Q&A with Raphaël Ouellet photographer and director
2022 Applied Arts Photography Awards winner
February 23, 2023
In keeping with our recent Q&As with photographers/Directors, we reached out to long-time Applied Arts Awards winner photographer & director Raphaël Ouellet. Like so many other photographers, Raphaël shifted his craft to include motion—resulting in a win in 2022 under the Cinematography category. We thought we'd reach out for tips and his perspective on navigating the intricacies of both mediums. SPOILER ALERT: "You work twice as much. That's the only way. Nobody said it would be easy!" says Raphaël.
How does the photographer in you influence the director or vice versa?
That’s a great question! I think I am still figuring it out! When I started my career as a director, I was very nervous about being perceived as a someone “transitioning” from photography. Especially since my style was very photographic and “still”, in some ways. I used to shoot almost exclusively editorial portraits and studio work. I always wanted to tell a story in my photography work but the different kinds of storytelling in motion took me by surprise. So in the beginning, I tried to stay as far away as I could from “stillness” in my motion pieces. When I felt I was mastering the motion language, the fear of being tagged as a photographer “trying” to do film slowly faded away. I think it then brought my two passions together! I’d say it resulted in me being interested in a different kind of photography. More cinematic, less explicative. I started to be able to make pictures that asked more than they answered and to be ok with it. This is something I definitely learned as a director.
Portrait of Safia Nolin by Raphaël Ouellet
Was it a steep learning curve to extend your vision from a still image to a moving one or vice versa?
It is, in my opinion, a very difficult thing to achieve. Many have tried and lots have failed. I mean, it depends on what you are trying to achieve, but for me, it was very difficult and I had to adapt very quickly. It was just like learning another language, there are some common grounds between photography and motion but so many challenging differences. Also, I was so dedicated to photography and photography only that when I started I created a lot of bad habits. Compared to directing, photography is mostly a one man/woman show. Everything is in your head and you have to make it happen. Of course, you have people to help you out etc etc… When your team grows from 10 people to 30 or 40, you just can’t do it by yourself. More importantly, the people surrounding you need to know exactly what is in your head. What you want and how you want it to be done. Learning how to verbalize something that, up to then, was just feelings and mood was a learning curve. Aside from the way you build a story and deliver it to an audience, this was 100% the most challenging part about becoming a director.
Parfum de Fraîcheur, by Raphaël Ouellet
Can you share with us how the second medium, whether it be photography or motion, came into your creative toolbox?
Actually, back in my teenage years, I wanted to make films! I bought my first camera, a MiniDV, to try to make bicycle and snowboard films. I bought the camera, shot a concert with it, and then realized I wasn’t able to download the images on a computer. It was sooooo frustrating to me to recognize that making images was 10% of the actual job in making films. So I threw the motion camera in a drawer and bought a photo camera. I always carried with me the idea of making motion images yet thought it would be impossible. I then met Sarah Pellerin and Charles Grenier through my girlfriend at the time, and they made me believe it was possible. Through them, I met an up-and-coming DP that was unbearable. We hated each other so much! She was starting out as a DP and was already the most stubborn and prickly individual I’d ever met. On my end, I was a cocky motherf***er. I told the DP that making films was easy and that I could not only do it but I'd be better at it than anyone she knew then. She took it personally (I wonder why) and challenged me to make my own. So I answered, "Only if we do it together."
Two months later we were chasing a sunrise in a field an hour away from Montreal with almost no crew, and she taught me how a “clap” works. Back then, I did not know the difference between a scene and a shot. Turns out the movie was beautiful because she is probably the most talented person I will ever have the chance to meet, but was incredibly bad (because of me).
That young up-and-coming DP is Jessica Lee Gagné, who is now working on some of the biggest sets you can work on and has the international career she deserves. She taught me so much.
She mostly taught me that I was wrong and she was right; Making movies is fu**ing difficult!
Are you wearing both hats at the same time on most of your projects? If so, how does that come together on set?
I often do. It usually goes very well since I try to keep the two apart as much as I can. If it is possible to have a completely other date to shoot the stills, I will do so. If it’s not, I am still going to ask for a different crew, different sets etc etc for both. I love that it is possible to do both medium nowadays. But that doesn’t mean we should take one or the another for granted, or for less than what it is. Let’s face it, the way clients and agencies see photography, has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. But this is still a very important medium and to me, the craft of photography needs to be respected if you want to get the results it deserves.
How do you work through the two medium requirements and maintain their integrity as well as your creativity?
You work twice as much. That’s the only way. Nobody said it would be easy!
Who or what is your source of inspiration?
Good questions! It varies a lot! Weirdly enough, right now it sculptures! But it goes from literature, to painting, to wildlife and nature. As long as I feel I am still in danger, I will be inspired.
How has Applied Arts Awards helped grow your business?
I’d say it helped in many ways! At first, it gave me the stamp to call myself a photographer. Kind of cured me of the imposter syndrome! Through the years, it helped me to be seen and remembered by clients and people, especially outside of Montreal. I remember the year after winning an Applied Arts with the portrait of Wu-Tang Clan’s founder RZA, each time I presented my portfolio I started with that shot. I think Applied Arts Magazine made a lot of press with it that year and it created that warm “Déjà-Vu” feeling that is soooooo reassuring for clients! (Especially for agency producers, wink wink!)
What is the most challenging project you have worked on? What were your challenges?
Let’s just say that I’ve had my share of challenging projects in recent years! My production houses are all on the same page on one thing; I attract almost exclusively difficult and unconventional projects! Just to give an example, I can think of three that were pretty difficult.
Canada Parks: 9 months of productions, countless days of shooting in many different provinces and climates. I did every single dangerous stunt by myself. From crashing a fat bike at 50km/h in a tight forest with a helmet cam, the 10 hours climb on a mountain that was a no-go due to avalanche risks to having a member of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet in my offline session.
Parks Canada, by Raphaël Ouellet
Lifesaving Society - Reflection: Mario Pesant, creative director contacted me with a brilliant idea. Physically recreate the law of gravity and perspective without people noticing. You know that feeling when you wake up at 2 in the morning and you’re in a small boat in the middle of a lake and you ask the VFX supervisor “What are our chances to make this work”, and the guy you hired to save your ass answers: “I’d say around 30%”. You know that feeling? Haha.
Lifesaving Society // Reflection, by Raphaël Ouellet
Last but not least, Recyq-QC - Le chemin de compostage: My good friend Valérie Wells called me with a great concept she wanted us to do together—a limited budget— one we could fix by buying stock footage etc etc. Of course, being the silly director that I am, I told her that we wouldn't need to buy stock because I could do it by myself. I sold her on the idea of a one month time lapse with a complex camera movement. We didn’t have money and resources for a robotic arm, we didn’t have time to try it twice—one–shot deal. So I asked my producer to rent me an empty office for two months and that I’d be back with a film.
Recyq-QC - Le chemin de compostage, by Raphaël Ouellet
I learned how to inoculate mould in liquid to inject in our sets, and build 5 separate stages from the ground up. Every degree of humidity level, temperature and light had to be controlled very precisely and were critical to the success of the experiment and the film. I then created, constructed and partly machined them myself—two motion-controlled robotic arms and figured out how to control and program them myself.
And I don’t even want to start on the post-production process cause there are so many things Étienne Bergeron and the great team at SHED post-production created from nothing that I don’t understand, that it would be pointless to try to explain the complexity of the post-production process!
Over the course of the two-month production, I lost around 20 pounds and my mental sanity! Despite my producer Adam Belley-Côté trying to force-feed me and made me a bed in the studio, I had something to prove to myself and wouldn’t hear or accept any kind of potential failures. I definitely can say that working an average of 20 hours a day, 7 days a week for two months, was not a healthy way of life!
Portrait of Director and Feminist Activist Jennifer Reeder
What project are you most proud of? What was your creative process?
There are so many. I try to make as many films for different causes as I can. Starting with that 12 years collaboration with LifeSaving Society and the film I recently made with the folks at Cossette Montréal for the Montreal Heart Institute. I try to invest myself as much as I can in every single project I touch. More personally, I am proud of what I learned and achieved on the RecyqQuébec ad. It might not be the greatest film of all time, but I can say without a doubt that we did something that had never been done before. I wish I could do it again!
What are the trends you are seeing in the industry and how do these impact motion/stills?
It can be pretty trivial and older photographers and directors could probably say the exact same things of their era…but I feel that the industry if moving towards numbers a lot. Let's not fool ourselves, advertising has always been about money. But more and more, creativity is measured by statistics, by penetration of the market, by results on social media etc etc. The media agencies are growing more powerful than creation agencies and I think it is a very slippery slope for creatives.
In my very close-minded little head (and heart), there is only one way to have the best results, whatever you are trying to communicate. There is only one way to be seen and noticed in a qualitative way by audiences.
And the only way is to have the best story to tell and the best way to tell it.
For me, nothing else matters.
Here's to more creative wins over number crunching for 2023 and beyond!