The Magic of Cinema, an Interview with Cinematographer Thomas Buelens

Thomas Buelens is a photographer and cinematographer whose experience stretches back through time and family history. His grandfather, also a professional photographer, owned 3 photo shops in Antwerp, Belgium, later to be inherited by Thomas’ father. From an early age photography, light and shadow and the details captured by different cameras, influenced Thomas Buelens immensely.

Today, he works as a cinematographer for feature films and for commercials for brands such as Nike, Cartier, Levi’s, and Carlsberg. Even watching these commercials, one is struck by the cinematic, dynamic, and textural nature of his work.

Thomas Buelens on the set of Jumbo

“The more experienced you become as a cinematographer, the more accurate you get in portraying a vision on the screen. Just as a painter selects his brushes or paint colours, so does a cinematographer with cameras, lenses, and light to achieve that vision.”

In our interview below we discuss his unique style, artistic process, and view, with the discussion centering around his contributions to the upcoming film by Zoé Wittock called Jumbo.

Jumbo follows Jeanne, a shy young woman, who works in an amusement park and is captivated by the park’s flagship attraction. The film is nominated for 2020 Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema — Dramatic category.

Andrew Cheek: First, could you touch on briefly what some of your responsibilities were as cinematographer for the film Jumbo?

Thomas Buelens: As a cinematographer it’s my task to translate the script into a visual language that the director and I find fitting. I do this by using the camera, lenses, lighting, and movement. The palette of these combined is endless, so the cinematographer is key to steer the crew towards the chosen direction.

Filmmaking is quite prone to chaos, and typically tends to have a certain hierarchy to make it work. The higher up in the ranks you go, the more oversight and responsibility you have, and the longer you are involved to get the project to the finish line.

Andrew: What was the relation between the storyline of Jumbo and the cinematographic techniques, moods, or styles you employed? I.e., how did they work together and connect, or diverge, relate, change, heighten, and so on?

Thomas: As one of the characters named “Jumbo” is an amusement park ride that comes to life, we agreed early on that we didn’t want the film to be too magical as that would be the easy way to film the script. It would distract the viewer from the story and feeling a sense of reality. But we also didn’t want to make it feel like a documentary. So, on one hand we went with a naturalistic way of lighting and movement of the camera, and on the other hand we chose anamorphic lenses to give the image more scope. I like to call it “enhanced realism.”

The more the story progresses and deeper Jeanne’s character, skillfully portrayed by Noémie Merlant, falls in love with Jumbo the closer I stay on her with the camera. This way we immerse the viewer into Jeanne’s world and hopefully share her feelings for Jumbo.

I tried to give the actors as much space as possible on set to perform and only light from the outside for the most part. I also like to adapt the intensity and color of the light during the progression of the story and not just set one look for the whole film. I take the emotions of the characters as a reference. For instance, in the beginning of the film we start out a lot brighter and desaturated. The more Jeanne goes into her fantasy, the darker but more colourful it becomes and in the final part we keep the colours but bring in the light again.

On the set of Jumbo, with “Jumbo” the ride in the background

Andrew: Watching some of the commercials and other pieces of cinema you’ve worked on as cinematographer, I’m blown away by the imaginative depth of the textures and hyper up-close shots you’re able to achieve. Water droplets or diamonds pouring down, embers in a fire like whole cities, golden honeycombs, and so on. You place considerable emphasis on the human body and movement, too.

Are there certain techniques or philosophies you employ to achieve these types of surreal depictions? I’m curious about the interplay between method, creative process, and the ends achieved by those approaches.

Thomas: Thanks for the compliment!

What I find the most fascinating about cinematography and filmmaking in general is that it’s the only art form where you can take a thought or a dream straight out of your own mind and portray it in exactly the same way onto something physical like a screen. With literature, and paintings for example, you will always have a personal interpretation. Photography comes close but not in the same manner as with film. It’s an amazing feeling when you see a thought you had months in advance show up on the monitor, and to be able to show your dream to someone else! That is the power of cinema.

The more experienced you become as a cinematographer, the more accurate you get in portraying a vision on the screen. Just as a painter selects his brushes or paint colours, so does a cinematographer with cameras, lenses, and light to achieve that vision.

What most people don’t realise when watching a film or a commercial is that it’s so difficult to achieve! You are literally fighting all the elements just to be able to capture someone’s thoughts on a screen. Every single frame you see is unique! It has never been filmed before, and will never be filmed in exactly the same manner again, ever. I find that very fascinating.

Andrew: Perhaps on a similar line, could you touch on how your work with Jumbo, or any feature-length piece, has been influenced by your experience working in commercials where the goal centers more around highlighting not just a product but a very concentrated textural-emotional feeling in a short window of time?

Thomas: I love shooting commercials because they are short but intense projects. That’s where you can gain a lot of experience fast, that you can then use when having to wrestle the beast called “a feature-film.”

From a cinematographer’s point of view, the biggest difference between a commercial and a feature is the level of importance of the visuals. On a commercial the cinematography is often prioritised to trigger an emotional response of the viewer as fast as possible. On a good feature the priority is the story and characters. There, the cinematography should ideally not distract the viewers unless it’s called for. So on a feature you should always motivate every position of the camera, every movement, all the lights to see if it serves the story.

Andrew: What were some of the challenges, individual or collaborative, you encountered working on Jumbo?

Thomas: I would say the amount of shooting days we had because of the limited budget to tell the story in a way Zoé and I had set out. We had around 30 days to shoot this film but actually needed a couple more days. There were a lot of locations spread out in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Almost all of the crew had to come from Luxembourg and I didn’t know any of them. It was a true challenge, but I have to say that my gaffer, Vitalijus Kiselius, and his light crew did an amazing job! We didn’t have any pre-light days and yet they managed to get everything set up in time and with the look I had in mind.

All of the night scenes around Jumbo were a real challenge as well. During the pre-production we had to find a way to basically make an inanimate object come to life and portray emotions but keep it believable. It was a fine line. Too much and it would become fake and laughable, too little, and we wouldn’t ignite the viewer’s imagination.

I worked very closely with the talented production designer, William Abello, and we designed a whole lighting scheme for it. He added a lot of lights that we could control completely. Also, a big challenge was that we didn’t build Jumbo from scratch, but it was an existing amusement ride traveling to fairgrounds all over Europe. It had over 200 practical light bulbs on it that we had to find a way to control. In the end, we found a great way that enabled us to rewire all these lights into a DMX board and we were able to make Jumbo come to life!

Andrew: How has your historical background in photography influenced your work as a cinematographer?

Thomas: My grandparents had a well-known photo shop in Antwerp and my parents took over the business when they were in their late twenties. In those days you had to have a degree in photography to be able to have a photo store. So from an early age I had cameras around me, which permitted me to experiment. My dad taught me the basics and I still remember the very first picture I took that I was kind of proud of. I was around 12 and it was of man in a small rowing boat in the middle of a big lake in Germany. The sun was setting in the background and made the water glisten. I underexposed it so that the man became a silhouette. Thinking back about it, I could have become a Hallmark postcard photographer (laughing). Luckily I learned a lot more over time. But one thing remains the same, I still like to underexpose!

Andrew: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thomas: I would like to say how amazing it is to see so much great talent spreading out lately from my little country Belgium and even my city Antwerp! You have Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah who have just directed Bad Boys for Life starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Then you have the rising star actor Matthias Schoenaerts. Directors Michaël Roskam (Bullhead, The Drop), Felix van Groeningen (Beautiful Boy), Hans Herbots (Riviera, The Serpent). The list goes on and I hope this will continue to grow so the world thinks not only of beer, chocolate, and diamonds when they hear of Belgium.

*For more from Thomas, check out his website to view his stunning portfolio of photographs and films.

*All images provided courtesy of Impact24 PR unless otherwise noted.

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Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.