Gaffer Franck Barrault shares his passion for light with ARRI tools

Trained alongside visionary DPs, Franck Barrault is an inventive gaffer always on the lookout for new devices. His passion for light keeps bringing him back to ARRI equipment.

Dec. 13, 2022

As a young electrician, Franck Barrault was part of the lighting team for “Delicatessen” and “La Cité des enfants perdus”: two legendary films, directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who shook up French cinema in the 90s and brought out the immense talent of Darius Khondji AFC, ASC, a young DP at the time.

“Darius was really my mentor during all these years,” explains Franck Barrault. “I started with him as an assistant in 1986. He accompanied me, nourished me and allowed me to evolve. As I could not see myself spending my life loading magazines with film, I turned to the lighting team, first as electrician and later as lighting director. Since my student days, my passion has always been to work with light. But my true sensibility in this field was built on ‘Delicatessen’ and ‘City of Lost Children,’ with Darius and gaffer Bernard Gemahling, who has great knowledge and a true sensitivity. That’s where I learned the most: Worlds of pure fiction where you could invent anything, and a pool of talent at all levels. DP Philippe Le Sourd ASC, with whom I started out as a gaffer on ‘Cantique de la Racaille’ in 1997, was also Darius' assistant.”


ARRI Orbiters illuminate a commercial shot by DP Philippe Le Sourd ASC

Philippe Le Sourd, who later established himself as a great international DP, working with Sofia Coppola, Wong Kar-Wai, and Ridley Scott, remained loyal to Franck Barrault on his French productions. They collaborated on “Peut-être,” an ambitious film directed by Cédric Klapisch, and “Atomik Circus” by Didier and Thierry Poiraud. “With Philippe, I have a certain complicity. We have the same references, and we understand each other with very few words. He is a very demanding person. He always pushes to the maximum until he gets what he wants. He doesn’t compromise and I have to live up to that in terms of lighting.”

With Darius Khondji, Franck Barrault has only worked once as a gaffer, on Stephen Frears’ “Chéri” in 2006, but the experience was memorable. “What I like about working with Darius is that he completely integrates the lighting director into the creative process. During the prep, he took me to see all the sets, right down to the choice of wallpaper, the color of the curtains or the material of the costumes. He invited me to tests and projections, so that I could discuss all the lighting details with him. This adds a vision to my work. It’s fascinating and, above all, indispensable if you want to do the lighting right on a feature film. ‘Chéri’ was a founding film for me. Suddenly, I was shifting into high gear.”

Since that time, light sources have changed with the arrival of LED fixtures. Franck Barrault quickly realized what ARRI SkyPanels could do for his craft. “I was one of the first to use them. I immediately understood their potential. The simple fact of being able to dim without changing the color temperature: It was a real joy! No need to lower the lights and change the gelatins to adjust the colors. Not to mention that everything could be controlled from an iPad or a console. It was a true revolution that completely changed my job as a gaffer. ARRI brought a stable product to a market that was a bit of a jungle. The SkyPanel immediately became a standard of quality, a sure value. Today, I would like to see ARRI develop the product further, including an IP64 version and integrated power supplies. That would save us installation time. At the end of the day, the real benefit of LEDs is that they allow us to work much faster, which is important with the reduction in turnaround times. It gives us more time to fine-tune the light on set.”


The ARRI Orbiter and SkyPanels on set of Netflix series “Détox”

In his career, the gaffer has regularly worked on genre films that require the creation of unusual lighting atmospheres, far from the ambient naturalism. “It interests me to get the image as close as possible to what the director has in mind,” Franck Barrault explains. “On ‘How I became a superhero’ (Netflix), a fantasy film where we had to create improbable atmospheres, we built the villain’s hideaway in an old, abandoned racetrack. DP Nicolas Loir AFC had this idea to have very dense green curtains installed all along a large bay window. On the outside, I had a scaffold built with eight SkyPanels that lit the window a little bit below, so that the light would come up through the curtains. Inside, I used SkyPanels to reduce the contrast of the image which was quite dense. It created a very interesting atmosphere.”

“On ‘Seuls,’ another fantasy film I worked on, we had a sequence with children driving an armored van they stole at full speed. In the studio, I had set up a lighting installation with thirteen SkyPanels S120 dedicated to the green screen and sixteen SkyPanels S60 illuminating the interior of the van. All of them were connected to a DMX console and all I had to do was to program them. With SkyPanels, it’s very easy to create traffic effects for chases while integrating flash effects of police cars—all with the same light. SkyPanels have really brought that speed of color change, even within a shot. I could create effects that were previously complex with ease now. Suddenly, a lot of things became possible.”


A shot behind the scenes of “Seuls” from director David Moreau

For Franck Barrault, creating the lighting on a set not only consists of adding lights. The gaffer has developed an original method to create light subtraction without deploying installations that are too heavy. “On ‘Le Semeur,’ a beautiful feature film shot by DP Alan Duplantier in the Cévennes mountains, we had little resources, and 70 percent of the film was shot on location in summer. Rather than trying to bring the light in a soft mood (shadows or clouds), I suggested removing light to create contrast on the characters. It’s a concept I developed with DP Nicolas Loir on ‘Seuls’ and on the Netflix horror series ‘Marianne.’”

“The idea was to create a fantastic atmosphere by bringing contrast and density to the image, resulting in a non-naturalistic, yet natural feel. To achieve this, I looked for a material to filter the light. I ended up finding a windbreaker that is used in fashion photography. It’s a black mesh with lots of micro holes that reduce light. I mounted it on 2.40 m x 1.36 m frames. In the country exteriors on ‘Le Semeur,‘ I used them to subtract light and create contrast on the characters. They are very lightweight, so you can hold them in your hand and follow the actors as they move through a tracking shot. Usually, when we want to create subtraction, we do it with black fabric, but the disadvantage is that nothing passes through. Here, the mesh reduced the luminosity but let the color pass through. This allowed me to obtain something very natural. It existed in the image, but you didn’t feel it. On a low-budget film like ‘Le Semeur,’ this added character to the image with very little effort.”


“The SkyPanel immediately became a standard of quality, a sure value,” says Franck Barrault

Constantly on the lookout for new developments, Franck Barrault always selects the most suitable tools for the shoot he is preparing. “I never work with the same list of equipment. It evolves with each film. In fact, I choose the light to adapt to the artistic requests of cinematographer and director, while responding to the problems on set and the budget at the same time. I am always looking for new products to add to my lists.”

”From ARRI, I now use the Orbiter quite often. On ‘Un petit miracle,’ a feature film by Sophie Boudre that will be released soon, I had two Orbiters to make small bounces. I keep using the Orbiter for its accuracy; with its 15° Open Face Optic, I use it either to find something in a wall, bring back a level, or make a reflection. The Orbiter is a very fast tool, allowing me to create a very clean strip of light, without having to install a bunch of flags. I can change the light very quickly, it saves a lot of time on set.”

”On the Netflix series ‘Détox,’ a colorful contemporary comedy captured by DP Quentin de Lamarzelle, I used two Orbiters to add small spots of color in the sets. In the lighting concepts, I like to work with reflection, either to reduce contrast or to bring in directions of light. I also use a lot of cutouts, so I was looking forward to the Orbiter. Beyond the accessories, the fixture’s strong point is the quality of its colors. ARRI has always done a great job with their colorimetry. It’s hyper-clean in color.”


The ARRI Orbiter on set of the Netflix series “Détox” 

“I also sometimes select the M-Series lights from ARRI,” adds Franck Barrault. “They are like Swiss Army knives. They focus, they are powerful. I can do just about anything I want with them. On the series ‘Un homme d'honneur’ from DP Jean-Paul Agostini, I used them to make a bounce or light up the shadows through a diffusion. The other advantage is that you can find these lights all over the world.”

”The next film I'm going to make, ‘Gueules Noires’ by Mathieu Turi, takes place inside mines in northern France. With DP Alain Duplantier, we want to create a very contrasted, dark image. For the surface buildings and conveyors, I will use a M6 to create a very tight brush of light. I will also definitely use some M18s.”