Internationally lauded French cinematographer Xavier Dolléans, who earned the Jury Award for Best Cinematography at the Slum Film Festival for his work on the film “Animal,” is no stranger to the technical intricacies of top-tier filmmaking.
Dolléans, a proven master behind the lens, is the cinematographer responsible for shooting the first four seasons of “Skam France,” the largest global adaptation of the Norwegian teen drama, as well as the show’s upcoming fifth and sixth season.
As a cinematographer, versatility is one of his seasoned and sought after strengths, so it’s not at all surprising that he followed up “Skam France” by shooting two very different projects. After the first two seasons of “Skam France,” Dolléans came on board as the cinematographer behind the hit series “Red Shadows” (“Les Ombres Rouge”), which was broadcast during primetime on France’s C8, as well as the psychological youth drama “Mental,” which streams on the disruptive digital platform Slash TV owned by state broadcaster, France TV.
“Red Shadows was a primetime show with a great cast, a very experienced director and big sets,” said Dolléans, who has won numerous awards for his work as a cinematographer. “I’m particularly happy with a party sequence where we had to reconstruct a full club with all the lights and sets as the whole crew did an amazing job, rigging and programing everything the way I wanted it to be.”
While “Red Shadows” was aimed at peak-viewing French TV and “Mental” was a purely digital content production aimed at modern viewers, the seasoned cinematographer navigated the differing productions with ease. Dolléans has built a formidable cinematography repertoire. For every project he takes on, he steps into the role as the leader of the entire camera department, and as such he is the one on set responsible for the art of photography and visual storytelling, including all of the on-screen visual elements from lighting and framing to camera angles and color palette.
With over 50 credits under his belt as a renowned director of photography, the most recent accolades in Dolléans’ 15-year career include winning the Best Cinematography Prize for “Rocambolesque” and “Animal” and at the Warsaw and Slum Film Festivals, and having his high-caliber work as the cinematographer behind the film “Ames Soeurs” featured at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Dolléans’ vast skills and expansive experience in the field of cinematography allow him to be professionally ambidextrous in the projects he contributes to, allowing him to efficiently and effectively change gears from the big-budget series “Red Shadows” to more intimate productions like “Mental.”
“‘Mental’ was very different from ‘Red Shadows, as first of all, everything takes place inside the same building, the hospital,” said Dolléans. “Out of the 25 days of principal photography, 22 days were shot inside this place, with so many sets located inside it as well.”
Broadcast in 2019 with all six episodes expertly shot by Dolléans, “Red Shadows” is a crime drama that tells the story of Aurore Garnier, played by French actress Nadia Farès, a policewoman who searches for the truth after she discovers new clues about the disappearance of her five-year old sister in 1993.
Dolléans was hired on the show by Alban Etienne, the CEO of Banijay Studios France, a subsidiary of the Banijay Group, the world’s largest independent content producer in the world with revenues of around USD $1 billion. Etienne had previously worked with Dolléans on the first two seasons of “Skam France.”
Despite “Red Shadows” being set in the famously vibrant region of Côte d’Azur region of France, Dolléans’ color palette for lensing the show was, in fact, decidedly absent of vibrant colors.
“The show was set in the south of France, between Marseille and Aix-en-Provence… we absolutely wanted to avoid all clichés, meaning no big sun with blue sky,” said Dolléans. “We were actually at the opposite end, with a lot of darkness, and a harsh and inhospitable sun: no red at all, but a lot of browns, dark greens and metallic blue skies.”
Despite the expansiveness of the vision of the series, and the resources and budget to match it, challenges arouse around capturing this on screen, but Dolléans’ work bears testimony to his highly-esteemed skills behind the camera.
He explains, “On this show, we had so many locations that it was very challenging to be ready in terms of the preparation time for each of them… Also, the weather was a big concern, we had a lot of rain during the first weeks and then a lot of wind that prevented us from using use butterfly and frame diffusions outside, as we originally planned.”
Despite the challenges though, Dolléans nailed his mark, endowing the series with a masterful visual language, just as the director had envisioned.
In contrast, the upcoming series “Mental,” which follows four teenagers in a psychiatric hospital and consists of 10 episodes, allowed Dolléans’ a bit more freedom to innovate and exercise his exemplary camerawork due to the fact that the consistent nature of the set.
“I like working differently on every show. On ‘Mental’ I used the camera with an extension module that allowed me to detach the sensor and to be very lightweight. This configuration gave me the ability to be with the actor, very close, to move intuitively and to improvise a lot with them and with the director. It was interesting to shoot it this way,” explained Dolléans.
Though “Mental” has yet to be released, the series has already begun garnering awards, including the 21st La Rochelle Fiction TV Festival’s Best Series Award in the 26-minute category. Dolléans was recommended to join “Mental” after a headhunt from France TV, which also saw him team up with a previous collaborator from his previous four seasons on “Skam France.”
“On ‘Mental,’ we worked very closely with the production designer Edwige Le Carquet, who I know from my past collaborations on Skam France seasons one through four, to get a very distinctive look for this show,” said Dolléans. “We worked a lot during preparation time to define the color palette, which is fundamental for me when we want to set a look.”
Dolléans, who was key in the film “Speed/Dating” winning the Best Short Award at the Alpe D’Huez Film Festival in 2017, ensured the cinematic production value of the series“Mental” by utilizing cameras on the set that are typically used for feature films.
“In terms of equipment, I used the Sony Venice camera again after ‘Skam France,’ as I like it a lot for its perfect color rendition and its ability to go very deep in low lights,” said Dolléans.
Following the highly anticipated release of the series “Mental,” Dolléans is slated to begin shooting the fifth season of the praised series “Skam France,” the first time the series, which has become a global phenomenon, will have original content separate from its Norwegian counterparts. He has also been tapped as the cinematographer for a new documentary film drama centered on the world-famous opera house in Paris, the Palais Garnier.
“It’s a very interesting project about the Opéra Garnier’s creation and all the inventiveness and tenacity of Charles Garnier, its architect, during its construction,” said Dolléans about the elegant building commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III in France’s capital from 1861 to 1875.
“I want to continue to work in the fiction world, as it is the place where I like expressing my sensitivity most,” adds Dolléans. “In my career, I hope to achieve many beautiful and important feature films… By important movies, I envision those with a universal scope that touches every person. I need to feel that my work has an impact in the everyday lives of people .”