During his 14 years as a standup comedian, Steve Ochs often did a bit about legendary Moulin Rouge performer Joseph Pujol, better known by his stage name, Le Pétomane, which translates as “the fart maniac.” Ochs turned to television writing in the 1990s, and when he wasn’t penning episodes of the animated children’s show Rugrats, he returned to the story of the world’s first professional gas-passer. He eventually wrote a feature-length script about Le Pétomane, but last year, he decided to turn the feature into a short. The result, shot by cinematographer Bengt Jan Jönsson, is Le Pétomane: Parti Avec Le Vent, a movie that functions as a credible biopic while spoofing the more bombastic conventions of the genre.
“Because the subject matter was somewhere between crude and ridiculous, the emotions had to be real and the images had to be subtle and beautiful,” says Ochs. What he didn’t want was “a film that looked like we were marveling at what a camera can do — no Dutch angles, no crazy zooms or panning. The idea was for the viewer to forget how the movie was made and get involved in the story.”
Le Pétomane was Ochs’ first experience directing live action, and he says his animation background helped him hone his visual storytelling skills and develop a thorough understanding of coverage and shot structure. “As an animation writer, I was trained to direct from the page. While this doesn’t mean including actual illustrations [in the screenplay], it does call for considerably more description of scenes, camera moves and parenthetical direction for actors than a typical screenplay.” His script contained detailed descriptions of each shot, so he and Jönsson didn’t need to spend much time discussing their artistic intentions. “Our discussions were more pragmatic,” says the director. “I think we were both operating under an innate understanding of the nature of the piece. Le Pétomane is Bengt’s film in as many ways as it is mine.”
Ochs and Jönsson met in the late 1990s as partners in a start-up media company. Prior to that, Jönsson studied film at Brigham Young University, during which time he interned for cinematographer Gordon C. Lonsdale on the hit television series Northern Exposure. Jönsson subsequently studied cinematography at the American Film Institute. Since then, he has shot a variety of features, commercials and music videos, and he shoots second unit for Lonsdale on the series Bones.
“If you explain the concept [of Le Pétomane], it can sound almost sophomoric, but Steve wanted to play the whole thing deadpan and serious,” says Jönsson. “We talked about [the look] being very simple in the beginning of the film and then becoming more lush as Le Pétomane gains more fame.” However, Ochs and Jönsson didn’t want to put an obvious visual stamp on the film, and they wanted to avoid the affectations of the typical “vintage Euro look,” in which everything is bathed in preternaturally warm light.
Ochs and Jönsson initially planned to shoot on 35mm, but after deciding they wanted to devote more money to production design, they settled on high-definition (HD) video, using the Sony HDW-F900 camera. “I believe in shooting with the most resolution you can get and degrading it as you go,” says Jönsson. “I was confident that no matter what post house we chose, they would have the workflow for the F900, and that’s not always the case for every camera.”
For almost the entire production, Jönsson used only one lens, the Canon HJ9x5.5 I zoom (5.5-49.5mm/T2), which he kept at the longer end of its focal range to reduce depth of field. “It was not as sharp as some other lenses, but that actually helped us, because the footage didn’t look so video-ish,” says Jönsson. Because much of the film was shot with the camera locked off, he never experienced the breathing problems that sometimes occur with ENG lenses. “That’s what’s tough about coming from the film world and using broadcast equipment,” he laments.
Jönsson often underexposed by three-quarters of a stop, shooting at around T2 to keep the highlights from blowing out. “Everyone knows a video camera can hold a lot more in the underexposure than the overexposure,” he notes. To soften the image, he used Tiffen Black Pro-Mist filters of varying strengths on the lens. “I like the Black Pro-Mists because they’re naturally desaturated and seem to soften the contrast with video. It’s a very subtle effect.”
Not knowing at the time of the shoot how the project would be posted — whether it would be input to a data system that would give the filmmakers a great deal of control, or run into an online bay and spit out to HD — Jönsson maintained a fairly neutral color palette. “We did use gels on lights, and we did build color into the images, but if you look at the timed final print next to the raw image, they’re very similar,” says the cinematographer. “The story lent itself to that style. It was more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of thing, which was also what Steve needed from a financial standpoint.”
To light a scene in a butcher shop where Pujol first glimpses his soon-to-be paramour, Jönsson placed an 18K HMI just outside the window and pointed it down into a 12'x12' Griffolyn that was laid parallel to the ground, “skipping” the light into the room. He also created narrow slashes of light throughout the room with a few 12K HMI Pars. “It was the first time I had used the skipping technique. By skipping light in, you keep more of the light than if you had placed the Griffolyn perpendicular to the ground, and you also get a different angle of light. It doesn’t feel source-y, and you can’t tell where it’s coming from.”
Jönsson wanted to give some flashback scenes set at a fountain in the town square a warm, nostalgic feeling. He used sunlight as the main source, lifting the shadow side with an 18K HMI with Chimeras and a 12K HMI Par that served as edgelight, both of which were gelled with Lee 159 No Color Straw. “That gel is almost clear, but it adds a golden glimmer that makes HMI [light] look more real,” he notes.
The town square is also the setting for the film’s only trick shot, which occurs when young Pujol falls into the fountain and accidentally discovers his unique talent. The scene called for an underwater shot of the youth’s swimsuit-clad rump. Unable to obtain a splash box or an underwater housing for the camera, Jönsson improvised with a 50-gallon aquarium he bought from a pet store. He placed the camera inside the aquarium, which was submerged in the fountain to a level where the camera was below the waterline, but water wouldn’t pour over the edge of the aquarium.
The shot also required an effect that would mimic silt and water being suctioned up underneath the boy’s bathing suit. “We had [producer] Julie [Weinhouse] doubling for Joseph by sitting in the fountain with a wet/dry vacuum hose running through her swimsuit, but we just couldn’t get it to look realistic,” recalls Ochs. “What you see onscreen is actually a watermelon with a hole drilled through it wearing the suit.”
The character that undergoes the most significant transformation during the movie is Marcel Baudouin, a physician who becomes obsessed with examining Pujol’s posterior. To suggest Baudouin’s descent into madness, the filmmakers decided his lighting should be altered as the film progressed. At the beginning of the film, the light on the doctor is warm, soft and directional; as he self-destructs, his lighting becomes less flattering and assumes a lower angle. “I used a lot of Kino Flos for the underlighting,” says Jönsson. “No matter how soft they can be, they have an electric ‘zing’ that was perfect for Baudouin as he self-destructed. You can almost see them as sources reflected on people’s skin. When you use them as an underlight, they also create an ominous slash as an eyelight.” For a night scene in an alley outside the Moulin Rouge, where Baudouin confronts Pujol, Jönsson used daylight-balanced Kino Flos below Baudouin, a 4K HMI as general backlight, and China balls at one stop under key as fill light. Gelled tungsten units played in nearby windows.
The bulk of Le Pétomane was shot on the Universal Studios lot over the course of a week, but scenes set in the Moulin Rouge were filmed at the Tower Theater in downtown Los Angeles. With nearly 60 shots to accomplish in a single day, Jönsson decided to focus on lighting select areas within the 906-seat auditorium. To highlight the architecture, numerous Nooklights were placed around the perimeter of the set and hidden in or around cornices and balconies. Par cans attached to beaverboards were mounted at the base of columns to imitate footlights at the front of the stage. Once these were set, Jönsson brought in 5K tungsten units dressed with large Chimeras as soft key lights for the actors onstage. “In a wide shot, I probably could have gotten away with using just the footlights, but in the close-ups, you could see the multiple shadows, so I used the Chimeras to overpower and smooth out the small lights.”
Except for a slightly cooler follow spot illuminating Pujol as he performs, Jönsson used no gels on the footlights. He instead used incandescent bulbs that were dimmed to create the necessary warmth. “We knew we would see these fixtures on camera, and I thought if we dimmed them, the warmth would be sufficient,” says the cinematographer. “Although the general look of the Moulin Rouge is dim, there’s still enough contrast with the lights and the color of the sets and costumes to prevent it from looking muddy.”
Though camera movement is almost nonexistent in the film, Le Pétomane concludes with an elaborate 360-degree spin as Pujol kisses his true love on stage at the Moulin Rouge. Jönsson says the shot was quite simple to achieve, but required plenty of muscle. The main challenge was pushing the Chapman Peewee dolly fast enough on a circular dolly track to cover a 14'-wide circle in a few seconds. “We had a couple of people taking turns pushing the dolly, because one person couldn’t keep up with it the whole time,” says Jönsson. “The track would actually shift as we were doing it, and we almost rolled it a couple of times.”
After showing Le Pétomane at several festivals on HD, Ochs transferred it 35mm to make it eligible for Academy Awards consideration. “The final print is very similar to the original footage,” notes Jönsson. “In fact, I was surprised by how filmic it looks. Anyone would be hard-pressed to discern it was shot on HD and not on film.”