“Notre-Dame burns”, how the cathedral is reborn on the screen

“We had to start by learning Notre-Dame. » Jean Rabasse remembers that summer day when three or four of them got together for the first time around a simple cardboard model of the cathedral, the kind you find almost everywhere in the shops. He still had difficulty measuring the immense technical challenge that this shoot would represent for him and his team. From the start, director Jean-Jacques Annaud had ruled out any recourse to digital technology to reconstruct the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame de Paris on the night of April 15 to 16, 2019. “We had to be as close as possible to reality, explains the filmmaker. But how can actors understand the power of fire and feel its heat by just being embedded in a set? »

→ CRITICAL. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s camera at the heart of the Notre-Dame fire

Jean-Jacques Annaud always held to the impossible, not hesitating to build the exact replica of an abbey to The name of the rose. But where to turn since the star of his film, sick, is always and for a long time inaccessible? “We had to find substitutes for him to shoot the interior scenes, says the director, and build identical sets to be able to set them on fire. »

“Our Notre-Dame had to be as credible as possible”

Then began for its chief decorator, Jean Rabasse, a huge job of location scouting and documentation. And a first major challenge: finding the plans of Notre-Dame, the only existing ones being competition drawings made by Viollet-le-Duc for the restoration project. Thanks to the Heritage Library, the architects of the Buildings of France and especially the CNRS, which provides him with millions of 3D points of the cathedral, he can understand the places in all its dimensions. “The hardest part was understanding the scale of the building to make it look real on screen”confides the one who transformed himself throughout the filming into a scrupulous guardian of the architecture of Notre-Dame.

The two men also crisscrossed all that France has of Gothic cathedrals, which they visited from top to bottom to track down the slightest resemblances and familiarize themselves with the details of their architecture, like these devils carved in the frame by facetious craftsmen. “We knew that everyone was going to scrutinize the veracity of each image. Our Notre-Dame, even if it was made from six cathedrals, had to be as credible as possible., testifies Jean Rabasse. In Sens, they find an identical paving, in Bourges, the height of the buttresses, in Amiens, the frame of the bell tower. “Sometimes a plan can start in one place, continue in another and come back to the first, it was like putting together a puzzle”says Jean-Jacques Annaud.

200 cinema artisans

In the studios of Bry-sur-Marne and at the Cité du cinema in Saint-Denis, in the Paris region, the cornice of the transept and the scaffolding, part of the nave, the spiral staircase were recreated in real size which access the firefighters, the gallery of chimeras as well as the interior of the north belfry, where the scenes of the final rescue take place. Nearly 200 cinema craftsmen (cabinetmakers, plasterers, sculptors, ironworkers, glaziers, etc.) worked in a luxury of detail to be as close as possible to the truth, using only noble materials, more resistant to the heat of the flames, and going so far as to make casts of the real stones of Notre-Dame. “To make the plaster bells, having fun Jean Rabasse, we brought back old film staffers who applied techniques that hadn’t been used for thirty years. As for the treasure, in particular the crown of thorns, it has been entirely redone identically using lost wax, in the old fashioned way. » Even the curators of Notre-Dame were amazed.

→ REREAD. Jean-Jacques Annaud wants to combine the emotion of the show with documentary rigor

Jean-Jacques Annaud insisted on having tests carried out over several days to study the effect of drops of molten lead on a parquet floor or that of water on reddened steel. “A decor is like the material of a garment, it’s not the same whether it’s cashmere or Scottish wool. They must be loaded with meaning, and that’s what excites me about this job. » Its chief decorator bears witness to the emotion of his team working on such a project. “I have already made very large decorations (he reconstructed a floor of the White House for jackieby Pablo Larrain, Ed), but this one was the most exciting in terms of impregnation, research and techniques. A real time travel. »

The decorations continued their life. One of the bells now adorns the entrance to the Zingaro circus in Aubervilliers, and the framework of the belfry was dismantled and bought by an American to decorate her house…


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