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Cinematographer Xavier Dolléans Captures New French Series “Mental”

Xavier Dolléans
Xavier Dolléans shot by Fabien Malot

There are so many pivotal contributors that come into play in the creation of a film or television series. While the director envisions the narrative story and the actors become the characters that bring that story to life, it is the cinematographer who directs the lighting and wields his camera in a way that creates the kind of visual story that dazzles our eyes.

A proven master behind the lens, French director of photography Xavier Dolléans knows exactly how to construct the lighting and capture each shot in a way that draws the audience into the unfolding story on the screen.

Xavier is the cinematographer behind the newly released French TV series “Mental” starring Horrorfest Award winner Constantin Vidal (“Mortel”), Marie-Aude Barrez (“A Billion to One”), La Rochelle TV Award winning actress Alicia Hava (“Plus Belle La Vie”) and Louis Peres. 

mental
Poster for “Mental”

Premiering in October on Slash TV, France Télévision’s digital platform, “Mental” has generated quite a buzz among international viewers with its engaging story, which Xavier captured brilliantly.  Revealing truths about what it’s like to actually be institutionalized, “Mental” takes audiences into the lives of four young patients living in a psychiatric ward where their new found friendships with one another prove to be more potent and healing than the medicine administered. 

Working closely with director Slimane-Baptiste Berhoun to determine the best way to capture the story, Xavier skillfully set up each shot sequence in a way that brings us closer to the characters and deeper into their story. From the lighting to the framing to fluidity of the camera movements, Xavier’s work behind the camera endow “Mental” with a visual tone that is raw, powerful and uniquely intriguing. 

Xavier, who shot “Mental” using the Sony Venice, which he chose for its ability to cleanly capture deep low lighting, says that a key aspect in his camera work for “Mental” was being able to maintain a wide angle view whilst getting as close to the actors as possible. He explains that this technique helped “give the feeling that we are in the [character’s] head and at the same time give the viewer the feeling that something weird is going to happen.” 

The story begins with Marvin, played by Vidal, a 17-year-old boy who arrives in the hospital accompanied by police. Over the course of the first episode we begin to understand that Marvin’s criminal issues stem from a mental illness, and as the series unfolds, we begin to see what life is like for young patients living in a mental institution. 

Though the first season is only partly under way, “Mental” has gained extensive industry attention and has already taken home its first award, the prestigious La Rochelle TV Award for Best Television Series from the 2019 Festival de la Fiction TV.

With his career as a cinematographer spanning more than two decades, over which he’s earned numerous awards for his work including the Best Cinematography Award from the 2016 Warsaw Independent Film Festival for the film “Rocambolesque,” Best Cinematography Award from the 2017 Slum Film Festival for the film “Animal” and the Festival Prize for Best Cinematography at the 2015 Festival Alto Vicentino for his work on the film “Mecs Meufs” aka “Guys Girls,” Xavier is well versed in both the creative and technical aspects of capturing the stories that enthrall us on screen. 

With his body of work spanning every genre and format imaginable, Xavier has amassed unparalleled knowledge of what’s needed in terms of lighting, framing and pacing, as well as the technical equipment required to nail each shot, in order to seamlessly bring each story to life in a way that does justice to the story. Whereas directors often become known for the overarching style that connects their body of work, the power of a cinematographer rests in their capacity to adapt their style to creatively deliver the vision and vibe of each production.

For Xavier, it is important to approach each project from a different standpoint as no two stories are the same; and with his seasoned knowledge of cinematography at his disposal, he has the rare capacity to bring a new flavor to each project depending on the director’s vision. When it came to shooting “Mental” one of the unique approaches he brought to the table was configuring the Sony Venice with an extension module that allowed him to detach from the sensor, making the rig light enough that he was able to move with the actors and improvise as they shot each scene.

Xavier Dolléans
Xavier Dolléans with actress Ayumi Roux in “Mental” shot by Thomas Gros

“I think every cinematographer is different. You have different ‘families,’ some more technical, some more artistic, and everything in between. I think my strongest quality as a cinematographer is my sensitivity,” admits Xavier.” My sensitivity to interpret the director’s vision. Then, because of my experience on tv series I know I can be very fast and efficient with minimal equipment and crew without scaring the quality. And I always try to discover new techniques. Reinventing myself is a challenge I want to have every day.”

Xavier is also the cinematographer behind the mega-hit series “Skam France,” which has reached more than 80 million viewers, and is slated to release season 5 later this year. Xavier has shot every episode of the popular series, which follows five teenagers as they traverse the highs, lows and tumultuous dramas of high school and stars Axel Auriant (“Jamais Contente”), Théo Christine (“War of the Worlds”), Lula Cotton-Frapier (“Bula”) and Marilyn Lima (“Hungry for Love”).

As it is with any of the world’s top cinematographers, lighting and color are of extreme importance to Xavier. The way a scene is lit and its dominant color schemes set the visual tone and create an energy the audience can feel, and it’s something Xavier paid quite a bit of attention to for “Skam France,” especially seasons 3 and 4. 

“This show is full of energy… most of the time we are very close to the actors, so it is important to me that they appear at their best. I’m very sensitive about the lighting of the faces… On season 3 and 4 we worked with colors a lot to create a world that suited every character,” explained Xavier. 

“Elliot’s world is tenebrous and he brings Lucas into it…. for every sequence involving Elliot, everything was darker in terms of lighting and set design. With Assa on season 4, things were a bit different. She was very often alone, isolated and at the same time at a school full of people. I decided to use a specific thin full-frame cinematography depth of field to emphasize this loneliness. I really used the lens aperture as a tool to give the viewer the ability to feel the level of loneliness in each sequence.” 

Xavier’s experience shooting hundreds of episodes of hit TV shows, such as “Mental,” “Red Shadows” and “Skam France,” require him to work quickly under pressure while simultaneously ensuring the highest cinematic value of the production, something he is able to achieve thanks to numerous decades in the industry. 

He is undoubtedly among the small handful of not only France’s top cinematographers, but those in the world. Aside from being praised with several awards for his individual contributions to the historical comedy film “Rocambolesque,” Xavier’s skill behind the lens helped the film take home numerous other awards, including the Audience Award from the Paris BD6Né and Rouen Film Festivals, and the film “Animal” to earn several other awards from the Slum Film Festival, FEFFS Strasbourg Film Festival, Dublin Sci-Fi Festival, Audincourt’s Bloody Weekend and more.

At the end of the day, Xavier admits, “I think my favorite projects are the ones where I have the most possibilities to express myself visually.”