Alexandre Bartholo, born in France, now based in Japan, shooting worldwide – DoP, lighting, Steadicam, sound, sound design, rental, robotics and what next...?
- Interview by Mel Noonan, StylusMC
Cinematographer Alexandre Bartholo with the sound cart he has set up around his Aaton CantarX3 recorder and Cantaress fader panel. ’I use the CantarX3because it's the only system that does everything I need’
Alex, going back to your childhood, where did you grow up? In a big or small family? Was there anything back then that might have led to your career path?
I grew up in the suburbs of Lyon in France. I have two younger brothers and I keep a lot of good memories of my childhood. It was definitely not an urban environment and nature was very present. I would go out, bike around the back countryside and build random treehouses with whatever I could find during summer. My family doesn’t come from an artistic background, and neither was my education. I had just a regular scientific education. Having a few friends around that were into making short films got my attention sparks, and possibly started to contribute to a direction for a career.
In your teenage years was there anything going on that relates to your eventual career path in any way?
I think perhaps it was that group of friends with whom we started making home-made action films.
We were around 14-16 years old and had a few VHS camcorders and a few nunchakus and we were playing in the ruins of some abandoned houses around our town to make a movie.
There was an energy in making those that was very infectious, and in fact later on, one of those friends made it to Hollywood where he still works to this day as a VFX supervisor.
The background in computers also helped me a lot. I spent a lot of time playing but also learning on my own software like Photoshop and After Effects. It all pushed me into developing a visual language that was more inspired by graphics and design.
A few years later, having seen the making of movies on DVD and trying to experiment with After Effects started to resonate with me to pursue a path in special effects.
Framing a shot on the set on an ANA commercial.
Going forward from there when and where did you first have any training or experience related to your current career?
Originally I wanted to pursue a career in IT. But my grades were nowhere enough to make that happen and that’s when looking at options I found a state funded broadcast learning school. I applied for the camera course but still not good enough to make it, so ended up in editing, but I now realised that this was the perfect choice considering my interests.
Editing let me touch sound, camera and directing, and that really gave the base for everything I wanted to achieve when leaving school.The school I went to is actually close to Grenoble and so without knowing it, I was already close to Aaton from a distance perspective.
When and where were the first paying jobs relevant to your current career?
After graduating, I ended up majoring in my promotion (ironic considering my low grades held me down for most of my childhood) and was offered a position to work in Paris for the French president. I took the opportunity because I was really worried about finding a job easily since Lyon was not a media city at that time in France and I knew nobody in Paris (and had no money).
It turned out that the work was mostly to record TV news and cut out news bits featuring the president to send over to his various departments. The job was not overly challenging but was also very limited in terms of expansion. So three years later I decided to leave to start something on my own.
I became a freelance editor/director and funded a small company named Zoku to do some production work. I was around 23 years old.
What was the location of Zoku?
Zoku was established in Paris, and hosted inside of a friend’s production house.
Was it always just you?
At the beginning it was supposed to be me and a partner but it turned out that my partner bailed out at the last minute before we even started so I ended up creating the structure alone. Then a few friends joined me to help on the production side and we had a few interns here and there.
Checking exposure for a hair commercial in Japan.
Link : https://youtu.be/Wd9_dQiwEaw
What’s in the name? -anything?
Zoku is a Japanese word that means tribe, clan or family. I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese culture like animation and manga, and I liked the idea of using a name that could bridge that. At that time I had already visited Japan and knew this was a special place for me, so I wanted the name of my company to be special.
The interesting thing about zoku is that particularity to be able to combine it to extend the meaning of it. Kai-Zoku means pirate, Boso-zoku means biker, etc…
I liked the idea to unite people and to make a team of like-minded people to work together on interesting projects. That was really the basis to choose that name.
How was the experience there? – What sort of work was it bringing to you? Did you have a forward plan in particular or was it just leading you forward?
The experience there was a mixed bag. On one hand it helped me develop a few relationships and get some work, but ultimately this was just corporate jobs, low budgets and not very promising.
With time, I think I now understand that I really didn’t grasp the entertainment and advertising industry at that time. I was focused on the craft, and not on the business, so for me it was always about making something of quality but I lacked the human skills that bring on the job, grow the company, and so on.
There wasn’t much plan and finance was unstable and getting low. Before going bankrupt i came up with the idea to go to Japan on my last leg of money and try to make a portfolio project there for 2 or 3 months and hopefully come back with some sort of cool factor that would get me the next jobs in France.
Yuji Suzuki capturing the baking process on the set of ‘The Great Japanese Bake Off’
What came next? Did Zoku end as you moved on?
Next I took the last bit of money in my possession, took a return flight open for 3 months for Japan, paid the first month’s rent in a shared house, and with about 500 Euros, a camera and a computer, tried to find the next step.
I was lucky that I had a friend established in Tokyo who introduced me to a French entrepreneur in Japan that was in need of content for this client to use during events. He was running an event company.
So I spent the first few months making content, then started the business and developed little by little the company that finally became Assemblage. (originally the name was Wedovideo)
After some years I opened a second business focused on rental, as I was constantly buying equipment for my projects, then I opened a third company that manages my robot, as I have a niche speciality in motion control, and I also have a shooting studio in the middle of Tokyo.
Now, since about 2 years ago, I decided that management was not my thing and I came back to freelance on top of all my companies.
What about any later training? When and where? In each case, was it something you enjoyed, and how do you think it has contributed to the way you work now?
I constantly train myself, whenever online, or at seminars or masterclasses because I feel our industry is moving so fast that you need to keep up if you want to be on top of your game.
Recently I started curating more high end training like masterclasses with famous DOPs because I feel that finding that small gold nugget of missing knowledge gets harder and harder to discover the more experience you gather. So hanging with talented veterans really helps finding that one piece of missing information.
The latest training I did was in Hong Kong, through Arri APAC, a DoP course and a lighting masterclass.
The busy show floor of ‘The Great Japanese Bake Off’ during the shoot
I’m thinking that sound work has not been something that has entered your career focus in what we have covered so far. So when and how has it now become a part of your work? Also what led you to purchase your CantarX3 which I guess is fundamental in this?
Sound entered my work quite early on, but it was not something I was prepared to dedicate solely into it. I had understood the importance of getting good audio on set early on and I had experimented with what can be done in post production to make a video piece stand out through good audio. I explored Foley capturing and editing, audio mixing, noise removal and all the important process to make sure I would have a good grasp at each part of the process.
I think that the need to understand everything came due to some trauma early on during projects where the production would stop because of a department calling on an issue that would impact the project. Like a noise in the background, lighting too green, a space too small, etc…
But when you have the knowledge of what is possible and you accept the responsibility that the impact is not damaging, then you can really shape production the way you want it to go.
When it comes to sound, I realized early on that most sound recordists don’t have much post production knowledge when it comes to sound restoration, audio mixing, etc… That pushed me to make sure I knew how sound would behave in post to make creative decision on set.
The same goes with the way I work with the image. A camera is a data collection device, if you know how to interpret the data, you can make it look anything you want it to.
Production for me is more of a process of collecting data on set, and in order to free creativity, you need to have a workflow that allows you to leverage that data efficiently.
The CantarX3 goes in that direction, lots of channels, lots of ways to connect to it, and the quality to collect data that can be shaped any way we want to.
I had the Cantar in mind for quite some time, and I knew it would be the perfect companion to serious on set flexibility. But I lacked the project that would really leverage it perfectly.
It clearly makes no sense to have such a big device on a small set with only 2 or 3 mics, but when the production told me about Bake Off and having constantly 14 to 16 mics on set, I thought now is the time.
Coloring up the National Art Center of Tokyo to shoot a scene for movie ‘John Wick 4.’
Link : https://youtu.be/qEVUtrk8_B4
(0:26 is showing the final look)
So what have you been using the CantarX3 for? Is this now a growth area for this part of your business?
I used the Cantar on Bake Off and on any project that requires lots of channels and reliability.While it’s not necessarily a part of my business that I push very hard, it allows me to have freedom in production and that is very important to me.
Is the Japanese ‘Bake Off’ similar to the UK version?
Yes, it's the UK-licensed Japanese version. I had discussions with the UK prior to starting the shoot to discuss the consistency of the show and other points before starting. Season 1 was a great success and now Amazon Japan is planning the shooting for the following seasons.
What features of the recorder do you find useful in your work?
I see the Cantar more as a whole rather than a list of features.The ability to manage a lot of channels in a very user friendly manner is priceless.I’ve seen too many times people working on tiny recorder with buttons that are so small it makes it difficult to operate. That ease of operation translates into better recorded audio that will streamline and save a lot of time in post production.
But if I had to choose one feature, I would say that Dante is amazing.
On our show, we send all the tracks and mix to Dante, received in a server that linked those tracks to our online intercom system. Suddenly we had access to all the cast members individually and that was very important for the writing team to hear what was happening in real time anywhere on the set without having to ask an operator to be connected to a specific feed.
All that technology going over a single cable, this is so useful.
Preparing the CantarX3 for sound production and intercom streaming
So were/are you the Production Sound Mixer for ‘Bake Off’ Japan?
No, I was the sound supervisor on the show and I hired a production sound mixer as well as a team of boom and utilities to be on set.
Why did you choose CantarX3?
I chose the CantarX3 because it's the only system that does everything I need in a production. I don't like working with people that come to me with a patchwork of systems that has a lot of point of failure or people that simply can't take care of some part of sound department responsibility.
For example in Japan, intercoms are usually the responsibility of the production department. However, when doing a show with people in various countries, with tons of mics to monitor, you can't expect a PA that is only used to work with short-range walkies to come to you with a proper solution. (and even considering that with Bake Off there are more than 80 people on set, regular walkies were not even an option...)
My thinking is that like in the US, the sound department should be responsible for proper intercoms and monitoring.
But in Japan, no sound supervisor or production sound mixer can provide anybody with anything more than a few wired headsets next to the mixer for the director and a producer. This is not acceptable to me and to my standard, so when I have the responsibility to find a solution, I design a system myself and then assign an operator to it.
I know this must sound strange.
To come back to the CantarX3, I use it as a leverage tool to help me break the barrier of ‘not possible’ or ‘not in Japan’ or ‘doesn't exist’ or ‘too expensive’ by design the system for the production I work on and assigning a person to operate on it.
I know how to use it, and I usually train a bit the people that will be working on it, then I let them fly with the system on set and keep discussion on com while shooting in case anything happens.
Early 2022, looking at framing options for a virtual production shoot at Sony PCL studio in Tokyo. VP shots open a lot of opportunities for filmmakers but remain complex to light due to the relatively small size of the stages in Japan.
Do you have any other Aaton Digital kit?
I have a few Hydra that I used in conjunction with Wisycom Mcr54 to monitor the receiver on set.
I also have a Cantaress and I made an innovative cart to host everything.
It's a beautiful system.
I can't imagine anybody working on sound without a proper faders, I can't understand how people can enjoy their work when working with the tiny buttons of a Zoom recorder.
Re your X3, the only job you’ve mentioned so far is ‘Bake Off’. Have you used it on anything else?
I purchased the Cantar last year for the production of the Bake Off series and then did another project for Renault, at the beginning of the year, streaming of a live conference between France and Japan.
Several wireless mics, podium mics, all needed redundancy, and to be perfect Cantar was a natural choice to handle all those inputs gracefully.
I haven't had the chance to use the Cantar more after that, also because I'm focusing my career much more now on the DOP side.
I'm working now on a business plan to have people rent the Cantar for their work and provide productions with a solid solution for their projects by integrating mics, recorder, and intercom into a single package. I'm a kind of entrepreneur - I'm interested in many aspects of things, not only the craft or the operation.
The rental warehouse of Equip Japan, my multipurpose rental house for camera, lighting and sound department
In one of your photos I saw you using a Steadicam. Are you trained for Steadicam?
I’m a Steadicam person, since close to 17 years. I used to have a Tiffen Pilot, now I have their Scout. I fly almost anything in it. I use it more as a creative tool than hard core super operator, I clearly lack practice, but I know how to pull what I need from it.
I also saw that you were shooting John Wick 4, does that mean you were DoP for that?
I was DoP for the Japan section, I shot everything that was done in Japan.
I was selected after shooting a short film for a friend that turned out to be a selection process to audition for JW4 for the shoot in Japan.
Looking back over your career, you seem to have accomplished a lot in what seems like a short time.
I’m 41 now, I was still in my 30s when I started talking to Aaton, but time flies....
I arrived in Japan at age 26 and started my company right away, I started the rental about 7 years ago and the motion control studios in 2019.I’m now opening the second studio and who knows what's next....
Alexandre Bartholo - Commercial & Documentary DoP, based in Japan - Shooting worldwide
Another view of the Rental Warehouse
The Mouvement Studio, my small versatile studio in the heart of Shibuya, Tokyo, that handles green screen based virtual production and high end motion control
The Motion Control studio and rig at Mouvement
Product shooting at Mouvement for the whisky brand Macallan