the reference to soap opera?
Exactly. The film takes Goethe, Fassbinder and Hitler, three key figures in German history, as a starting point. We took three books that reflect these characters. Conversations with Goethe by Eckerman, some of the Fassbinder interviews in Fassbinder über Fassbinder, and Hitler’s Table Talk, which contains conversations Hitler had with his close allies. The paragraphs in these diaries and texts were adapted to the first person. Then these dialogues were recited by the actors. We didn’t work with professional actors but with people from documenta. One was an art critic, another one was working on the staff of documenta and so on. They played the characters and could, with the help of an earpiece, say all these things like they were Hitler, Goethe or Fassbinder. Our goal was to film the whole book. Each of the three books. As the cinematographer, I had to adapt all the time. We would, for example, film a scene in a room that used to be Hitler’s headquarters in Kassel. A beautiful room with windows at one side. According to the book the scene took place at night but we had to shoot during the day. So I had to find a way, without any equipment, gaffers or electricians, just together with Miquel (Barceló) who operated the other camera. By changing the white balance, I tried to use the light that fell through the windows to create a sort of a strange blueish night. It was mostly intuition, trying to discover how to work with light along the way. This process went on for three months in all sorts of situations. The scenes on itself weren’t difficult. Mostly there were a couple of actors reciting the text. It resembled a bit the work of Straub-Huillet. There wasn’t the kind of movement we have for example in Pacifiction. In this sense it was easy, but for me it was where I really learned how to work.
Which cameras did you film with?
The Panasonic HPX171. It was very good. It’s a real pity that these kinds of cameras weren’t developed any further. Around 2012 you had these affordable digital cameras that had a sort of organic feel but were still very compact. It had everything. A lens was fixed to the body and the whole thing was very robust. You could shoot handheld without adding anything. Many people where using that camera. Pedro Costa, Zhao Liang and Albert Serra all shot films with it. Later, it was developed into the huge digital cameras we have now. Cameras like the HPX171 weren’t developed any further. They disappeared and I had to look for other cameras. But for quite a long period I worked with this camera. For Història de la meva mort, The Three Little Pigs and then for Singularity.
In what phase did you get involved in Pacifiction?
Hard to say. Albert and I are friends and discuss things all the time. I always know if he’s developing a project. I read the script when he has it, I am involved in the whole thing from the very beginning. This project was kind of particular since it is set in Tahiti and the idea was to go there, cast the actors, scout the locations and shoot immediately. But then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. So everything shut down. This first period in Tahiti was the first concrete work on Pacifiction. I shot some tests and at the same time the casting was done. This was September 2020 and it took almost a year before we went back, around mid-July. We spent two or three weeks with Albert, Montse Triola (the Spanish producer), the art director and myself preparing before the bigger crew arrived. We finished the location scouting, prepared some of the sets and then in August 2021 the shoot started.
How did the casting go?
We worked with a casting director from the island. Albert gave her some directions, they went through the script and discussed some of the characters. Afterwards she proposed some people, actors and non-actors, who we interviewed. Some days I stayed for the casting and on other days I went out with the art director who was also the location scout in the beginning. Being in Tahiti I started to become aware of the colours and how the light works and looks in this environment. I gathered some shots and did some grading tests. I even made photos with an analogue point and shoot camera to see how the colours reacted. In between, we did a part of the casting by going around, to bars, meeting people.
Were some of the characters connected to a certain location? Did you shoot with the actual staff of the hotel for example?
This happened sometimes. For the bar scene in the film we asked the owner to organize an evening and to invite people. We, for our part, asked some people we liked from the casting. This was how it worked for the extras. And then, sometimes, we really liked someone and we asked them to do some more scenes with us.
Was there a script or text you could base yourself on?
Yes, there was a script but written almost like a novel, full of thoughts instead of dialogues. “This character is now thinking that he should tell her, but he won’t, because he’s afraid that she will think…” The script was full of things that are impossible to translate into images so I didn’t base myself too much on it. I focused more on the island itself. From the script I made a list of technically difficult scenes to focus on. One of them was the scene in the discotheque, fully lit in blacklight. It was something Albert saw somewhere once and really wanted for the film. The idea was to see the underwear of the waiters and waitresses but I know from my experience, when filming these very long takes, it can always happen that there is a dialogue we eventually like to keep. Therefore, it is important to have some information, some light in the faces of the characters as well. Another one was the scene on the boat at night. The question was how I could light a boat at night in the middle of the sea. I tried to imagine possible solutions. “Could it be a drone with a spotlight, or a bulb of light? Maybe we could engineer something like that.” During the scouting I already talked to some drone operators to figure out if this could work or not. Later I thought we could maybe put lights in a second boat moving at the same speed.
Do you test this setup beforehand in Spain?
I started thinking about possibilities but I couldn’t run tests because in the end it all depends on the location and the light of that day. The main job beforehand was to decide what camera we would use. I tested very rigorously. When starting a film with Albert this decision is key: which camera, in which setup.
How do you ultimately make that decision?
I know very well what we need. We stick to our way of working. We may have different ambitions, but practically, the methodology, is very clear. The actors have the freedom to move and improvise. I have to light the scenes in almost 360 degrees, everything can happen. We shot Pacifiction with three cameras. Every camera has to be single operated. I operate one of the cameras and I’m also in charge of the lighting and a bit of the mise-en-scène. Albert often doesn’t even look at what we do. He’s more focused on the actors. Giving them material, creating and disrupting scenes and making things evolve. He listens to the dialogue but rarely sees the image we are making. The image belongs to me. It’s my job. I know we need a lightweight camera with long battery hours, cards that can handle long takes, and good image quality. With every new project we like to change to a different camera. So I have keep myself up to date, follow the developments and consider what can be usable for us. I constantly keep lists of all available options. I create diagrams of battery runtimes, codecs, characteristics... Along the way it becomes clear which cameras could be interesting to us. I end up with a list of four or five cameras. Next step is to go out and test them.
Which cameras did you test and under what conditions?
I tested an Arri Alexa Mini, RED Gemini, Canon EOS C300 Mark III, Blackmagic Design 6K Pro, and a Sony PXW-FX9 or FX6. All more-or-less small cameras. I went to a rental house with a friend and I made some shots of his face to see the colour rendition, the skin... Then I did some tests outdoors. Check how the cameras deal with the sun, birds... sometimes filming overexposed to see how the highlights react. Straight away I saw that the Black Magic and the Canon were the only real option for us. The Canon we already used for Liberté and I felt that the Black Magic was perhaps a little bit more solid in lowlight conditions. It was a little bit softer and I liked the colours a bit more. The Sonys I didn’t like, I felt there was something very greenish in the colour rendition. The Arri and RED were impossible. It’s a pity because I loved the RED because it functions really well in low light. It also worked very well with the lens we wanted to use. But it has a start-up time of thirty seconds, that’s impossible.
Which lens did you use?
I used the super 16 mm Canon 11.5-138 Zoom which we already used for Liberté. To be able to use this lens, all these cameras, that all have a 35 mm sensor, have to be used in 16 mm or crop mode. Which means that you only use the middle part of the sensor. You lose a bit of quality but it makes the image already a bit more interesting. Working in this mode you also end up with smaller files which is really important when shooting around five hundred hours of rushes. And then, of course, it has to be single operated and the depth of field of the 16 mm sensor is a bit more forgiving regarding focus. The Arri isn’t capable of doing this. The resolution in crop mode is only HD, and this was too much of a risk. We don’t always have the time to frame very precise. Often, we reframe in postproduction so the base resolution has to be sufficient. The resolution of the Black Magic in crop mode is still around 4K so we ended up picking this one. The setup worked well for us.
Did any of the three cameras have an assistant?
No. Every operator was responsible for his camera and all necessary material. In my bag I had my batteries, filters, everything.
Did you shoot every scene with three cameras?
Not always but almost always. In the plane for example there were only two.
I wonder how you oversee the overall form of the film having three operators who frame and film differently. The film feels quite formal, it doesn’t feel like an improvisation. It doesn’t feel like a multicam shoot neither. Do you determine certain rules with the operators?
The aspiration is of course to end up with a film that has some formal power in itself. It’s a fiction. The three of us don’t always have the same taste, but globally speaking, it’s very close. There are indeed rules that we share, which were established a long time ago. They have worked with me for a long time. I have collaborated with Julien (Hogert) since La mort de Louis XIV, and Miquel worked with me on The Three Little Pigs. We get along very well and we have a lot of fun, which is very important with this kind of shoot. We try to figure things out together in an often very chaotic environment. I can really rely on them.
What are these shared rules? Are they about focal lengths, aperture...?
About all these things, yes. We can use the whole range of the zoom but I normally ask them not to go to the very end, on the long part, because then the image becomes very soft. I like this as an effect, but only if it’s an effect. If one camera is shooting at this focal length and the others not, it doesn’t edit too well. Before the shoot, I check a bit what they are doing, and make agreements. In general, I don’t like it if the background is too blurry. You see it too often in recent films that everything behind the character is out of focus and it often doesn’t make sense to me. You feel how the operator is struggling and how the focus is moving all the time. It makes the presence of the camera so evident. If you look at film history, from Tourneur to Brian De Palma it all feels much more beautiful and natural than nowadays.
Which diaphragm did you decide to use?
Wide open the lens is 2.5, but I always try to stop it down to 4 or 5.6.
To make it less soft and to give it a bit more depth?
Yes, but it depends of course from shot to shot. For me it’s clear when I see the image but the operators need to understand it also. Closeups and wide shots don’t work in the same way. I like wide shots to be a bit sharper because then you keep options for postproduction, for example for masking. In general, wide shots are way more difficult. For close-ups, I want more texture, opening the lens a bit more. But it always depends.
How long was the shooting period of Pacifiction?
Is that period meticulously planned out from day one until day twenty-six, linked to the script?
No, the pages of the script disappear. We keep the main purpose of the scenes. We know that we’re going to shoot certain scenes. But a lot has still to be found out. Sometimes we start from a conversation between characters with a general idea of the narrative but then we still have to figure out specific details. But we know we’ll develop the scene on the spot, through improvisation.
How many people worked on the set?
On the set itself not so many. The people responsible for the wardrobe and make-up are not close to the actual shoot because we want to keep it intimate. There are three people on sound, the gaffer and two electricians. The three light technicians don’t stay when we shoot. They set up the light and go. When we actually start filming, I normally don’t touch any lights. Because then it’s time for the actors to perform, and it’s time for us to shoot. Of course, sometimes light changes and then we have to rearrange it a bit.
How does the découpage come about?
We construct it in the moment. I react to what’s happening and readjust the framing to cover the scene in the way that I think works best. When Albert is talking to the actors, we discuss who films what. Sometimes one of us serves as a stand-in or we work with some of the actors who are already there. This is how we set up the mise-en-scène. We start looking for shots, memorizing possible angles with the lighting already done or almost done.
The scene is already blocked?
More or less, yes. The camera that found the best wide shot will stay in that position. Normally it isn’t me because I prefer to shoot one of the close-ups, to be close to the actors and to be able to judge when to change from one actor to another. The third camera is usually also looking for close-ups. We quickly discuss. “You can cover the guy that talks to Benoît [Magimel], and some guys at this side. I’ll cover Benoît and maybe I can include these other two actors.” But this is always approximative, we always have to react to the scene that is developing in front of us. When we start shooting, we just “go”. The camera operators know what I don’t like. Avoiding shots that suddenly don’t have any background, shooting too sharp... They know these things. I trust them a lot, which is necessary to work so freely. During the scene we communicate with signs. Sometimes I ask to send me a picture of the frame they are shooting by phone. I try to always keep in mind the proportion between my shot and the other angels especially when we are filming dialogue.
Is the image sent to monitors?
No, there are no monitors. I’m the only one who has oversight. But I don’t have a monitor with images from all three cameras. Sometimes, if it’s a fixed shot with dialogue, while my camera is running, I walk to the other cameras. I have the freedom to move quietly to the other cameras to check. But we mainly sign each other. “Now you’ll film the actor who’s listening, and I’ll film the other one.” The other operator moves his camera and once he has a shot, it’s my turn to change the frame. We don’t change at the same time. Otherwise this would create difficulties for editing.
Does the scene unfold uninterrupted, or is it broken up by “action” and “cut”?
We start shooting without saying anything to the actors. Sometimes they notice that we might be shooting already and they start talking. We try to create something that is alive. The actors don’t know which of the three cameras is doing what and this makes their performances less deliberate. They don’t know if they’re being shot, from what angle and with what lens. They don’t have a clue of the mise-en-scène.
In Pacifiction you’re quite far away. You use a lot of long lenses.
This is the case in most of Albert’s work. It originates from the films that were shot with the HPX171. The built-in zoom lens has an incredible range. We could be very distant from the actors. I like it a lot, aesthetically speaking, but also how it works with the actors. They are less aware of my presence.
For some scenes, like the one at night on the veranda, I can’t imagine it to be the result of a multicam shoot. One camera had a low viewpoint, the other one is higher, but they are very aligned. It feels like classical Hollywood cinema. How did you film this specific scene?
Classical cinema is an important reference to me. I try to make my images also work in a classic sense. The relation between the cameras has to be right, and this is very difficult. Sometimes you realize that the set-up isn’t working or an actor moved and the whole thing becomes totally artificial. The editing also helps a lot in creating this feeling of a classical mise-en-scène.
How do the actors relate to this setup? Do they know the specific space they can use?
Yes, I sort of explain to them. But Benoît many times did whatever he wanted. Suddenly he goes to the kitchen where the light isn’t properly set up and then we have to go along. It happens that in the editing we like the part in the kitchen and I have to live with the lighting. When I’m editing the film, I try to forget all my sentiments about the light.
I wonder, since you’re not technically trained, how do you communicate with the gaffer?
The gaffer is normally very technical, and I want him or her to be so. I want them to add something that I don’t necessarily know or have. I try to have someone technical present, and I try to communicate in a very simple way. Harsher light, softer light, or for example I am very specific with colour temperature.
The film is sometimes reminiscent of the work of Michael Mann. Do you work with certain references, both for yourself and for communicating with your team?
I wanted to share some with the gaffer, but I quickly realized it made no sense with the constrains we were working with. The material and locations were already so specific that it wasn’t necessary. I try to work with what I see. If I see a very beautiful green on a location, I try to include it. There are, of course, things that I like in the films of other directors. For example, Vilmos Szigmund’s cinematography for Heaven’s Gate by Michael Cimino. This film, especially in the recently restored version where they had the technical means lacking at the time of production, combines saturated colours with diffusion. A combination you rarely see. For Pacifiction, the concept of pushed colours and keeping at the same time the humid atmosphere of the island was important. It has to be beautiful but at the same time somehow disturbing. I had to find the right aesthetic mood and here also grading is crucial. During the shoot, I was grading the images everyday.
You seem to discover a lot during the actual shoot. Is the material you shot on the first day less useable than the material you shot towards the end? If you want time to discover the form of the film twenty-six days is quite short.
The form of the film is discovered in the editing. Some aesthetic principles are discovered during the shooting, some of them are clear from the beginning. Pushing colours and using diffusion was one of them. Of that, I was sure I wanted it. How much, in which way, how far I could go... This I didn’t know exactly beforehand. Because I didn’t know what we would find. But we couldn’t afford to lose a lot of days in this production, contrary to the other projects.
Because this film is more narrative?
Yes, that’s the thing. For the scenes in the hotel we had just one day of shooting. And that was the very first day. If I do something wrong, we’re screwed. Because the hotel isn’t available anymore.
The whole film is at the same time formally explicit and very playful, which makes for an extraordinary and beautiful film. This dynamic seems to come together in the final image of the film in which the camera pans from the main character towards the side of the boat where the water, lit in the colours of the French flag, is passing. I wondered how you end up with such an image that at the same time feels like a coincidence, like the light just happened to be there, and as an idea. This ambiguity makes the image very intriguing.
It is a coincidence, and then it materializes as an idea. In this scene, the problem was that the shoot had been very difficult. We had to film a boat with many people inside, they had to go fast, and the camera had to follow one way or another. Albert specifically told us that they were going far from the shore. This meant they were in open water and around them everything is totally black. We filmed with three boats. One with the actors, a boat with lights parallel just outside the frame and a third one with the camera in front. Altogether a complicated setup. But the text was very specific. The whole scene was written, letter by letter, by Albert and Baptiste (Pinteaux) who helps him with the dialogues. During the shoot it turned out that they didn’t give the text to Marc (Susini) who plays the admiral. He could have rehearsed, so then we could have shot the scene in wide angels. But it turns out he doesn’t know the text and we can’t work with an earpiece because of the distance between the boats and because Marc doesn’t hear so well in one ear. As a solution we got on the boat with the actors so Albert could help with the dialogue from behind the camera. From here we filmed the admiral and the sailors in closeup. In the editing the wide shot turns out unusable, as we thought, but the close-up feels, because of the black, very much like shot in a studio. With this limitation we try to edit the scene, not like we imagined, but in the best way possible from the given material. I noticed during the shoot that the boats had green and red lights and we shot some of the marines in these lights. The shot of the admiral however didn’t have any coloured light. We added this in post-production.
There was no red light?
Yes, there was. But just at the side of the boat. Not on him. We tried to give the same beauty the image of the marines had to the image of the admiral. Both in the close-up and in the wide shot.
So the red of the French flag on the water was a coincidence?
A pure coincidence but worked on. In the editing and postproduction, we saw that this was very powerful and that we could enhance it and maybe even go to this more metaphorical side. We saw that it could work and pushed in this direction. But it came out of a coincidence, it was not conceived in advance. But perhaps we wouldn’t have had this coincidence if the actor would have had the change to rehearse his text. Most likely then we would have gone with the wide shot. It is because we had to search for solutions in the editing that we started to pay attention to this play with colours.
You’re also credited as an editor. What is your role in editing?
There’s three of us. Albert, Ariadna (Ribas) and myself. We start by watching the rushes together. Albert has a notebook, and he writes down everything he likes while watching. It took three months of to watch all the scenes we had shot. Just watching, not editing.
You watch every camera separately?
Normally we do but for this film we watched the three cameras simultaneously. When there was a doubt, we would go to the specific camera. Sometimes we rewatched shots, like close-ups since we know that they have a different impact full screen. After watching everything we use the notes of Albert as the instructions to edit the scenes. We take this piece of dialogue, this moment, this shot... We usually like the same things; our taste is very similar. We split the scenes, divide them in three and every one of us starts working on their scenes. When the scenes start to emerge, we share them and talk about what works and what doesn’t. When all scenes are done, we put them together in a first version that was approximately nine hours long.
Do you start to order the scenes according to the script?
No. We start over. We work on the wall with post-its with the title of every scene and we start guessing what should be where. At first, it’s very difficult but we start and we try. We create a possible timeline, put everything together and watch the whole thing. From there, it is like a sculpture, not a clay one where you add material but a marble where you take material away. The film is there but hidden. We start throwing things out and jump from nine to let’s say six hours. In the beginning this goes quite fast because you really quickly see that there are things that do not work well.
Do you know already during the shoot that some scenes are unusable?
No, only in editing. We have no preconception of the film when we start editing. It’s really mysterious, but it’s true. Sometimes I have a memory of a very beautiful scene that is scrapped. Not even in terms of lighting, I mean in terms of acting. It’s strange sometimes. The closer to the final film the tougher it gets. You end up with three and a half hours, knowing that you want to cut another forty-five minutes.
Is it because you feel that it has to be shorter or because you desire a certain distribution?
It’s a mix of both. Normally it’s quite in line with the feeling we have. It has a sense, it’s not only for distribution purposes. The editing process took seven months starting from 550 hours of rushes. We discover the whole movie in that period. Of course, some things are decided in advance. Benoît Magimel is at the centre of the film, so he’s in almost every scene. He was clearly the main character. But then many of the characters emerged during the editing. Shanna Pahoa for example. We noticed very quickly during the shoot that she was great. She wasn’t in that many scenes, so we kept almost everything that we shot with her. It also happened the other way around, that we eliminate almost every scene with a certain character. During the shoot we develop many different subjects and then in the editing we discover that not everything is as interesting.
You cofounded a production company that is mainly producing music videos. What is your role in this company?
Well, I’m a cofounder and I direct many of the videos. I also produce and shoot some of them. It all started because I’m also a musician. I have a group, we just stopped for a while, and I played in several Spanish groups. I started doing music videos for the group I played with and then I started to do music videos for others together with two friends.
Is it something you are involved in daily?
Yes. We also do some work to make money, small jobs. Shooting promotional pieces for artisans or for classical music. Sometimes we work to make some money, and sometimes we just have fun making some music videos. Soon I’ll film another one but I’m a little bit fed up. It’s a lot of effort for almost no money.
Do you also want to produce films with this company?
We’ll see. Not necessarily. But it’s a playground also. I can try many things in the music videos, aesthetically, and apply these later to a film.
Do you also want to develop your role as a director?
Yes, I would like to. But not at the moment. I don’t know if I will end up doing a feature film. I’ve always had this idea in mind, but we’ll see. Up until now I’ve only worked with Albert. I learned by doing these films and now I’m in the mood to work with other people, meet new people, try to involve as a cinematographer on different projects, and at the same time still work with Albert. We’ll see if I find this moment to do my thing.
Images from Pacifiction (Albert Serra, 2022)