Film-maker Anthony Chen and cinematographer Benoit Soler

Filming through a character's eyes

Film-maker Anthony Chen and French cinematographer Benoit Soler on the set of Ilo Ilo.
Film-maker Anthony Chen and French cinematographer Benoit Soler on the set of Ilo Ilo.PHOTO: GIRAFFE PICTURES

Film-maker Anthony Chen was about to employ Benoit Soler, a friend, schoolmate and collaborator from Britain's National Film & Television School, to shoot his first feature, Ilo Ilo (2013).

But he was worried that the cinematographer, who is French, would see Singapore with a "foreign gaze", making the island look strange or exotic.

"I invited him to live in my flat for two weeks, gave him an ez-link card and asked him to explore the city," says Chen, 33.

Soler, 34, did just that, but Chen need not have worried. The Frenchman says that Ilo Ilo's HDB setting is not completely foreign to him. "We are used to tight spaces in Europe," he says on the telephone from Paris, where he is based.

What he needed to get acquainted with was the natural light.

"Singapore is close to the equator, so at noon the sun is very high and it rises and sets fast," he says.

The space in a flat, or the lack of it, was less an issue for him than getting familiar with the Singapore film crew's work patterns and dealing with challenges such as making sure scenes shot in a flat were well-lit without looking artificial.

His top priority was understanding how he could give new dimensions to Chen's story about a boy and his relationship with his family's Filipino domestic helper.

Soler, like Chen, believes that the job of the cinematographer is more than just pointing the camera at the actors and making sure that things are lit and in focus.

"I try to take the point of view of one of the characters, the one I feel is the most important to the scene," he says.

He arrives at this decision after story discussions with the director, a habit that Chen supports, rather than the top-down relationship that usually prevails in Singapore.

After working on Ilo Ilo, winner of the Camera d'Or prize for best first feature film at the Cannes Film Festival, Soler went on to work on European productions before returning to Singapore to work with Boo Junfeng on Apprentice (2016).

In Apprentice, a film about a young prison warden's relationship with an older warden who is also a hangman, Soler saw an opportunity to develop the character of the older man Rahim (played by Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su).

The setting is the gallows and Rahim is preparing for an execution and is working on ropes and the trap door. Soler's camera hovers over the hangman's grim handiwork.

"Rahim is a precise man - he wants to make sure that people die immediately. He hangs people, but he is also trying to be humane," he says.

John Lui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Filming through a character's eyes'. Print Edition | Subscribe