The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Carolina Costa

October 13th, 2019

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Carolina Costa. In this interview she talks about technology changes in the field of cinematography, discovering new voices as a viewer, the balance between technical and artistic aspects of her craft, and how she chooses her projects. In between these topics and more, Carolina talks about her work on this year’s “Babenco” and “Hala”.

Carolina Costa on an AFI Panel at the Sundance Canon Creative Studio.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what brought you to where you are today.

Carolina: My name is Carolina Costa and I’m a director of photography. I’ve done documentaries, commercials and music videos, but I really like to focus my work on narrative fiction work. It’s interesting because it takes me back to when I first started as a journalist.

I’m originally from Brazil and I’ve been moving around the globe. I lived in England for a few years, then in Los Angeles and now I’m in Mexico. Back when I was in Brazil, I studied journalism and I worked as a photojournalist. Still photography was my first contact with the world of capturing image – I was photographing the reality around me. I grew up in Rio, right next to one of the biggest favelas, and it’s a violent city. My first interest was to portray the kids around the area.

Moving into motion pictures came from that as well – through the frustration of not being able to change my environment. I felt like movies could do that, more than what I was doing with photojournalism. I felt like people could go to the theater and forget how bad their lives were, or they could go and connect to a character on the big screen and through that experience they could deal with something that is a little harder in their life.

When I first moved to London I started working as a camera assistant. Then I moved up the ranks of the camera department and eventually graduated to being a director of photography. Then I went to do my Master’s degree at the American Film Institute, and that was the moment I saw myself as a director of photography with all the necessary tools.

Kirill: Is there anything in particular that you remember from being on set in your first couple of productions?

Carolina: The other day I found the photos from the first film set I worked on as a camera assistant, and I looked so serious. I think I was just nervous, trying to do a good job. I knew it was going be a long way to the top, with long hours and very little sleep. You’re fighting for a piece of the spotlight, because there’s so many good people out there.

It wasn’t glamorous or anything. It was quite clear to me that it was a lot of hard work. When I started as an AC, the days were long and the nights were short. I’d catch a train then a bus, and would be the first one on set to clean everything. I’d sleep maybe three hours every night. There were days that I would question what I was doing, but it was clear to me that I wanted to be there.

I always tell people who start working with me, that you need to know if you really want to do this. There’s zero glamour to it [laughs], and it’s a lot of hard work. But I feel that if you truly have that passion, there’s just nothing like it. When I’m on set I’m truly myself. When I’m outside of set, sometimes I find it hard to find my footing. That’s also part of the experience. You accept the little sleep and long hours.

Cinematography of “Girl on the Side”. Courtesy of Carolina Costa.

Kirill: Do you think it’s easier to get into your field these days, as cameras are getting better and cheaper, and some people even shoot things with their phones?

Carolina: That’s really exciting. When I first started shooting music videos and shorts, it was right around the time when 5D, 7D and similar cameras came out. That new equipment had shallow depth of field and it was affordable. It gave freedom to someone like me that couldn’t go and shoot a short before.

Previously you would need to go to Fuji or Kodak, and beg them to give you some film. Then you’d go to a lab and try to persuade them to process it for you. One of my early shorts was done in a lab as a back-end of someone else’s production.

I remember that period when those cameras came out. I went out and experimented with shorts and music videos, figuring out how to light and do other things. That is still going on today. You can go with your iPhone and shoot something, and it is valid.

With all this talk about digital taking over, I thought that maybe voices we haven’t heard before would now be heard. Where I come from, the famous movies are all about the slums and the violence in those areas, but generally you never see a movie that is made by someone actually from that place. It’s usually middle class and upper middle class talking about those social circumstances.

That’s what excited me most about those cameras becoming accessible. I was looking forward to those new voices coming out. But very little is coming out of it, and I can’t put my finger on why. You have more cameras and they’re cheaper, and people can experiment, but I still feel that it’s an industry that is reserved for very few people, and that hasn’t changed. I wish the excitement about the new digital format had pushed the other side as well, but it hasn’t really. I feel like it’s a shame, because it offers that possibility.

Recently I saw a guy here in Mexico and he sent me a cut of a documentary he shot on his phone. It’s crazy. He filmed real narcos, and he was right in the middle of it with the guys, the guns and everything. I haven’t seen anything like it. Of course, there’s no way you could bring an actual film camera and lights. We talked about how he could make the cinematography better and more interesting, but I told him that he shouldn’t listen to me. He should go and do what he’s doing.

It’s generating interesting projects and I wish there were more of them.

Kirill: From my perspective as a viewer, sometimes I ask myself how do I discover those new voices. It can feel a bit overwhelming and fragmented to navigate the landscape of visual storytelling, be it features, documentaries or shorts. How do you go about it as a viewer?

Carolina: I suffer like everybody else. We see the same billboards and the same posters. I feel like everybody watched “Roma” because there was so much advertising for it [laughs]. You couldn’t miss it, it was stuck in your mind. I’m human, and I’m part of the same society.

I have friends in many places in the world. The other day I sat down with a friend from Iran, and I asked them to give me names from Iranian cinema. Then I spent the whole weekend watching their work. Afterwards, I reached out to friends and colleagues from different places, cultures and upbringings. That’s how I find things to watch.

I’ve also been doing master classes, and I feel that the contact with younger generations has exposed me to a bunch of cool stuff that I would not necessarily be in tune with.

Cinematography of “How To Make a Bomb”. Courtesy of Carolina Costa.

Kirill: Do you find the latest generation of digital cameras to be lacking in any specific technical aspect?

Carolina: For a long time we were talking about film versus digital, but they are really different beasts. I recently did a commercial on film, and during color correction everybody was going bananas about the details on the silk of someone’s shirt. I can write a whole dissertation on that [laughs]. There is something about the richness of the colors that is part of the organic process that happens with film. I saw that recently on the new Tarantino movie that they shot on film. The colors were gorgeous.

But I don’t have that romantic feeling since digital is not like film. It offers different possibilities and I definitely shoot much darker now with digital than I did with film. I can go a little bolder with digital. Everything I shot the last couple of years was on Alexas. I know it and I trust it. I know where to go on highlights and my toe. I know the richness of the colors. For me, in the digital world, this is the only format that translates color well. Every time I try to go and shoot a project with a different format, I’m a little disappointed, to be honest.

The movie I’m doing now is a period piece, and we wanted to push against the whole romantic “grainy” period look. We wanted to go digital and sharp. I tested two other cameras, but the rendition of the colors was not as natural.

Kirill: If somebody asked you what should they focus on to get better in your field – between the technical part of it and finding the right artistic expression, is one more important than the other?

Carolina: It’s a balance of the two, and the percentages of each is very personal. When I was doing my master’s degree, we had extremely technical people that only talked about RGB channels and logarithms and all that stuff. We also had people that had zero control over crew but ended up producing incredible images. The secret of this recipe is a balance between those two things. Each person has their own but you need to have both.

For myself, the technical comes out of necessity to be able to express all the visual and artistic ideas. But I never start there. My first approach to a project is a psychological, emotional breakdown. I think about it as a story and who these people are. Only from there I think what camera and what lights I’ll need. That’s how I function, but each person works in a different way.

It’s like cooking. We can cook the same thing, but it would definitely taste different from one house to another. Everybody is cooking it, but you have your own recipe for it.

Kirill: Is it difficult to convey the complexity and the different aspects of what it is that the director of photography does?

Carolina: It is complicated. I’m always crossing borders with different work visas, and they ask me what I do. I say I’m a cinematographer and they don’t know what that is. I say that I shoot movies and they ask if I take the photos [laughs]. I keep on trying to figure out how to explain it.

I don’t think my parents fully understand what I do exactly, but they have an idea. I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain, because there are so many things involved. When the director calls you crying because they don’t know what they’re going to do the next day – what part of the job is that [laughs]? There are so many aspects to it. You’re a psychologist, you’re a mom [laughs], you are a coordinator of your team, you are a bit of everything‚Ķ

Kirill: Is there a particular part that you don’t like?

Carolina: I love every part of it, even if I complain. I love all the complexities of it. These days I rely more on my crew than I did a few years ago. That’s also part of the learning process. You start relying more on other people and you bring more collaborators to your team. That’s something you develop through the years.

Cinematography of “Save Our Moms”. Courtesy of Carolina Costa.

Kirill: How do you choose your projects? Do you look at the script, at potential collaborators, perhaps at the scope of it?

Carolina: A few years ago I had a point system. I don’t strictly follow that any more, but it’s the same approach.

For me the story is always first. I try to always find a certain element of the story that I can personally connect to. We don’t necessarily act rationally or within reason all the time, and characters are the same. I like to be able to put myself in someone’s shoes, to understand why the character made certain choices. So story and characters are number one.

Sometimes I am scared of trying to tell that story, because it may be a little foreign for me. But it might be a voice that I haven’t seen on screen, and I feel it’s important to be part of it and try to help that voice be heard.

The next most equally important factor is my director. It’s not just someone that has a caliber of work that I respect; I often work with first-time directors. It has to do with what happens the first time I talk to them. I need to feel that I can open their heads and be able to have a look inside. Some people are quicker to let you do that, and some people are more closed off and harder. That doesn’t matter, because that’s part of the process for me and I truly enjoy that. But I need to know that I can get there. It has to be someone that I can help tell a story. Sometimes I feel I’m not the right person for that director or that story, which has happened several times and then I pass on the project.

Another important thing for me is to ask who the production designer is going to be or what they are looking for in that department. A huge part of the credit we take as cinematographers is actually art [laughs], so I want to make sure that I know who I’m working with. In the last couple of years I’ve also been checking ADs [assistant director]. That’s really important for me, because I’m going to be working closely with that person on set. You can make beautiful shots, but if you only make one shot a day you will kill your schedule. If you don’t deliver, then you’re not a good cinematographer.

If you complete everything that was scheduled for a day, and at the end of it you still made art, that’s what makes the difference between you and the person next to you. ADs are really important to me, and in the past I’ve encountered unpleasant situations. If they have an AD already, I need to know who it is. And if they don’t, then I have people that I like to recommend.

So it’s the story, the director, and then two collaborators – assistant director and production designer.

Kirill: Is it much different for you when you work on a feature vs on a documentary?

Carolina: Within the world of feature films there’s so many different circumstances and environments. When I work on a documentary, I have this fun feeling – like butterflies in my stomach – all the time. Every single moment could be the only time you can get something right. When you’re on set doing a feature, you’re doing fiction. That butterfly feeling might not be there on a feature.

But there are other elements about it. When I work on a narrative or a feature, sometimes actors bring the element of surprise and I miss that from documentaries.

Colombian director Luis Ospina said that documentaries are like fishing and making features is like hunting.

Kirill: How was “Babenco” for you?

Carolina: Barbara Paz who was married to Hector Babenco in the last few years of his life is a famous actress in Brazil. We became friends a few years ago during a film festival in Rio where I was showing “The Chosen Ones” and she fell in love with the movie. My mom introduced us to each other. I met her and we went for drinks, and a few hours later we became best friends [laughs].

He was still alive back then, and she told me about her idea to make this movie about him. “Pixote” was one of his first movies, and for me it’s one of the most important movies ever made. It felt like such an honor to even be considered to be part of this project.

She had fabulous ideas, including shooting it in black and white, and everything sounded amazing. I told her I wanted to be a part of it. We put together a lot of references, which was about the time he was releasing his last movie, “My Hindu Friend.” I went to Sao Paulo and I spent time living with them and talking with Hector to see if we got along.

We decided to shoot a sequence which originally was going be the opening of the documentary. We found the train tracks in which Babenco had shot the end of “Pixote” 30 years ago. It was quite insane for a documentary. We had a crane, dollies and two cameras. It was a whole production. We spent two days there, and those shots were spliced all around the movie.

That was a special experience for me, and it has stayed with me every since. At some point Barbara didn’t have the money to carry on doing the documentary, and I was shooting other projects. So she shot a lot of the film herself at home with Babenco. Those ended up being my favorite parts in the movie. It feels so intimate to see just the two of them in their house or in a hospital. A year after we started filming, he died, and that pushed her to carry on with the film. She wanted to shoot more in Rio and Hong Kong, and even though I wasn’t an active part of it, we would talk on the phone and discuss it. Two other cinematographers joined later, and she continued shooting as well.

I haven’t seen it on the big screen yet, and I’m looking forward to it. Even though I wasn’t there to do it all, I’m excited and proud to have been a part of it.

Kirill: And your other production this year was “Hala”.

Carolina: It came out at Sundance earlier this year, and then it screened again at Toronto. It was a mad production. We shot it in 18 days in Chicago.

I knew Minhal Baig, the director, from before. We have common friends and we are in the same circles. When she got the feature, she reached out and we talked. Going back to what I was saying about the importance of a story, “Hala” is something that I hadn’t seen before. It’s about a Muslim girl raised in America, and I haven’t seen any indie movie about that. I thought that was important and unique.

We didn’t want it to be done in an indie, handheld gritty way. We wanted it to be told as you would see a white girl in a high school, like any other coming-of-age story. We wanted a more polished image with controlled camera movements. We didn’t want it to feel gritty in any way. We wanted to be accessible so that everybody could relate to it.

In the end, it is a Muslim girl who goes through events in her life in her particular universe, but everyone can relate to it. One of the reasons I fell in love with it was her relationship with her mom. It reminded me so much of my relationship with my mom when I was a teenager. I was raised in a Catholic country, that could not be more opposite, and I felt like if I could relate to “Hala,” then it’s a great story. At the core, it’s about human relationships.

Cinematography of “Crystal Swan”. Courtesy of Carolina Costa.

Kirill: When you’re on the set, do you find yourself sometimes falling into the story instead of focusing on the technical part of capturing it?

Carolina: I never thought about that. I prep so much, and I like to take care of the technical side of it beforehand so that it becomes almost like a muscle – going through the motions of doing things. That allows me to be a little bit more open for something to happen on set. The director will ask me if I believe in a specific take, and I need to be able to access that. If I’m only thinking about the lighting or another technical thing, it’s a little harder.

Some people can do it. I have friends that can operate a camera like beasts, and track all the lighting and know exactly if they done that take or not. I don’t necessarily have that skill, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t like to operate. I like to know that someone else is focuses on that, and then I can put myself in the scene with the characters.

Kirill: Do you usually stay into post-production, like color grading or editing?

Carolina: Not so much editing. I call that the divorce time with my directors [laughs]. I try to go away, and I tend to jump on a new project. It’s good to have a little bit of distance so that you can come back to color grading with fresh eyes.

It also depends on the director. Most directors will send me their cuts throughout the process, and I’ll send them notes. Some directors will only show me a cut that is closer to the final version. It really depends on the person.

As for color grading, I would say that I’m involved 99% of the time, and if I cannot be there in person, I tend to push for colorists that I’ve worked with before. That way the process of coloring remotely is a little easier.

Kirill: In the world with so many different screens, some of them tiny, some of them badly calibrated, do you worry about color fidelity? Do you worry how the look that you have intended gets lost on some of those screens?

Carolina: Absolutely. It is a cinematographer’s nightmare. Even on set sometimes you will find a monitor calibrated differently from the rest.

Afterwards when it’s out in the world, it’s pretty terrifying [laughs]. I usually ask for Quicktime files from my colorist, and then I play it on different screens – a TV or a laptop. But it’s getting crazier with all the phones and tablets out there. I don’t even know how other cinematographers deal with that. It gives me nightmares.

I just finished a series for Tinder called “Swipe Night.” It’s made for your phone, so the frame is 9×16. I’d get stills and would actually check them on my phone to see if it was actually making sense. It’s a completely different process.

It freaks me out, and to be honest there’s very little control with that. I wish I could go into people’s homes and calibrate their TVs [laughs].

Cinematography of “They”. Courtesy of Carolina Costa.

Kirill: As you immerse yourself into a production, do you get to enjoy it when you’re sitting in the theater to watch it?

Carolina: When it gets to color grading, I’m devastated and depressed. All I think about is that nobody will ever call me again and I’ll never work again [laughs]. I think about the premiere and see it as the end of my world. Then, as I go through color, it turns from full-on depression to something a bit better. I get in the work mode of getting it done, and that’s part of my process.

Then when it premieres, I can sit there, listen to the score, feel it and enjoy it with the audience. I can take my ego out of the equation and actually enjoy it as a movie. I think this is very important, and that’s why I like going to the premieres. It’s such a unique experience. You go from criticizing your work and worrying about the tiny little lamp at the back, and that doesn’t really matter in the end.

Kirill: Do you follow what critics or regular moviegoers say about your productions? Do you have a definition of what success is for you?

Carolina: I don’t necessarily actively look for it, but if it premieres and I see some reviews, of course I’m going to read it.

I worked on a movie called “Crystal Swan” that drew some reactions from young women. They contacted me on Facebook, Instagram or my website. They reach out and tell me that they truly connected with the movie, that it inspired them. That meant a lot to me, I always say that making movies is like shouting into a dark tunnel, and then hopefully you hear someone shout back. Moments like these are signs of success to me. You made a movie that people connected with so much that they’re finding you through the internet to tell you.

If you’re being called to do another movie, that is success as well.

Kirill: Does it feel that sometimes it’s almost random what captures the audience and what falls into almost oblivion?

Carolina: I find coincidence and randomness hard to grasp. I always believe there is a certain conjunction of elements of why a movie would work in a certain time, and maybe why it wouldn’t. I don’t think it’s necessarily random. I think it’s the right time and the right place more than anything.

Kirill: What keeps on going in the industry?

Carolina: I’m such a curious person and I’m always looking for interesting stories. It’s just such a crazy job. Right now I’m investigating a very specific time and period in Mexico, and I probably wouldn’t have done that otherwise. I’m taking history classes and learning about technology that changed that particular time period.

It’s the urge to learn and meet different people in different cultures that keeps pushing me.

And here I’d like to thank Carolina Costa for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and for sharing the supporting materials. You can also find Carolina on Instagram. I’d also like to thank Stephanie Pfingsten for making this interview happen. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.