Yves Belanger, the French-Canadian cinematographer of John Crowley’s Brooklyn, worked consistently for 20 years before breaking out with a series of films by Jean-Marc Vallée. Transitioning from smaller films to major studio projects over the past several years, Belanger says this major rise in recognition is very simple to understand. “It’s three words: Dallas Buyers Club,” he says. The film was a special platform that launched both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to their first Oscars, while also placing Belanger among an elite cadre of cinematographers. “It’s like for actors. You just need one good part, and sometimes it happens at 30, sometimes it happens at 40,” Belanger says, adding that for him, it happened at 53. At present, the cinematographer is finding a balance between life and work—shooting Canadian films half the year so he can be home with his family, and shooting with Jean-Marc in the U.S. the rest of each year.
Working with Vallée on Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, the latter starring Reese Witherspoon as a woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Belanger became well-versed in the art of natural lighting and developed a penchant for it, applying this practice to Brooklyn by always starting to light from a place of practicality. For Brooklyn, says Belanger, “we wanted a mix of both worlds, like practical cinema, but something modern, too. There was a lot of lighting in the movie, but the lights were always coming from real places with logical reasons—a window, a streetlight.” The only added touch, which gave the film a bit of 1950s movie magic and a bit of romance, was the use of a special light used specifically to highlight young starlet Saoirse Ronan. “It was a Chinese lantern, so it’s very soft and round, like the human face, and it was movable on the boom pole. If she was moving, or if I had to pan, the light was panning at the same time, so there was nothing in the way,” Belanger says.
The film was shot on the ARRI Alexa, and the D.P. changed the lensing and diffusion based on location—whether the crew was shooting in Montreal (for New York) or Ireland, and whether this was the Ireland from the beginning of the film, or the Ireland to which Ronan’s character Eilis later returns, a changed woman. At the beginning of the film, Belanger shot with old Zeiss high-speed lenses and no diffusion, to create a bit of a rougher or edgier look reflecting Eilis’ life in her home country. When the character moves to America, she is shot with master prime lenses and a bit of diffusion, “to make it magical. She’s living the American dream,” says the D.P. And Eilis’ return to Ireland feels cinematically different, as well, shot with Leica lenses and the same diffusion from the scenes in the States, “because for me, she has changed, so she doesn’t see Ireland like she used to.” In terms of his supporting crew, who worked with Belanger in Ireland, the D.P. was in good hands—many of them had worked on such large-scale projects as Game of Thrones and were quick to respond to his needs.
For Belanger, though, the real draw of a good project is the possibility of learning from directors he hasn’t worked with before, and even more so, the opportunity to witness great actors at work. Belanger was inspired by Crowley’s theater background and his unique tack in directing, and found the opportunity to work with such rising stars as Ronan, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson a complete joy. “I was always actor- and emotion-oriented in all my work, even when I was doing smaller, more commercial things. For me, the human face is the best landscape in the world,” Belanger says.
Up next for the cinematographer is Shut In, a “classical thriller in the dark,” starring Naomi Watts as a widowed New England child psychologist on the hunt for a boy who disappeared, played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay.
To see some of Belanger’s work in a Brooklyn featurette on the love triangle at the center of the film, click play below: