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“In Each Location I Knew How and When the Sun Would Hit”: Gerardo Guerra on Dos Estaciones

Still from Dos EstacionesStill from Dos Estaciones (Photo: Gerardo Guerra)

Red dirt, blue sky and green agave mark the landscape of Jalisco’s highlands, and they also form the basis of Juan Pablo González’s Dos Estaciones, which follows the heir to a struggling tequila factory as she attempts to reinvigorate the business in the face of plagues and floods. The film was shot by Gerardo Guerra, who discusses executing complicated setups with limited personnel, learning the finest details of the shooting locations and walking the line between documentary and fiction.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Guerra: Juan Pablo and I have known each other for almost 20 years. We collaborated as director-DP on Caballerango, a documentary he directed set in the same region as Dos Estaciones. He had brought me on to shoot a few things here and there, but I joined the film later on in production. Through working on this film, we really got close and found that our artistic tastes and desires had become very similar.

I had never shot a scripted feature, he had never directed one and so, on some level, this felt like an exciting challenge to take on. The special thing about Dos Estaciones was that I was a part of the conception process. I was there on the first scout in June of 2017, with Teresa Sánchez (the lead) and with the producers and writers. It was an unusual situation where all of us established the foundation, and this openness allowed us all to find the film together.

Juan Pablo works in a very flexible way, so we’d go on these bi-annual scouts with the camera for the next three years. Shooting the natural world and running exercises with Teresa, the writers would be there and they’d use this to inform the script and so the entire process was this beautiful symbiotic cycle. I think that the reason they trusted me to shoot Juan Pablo’s feature narrative debut was the flexibility—not just that I lived nearby, but creatively I could work with no lights or grip truck, that I was open to discovering the film alongside everyone and that this process excited me. Perhaps this process eased us all onto each other, but it felt and continues to feel like that was the only way to make the film.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Guerra: We wanted to create an image that felt authentic to this place and that would tonally match the many subtleties in the film itself. The explorative process we had over the years feels a bit like a luxury today, but I cannot imagine shooting Dos Estaciones in any other way. The aesthetic of the film was carefully calculated over the years. In each location I knew how and when the sun would hit it and how we could minimize our footprint.

For the process itself, we had explored 16mm, using anamorphics, all locked off, redirecting sunlight, etc., and so what is seen on screen is the result of being open with each other and finding it together, always in communication with production vis-à-vis what’s logistically possible and in regards to how an audience should respond to each image. It was important that the tone, color and composition accentuated the subtlety in the story and that quick glances, or ambiguous flirtation would be seen by audiences without coming across as too overt.

From the beginning, JP and I were seeing how risky we could be in underexposing highly contrasted images. We shot on the Arri Alexa Mini, and so after our scouts I would take the footage and see how far I could manipulate it and still have a beautiful image.

I guess the real challenge was shooting a film with a documentary soul and pushing that aesthetic in a fictional story. We wanted something stylized but realistic, naturalistic and coherent at the same time, walking that line and traversing between reality and fiction. The success rested on making sure this place and these people felt real.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Guerra: Paintings are often a major source of inspiration, and for Dos Estaciones specifically Juan Pablo and I were looking at José María Velasco’s sprawling landscapes. We were drawn by his balance of highly contrasted, nearly underexposed images that embraced imperfections, textures and, sometimes, indiscernible spaces. Film wise, we’d look at the work of Pedro Costa for his unflinching embrace of dark spaces. JP was constantly sharing works that inspired him, and we’d share technically inspiring shots or information. We looked into films such as Boi Neon, Divino Amor, Verano de Goliat, Post Tenebras Lux, Yuva, by Emre Yeksan, Las Herederas from Marcelo Martinessi and many more that had elements that echoed something from our story or Maria’s world.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Guerra: The biggest challenge was figuring out how to merge Juan Pablo’s flexible, explorative filmmaking in a fictional setting while keeping the film feeling fresh and spontaneous. At the same time, we had major set pieces like the fireworks tower and a bunch of non-actors running around it, and so our actors would have to respond to the space and I’d have to respond to them. Because of COVID, I was only allowed a gaffer, “Gato,” and a single grip, “Conejo”, and so one of the producers sort of became another grip. Everything seen in the movie is really lit by whatever fit into a sprinter van and those two guys. This was a real challenge, especially as so much of the film takes place at night.

As we didn’t have a special FX department, the local firefighters became our stunt drivers, and oversaw all the fire elements of the film (most of which were cut from the film). It ended up being really fun to work with them, but initially, we were nervous about what was and wasn’t possible, especially as the collaboration with them just spontaneously blossomed during production.

There were a number of shots we had set up in the real world, where an actor would go and interact, and just making sure that each space in this area was well lit and also inconspicuous enough to not draw a ton of attention was difficult.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Guerra: We shot on an Arri Alexa Mini with a set of Cooke mini s4i lenses. We had shot plenty of tests with this camera configuration. The low profile and compact setup was something that worked pretty well for us since we had plenty of lengthy Steadicam and handheld sequence shots in the film. It also appeared to adapt very impressively to highly contrasted lighting scenarios.

We explored a number of options to use for lenses but ended up going for the minis, plus they were seriously accessible to us. And we’d been shooting tests with these all along, it just made sense to continue with them. In our sequence shots they seemed to have a beautiful soft rolling off focus with silky flares; the sequence shots with foreground characters give a very special sense of dimension to the spaces on our film, and the warmth inherent in these Cookes suited our red dirt world beautifully.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Guerra: I choose to be malleable to each project. I believe I can put my imprint through the process of the film, but at the end of the day, the film should have the director’s vision in mind and each film has specific and different needs and approaches. So even though I have techniques or tools in my bag of tricks that naturally grow with experience, I try to keep myself open to ideas, either technically or artistically, that suit the story of the film.

We were able to make a really great deal for a grip and lights package for the whole shoot. But we didn’t have so many people, only gaffer Aldo Marquez and key grip “Conejo” Medina for the whole shoot, and extra hands for some days. So we tried to simplify as much as we could. We embraced very little to no fill light in many scenes and would regularly try one source lighting and see how far we could go without filling in our shadows. This generally allowed us to concentrate more on shaping the right quality and direction of light for each scene.

My approach to Dos Estaciones is unlike anything that I had done previously. I feel it seems handcrafted slowly through a longer process rather than impulsively coming together like advertising or more commercially shot projects. Most of the locations I had been to several times, sketched up beforehand and had a pretty specific idea of what I wanted to do, but the input of JP and the team and the flexibility to explore and improvise gave the film much more than what we had planned out to execute.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Guerra: We shot a series of long sequence shots on Steadicam. Some are in the film as a whole, others split across the story and others did not make the final cut. One of these scenes is a sequence shot near the end of the film as we follow our character Tatín through town. The shot was challenging, as it involved choreography and timing between characters performance and camera movement, It involved dealing with lighting on interiors that needed to be hidden and balancing interior-exterior changes in a documentary set/location. Shops and streets were real life, and we needed to give freedom to the camera and character so not be intrusive on our approach. The matte box was fitted with a Brilliant² Variable ND; I aided myself with a remote unit to rack exposure slightly and subtly during the sequence shots to better suit our exposure without modifying our stop.

Other challenging shots involved car rigging and a particular shot where we show the process of the agave being grinded, one of the many steps of making tequila. We managed to rig the camera to a movable beam that moved across the grinding conveyor. Gaffer Aldo Marquez and key grip “Conejo” Medina would move the beam while the camera was rigged with a Weaver Steadman head upside down.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Guerra: While shooting tests over the years, we had arrived at an idea of what type of contrast, light quality and feel the film would have, so we already had played around in post with footage of our characters in the locations, how the outdoors looked, etc.

We shot on 3.2k Prores 4444XQ and monitored with a series of LUTs that evolved as the shooting of the film progressed. Our DIT Sam Campos and I would sit every other day and do quick grades and CDLs on Pomfort Silverstack LAB. I would rewrite LUTs with saturation or contrast tweaks from pocket-control on set as well. We had a separate monitor for JP, which was loaded with stylized and bolder LUTs that we had created during the tests, which most of the time would be two or three stops underexposed. I would switch from that signal to the camera signal every now and then to show JP what I was doing in-camera and reconvene.

When we had the film for color with Emmanuel Fortin from LilyPost, those LUTs and CDLs that were embedded in the proxies were our blueprint. It was refreshing to be able to go super bold when monitoring our shots on set while also being able to arrive at that look very cleanly in the grade and improve it with Emmanuel´s input.

TECH BOX

Film Title: Dos Estaciones
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Format: 3.2k Prores 4444
Lenses: Cooke mini s4i, 300mm Meyer-Optik Görlitz Orestegor, 80-200mm Leica Vario Elmarit
Lighting: HMI M18, M40. Tungsten 5K 2K 1K, Chinalamps.
Processing: From original native footage Arri Log-C wide Gamut
Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve, P3 dci color space, Projector Nec 2K

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