ROMAIN LACOURBAS, ASC, AFC. Cinematographing witchers
Searching for living technology
It’s been 15 years now that Romain Lacourbas’ film and television photography skills are well proven. Originally from France and a graduate of a film school in Paris, this cinematographer had the good fortune to work with Luc Besson and Olivier Megaton. Godfathers like these gave him the impulse to become what he is today. He has just finished shooting several of the episodes of the second season of The Witcher, a Netflix series of worldwide interest, and we asked him about his experience with the witchers, how he feels shooting with green and blue screens, and how he sees the future of cinematography thanks to the implementation of techniques such as virtual production; in his own words, “The great and current game changer because it allows you to feel the space where you are recording as only a real space could.”
Who is Romain Lacourbas? What has been your progression?
I entered a cinema school in Paris on 2000. Then, I was lucky enough to be hired as a trainee on a film feature and the DOP was Pierre Aïm. It was an incredible opportunity to meet Pierre Aïm. He then became a kind of mentor and we also became very good friends. He basically taught me the lighting, and how to use a camera. Together with him I became a second AC, first AC, and then I also worked together with other cinematographers. Some time later, Pierre trusted me to be a camera OP with him until he let me become DOP of the second unit. And that’s basically how I came to light. I’m from the camera department.
In the meantime, I was trying to do as many short films as I could in between films where I was an AC. Later, I did my first feature. It was with Director Lola Doillon and that was the first feature for actually everyone. It was quite a lot of fun.
After that, I did other small movies, small in terms of budget, obviously. At some point, I met Olivier Megaton and Luc Besson, and I started doing a lot of commercials and video-clips with first one. After a year, he offered me my big first international movie, which was Colombiana. That’s more or less how it all started, making that film. Obviously, it opened up the possibility of working on more international projects.
How did you get involved in Colombiana?
As I said, I was doing a lot of commercial with Olivier Megaton. And because of that, I had the opportunity to join a second DP unit in Transporter 3. Again, sometimes all it is about luck. At the end of that film, there were many reshoots scheduled, some in France, some in Ukraine; and the principal cinematographer who was doing the entire film, Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci, was no longer available during the reshoot. Since I had worked a few days on the second unit with Olivier, he said to me, “Okay, why don’t you come and do all the re-shoot with me.” I said, “Yes, of course.” It was supposed to be like three or four days of reshoots, and it became four weeks… something crazy, but also amazing for me.
Colombiana was set to start a few months after the days I reshoot Transporter 3. We were getting along very well together and he was thinking of me, however, he was not sure at all. We went to do the scouting together, time passed, we did the prep together as well and, suddenly, it became logical for him to trust me that project. Also, I would say that Luc Besson was involved in that project and he was really into trusting young people and young DoPs in his movies. It depends on multiple factors, but it started with Olivier Megaton, basically.
Would you say there is a difference between becoming a cinematographer today and 20 years ago?
I do not know if it is harder or easier. Probably, in a way, it’s more difficult because there is so much competition in the market, and there are so many talented people from all over the world. That’s because it’s so easy to get a camera these days. Everyone can start training with amazing images as long as they have an iPhone. So access to learning is much easier today than it was 20 years ago because you had to shoot on stock and that used to imply a great sum of money. But, on the other hand, there is a lot of competition.
What is the main difference you find between Netflix’s big features and smaller projects?
As anyone could think, the main and first difference is about the budget, and related with that, the scale and crew of the project. From a technological standpoint I would say the main difference is how the whole workflow is thought out. On a Netflix project there is a good amount of preparation that is really about making sure the pipeline works: from the shooting on-set until the HDR deliveries, for example. A Netflix production is one of many being developed simultaneously. In a smaller project there is no need to have such a structured workflow. Nor does it usually exist in a very large production in which there is also a lot of money involved, but there is no associated streaming platform. I think the big technological difference is the structuring of the pipeline.
Of course, just because it’s Netflix, it doesn’t have to be a big project. You also have a smaller budget in Netflix production, but there you will also encounter that technique. And that’s very interesting because it gives you the opportunity to try things because they have the structure for it.
Do you have a preferred camera and lenses equipment?
I do have some preferred format; however, I think it really depends on the project. You can think that a particular gear fits well, but if it does not fit the story or does not really make sense with it, that would not work.
To tell you the truth, I really like anamorphic, in general, and I’m passionate about Panavision lenses, the old anamorphic glass lenses, like the C, the E series and the hybrid B series. They immediately tell the audience, “you’re looking at a story” because they maintain a distance between the audience and the screen, simply because of the distortion, the bokeh and that typical depth of field. Reality through the camera is no longer real, so there is a distance, but at the same time it catches you as a viewer.
Now that large-format lenses have come along, I think 1.5 anamorphic lenses are amazing. What Bob Richardson used in the Tarantino film, Hateful Eight, for example, is just incredible. Even the large-format spherical lenses: we shot The Witcher with the DNAs, and I find it very interesting because it’s another way of including the characters in an environment. With the same field of view, you use slightly longer lenses, which brings the character closer to you, closer to the camera, and at the same time, you still see a lot of the set and the environment. That helps including the characters in the situation.
So answering your question, for my sensitivity, I would go for anamorphic, and when I shoot spherical, I tend to use lenses that are not too perfect, not too clinical. That’s also why I really liked the DNAs, because you have accidents. I like accidents and I try to look for them.
As far as cameras go, I had a great time with the Alexa LF, obviously, but I have to say that I love the color that the Venice produces, especially on the bottom of the curve. It’s really amazing the color palette it offers in low light conditions.
Do you consider yourself to have a very personal style?
I hope not. I think we all have our style and that’s true for all creative departments. But, to be honest, I don’t think someone watching The Witcher and Taken can say, “Oh, it’s the same cinematographer.” I always try to renew and to adapt myself, which is probably the most difficult thing to do. For me it’s more interesting to start from a blank page and try to find the right visual aesthetic for each project you do.
Did you have to adapt to the style of The Witcher because of the video game?
I didn’t have to adapt to the visual environment of the video game. I saw a lot of footage, obviously, of it at a very early stage of preparation, which was when I was offered the job, and I watched it just out of curiosity and to see if it inspired me or not. I got involved during the preparation of the second season and, obviously, I watched the first season twice: first, to understand the characters and the stories and, second, to also see what the other cinematographers had done.
However, the second season takes place mostly in Kaer Morhen, and I had to adapt to the work of the production designers and the showrunner, but on the other hand, I had a lot of freedom to explore new colors, different densities, and different types of contrast. That gave me a lot of freedom to try different directions. I was mostly influenced by the production design work: because it’s the look of the sets, the textures of the sets, and the color of the costumes that influence me, and the script, of course.
I wasn’t forced to do anything very special. However, you obviously keep in mind that you’re working on the second season of the series, so the goal of all this is that the audience has the feeling that they’re watching the same series.
When did you become involved in the series?
I got involved in November 2019. That’s a long time ago. And we finished shooting in April 2021. It was a long adventure, which, obviously, was even longer because of COVID. We had to take four months of hiatus in the middle of pre-production. When we resumed, around mid-July, I had one more month of prep since then; it’s a long prep time, which I love. It gives you more time with the director, with the producer, with everybody, and to find the right aesthetic and to choose the right equipment. Basically, it also helps save money. Preparation is the key because you start on set with a plan. Then you can always change the plan, but the most important thing is to have one.
Did you notice any differences in terms of the long preproduction stages between larger and smaller projects?
From what I know from my experience, you can tell the difference between projects in the preparation because it is always tied to the budget. It’s really understandable that on a small project you can’t have three months of preparation. That would be nonsense, wouldn’t it? However, I always try to participate as much as I can. Even if the budget doesn’t allow it, you try on your part to do a little bit of research and try to start working a little bit in advance.
Surprises happen, so have you had to change your preparation plans during the filming of The Witcher?
You have to adapt all the time, yes. There are always surprises. I remember a scene on one episode outside the mansion. We were shooting that on stage. Vereena turns into a bat and attacks Geralt. A long fight ensues in that courtyard. She gets killed at the end, gets speared through, and then she’s supposed to go back. It’s night, it’s snowing, and the scene has a lot of other parameters to take into account. You have to combine all the elements: the snow, the consistency of the snow and, also, finding some trick to believe that only her head is going to do a 180 while the body doesn’t turn. There are so many situations that a plan never takes into account, no matter how much could be planned. Other times you simply change the plan because you realize looking through the camera that what you had prepared doesn’t work.
What was the most important technological challenge you faced during your time at The Witcher?
I guess it was dealing with the visual effects of the last few episodes. There’s all these big basilisk-style dinosaurs coming out of a portal and that leads to a very long fight between the warlocks and those monsters. Even though we started with storyboards and then we started with previs, stunt previs, VFX previs and we had all these different documents so we could know where we were going and where we were, it was a big challenge. It was because you just shoot witchers fighting a guy in a blue suit holding a fake foam head. You don’t quite know what it’s going to look like in the end because it’s pure CGI. To get through it everyone involved has to be very communicative and collaborative.
You’ve already mentioned it, but what was your team for The Witcher and why?
We had a multi-camera setup consisting of three Arri ALEXA Mini LFs and a set of DNA lenses. We also had a set of Signature Primes and a couple of zoom lenses. I also added a 58-millimeter Petzval that I used for very, very specific moments. I think I used it only four or five times over the course of the entire series.
We used DNA lenses for the reasons I gave you above. They’re spherical lenses, but they have these weirdnesses, and accidents. There’s not really distortions, but they’re not perfectly clean and there’s a little bit of poetry, life and organic things that happen with those lenses. Also, it’s interesting because you can detune them a little bit. During prep, we did a lot of work trying to misalign them by shifting the edges and investigating how we could make those accidents happen. Also, I have used a lot of wide lenses like the 15 millimeters and 18 millimeters Signature. Those focal lengths are impressive. DNA lenses only start at 21. I needed to have shorter and wider lenses as well.
Have you ever had the opportunity to shoot in HDR? What do you think of this technique?
We don’t have the ability to shoot in HDR yet, all the work you can do is shoot for HDR, displaying in SDR on set, and then composite it in post-production. Today we are not able to properly monitor HDR on set, yet. It is starting but still is very heavy.
We monitored in REC709 and our color space was ACES. The final grading was done in HDR, and then we did a trim pass for SDR.
The problem with HDR is that it may not be for all types of shows. Those very intense lights and those very low, deep blacks may not be right for every story. And, precisely for The Witcher, I think it’s been a very good tool that I’m liking more and more.
Anyway, I think the good use of HDR is not to push it too hard because, in theory, you could set the lights to 4,000 nits or something as exaggerated as this. For the audience this becomes aggressive and, even, disturbing. Although if you adjust it so that it’s punchy, nice, dynamic, but not aggressive and not hard to read or see, then it’s an amazing tool. I must say that we also did HDR post production for Marco Polo, the first season. At that time, I also liked it, but it was the beginning of HDR. Now, I had a lot of fun doing The Witcher with that technology.
What do you think about Virtual Production? Is it going to change the way we all produce content?
I don’t see how it could not change. I haven’t shot with that technology, yet. I saw a lot of tests and I tried a little bit of it but I’m not very experienced in Virtual Production. However, and still looking at The Mandalorian and stuff like that, it is a real game changer, especially during COVID times.
It’s going to take a little time because it’s still an expensive technology, but it’s going to represent the end of the green and blue screen. From a technological point of view, it’s incredible, and also for the actors, who can be on set and not see a green screen, but feel the environment. It makes a big difference.
Apart from price, which is the main limitation at present, I don’t see many other limitations. Although I have to say that space will limit you as well. For example, imagine you want to photograph someone framed in full height walking across a really wide space; or someone running for a long time.
I am sure that more and more productions are going to use it. And, therefore, there are already many companies that are investing in this system and creating suitable scenarios with it. I don’t know what the next challenge will be in the future, but right now we are taking the steps towards developing all the possibilities of this amazing technology.