Cinematographer Benoit Debie Has Become the Master of Color

Miami and the Moondog: Debie finds the sublime shades of "The Beach Bum."
"The Beach Bum"
"The Beach Bum"

When Harmony Korine first talked to cinematographer Benoit Debie about shooting “Spring Breakers,” he told his future collaborator that he wanted the cinematography to be the star of film and push further than anything he had done before. For Debie, whose work more than any other cinematographer of his generation has been defined by his bold use of color, the idea of a director asking him to reach for colors, and an intensity of color, not normally seen on screen was a dream come true. Five years later, when Korine returned to Debie to discuss “The Beach Bum,” he wanted more of the same.

“Compared to ‘Spring Breakers,'” said Debie in an interview with IndieWire. “Harmony said on this one you have to go even further.”

Returning to Florida to make an even more colorful film was of course appealing, but the blissful mood of “The Beach Bum” was quite a different assignment than the cynical bite of “Spring Breakers.” It set in a different part of Florida, as well, requiring a significantly different palette.

“Spring Breakers”

“‘Spring Breakers’ was not in Miami [where much of ‘The Beach Bum’ is set], it was in St. Petersburg, a very different city,” said Debie. “It’s very strange because during the daytime Miami is quite normal, but as soon as you start to move toward the sunset and night the city is completely different. It’s [all these different] colors and layers, for me it’s another city. There’s more colors at night, all the bridges with LED lights and the city itself. And Key West [where the film begins] is a completely different world altogether.”

Whereas his cinematography of “Spring Breakers” introduced colors to the night scenes of St. Petersburg, Debie was pulling, emphasizing and playing with the warm, vibrant sky of late-in-the-day Miami itself in “The Beach Bum.’ While Korine and Debie intentionally kept the actual shooting and shot selection loose during production, the two collaborators worked hard in pre-production to find the right visual setting through an exhaustive location scouting.

“For me and Harmony, it’s very important to pick the right location, we scout so many during preproduction,” said Debie. “It was about finding the best place for the film in terms of lighting and design, with the set designer [“Spring Breakers” production designer Elliott Hostetter] who came with us to get the color right. It’s not just about the right place, but seeing [locations] at the right time. I make sure we see them [at] different times to find when they look their best.”

“The Beach Bum”screenshot

Without the budget or time to transform locations, Debie, Korine and Hostetter determine what needs to be painted, or where and how colored lights will be introduced. More than anything though it was about finding those late-in-the-day times when the color of Miami became its most vivid.

“There’s more daytime than ‘Spring Breakers,’ and each day we were thinking let’s go outside when we can and shoot the sunset as much as possible,” said Debie. “So we would be shooting a sequence and when it was time for the sunset we went outside and tried to capture that beauty of Miami and Florida, which is very impressive at certain times.”

Earlier in the day, under the sun, the colors of Miami are, according to Debie, quiet. The cinematographer has long been masterful in his use of varicolor polarizer filters to break up the monotony of normal.

“We were shooting a good portion during the daytime and the idea was to be colorful, sometimes when you shoot under the sun it becomes like almost normal and so I had some filters on the cameras, varicolor filters,” said Debie. “So you can change the colors of the ocean and reflections with these filters. It was also to be more vibrant, to have more vibrant color and be a bit more extreme than normal.”

When Korine initially had talked to Debie about going even further in terms of color on their second film together, the cinematographer was working on Jacques Audiard’s western “The Sisters Brothers,” a film he is proud of, but which he was struggling with in terms of the color limitations of digital cinematography. For what Korine wanted, returning to 35mm film, which was how they shot the film together, was the only option.

“I think when Harmony said we have to push and go even further, just the decision to shoot on film was already a huge step,” said Debie. “Even ‘Spring Breakers,’ if it was me shooting on digital, I wouldn’t be able to get that kind of image. It’s completely impossible to reach [for those] kinds of colors on digital – I have done different camera tests and there was no way.”

For all the intensity and vibrancy of the “The Beach Bum” color scheme, Debie did the heavy lifting in-camera, spending only four days in color grade sessions. And while Debie is maybe old school in that respect, for this film he tried a new piece of lighting technology that has allowed more cinematographers to work, well, like Debie. The new generation of LED lights throw off a far more natural and pleasant looking light, but they also allow cinematographers and gaffers the ability – with the turn of a knob, or tap on the iPad – to dial in a specific color of light.

“When I started the prep, I remember the gaffer showed me some tubes [Astera LED tubes], with LEDs inside,” said Debie. “It’s RGB, so you can change everything. He showed me that, I said, ‘Yeah maybe, it’s ok.'”

“Climax”Wild Bunch

Debie fell in love with the light-weight, compact, battery powered lights so much he shot his next film, Gaspar Noe’s “Climax,” almost entirely with them.

“If you have an HMI and you put [color] gels on it, say you go for a green color, maybe you have two or three different choices, and at one point you go for it because you have to decide beforehand what green you want,” said Debie. “But not if you have an LED light, you can go for green, but you can decide what kind of green — lime, dark green. It’s more intuitive, you can decide on the set and make adjustments.”

For a cinematographer who uses color to tell a story, but also prefers — especially when working with Korine — to have freedom to creatively explore on set, the LED tubes are the perfect tool. Before shooting, Debie worked to arc the film’s color story to the mood and journey of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) as it read on the page, but he then allowed himself to also feed off the actor himself.

“I would see Matthew and think, ‘I’ll go for a purple or a green,’ just because of him, or reacting to the situation he was in the scene,” said Debie. “Sometimes when you check the wardrobe of Matthew — I remember one day I saw Matthew on the location with his yellow shirt and everything, I had the idea to adjust the colors of my lighting with his shirt, just to match and have a nice combination.”

Debie’s collaboration with McConaughey went beyond color. Korine favors spontaneous acting, leading Debie to light in 360 degrees and give performers freedom to move wherever. The camera then reacts to the performers.

"The Beach Bum"
“The Beach Bum”Neon

“The way I usually shoot with Harmony is I put the camera on my shoulder and follow the action of the actor,” said Debie. “So the first take, I play with the actor with the camera. I try to find a nice place to go in this long shot. We then usually cover the same long shot, but from another angle, maybe a tighter lens, for cutting purposes. Sometimes an actor doesn’t want to be shot like that, but with Matthew it was a pleasure — we really enjoyed shooting this film with no rules, everyone was free to do different stuff. With Harmony nothing is rigid.”

Debie’s camera found a rhythm and pace that, like the story and film itself, was a direct product of McConaughey’s essence as a performer. A rhythm that Korine’s cast of non-professional actors — ranging from Jimmy Buffett to an array of colorful Florida characters — never forced Debie to break stride or approach.

“All the other performers were playing with Matthew, like the camera, we were all feeding off him,” said Debie. “It really was an enjoyable way of working.”

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