Director Zoé Wittock unveiled a new film at Sundance that uses our love for inanimate objects to weave a beautiful story about love and friendship. To help make the motion picture come to life was cinematographer Thoma Buelens.
Jumbo stars Noémie Merlant alongside one of the most iconic amusement park attractions imaginable — a Ferris wheel. In the film, Merlant plays Jeanne, the janitor at an amusement park with Jumbo, the Ferris wheel, at its center. Jeanne and Jumbo form a relationship of sorts. Things get surreal and maybe a little erotic from there.
PopAxiom caught Thomas between the amusement park and World War I to talk about his road to taking the moving pictures that make a movie what it is.
It’s In The Blood
Thomas is a native of Belgium who credits his love for photography to a past that’s alive in his veins. “It was a little bit pre-wired in my DNA. If I go way back, my grandfather worked in a steel mill in the early 20th century, he had a passion for photography.”
Thomas’ grandmother changed the course of destiny. “My grandmother was a really savvy businesswoman, she suggested they move to the city and open a photography shop, and they actually did it. It was successful, and by the 1950s, they were the biggest sellers of photo gear in the area.”
Though part of a photographic family, Thomas admits, “I wasn’t pushed into photography. I got into skateboarding. I was interested in the skateboarding magazines, and in there was all this artistic photography.”
Thomas’ modern love — skateboarding — met the family business. “My father taught me the basics, and I learned it was easy for me to take nice pictures.”
The Right Brothers
The jump from photography to cinematography required a combination of brothers to create a spark. “One evening, when I was around 16 or 17, I get a call from my brother-in-law about a movie on TV that I should watch. It was The Big Lebowski by the Cohen Brothers.”
The spark created a career that’s now 11 credits deep and counting. “I was a regular kid. I didn’t know anything about cinema. I was into Jurassic Park and Independence Day. I watched that movie [Big Lebowski] … my eyes opened. I stopped skateboarding the same week, went into making a short film, and never looked back.”
Thomas started to do his cinematic homework. “I discovered all the Cohen Brothers films, Hitchcock, and on. The masters. I found out you could study [filmmaking], and by the time I was 20, I was doing internships on sets.”
Thomas was in school while also following his passion and the time came to have a conversation. “I sat my parents down in a Chinese Restaurant and told them, ‘If I pass these Christmas exams, I’ll keep studying, but if I fail, I’ll just go and work in cinema.”
The emerging cinematographer’s final grade was an F, as in ‘fate.’ “The day after that conversation, I got a call from the biggest film production company in Belgium who wanted me to come do set photography. I went to the exams and just filled out my name.”
A bunch of short films, commercials, and features later, Jumbo appeared. “The script came through my agent who reached out to me. I read it and saw huge photographic potential.”
Thomas went through his usual process while reading a script. “… I go through visual references, but I don’t show it to the director right away. I want to get in their minds and their vision for how they see the movie.”
During his interview with Jumbo director Zoé, “… I saw that it was going in the same direction as my references … I showed her my references, and she was surprised. More than fifty percent of references she put together for herself was the same.”
Needless to say, the pair hit it off. “She has a really strong vision and great experience. It was a nice match.”
As one might imagine, shooting a film that heavily involves a Ferris wheel is no simple task. “One of the biggest challenges was really making Jumbo come to life. It’s an inanimate object, but there’s a lot of interaction between Noémie and Jumbo.”
Making the giant wheel come to life was priority number one. “Light is emotion. We added an enormous amount of lights on it. We had to program over 160 lights onto Jumbo.”
The team got together to give Jumbo a heart. “I worked closely together with Zoe and our amazing production designer William Abelo to attach lights onto Jumbo that could change colors in all the ways we wanted. It was a huge challenge to have it all planned out in such a short period of shooting.” Jumbo was filmed in 30 days.
On such a tight schedule, Thomas talks about how they decided on Jumbo’s feelings. “We didn’t have a lot of ‘test days’ so we had one evening where we programmed Jumbo and said, ‘Ok, this is its happy lighting; this is sad; this is shocked.’ That was quite complex …”
On top of the programmed lights, Thomas explains the other bright side. “On top of the programmed lights, we had the film lights, we had to program them as well to work with the lights on Jumbo.”
Now that Jumbo could feel, there was the matter of making the movie. “There’s a scene where Noémie crawls up on Jumbo … It’s eight to nine meters high [26-29 feet]; we had to have stunt cranes and a special crane with the camera.”
In the end, Thomas says, “All of this was a challenge, but it’s what makes a day exciting.”
No matter the size, 99.9 percent of all film crews require teamwork to succeed. “To me, costume design and production design are so important. In a way, even more, important than cinematography because I can only capture what’s in front of the camera.”
Thomas tells us about his work with production design. “In this film, I had a close relationship with William, and we talked in detail about all the colors and textures of things. That makes me a better cinematographer.”
A goal of the film, Thomas says, was “… to not make the film too magical, keep it realistic. We called it ‘Enhanced Realism.’”
Jumbo was a very real Ferris wheel. “We tried to capture as much as possible in-camera. But we did plenty of CGI … there’s some interaction with oil, we did a lot of tests in-camera as a reference for the CGI artist.”
Thomas shares some of the joy he feels about making movies. “When you dream of a shot months in advance and then it’s on the monitor, and you can show it to other people, the hairs on your arm stand up. That’s the best feeling in cinema.”
Outside of the DNA that directed him to this business, cinematographers like Roger Deakins are an influence on Thomas. An even more significant influence though is Robert Richardson. “He has such a vast array of styles. One of my favorite movies is Snow Falling on Cedar. It’s such an amazingly shot film. If you compare that with Nixon, there’s such a difference but still beautiful.”
Thomas continues, “Greig Fraser is another one. He really captures something that was a reference for me on this film. The movie Killing Them Softly, which has that ‘enhanced realism,’ it has this documentary feel … but still quite cinematic. It’s one of the reasons we shot on anamorphic.”
“I’m a big fan of anamorphic,” Thomas says, “I shoot about 80 percent of my stuff, features, and commercials, on anamorphic. It gives you a little more scope in a realistic setting.”
What remake would Thomas like to shoot? “I’m always a little afraid of remakes. Mostly, I think, don’t mess with the original. I do believe in sequels, so, imagine, a sequel to something like Seven or Big Lebowski, that would be amazing to have a chance at that.”
Jumbo premiered at Sundance. So, what’s next? “I’m heading off to Tokyo to shoot a commercial, then I’m on pre-production for a World War I movie, which I cannot go into detail quite yet.”
Will you be watching Jumbo?
Thanks to Thomas Buelens and Impact 24 PR for making this interview possible.
Want to read more interviews like this? CLICK HERE.