Both of our set visits in Vancouver have been strange, surreal experiences – albeit for very, very different reasons. (Have you seen The Wizard of Oz?? Yeah – something like that.) One thing that stayed constant through both times though, was the generosity of dozens of people who did not have to be generous or take time out of their crazy busy schedule to accommodate us of all people. Perhaps we’re too cynical, but it still amazes us.
Even now we’re a bit bewildered that Serge Ladouceur was kind enough to share his thoughts and give us behind the scenes insights on things like this gorgeous image among others.
See what else Serge has to say . . .
What made you want to go into cinematography?
Serge: As a teenager I knew I wanted to become a cinematographer. I was interested in light, visual representation, photography and painting – but also in storytelling. I was attracted by the power of motion pictures as way of expression. But maybe the little 8mm camera my father was using to make our home movies was the trigger of it. I remember watching him doing his editing in our home basement at night and starting to realize how exhilarating it would be to create stories and bringing them to the screen.
Have there been any stylistic movements within film and television that have influenced your work more than others?
Serge: German expressionism, French new wave, Italian neo-realism, Film noir The film-noir movement which has its roots in the German Expressionism is definitely one big influence. I can also pinpoint the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) with its free form and spontaneous camera work.
Are there any Directors of Photography whose work you personally admire?
Serge: In the feature film world I like very much the work of John Seale (Children of a Lesser God – The English Patient – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) for his control on soft light. Vilmos Szigmond for his overall technical approach. Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now – The Last Emperor – Dick Tracy) for his work on contrast and his theory on colors. Darius Khondji (Se7en – Delicatessen) for his remarkable work on contrast and exploration of the bleach bypass look. Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie – A Very Long Engagement – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), for his creativity and his manipulation of colors.
When you film a TV series you’re in a good position to appreciate the work of other cinematographers who are also at the helm of other TV series. In television I appreciate and like very much the work of Rodney Charters on 24 for the constant visual qualities he brings to the show. The camera in 24 is moving a lot and the cinematography is in tune with that [nervousness.]
I also admire the work of John S. Bartley on X-Files, I think his approach of lighting on this show signals a new era in television cinematography. He opened the doors to a new vision, where extremes can live together on the small screen. Actually, his daughter, Amanda, works with us on the show as a 2nd AD.
What do you do in order to produce Supernatural’s distinctive look?
Serge: We want Supernatural to look like all we witness could really happen in real life. So, for me, there is a strong reality base bias. Lights are source justified, windows, practicals. I also work with a strong contrast ratio. I’m using Kodak Vision 2 film stocks (5205, 5217 and 5218) which I think are the most technically advanced film negatives. They allow me to push the limits and create rich blacks if I want them or dig in them for details. Same for highlights. I rate the films a third of a stop over their nominal ratings to get a denser negative. On the lighting aspect, I use side, three quarter front and three quarter back key lights, rarely front or top keys. I don’t systematically use backlights unless they are justified by a source or if I want a definite separation from a dark background for instance. Sometimes I don’t want the definite separation from the backgrounds.
The rest is done in the timing suite. Every episode, like every show on TV goes through the colour timing process where a colourist balances and adjusts the contrast and the colours, shots after shots. Our colourist on Supernatural is known by the name of Sparkle. I have been working with him since the show began and he knows what I’m after. We are in sync in relation to what the show should look like. There’s a definite artistic connection between us.
Do you feel that the fantastical element to the show allows you more creative freedom when composing a shot?
Serge: It depends on how you look at this. In a way the fantastical element allows for more creative freedom if you if you think of the realm of possibilities the fantastical world opens as creative opportunities. But on the other hand we have to be on a constant watch in order to not be carried away with it. There is a thin line here and this is not just a cinematography question. This is a creative question that involves everybody on the production team starting with Eric Kripke who, as the show creator, is the last resource when a question arises. “Let’s call Eric” is often heard on the set. When Eric directed his episode often we said: “Let’s call Eric” but guess what, Eric’s right here. Also, Kim Manners as the executive producer, [was] watching for this as well. Kim [had] an impressive baggage of knowledge (he directed 53 episodes of X-Files) and he [was] one of the driving creative forces behind Supernatural.
There is a definite consensus on things we do and things we don’t do on the show. For example we don’t do any slow motion in the fight scenes or if we do they will have a supernatural justification. These scenes are shot raw, no beautification of movements. The dramatic elements are channeled towards one goal: make the show look as real as possible.
Do you have any scene or episode that is a particular favourite of yours?
Serge: I can’t pick just one. I have to name a few, so they are: Asylum, Faith, Route 666, Shadow, All Hell Breaks Loose part 1 & 2 and The Kids Are All Right, and they are amongst my favourite episodes. But if I were to pick up one scene as my favourite it will be the one between Dean and the Deal Making Demon in the first part of All Hell Breaks Loose part 2. I like everything about this scene.
Since we were on the subject of favorite scenes, we asked Serge if he would comment on a few screencaps we just happen to have loaded on to Kathy’s laptop. (By “few” we mean dozens of course – how did that happen we wonder?) Serge was happy to oblige.
Before going further though – remember we mentioned that it wasn’t a good idea to hold an interview in a bar, especially a piano bar? “Well,yeah” you’re probably saying, right? Right. Thing is, we thought we were being uber-clever by sitting just outside the bar and near the piano since when we arrived there was no piano player in sight. A nice quiet, cozy nook. Perfect! As with most of our best laid plans, this one too went awry.
Enter the piano player.
Lynn: (soldiering on, because basically nothing stops Lynn from talking anyway). This first scene from “Bloodlust” is one of the most well known and most striking – was the lighting effect intentional?
Serge: Okay, that’s what we call a flare… flare is a source of light that hits the lens and creates refraction of the light. Normally we don’t want flare because it’s a kind of technical fault. But sometimes we like flare because it creates something. I don’t remember exactly – we probably chose to have the light coming into the lens to – was this a night scene?
Kathy: It was supposed to be dawn but I read somewhere that it was filmed at sunset.
Serge: It’s possible. Actually, you know what, the day before yesterday we shot a scene outside when the boys are getting into [a house] and we did one shot with no flare and then one with. It’s one of those things we can’t control. Sometimes it’s a mistake, a happy accident.
Lynn: Dean clawing his way out of his grave in “Lazarus Rising” – amazing image.
Serge: This is a crane shot. They are expensive. [W]e can’t afford the crane each day – maybe an hour or two.
We point out that maybe that’s a good thing – it makes these shots a rare treat. Like the next image, literally a work of art.
Serge: Kim Manners. There’s a story about that shot. That’s a crane shot. When this was edited Kim was here and when they got it they had edited that shot out and he made a big – I don’t know how angry he was. Kim insisted that this shot must be back in. Scarecrow, I think.
Lynn: People talk about the chemistry between the actors – it’s one of the things that makes this show so powerful. What’s it like for you as a photographer, because those scenes are beautifully filmed. What’s your contribution?
Serge: I think it comes together with the director directing the scene from a good writing base and then the actors get together and create a scene and then if I provide a good lighting environment – if the mood is there I think it amplifies that.
We regale Serge with some of our fangirl exploits on our very first trip to Vancouver, when we ended up on a search for the iconic filming location below – and finally found it. At midnight. Cue the local police wanting to know why five grown women and one man are determined to get to a riverbank in the pitch dark. (The oddest part of our police encounter? Our explanation seems entirely plausible to him. Were we not the first?) We end by telling Serge that this scene has great emotional importance to fans.
Serge: Oh really? One of my favorite scenes.
Ours too. Obviously.
Kathy: This shot (below) in “In My Time Of Dying” was a continuous shot?
Serge: Yeah, yeah, it was a continuous shot. And then Jensen stepped in – there was just a little window of time that he could step in, you know. It’s one of my favorite episodes, another Kim Manners episode.
(We were talking with Serge only a week after the death of the talented and beloved Supernatural director and producer – and obviously so much more than either of those titles can express, so emotions were raw – the cast and crew, and the entire fandom, were in mourning).
Lynn: We are very sorry for the loss.
Serge: If you would have been here last week, you would have seen a lot of red eyes.
Serge shared with us more insight into Kim’s amazing talent, when we asked about the gut-wrenching last scene in “No Rest For The Wicked”.
Lynn: Was the decision to go that close up yours?
Serge: That’s the director. That’s Kim. That’s Kim Manners. Kim always had exactly in his mind what he wanted the scene to look like. He had each shot played in his mind. Everything was – his script was all written over, full of notes. And he knew exactly what he was doing. He wasn’t shooting a lot of possibilities, he was shooting only what he wanted to see in the end.
Lynn: I wanted to ask about this candlelit scene. That’s particularly beautiful.
Serge: That’s the season opener of Season 3?
Kathy and Lynn: Four. (It’s scary how often we speak in unison! Lynn continues.) “Magnificent Seven.” Is it difficult to shoot with just candlelight?
Serge: It is difficult. But when you’ve been doing this craft, this job, for a long time, you know what you need to do in terms of lighting to do that. You want it to be lit just enough to make sense. . . . It’s not [just] candlelit.
Lynn (remaining remarkably academic despite the distracting nature of the next screencap ): What’s it like filming any scene where one of the boys gets to take off his shirt? Any particular challenges? Is it more uncomfortable to shoot?
(The piano player at this point plays even louder as if annoyed by our attempts to carry out any kind of conversation, let alone an interview. Kathy glares at him. The piano player smiles. Kathy considers violence. Lynn, luckily is focused on the se- ummm scene.)
Serge: It depends on many factors. When we have a scene like that it was – you know not only to keep the actors comfortable – it’s not only a closed set it’s a closed set around the video village, around the monitors. We’re respectful. It’s always sensitive, those scenes. I think to convey a scene like that, less is more.
Lynn tells Serge that thousands – [Lynn, why is it always thousands and thousands?] of fans have a cap of one of the boys shirtless as an icon – please note that it was Lynn spilling the fan beans throughout this entire interview. Kathy kept her mouth shut!!
Serge: It is beautiful.
Kathy and Lynn *are nodding*
Are you listening, CW??
One of the things that hooked us both on Supernatural was the fact that the show isn’t just a story of two brothers saving people and hunting things – it’s the emotional story of two brothers finding each other again, reconnecting with their dad, coming to terms with the loss of their mother. It’s about love, and loss, and having the guts to keep going when life throws way too many curveballs at you. Not every production team could walk the fine line between heartwrenching angst and over the top – but Supernatural does, with amazing consistency.
Lynn: Those kind of emotional close ups when actors are called upon to cry. Do they tend to take fewer takes? I can’t imagine having to repeatedly tear up like that.
Serge: Well, Jensen has an amazing control of – and I can tell you Jensen would never – some actors, you know, would put some glycerin drops – Jensen never does that.
Lynn: You can tell. (Kathy tries to telegraph to Lynn that she needs to try not to jump up and down in her chair quite so much. Kathy is unsuccessful.)
Serge: Never, never, never. I don’t know what state he goes through, but he can call that up, he can call that space within him and he can be there and you believe it. It’s amazing. But he needs the help of the people around the set. There is one scene at the end of an episode where he confesses to his brother that he’s been torturing in hell – What we do normally when we shoot any scene we start with the wide shot because all the elements are there, and then go tighter and tighter and you end up with the close up. But in that scene Jensen asked us to start with the close up and take our way back. So by the time – the twelfth time, the fifteenth time we’ve done the scene we [don’t need him crying]. But that’s an unusual thing.
(The piano player suddenly seems determined to play louder than any piano player has ever played any piano, ever, in the history of piano playing. Kathy plots.)
Lynn: Was the scene in “All Hell Break’s Loose” – when Sam was dead – was that filmed similarly?
Serge: In that scene we were not going from a wide shot, we could actually shoot the medium the wide and the close-ups at the same time.
And speaking of emotional scenes….
Lynn: That shot of the boys through the window in “A Very Supernatural Christmas” – that was thousands of fans’ Christmas cards.
Serge: Oh really? It took me a little while to light that scene, but I remember I had joy, you know, lighting this, because I was seeing it – we were still shooting on film at that time and on the monitor you could see the full result and I saw it in my head and when I saw the result, I knew I did what I wanted to do – the loneliness, the sense of brotherhood, and want.
Lynn: Fans cried . . .
Serge: Lighting is just to provide a way to support technically what the filmmaker wants to get across in writing.
And boy, does Supernatural do just that.
More of our interview with Serge and the rest of the Supernatural gang in Fangasm! We’ll keep you posted.