ARRI cameras and lighting convince decision makers behind French television

With the use of ARRI equipment, including ALEXA Mini, AMIRA, and SkyPanels, several French television producers and broadcasters are upping their game with cinematic images.

May 21, 2021

“Paris Police 1900,” running on the French pay television network Canal+, “En Thérapie,” a production for Arte, and “Ici Tout Commence,” a daily prime-time series that has been airing on TF1 since November 2020, have more than their original language in common. Their pilot seasons were all shot on the ARRI ALEXA Mini or ARRI AMIRA with the help of ARRI lighting fixtures. By delivering cinematic images, made possible by ARRI equipment, these network producers and broadcasters in France have been able to compete with the very high bar being set by American streaming platforms in terms of image quality.

“Paris Police 1900”

Produced by Tétra Média Fiction, “Paris Police 1900” (8 episodes, each 52 min.) skillfully blends detective work, politics, and espionage storyline shot mainly on location in a Belle Époque Paris. “From the outset, Fabien Nury, the creator of the series, wanted a very cinematic look. Hence the choice to shoot on ARRI ALEXA with anamorphic Cooke lenses,” explains Brecht Goyvaerts SBC, director of photography for the first four episodes. “Together with director Julien Despaux and set designer Pierre Quefféléan, we worked hard on the style of the series. It became clear that we wanted a dark image, which goes against the grain of the Belle Époque look. However, I wanted to create a lot of subtlety in the blacks by playing with the set’s brightness and by using smoke and dust to give the image substance. In very, very dark scenes, I would put a spotlight against the light, a bit of smoke, and immediately it would bring the light to life in the shadows. The production and Canal+ immediately validated my approach, despite the very marked image bias.”

“I chose the ALEXA Mini because its sensor creates a soft, natural image,” says Goyvaerts. “It allowed me to keep the softness in an otherwise high-contrast image. Secondly, I know this camera very well. It gives an organic image, and the combination is perfect with the Cooke lenses that have the flare and blooming I was looking for.” Goyvaerts continues: “The exposure latitude of the ALEXA Mini is also very impressive. Finally, we were shooting on real sets, which were sometimes quite narrow. Here the compactness of the Mini was invaluable.”

For this period series, the cinematography team relied heavily on natural lighting sources from the late 19th century: candles, oil lamps, gas, and fireplace fires. “As far as lighting is concerned, we tried to respect the atmosphere of the period as much as possible,” confirms Nicolas Petris, director of photography for the last four episodes. “The fact that we were working with an ALEXA Mini was an advantage. It’s a camera that works very well in low light. The second half of the series is very dark, with lots of night scenes. I thought a lot about how to work with this in relation to the time period while remaining very natural, without lighting up too much.” Petris summarizes: “I really pushed the camera to its limits on this series. In some scenes, you could hardly see anything with the eye, but the Mini was able to find details in the dark parts.”

Petris recalls how the ALEXA Mini, combined with ARRI SkyPanels, helped to recreate the desired skin tones. He comments: “What I also like about the ALEXA Mini is that it respects skin tones. I know the camera well, and I have a lot of fun playing with the color temperatures. On ‘Paris Police 1900,’ I even did nights at 5600 K. In certain scenes, I often changed the color temperature of the ALEXA Mini and the ARRI SkyPanel to accentuate the atmosphere. This makes it possible to recover slightly different tones, especially in the skin tones. In the slaughterhouse scene, I used about 15 SkyPanels to light the sequence during the day and at night. SkyPanels allow you to adjust the power and color temperature quickly. On this series, it’s this kind of tool that allowed us to achieve such a high level of image quality while working fast.”

“En Thérapie”

Produced by Les films du Poisson, “En Thérapie” (English translation: “In Therapy”) has been a remarkable success since its premiere on Arte in January 2021. To date, this show, consisting of 35 episodes, each 26 min. in length, has attracted the Franco-German channel’s largest, series-watching audience since its inception. Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, “En Thérapie” was almost entirely shot on a single set in a flat located in the 16th district of Paris by cinematographers Quentin de Lamarzelle and Mélodie Preel.

“It’s a series that takes place in a psychotherapist’s office, with a lot of dialogue, and I wanted to leave room for the setting,” explains Quentin de Lamarzelle, the director of photography who created the visual look for the series and lit about a dozen episodes. “As we were shooting on a natural set with a southern exposure, we had to set up a scaffold on the facade with an ARRI SkyPanel lighting the opening to create a light that would work all day. All the exterior and interior lights were linked together and controlled from an iPad on which I had created light profiles: full sun, evening, grey day, etc. With Mathieu Vadepied, artistic director of ‘En Thérapie,’ and the directors, we defined six lighting moods for the series, which reflected the mood of the characters. We could quickly switch from one profile to another using the iPad. This was a major time saver on a series where we had two days to complete an episode.”

As for the camera, the DP naturally chose the ARRI ALEXA Mini. It’s a camera that I particularly like,” says Quentin de Lamazelle. “I like the way it renders skin and its remarkable color accuracy. This was important in a naturalistic series like “En Thérapie,” where we had to be as truthful with the characters as possible. The compactness of the ALEXA Mini was an asset due to the cramped set. Its ability to record 45 minutes of footage also allowed the directors to work on the shots over time with the actors. Eric and Olivier had also made “Hors Normes” (English translation: “The Specials”) with the ALEXA Mini and were impressed by the result. All this contributed to our choosing this camera.”

To maintain visual consistency throughout the series, the two cinematographers worked closely together. In terms of organization, each DP was in charge of all the episodes featuring a particular character, and the same director directed them. “It’s a very interesting operation that allows us to work overtime with each director and to adapt to each production within a common set and specifications,” recalls Mélodie Preel, director of photography on 23 episodes of the series. “Most of the time, we shot with two ALEXA Minis in the same axis: one a tight shot, the other a medium shot with zooms, to vary the shot values within these long takes. This was important because we were working on intimate scenes of patients facing their therapist. It was a very interesting exercise. The ALEXA Mini brought a lot of softness to the image in these scenes, and its compactness was a real asset in this narrow set.”

“Ici Tout Commence”

Broadcasting since November 2020, “Ici Tout Commence” (English translation: “Here it all Began”), TF1’s new daily prime-time series (120, 26-minute episodes), was shot entirely with the ARRI cameras AMIRA and ALEXA Mini. This is not a first for Telfrance (Newen group). Since 2017, the network has been producing another successful daily show for TF1, “Demain nous appartient” (English translation: “Tomorrow is Ours”) whose 1,000 episodes were also filmed with ARRI cameras. By using real cinema cameras, the producers were able to upgrade the visual quality of these two series. The result can be seen on the screen; with their carefully designed sets and polished images, “Demain nous appartient” and “Ici Tout Commence” have impressive production value.

Both shot in Sète and Saint-Laurent d’Aigouze, near Aigues-Mortes in Southern France, the two series utilize a total of 13 ARRI cameras, including 6 AMIRAs and 7 ALEXA Minis. This homogeneity allowed the production team to set up a centralized maintenance system, led by Franck Misserey, technical director of the Studios de Sète, and, with ARRI, to put a system of extended guarantees in place, which is essential for very busy cameras. While “Demain nous appartient” uses the Sète studios for certain interiors, “Ici Tout Commence” is filmed entirely on natural sets, essentially at the Château de Calvière, near the Camargue region. A superb location refurbished to house the sets of the haute cuisine school that is at the center of the plot. “This site is so magical that we decided to make the most of it, even though it’s much more complicated to work in a natural environment on a daily series,” explains Stephan Sanson, director of photography, who created the visual identity of the series with Rodoph Séraphine. “The production’s wish was to have a cinematic image, and, with Rodolph, we did not hesitate to recommend ARRI cameras in continuity with ‘Demain nous appartient.’ They offer the best quality. They give the softness we needed in the image. They are also very solid, which is important given that we use them a lot and regularly work in a humid environment near salt marshes. The compactness of the ALEXA Mini also proved to be a benefit in response to the constraints of the building with its narrow corridors, doors, etc. In terms of lenses, after several tests, we opted for the Cooke Panchro/i Classic series, which provides a great vintage look and matches the ALEXA and AMIRA sensors very well. This allowed us to create a look that is specific to the series: a slightly textured image, with a fairly warm contrast and a mineral, organic softness.”

The production, that bears the Ecoprod label in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, installed all-LED grids in the castle's interiors for the pre-lighting while ARRI SkyPanels on stands completed the floor system. For the outside openings, the lighting team used high-power ARRI HMIs, including an ARRIMAX 18 KW on a gondola and ARRI M90, M40, and M18. The aim was to make the most of the natural light and to regulate it as best as possible, according to the actors and the plot.

“Two film crews work in parallel on the series every day. The scenes are shot with two cameras: an ALEXA Mini, often mounted on a stabilized system or a dolly, and a handheld AMIRA on another axis. Each team shoots an average of 10 to 12 useful minutes per day. It’s an intensive shooting schedule, and we need reliable equipment,” explains Rodolph Séraphine, director of photography for “Here it all Began.” “The AMIRA and the ALEXA Mini offer such a dynamic image that even in borderline cases, we know that they will be able to handle the light variations while maintaining an exceptional skin rendering. Having these cameras is truly vital. It’s like a safety net for us. We know that we can work quickly and calmly while creating a high-quality image that highlights the actors.”

Opening image: 

Shooting “Ici Tout Commence” outside the Château de Calvière near the Camargue region in Southern France. ©Fabien Malot/ITC Prod/TF1/2021