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Meeting Vincent Laforet

Even though Lense is a French speaking website, we publish here our English version of Vincent Laforet interview, for his international audience. French version is available just here. Enjoy !

Famous photographer, even more famous filmmaker, Vincent Laforet was in Paris to talk at Adobe’s Creative Week 2012. We had the chance and pleasure to meet with the man behind « Reverie », « Mobius » – and hundred of great pictures – and discuss about a wide array of topics : photo, video, the importance of technology, the importance of forgetting technology, the new generation, advices, past, future and even crickets.

Confessions of a passionate, relentless mind.

all photos unless stated otherwise : Joseph « Jerka » André


Vincent Laforet is a great, established photographer. That could be the end of the story, the pinnacle of a career. But for French American visual artist, it was the first step.

By stumbling upon a 5D Mark II and understanding the revolution lying inside before anyone, Laforet got himself catapulted under the spotlights as the HDDSLR movement guru. And, as he’s still an accomplished visual artist, he directed better and better, more and more sophisticated movies.

As Mr. Laforet is on the verge of jumping the shark by jumping into the cinema industry, we sat with him before his Adobe Creative Week talk, to gain advices and gain access to this beautiful mind.


Vincent Laforet, what brings you here in Paris ?

First of all, my parents are French, so I’m French by citizenship. And I had a workshop in Germany when Adobe asked me to speak, so made the jump.

What’s your relationship with Adobe software ?

I use it. They’ve called me a digital maverick, so fine (laughs). I’ve spoken for them at Sundance Film Festival and NAB, but mostly I’m an Adobe user and fan.

For all their software ?

My relationship transformed. It started in 1991 with Photoshop, that I teached to my teachers when I was 16… So I’ve been around Photoshop forever and about a year and a half ago, I got a RED Epic. I couldn’t edit it with Final Cut 7 or Final Cut 10, so I had the choice between Avid and Premiere. I went to Premiere because of After Effects.

We transformed our entire workflow into Adobe workflow, because it was the only software that easily allowed us to use RED, 5D Mark II, Time Lapse and GoPro, all in one timeline, especially the RED Raw, which was a big deal.

Is digital workflow crucial ? Do you need fewer software, unified ergonomics etc ?

Yes. I don’t want to worry about « oh, I can only shoot with this camera. » You just want to shoot whatever you want and let the Software worry about in the backend. And that wasn’t the case two years ago. The editor would say « God no, don’t shoot with that camera« , « you can’t mix 5D with the RED », « don’t go this and that… » Adobe effectively fixed that problem and lets creatives be creative ! We don’t have to worry about you know, Mathematics (laughs)

Talking about video : you’ve been an established photographer for years, but nowadays, people know you even more for video than photography, even though video weights for 4 years of your career, compared to the 22 years plus of photography…

Absolutely, feels strange ! Four years only…

How did you came to video ?

My father worked for Premiere magazine, I was around cinema my whole life. I could have done film school but I chose journalism and I worked for 22 years as a photographer.

I worked for New York Times on staff, freelancer for National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Paris Match… I had a good career. But seven, eight years ago, I saw what was happening to the print media : well, it doesn’t look very good, with a promising future. And the 5D Mark II came into my hands…

photo : Vincent Laforet

… And there was a sparkle in your eyes.

Not a sparkle, an explosion ! I stumbled upon the first models in a Canon office, signed an NDA, start to play with it and then, was like « Oh my God, this camera is gonna change everything ! » We were Friday and the first batch of prototype were supposed to be send to three photographers on Monday. I negociated my way : I asked and asked again. Six or seven times, until the Canon rep finally said yes. My main argument was that those 5D Mark II were going to « sleep » in their boxes all week end long ! Logic – and perseverance won. I saw the 5D Mark II a 12:00pm, and got one at 4:00pm.

So, I just had a week end to shoot « Reverie », so I gathered two friends, two actors a helicopter and we shot the two available nights of the week end. I put it online and it became huge. We got 1 000 000 view in 24 hours, 2 000 000 in a week, the Canon website got more hits in a week than in the whole year.

Starting from « Reverie », I had opportunities to meet the heads of Disney Studios, ILM, the Academy of Motion Pictures… And I couldn’t say no. I always wanted to be a filmmaker but I never knew how to go from being a photographer for 22 years, to starting at the bottom and film ? This has been the opportunity to kind of skip steps and go head first into it. It’s been the most fascinating 4 years of my life.

In terms of learning curve and the way you think as a photographer – and a lot of photographers are coming to video right now, what were the major issues and largest obstacles you had to face ?

It’s a huge learning curve. If you want to make smaller videos of your friends, sport action videos, it’s a little bit different. I was trying to move into long form narrative films and commercials. So I wanted to use the best lighting, the best cameras, steady cams, russian arms, helicopters (laughs)…

The biggest learning curve for me was :

  1. Understanding of how the piece would flow and cut. Photography is very good at finding single images. But a film is about stream of images that all relate to each other perfectly and flow.
  2. Also, as photographer, you make an image that people can look at for one second or stare at it for half an hour, whereas a film is a set duration. And in this world today, I call the audience « rats on crack » (laughs) : they have no attention span ! So you really have to find a way to capture their attention and keep them. It’s a big challenge this days, as a commercial or short film or full lenght feature director, to keep the audience interested the entire time. And that is the challenge : to shoot, edit, cut and get a piece that really gets people attention.
  3. Learning to work with a larger crew as well.
  4. And the steepest learning curve : As a photographer, you can be reactive : you see a beautiful picture and you shoot it. As a filmmaker, it’s all about pre-production. 90% of your work is done before you even set foot on stage : you scout, talk to wardrobe, make up, lighting… Everything.

Mobius : behind the scene

Can we then state that video is harder than photo, or is it comparing apples and oranges ?

It’s a bit apples and oranges. It’s different. When you’re a photojournalist in the middle of a war, or at the Olympics, decisive moment only happen once. You don’t know where, when it’s going to happen, what lens you’ll need. We’re talking about a very specific set of skills here.

Then the filmmaker has 60 shots to get it. But you respond for every little detail and you have to make it happen. It’s different part of your brain at work here.

In general, the workload (the amount of people you’re working with, the amount of money you’re dealing with) is much more complicated in film, because of the number of factors. But I wouldn’t say one it necessarily more difficult than the other. Photo and Video are just about a different set of skills, above the common ones.

You say you’re a photojournalist, but you work with a large crew, not talking about the insane amount of photo gear at your disposal. And now, after starting with a 5D Mark II, you work with RED, Phantom, Alexa, accessories, vehicles… Does all these heavy processes burden you, or excite you ?

Oh, it excites me. If you see it as a burden, you shouldn’t be filmmaking (laughs), you should go back to photography. It’s a privilege, to have all this people, all this gear at your disposal. What you can’t believe as a director is that because you have that much gear and that much people, you’re gonna make a good film. Your job is to make sure they’re being used properly.

You respect the craft, because you’re the only person on set who know how all this is gonna come up together. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a disaster.

Photo gear (photo : Vincent Laforet)

True, as people start to think and want technologies and technics to disappear behind creativity.

I think we’re right now at a point where technology is more important than creativity, people pay more attention to it. And we need a shift because now, everyone can shoot a film. But not anyone can shoot a good film, it’s an important distinction.

You have gear that allows you to do stuff you’d never do five years ago. But it doesn’t mean your story’s any good, doesn’t mean you know how to tell it either. You have to recognize it as a craft. When you watch Scorcese or Kubrick or Orson Wells, you see they were incredible directors.

Do you still shoot photography ?

I still do commercial jobs, about three per year, here and there. But I’m 100% commited to video.

Don’t you miss sometimes to take one camera with you and just go shoot ?

I do ! I take nature shots. Which I would laugh at you if you told me that 5 years ago. I photograph trees and landscapes, never would you ever pay me to shoot that (laughs) !

(note : during his keynote later, Laforet said his main photo cameras were a 5D Mark II, a Leica M9 and his main… an iPhone.)

It’s kinda your friday wear…

Yeah, I was traveling the world shooting sport events. And I was like « meh, those people are shooting trees and mountains, it’s like watching paint dry ! » Whereas now, I find it beautiful. It’s you, the camera and the crickets (laughs). No one saying a word on schedule, the money, the actor is late or tired. It’s just you, it’s quiet, it’s nice actually.

Not only you shifted from being a photographer to a filmmaker, but your also morphed from an established photographer to the HDDSLR and video revolution poster boy. And you show generosity on your blog, sharing thoughts and advices, showing gear and behind the scenes. Is that natural for you, or paradoxal, in an era where creative people are being threaten by the lower costs and the « free » culture brought through Internet ?

It’s a combination of two things. As a photojournalist, it was very common to have other, more experienced photojournalists sharing their knowledge with me. Very much in a mentorship way. That’s the way photographers grow up, especially in the press and sports where you have someone who has been doing ten Olympics and it’s your first Olympics. They’re gonna tell you what Lens you should pick and where you should go for two reasons :

  1. So they help you
  2. So you don’t stand in their way and make everyone look bad by walking in the very middle of the arena (laughs).

So there’s a rich tradition in Photography backgroun in the U.S from where I come from of people mentoring. And now, me mentoring other people.

And then, the new generation of the Internet and the blogs. I’m not threaten by showing people how to do things, because I know that if they do it and copy exactly what I do, no one’s gonna respect them necessarily. But I hope they do what I do and they do it better. Everyone has a different eye. I’ve shown stuff and my gaffer would come and say « hey hey hey, not many gaffers in the world know how to light stuff just like I did ! »
Secrecy has for long been the rule of thumb…

Yes, I just don’t think like that.

Is it also a way to promote yourself ?

Of course it is. Before « Reverie », no one knew me in the video world at all. That was the best promotion I could have ever done in the history. I spent my own 5000$ on « Reverie » – which was a lot back then, very little today. I could have spend 5000$ on printing for promotions and mailing them out.

You then advise everybody to constantly share. Or does it work because you’re a major player in the league, like say, Radiohead and Louis C.K ?

It doesn’t work like that. It works if what you have to share is interesting. I’ve worked with the New York Times. It is not the sexiest newspaper, its surname is « The Old Grey Lady » as it’s in black and white. But people read the NYT because there’s a good content. So if what you have to share is interesting, and original, and well communicated, whether you’re 5 years old or 50 years old, people will listen to you. If what you have to share is good explanation, but not well explained, it’s not gonna come, and vice-versa.

We have this expression in America from the Fields of Dreams : « If you build it, they will come« . I believe that if you put good content out there, people will come. If you put content out there because you want people to come, or want you want sponsors, visitors and numbers, it doesn’t work.

But Vincent Laforet is now a brand, a huge brand, can you think about your blog as something amateur, personal ?

I wouldn’t say amateur, more personal. And genuine. There are certainly things I can’t do. I can’t review Nikon cameras (laughs), because I have a contract with Canon.

Genuinely, I don’t write stuff on my blog if I’m not interested in it. I have sponsors and company that say « Hey, would you write about this ? » and I go « – Let me try it. » And if I don’t like it, I don’t write about it. And most of the time, I say « No« . So, write about stuff you’re interested in genuinely. I don’t write my blog as a business, I still do it for fun.

Back to video, we know you as a progressist person, alway advocating for new things. What are the main evolutions video needs to reach an even wider audience ?

I won’t talk technologies as much as these two things :

One : Better content. Most of the content out there, whether it’s Hollywood, or Vimeo, or Youtube, or TV, is not good and not interesting. Better content can only make things go better. Spend less time buying gear and more time working on your stories and your scripts

Like Pixar says : « It’s all about the story »

Absolutely true. It’s like layers of a cake. If the base sucks, it will melt down.

Two : The real number one issue right is : how do you make money ? Not necessarily Hollywood money. How do we make money if I, you, he or she make a film that is not intended for the silver screens of Hollywood blockbuster, but maybe on Vimeo, maybe on our blogs. And maybe we make you know, 10 cents, a dollar. How do we continue doing so and pay our crews ? Because you can ask favors of all your friends. But can’t do it so many times… A a certain point you have to start paying them with real money. And that economic system doesn’t exist yet.

Have you checked crowfunding solutions like Kickstarter or Emphas.is ?

Yes, I’ve seen all of them. The problem is it works once or twice, but it is not sustainable. What worries me, especially amongst young people, is that most of them these days don’t believe they should pay for content. They don’t wanna pay. They’ve grown up without paying, so they’re like « why should I pay now ? »
And one day, they become the creator and they go to clients and they say « Well, I need to get paid« , and the concert organiser say « well, we don’t have the budget« . And they go like « Ok ok, I’m gonna do this concert for free this time » and they go for their pockets, they pay for their own flight, for their meals, they put they photos on the web. It’s a great product and it gets noticed. They go the next client and the client says « well, I don’t have any money. Why you did for free for him, why don’t you do it for free for me ? »

It’s an education of understanding the reason it’s a profession. It’s a passion, but we have to find a way to pay our bills.

Do you have any relevant, sustainable business model in mind, then ?

I believe in micro-payments. iTunes is a good example : 99cents ? (finger snaps) I’ll sure buy it. It’s cheaper than searching, finding, ripping a song and feel guilty about it. Same things could happen to video and small movies : it’d be cheap, doesn’t cost 25€ and hurt your pocket… 1, 2, 3 euros and you understand you support the artist – and his team.

Unfortunately, there are no good micro payment solutions ready for it. People need to realize that. Because they say « I don’t want to pay ». And then, when they see advertising, they say « I don’t want ads ». Well, somebody’s gotta give. Because we can’t work for free.

Micro payment could be the solution. You work for a client and everytime someone watches, you get 10 cents. Could work for short films, comedy…

And what are you aiming for : cinema, commercials, tv shows ?

Cinema, definitely. TV is a disaster.

We thought that it was, this last decade and the Sopranos, where the greatest stories were happening…

In writing, absolutely. It’s the golden age of television in America right now. As a director in T.V… You know, there’s the producer, marketing, writers etc… And then the director comes in. You don’t have that much creative control. And the pace, also : it’s such a rush. I love TV shows, but I’m more of a movie pace. You spend a year, maybe two preparing.

You’re known for being on the edge of technology. Does your first feature movie will reflect that ?


Because people seems obsessed with 3D, 4K, 48fps and such… It’s that important ?

Nooo. I give talks about technology. But it’s not what makes movies. Discussing this is an epic waste of time ! Whether it’s 2K, 4K, 5K, 20K, it’s an excuse and people are obsessed about it because it’s a lot easier to talk about pixels than about how good your story is, or how you’re gonna tell it. That’s not empirical, that’s technical.

2K is not a high as a resolution as 4K. There’s no debate about that, it’s Mathematics. You shoot as much as you want it, you can hide behind that. But your 20K film is still not watchable if there’s no story.

If you shoot something on a Bolex, or on a Holga and it’s great, people are gonna watcht it ! 3D is great example of technical because of the interest of the manufacturers. They want to sell new TVs, they want to make more money per tickets… And it’s kinda starting to flop.

Well, we hope you have a good story 🙂

Yep. It’s a hi-tech thriller. I can’t tell you too much about it…

We remember you posted a call to all storytellers and screenwriters on your blog, sometimes 6 month ago…

And it didn’t work out. The quality of the submitted stuff wasn’t good enough. I also realized that while most of the stories were good, they weren’t the films I want to tell. So finally I got a few ideas and we’re working on one of them. We got a green light from a studio. But the person who green lit us also said « you try to finance it yourself, you’ll gain some much more control. Cos’ if you work for a big American movie studio as a first time movie director… »

How are you gonna finance it ? We’re talking about seven figures numbers…

7-10 million dollars. I’d like to do it next year, but there’s absolutely no rush. Another big lesson in filmmaking : never rush.

You’re not gonna get that amount of money from Kickstarter…

Nope ! But from companies and private investors. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. And at the level of control you can have, it’s much greater than if you work for a studio, where you NO control. It’s not your film.

Let’s finish with some last inspiring words : what are your lessons and advices for photographers and filmmakers who want to step-up their game ?

  1. Take chances. If you’re photographing or filming something you’ve seen before, or that you don’t find that interesting, don’t do it. Keep looking for something better. Never settle for mediocrity, or even good. Look for unbelievable. Refuse to just be good, it’s not enough.
  2. You have to master all the rules. And then, break every single one of them. That’s where you get surprises.
  3. Focus on story, emotion, intellectual ideas, and your heart. Not just the technical.
  4. Tell stories that are important to you, not the ones you think the audience wants to see. If it doesn’t matter to you, you’re not gonna fight for it. If you’re passionate about your film, people will see it.
  5. Enjoy the process. All my career, I’ve been so much obsessed by the result, before the process. Meeting the actor, meeting the art director, spending time doing it, as opposed to be in a rush to get the result. Most of us spend their life rushing. « I have to be there in 5 years. » Pfffffff. I’ve been rushing most of my career and I regret it.

Insightful !

Oh, and one last thing : Really try to figure out what make you, or your story unique. People have to learn about themselves. Sometimes I read scripts and I say « oh, I’ve seen this here and here and there ». And people are defeated. They should,’t. Every story in the world has been told a thousand times. It’s your way of telling which matters. Fight for it and you’ll win.

Thank you, Monsieur Laforet.

Mais, de rien !


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